Some movies come with good memories. Just sticking the disk into the player reminds you of happier times, of sharing the experience with friends or an incident that transpired during the film. I rather suspect that for some things, my appreciation of a film is directly tied into the people that I have shared it with. I would not love LadyHawke nearly as much if it wasn’t the only movie of that kind that my brother also loves to watch — given that I’m more of a dark romance kind of girl and it’s rare you can pull him away from a comedy, having us both sit down to watch it together is as close to a movie miracle as it comes. Some movies stand on their own two feet, of course — any way you slice it, X-Men: First Class is my favorite film of 2011, regardless — but there are a few who are just more fun with friends.
The 1979 version of Dracula is one of this films for me, an epic combination of one of my favorite actors and a huge helping of memories. Given that it is the season of spooks, and a conversation with a friend brought it to mind last night, I decided to curl up with my cat and watch it. There are times I watch movies in silence, and there are times I speak to the screen, and there are times I give a running commentary whether or not anyone is there to hear it. Last night was one of the latter nights. It was a delightful experience, not merely for my enjoyment of one of my favorite movies, but because of all the giddy happiness attached to it — I was not only in the moment, but reliving other fantastic moments snuggled on the couch with various friends… and I have shared this film with many of them. Between our own sarcastic, ice-cream induced hilarity and the parody I read on the film a number of years ago, I absolutely cannot sit through it with a straight face. The humor is there just waiting to be drawn forth, the one-liners and zingers permanently impressed on my brain.
As much as one might pander this movie for being a late-70’s production alone, it stands on its own two feet and I consider it much more of a success than most would. You might call me a connoisseur of vampire films. If it’s out there, it is more than likely I have seen it. I’ve sat through more adaptations of Dracula than I would care to mention — and a few I would rather not talk about. This is not the most loyal adaptation… in fact, it is adapted from the original Bella Lugosi stage production, which was written specifically for him. In the same manner, this was written specifically for Langella, based off his tremendous success on Broadway in the same role. Bram Stoker, it is not. Names are switched around along with parental ties and some characters are never even mentioned; it is brought into the early 1900’s and most of it takes place in a mental institution. But it is not really the details that matter all that much, it is that this is the most romantic but true-to-vampire-lore representation of Dracula that I have seen.
Whatever your stance is on vampires, there is one thing that should never be removed from the lore — the symbolism. Vampires are fatally allergic to things like crosses, sacred ground, and sunlight. And as much as I appreciate Anne Rice’s Louis sitting in a churchyard admiring the crucifixes, it does not fully represent what vampires are supposed to be — evil and eternally separated from God. Here, the symbolism is intact but the film takes it one step further in making an empathetic villain. Our common sense knows better, that Lucy should not become his immortal bride, condemned to live forever in darkness and shadows, separate from faith and the things of God, but we like this Count. He is charming, seductive… and in contrast with the very modern thinking but jealous Jonathan Harker, he seems so much more of a gentleman, far suitable for the passionate Lucy than the mundane London lawyer. The ambiguity is what I love most, the total and complete acceptance that Dracula is who he is — charming, handsome, attractive, and deadly. He is never sugar-coated and much is left open to interpretation. You can choose to justify some of it, but not all… so if you like him, you do so with the understanding that he is still bad.
I’m never one to merely shut off her brain and watch something. Even in movies I love I can point out the faults and errors the writers have made, and this one is no different — it has occasional lapses in logic and a few camera angles and visual choices that tend toward camp, but most of it is flawless, particularly the casting. Casual viewers would never notice some of the gems that are hidden on screen in plain sight, but once you have seen it about a hundred times you start noticing and appreciating them all the more… from some of the things the mental patients are doing in the background (the thumb-sucker is hard to miss, but there’s also the habitual blanket-folder and the occasional guy wandering around with a paper bag shaped to look like a pig over his head) to the subtleties in the performances. One of the leading actors is a scene-stealer with his props, ensuring himself more time on camera through the use of hard candies. Laurence Olivier was near the end of his life, but still as stubborn as ever — he did one shot as the director wanted, then informed him they were going to do it again in a different language and that is the cut that would end up in the film (it did).
And then there is Langella. Some of you may be familiar with him from his later movies, including his Oscar-nominated role in the big-screen version of Frost / Nixon, which was adapted from his Tony-awared-winning performance on stage. He is an extraordinary actor who puts a great amount of thought into each of his roles and this is no exception. Much like the other nuances of the film, his choices are not often immediately apparent but are so natural that you take almost no notice of them — but without him, the movie would not work. Anyone else, even Jeremy Brett who ultimately took over on stage for him, could not pull this film off, in part because Langella was just as demanding as Olivier when it came to his character. He had a very precise notion of Dracula in his mind and fought for it tooth and claw (pun intended). I have found that not all women are drawn to him, but a great many are and there are even some men insightful enough to pick up on it. I remember watching his version of Zorro with my mom one afternoon and my dad entered, paused for a moment, and said, “I can see why women like him.”
Dracula was a favorite when I discovered it ten years ago, about a week after it had finally made it to DVD, but my affection for it has only grown in the years since as I have shared it with people — some who have loved it and others who haven’t, but each experience was unique and delightful and has enhanced my enjoyment since, because every time I watch it, no matter if I am alone or with others, it is a vessel for all the happy moments and absurd conversations that have ever taken place during it. Faces have come and gone in my life, but I will always have the memories, the amusement, and the romantic sighs to fall back on. I would recommend it to you, but in all sincerity, I cannot imagine it would hold the same appeal without me.