Movies I Love: Dracula (1979)

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Last night, as I watched this film for the first time in HD (but not for the first time!), I pondered what to say about it. I have interesting reminiscences about my discovery of it, funny anecdotes about introducing others to it, and an obscene amount of knowledge about the filming process, stage production that preceded it, and the novel on which it is “loosely” based (more so on the theatrical play Bela Lugosi performed on stage). I could poke fun at its dated qualities or humorously exploit its rational flaws, but in the end I decided to do what I do best: unravel the tapestry in an attempt to conceptualize what I love most about it, beyond the superficiality of an attractive man in the lead.

It’s not a film easily classified, because it has elements of many different genres in it; it is a romance, a tragedy, a drama, and a horror story, with moments of subtle humor offset by an eerie setting. It is both clichéd and ahead of its time, for its approach in using Dracula as a romantic figure predated most of the “tragic vampires” we’re now familiar with; yet underneath the elegance, Langella maintains a cold ruthlessness that is as exquisite as it is horrific.

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Lucy is metaphorically caught between two very different worlds; the men in her life represent progress (in her stiff, unromantic but “modern” relationship with Jonathan, who both sees her as an equal and supports her ambitions toward a profession, but also shows a strongly possessive, insecure, and jealous temperament), and the “old world order” (in her romantic, deeply passionate, sensual, and ultimately, submissive relationship with Dracula). She is, from the first, a feminist (“Oh, Lucy,” cries the more frail, traditionalist Mina; “you are so brave, taking on all those men like that!”) whose feminism is cut short when Dracula intrudes on her life. He promises not liberation on equal terms but a superior state of being over common men (“we shall feed on them”) that is still subject to his control (“She will be my queen, above all others”). Instead of pursuing her vision of equality, he seduces her into giving up her ambitions to embrace wifedom and motherhood (“We will make more of our kind, Lucy!”).

Dracula is no different from any “controlling” traditionalist villain, except his methods are so subtle that we neglect to notice them at first. The great irony of the story is that they play right out in front of us, as blatantly as Dracula acts for his own self-interests right in front of his potential victims. He is so self-assured in his superior intellect that he doesn’t even try to hide his true nature from them, yet they refuse to see it; and in adopting a romantic mentality toward him, the audience refuses to see it also. We are happy to see him as an idealistic romantic in search of an eternal mate, who bears the unfortunate need for blood, because it justifies in our own minds, both our attraction to him and our total acceptance of his self-serving behavior.

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Only Van Helsing sees him for what he is right from the start, and upon the moment of his arrival, it becomes a battle of old world religious beliefs contrasted with the atheistic modern views of his peers (“Abraham, there’s no such thing as vampires!” Dr. Seward protests in a cemetery in the dead of night; “You can’t expect me to believe that Count Dracula is some hideous monster!” Jonathan argues; even though he hates Dracula, and is jealous of him, he cannot see him for what he truly is… like all others, save Van Helsing, he is blinded by external appearances). Irrefutable proof sways them to his side, and it then turns into a battle of supernatural power, between a man of God and “the king” of the vampires. Only Van Helsing can successfully ward off Dracula; when Jonathan brandishes a cross at him, the vampire seizes it and it bursts into flames.

The implication is not that Dracula is stronger than the church, but that Jonathan cannot use faith as a shield when he has no faith of his own. He cannot become sanctified overnight. To him, the cross is a talisman and nothing more, whereas to Van Helsing, it merely reflects his own profound faith. He truly believes good will triumph over evil (“If we do not succeed,” he says at a pivotal moment, “then there is no God!”) and he is right, at great personal cost. The message is that where faith is not genuine, it cannot ward off the forces of darkness (much like the Bible passage where men who do not know Christ attempt to cast out demons in His name, and are humiliated and beaten for it).

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Even though the screenplay is dramatically different from the novel, these elements parallel the novel’s subtle symbolic distinction between a godless modern society and old world beliefs in faith and superstition; Bram Stoker, however unconsciously, came down on the side of faith trumping modern values when he had a man of the “old” ways, both moral and religious (Van Helsing), defeat a symbol of the “new” amoral awakening (Dracula). Here, the concept is inverted in the sense that it is a battle between two figures of “the old” world. One can see saving the heroine as a sexist statement (that even a feminist needs a man to save her from the villain) or not, but it remains interesting. Even more so is this film’s decision of how to end the story; the old-world Van Helsing liberates Lucy from Dracula, so that she can go on to pursue her feminist dreams, yet as we look into her eyes, we sense that she is still in love with Dracula. The bloodlust has faded, but not her attraction to him.

Making Dracula a romantic character doesn’t destroy him as a villain; it makes him appeal to our baser human instincts. Typically, we are not drawn to hideousness, but to its opposite. If Dracula were a visually hideous monster on screen as in the book, we wouldn’t be so tempted by him and thus, would not have to look at our own attraction to him, and see it for what it is: superficial. We can deny it and justify his actions all we like, but they speak for themselves. There is the dashing count who is saddened by the loneliness of the wolves’ howling, and who snaps Renfield’s neck. Is this Dracula a true villain or a tragic anti-hero.

He is both, and neither.

18 Replies to “Movies I Love: Dracula (1979)”

  1. I didn’t even read your review, because I’ve been wanting to see this version for years now, ever since Angel said, “Well, Frank Langella was the only one I really believed.” (Or something like that — been a while since I saw whatever ep that was in.) So um, I’m excited to suddenly learn it’s available because when Angel tossed off that remark, I could never find this version so I kind of assumed it was unpopular and never coming to DVD.

    So, um, didn’t read your review cuz I don’t want spoilage about how they handle the story 🙂

    1. Haha, no problem!

      Yes! Angel did compliment Langella on being the only believable vampire!! I got a kick out of that, because by the time I watched all of that series, I was already a fan of Langella. I think Carissa might have even watched that episode with me, and we both did a double-take when he said that.

      You should be able to get a copy pretty reasonably-priced off Amazon. That’s where I bought the Blu Ray! It’s a low-tier release, so I’m not sure you’ll be able to walk into a store and find it though…

      1. After commenting here yesterday, I put it on my Amazon wish list 🙂 I just did gobs of Christmas shopping, so need to hold off on buying more stuff for a while, but at least now I know it’s available!

          1. Yes, I do. I start in May, usually. ISFJ = spends LOTS of time & effort finding perfect presents.

            My library system’s video collection, pardon the vampire pun, sucks. That’s one reason we got Amazon Prime, because I was going to go either poor or mad because I couldn’t find So Many Movies I want to see. I still end up buying used copies for $4 on Amazon more often than is probably healthy, lol.

          2. When I am on top of my game, I do all my shopping about a month in advance. That way I can relax and enjoy the build up to the holidays… and forget what I bought everyone since it’s been wrapped for ages!

            I’m sorry about your library system. I think I got a bit spoiled with ours; it is a country library, but taps into two major city branches, so it has a huge selection since it serves … well, a lot of people. They had 25 copies of “The Avengers” ordered before it came out, so that gives you some idea of how many people it serves (and the waiting list was still 400+ people long!).

            I go out of my way not to buy things unseen, but on occasion I wind up doing that as well. It rarely works out in my favor, though.

          3. I got really spoiled by our library system in WI — we were close enough to Madison that we could get free interlibrary loans from their big libraries. It was rare that I couldn’t get a movie or book I wanted. Then we moved to CT, where we could get stuff from literally the entire state. (New England states are so tiny!) Here, we can get things from this county. And it has ten libraries in the county, but more than half of them are “neighborhood libraries” with very small collections. So I’m constantly frustrated by their lack of movies. And occasionally astonished when they have something obscure I don’t expect they’ll have. Like the Patrick Stewart version of North and South. Which I haven’t watched yet, but at least I can get it.

            So thank the Lord for Hulu, YouTube, and Amazon Prime! And used movies on Amazon and B&N.

  2. If you switched around a few names, this would read almost just like a Phantom of the Opera review! The complicated anti-hero/villain, sex symbol/controlling abuser conundrum with Phantom and Dracula compared to the the stiffer but supportive romances of Raoul and Jonathan really sound uncanny.

    I think there must be a reason that, even generations after the feminist revolution, we continue to get those romantic characters in our books and films that lean more in the direction of the traditional, protective, alpha male. Obviously, in the cases of Erik, Dracula, Edward Cullen, Christian Grey and the like, the relationship is far too one-sided and abusive. But women are still inexplicably drawn to these characters. Maybe it’s just something in our natures. =/

    Love the discussion of real faith versus “talisman” faith. Van Helsing sounds like a fascinating character. Definitely will have to see this film to see all the complexities you’ve described. Love stuff like that; very neat! =)

    1. Oh, no, no… you see, Erik is just sweet and misunderstood. 😉

      Kidding. You’re right, it would be very easy to switch the names around and apply it to Phantom as well. The eerie thing is, in both situations, each man is trying to “control” the woman in his life. Erik and Dracula through seduction and manipulation and Raoul and Jonathan through possessive behavior.

      (I’ve never liked Raoul much. How can I like him, when he flat out tells the woman he supposedly loves that she’s delusional and imagining things?)

      Perhaps despite the advances of feminism, some part of the female heart still desires to be wooed and treated with respect, so the old-world flair of deeply tragic, romanticized figures appeals to us on some base level.

      Hope you enjoy this film. It’s quite campy in the way a lot of 70’s movies are, but it also has class, which is lacking from a lot of Dracula adaptations; they put in too much sex and gore, but this one has a very delicate, modest balance.

  3. Bravo!!! But you already knew I would love this post.

    It fascinates me how we’ve discussed all of these elements in dozens upon dozens of conversation revolving around this particular incarnation of Dracula. I remember the moments when we only ever saw what we wanted to see and the moments when we put aside the physical and looked deeper into the story, admiring Van Helsing’s steadfast faith and realizing that Dracula is not, in fact, a hero, no matter how much we might wish him to be. Does that keep us from loving him? Of course not. You and I still love the Phantom so our fascination for Dracula will never go away, but he is no hero and never will be.

    But I also love how you said he is both an anti-hero and a villain while at the same time being neither. The part of us that is drawn to the “old ways” loves Dracula. He chooses to arrive in a carriage instead of a clanking, stinking automobile. He dances with grace and decorum compared to that horrific and bizarre dance Jonathan and Lucy performed. We love the ideal of him, of the era he embodies, and so our guard is let down because we want to like him. We like the world he comes from, the world he embodies, and so we must like him with it.

    I swear everything that anyone could ever say about this movie, you and I have said, but I never grow tired of it. I could discuss Dracula until I’m 90, and I suspect that we will probably will.

    1. I had absolutely no idea you would love this post. What are you even talking about, girl? 😉

      Given that my brain comes up with an infinite number of ways to regard the same material, I should be able to come up with new angles on this film until we are 90! The trick for me is finding something we haven’t discussed in depth which… is… a challenge. I think the more familiar we become with the film itself, the easier it is to notice new little nuances and things that weren’t apparent before.

      Sometimes, it’s fun to put all moral objections aside and root for Dracula, no-holds-barred. Those are the really fun conversations, where we think up logical justifications for all his actions and … well, he needs blood. He needs it. Why should these people deprive him of it? Doesn’t he have as much right to live as they do?! Jerks.

      No, he is not a hero, and neither is Erik. But do we care? We do not!

      Ahh, see, that is an excellent point. In each female heart, even though it may be hidden under layers of dust, is a little bit of romance… the kind that enjoys being pursued by an elegant, romantic, gentle (in appearances, at least… and always with women) figure in a suit who knows how to dance. For a moment, with him in the room, we forget the unpleasantness of the Victorian Era and remember only what was superficially wonderful about it.

      We shall be thinking up new perspectives on this film when we are too old to remember that we said that exact same thing last time we watched it… and five minutes ago, too!

      1. I’d say that by this point we have Dracula literally memorized. Which would probably terrify Langella if he knew.

        And when it comes down to Dracula, I don’t care if he terrorizes the men. The men all pale in comparison to him anyway so we can’t help but root for Dracula. I’m sure there must be a few misguided souls out there who love Jonathan (why anyone would is beyond me!), but for the die-hard fans of this version, we know why we watch it. It’s for Dracula, all the way. And I love the superficiality of the Victorian era. I’d hate to live in it, but it’s delightful to experience all the lovely things we read about and see in films.

        And if we both go senile at the end of our lives, I can live with watching Dracula as if it was the 1st time. That will be seriously awesome!

        1. … yes, I would say that is true. I also have Emma memorized. Let us hope that in my senility, the two do not cross wires because… that could be hilarious.

          Love Jonathan? … I doubt it. I have yet to see a review praising anyone except Langella. Hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean, they are missing out on SO MUCH if all they do is think about and root for Langella, without noticing that fine specimen of a man that is Jonathan Harker!!

          Now that, my dear, is the power of positive thinking. If we go senile, we won’t know what happens in our favorite film! Oh, bliss! 😉

    2. PS: One of these days, we really do have to do our own commentary / record it. We could come up with talking points first. It would be fun to do improv and talk about vampire lore too.

      1. And I’m all for this idea! It would be a riot for us, and as a fan commentary if we ever decided to do a video splice with it! 🙂

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