Incurable romantics walk the earth, a wellspring from which forms poetry, idealistic sensationalism, and the re-interpretation of literary and symbolic themes. Frank Langella is one such actor, who approaches each role with natural sensuality and emotional nuance. From his flirtatious, emotional Diego de la Vega, to the tortured anti-hero of Sphinx, to his Sherlock Holmes (who winds up emotionally compromised at the end of the play), Langella’s natural pursuit of emotional dynamics lends depth to superficial roles.
Never is this more plain than in Dracula, a 1979 adaptation of the same Broadway production that made Langella famous. The movie does not age well, and is pure camp, but has a cult following for one reason: Langella’s performance. This Dracula is as much a tragic anti-hero as a monster, the audience left to interpret his actions.
If you take a cynical view, and ignore Langella’s seduction of the audience, Dracula is a sinister figure preying on lesser minds. He victimizes Mina, preying on her weak constitution because he “despises women with no blood in them… no life.” Dracula manipulates and controls Renfield, takes keen pleasure in tormenting Jonathan Harker, and enchants Lucy to his will. He uses a similar force on Mina (“When I tell you to do a thing, it shall be done”).
A level of deeper animosity and chilling implications linger beneath the romantic veneer. The spirited, feminist icon Lucy objects to this mesmerizing of Mina (Dracula performs the trick in public, concealing evil intentions behind parlor games—proving a belief he is a superior race, a god among men). “[Mina will have] no will of her own, either,” Lucy hints, unearthing Dracula’s intentions.
Every Dracula is a symbol of chauvinism and force; his removal of will and suppression of female minds hints toward a controlling masculine figure and suggests the susceptibility of women to external (and sexual) influences. The original author, Bram Stoker, used the book’s themes to condemn and promote feminism. In all incarnations, Mina and Lucy become more sexual beings around Dracula, implying that sensuality is only liberated through subjection to a darker, more powerful force that twists and maligns beauty while displaying it.
Here, Lucy is a liberated feminist icon from the offset—a liberal mind who sees no impropriety in dining alone with a man, or in spending the night with Jonathan Harker. Only when Dracula enters the picture does Lucy become more sexually feminine. Is it a regression she uses female wiles and seduction to destroy Jonathan’s barriers, or has Dracula stripped away false liberation to show her true power, in rediscovering her female instincts? Is it an act of feminism, or the lack of it?
Dracula strips Lucy of all modern ideals and thoughts, introducing her to an older, more traditional way of life. The honky-tonk dance with Jonathan does little for her romantic nature; a waltz with Dracula is powerful. Jonathan scaring her in the middle of the night is nothing compared to Dracula appearing in a mist. Lucy intends to become a lawyer and join a London firm at the start (“Oh, Lucy,” Mina gushes, “you’re so brave to take on all those men like that!”). By the end, Dracula’s design for her includes “making more of our kind”—returning Lucy to “motherhood,” over a career. Dracula is a chauvinist… but the film leaves it unclear, whether Lucy chooses this life out of genuine want, or is under his “thrall.”
Add this to the other sinister events in the film, and Dracula emerges as one of the most seductive, compelling monsters of the age: a callous, selfish, wrathful, violent, controlling monster, which Van Helsing has every right to destroy.
Yet… Langella’s romanticism runs throughout, which offers the audience a far different interpretation. His Dracula is a romantic anti-hero, a tortured soul alone in the world. At hearing wolves howl, Dracula laments, “The children of the night… what sad music they make.” Immortality is his plight, to face eternal solitude. Only in Lucy does Dracula find a soul mate and perfect match (“She is not like other women, is she?”). Did he take Mina’s life to spare her pain in this one? Or did Van Helsing’s pollution of the grave with garlic prevent his returning for her? Did he envision Mina and Lucy’s friendship transcending death into eternity, at his side?
Seen through this lens, Dracula’s actions take on new meaning: a romantic, tragic, forlorn figure, in love with Lucy and empathetic toward Mina, who is acting in self-defense. He liberates Mina from endless illness, offering her a new life where she is far more powerful. He unleashes Lucy’s sensuality and intends to make her a Queen. Jonathan, Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing stand in the way, and attack him. To protect himself and Lucy, Dracula must stop them.
Langella sells this version with so much quiet confidence it’s impossible to resist. He sees Dracula as less a monster, and more as misunderstood… and that is why, though the film deviates from the source material, it resonates with audiences.