Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Visiting and Revisiting: John Badham's Dracula (1979) Part 2

[This is the second part of a two-part, crossover event. The first part can be found over at the Cinema 4 Pylon, which is run by my pal Rik. To read Part One, please follow the link here. This is the first in a new series of regular posts between our sites in which we sit down with films one of us is a lover(or defender) of, yet for some reason the other has not seen. To start this off we've chosen the 1979 version of Dracula, and we now take you to the discussion already in progress]

Aaron: John Badham's Dracula is a marvel of production design, and is gorgeously shot by Gilbert Taylor, who heightens the gothic atmosphere through crisp, greyish cinematography. This is not as lush or baroque as Coppola's version [Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992], but still conveys a sense of decaying majesty through the hectic asylum where Dr. Seward works, Carfax Abbey where Dracula resides, and the mist-covered fields and forests between both locations. Carfax Abbey, in particular, is one of those structures that only seem to exist in movies, with the large head-shaped entryways and looming architectural flourishes.

I've always said that everything about Coppola's version is near perfect, aside from the casting. Beyond Keanu Reeves' ridiculous attempt at a British accent, everyone in the film seems to be operating on different frequencies, and none of the casting gels. Here, however, Frank Langella is the centerpiece to a cast that seems more than up to the task. His performance as Dracula is less bombastic than many other portrayals, and certainly reads as less obviously dangerous than many other screen vampires, and he brings a sense of composed regality to the character of Dracula, to the extent that it is completely understandable that men would respect him and women would be easily wooed by his attentions.

You mentioned in the first part of this crossover post that the men aren’t buying Dracula’s brooding presence, but I think that’s mostly confined to Jonathan Harker’s jealousy of the Count’s clear sexual prowess. Dr. Seward seems rather taken in by Dracula’s presence, and seems excited to be around someone so exotic. Once Van Helsing shows up, however, things begin to change in that regard.

Rik: You may be right on the Harker thing, though I was taking his reaction as representative of men on a larger scale should they encounter a similar situation as the one Harker does with the Count. We are working from a rather small sample from which to gather evidence.

Apart from Ryder and Reeves in the Coppola version, the one actor I continue to struggle with is Anthony Hopkins. I now feel he is miscast, though I didn’t think so at the time. Tom Waits is far too broad in his acting as Renfield, but it is consistent with Waits’ persona in general, and he does look great in the film.

Aaron: I’ll agree with the Hopkins statement. I enjoyed him quite a bit when I first saw that film, but his performance hasn’t aged well. He’s hammy in a way that the rest of the film tends to veer away from. I'm curious what you think of Renfield in this version. He seems almost under the Count's spell in the very first scene, but he doesn't end up doing much for him throughout the film.

Rik: I think he is indeed under the Count’s spell from the start. But, while Tony Haygarth portrays him decently enough, I think this may be the most unnecessary occurrence of Renfield in a Dracula film in history. He is merely there to spit out half intelligible inanities and eat bugs. Maybe he is just meant as wallpaper, to help continue the general atmosphere of decay and lost humanity.

You told me you have a problem with a particular bat in a particular scene? Want to explain?

Aaron: First, let me say that I agree with your take on Renfield as well. Were I not familiar with the underlying story, I would wonder what his function was, as there doesn’t seem to be any real reason Dracula would want him around. As for the bat in question, it comes during what I believe to be the biggest signifier of when this film was made: a sex scene within a swirling red vortex of mist. It's an effect that could easily read as cheesy, but through the use of the score, and the performances of the characters, has a sense of epic grace to it. That is, until the unnecessary bat imagery pops up. Superimposed over the image of Dracula and Lucy in the throes of sexual ecstasy is the silhouette of a flying bat. You pointed out, which I was unaware of, that this segment was directed by James Bond opening-credits maestro Maurice Binder, which makes perfect sense looking back on it, but doesn’t quite redeem the bat in my eyes. I think it turns what was already symbolic and lushly romantic into something a bit too crass and on-the-nose.

My one real complaint with the film, aside from that silly thing with the bat, is the very end of the film. A triumphant happy ending is just fine, and in fact the final showdown is pretty dynamically staged and quite exciting. It's a bit of a letdown, then, when the Count is inexplicably able to get up and fly away, in what may be the worst special effect in the movie. I'm not sure why it was added in, since it literally comes at the last minute and does little in the way of add any dramatic dimension to the proceedings.

Rik: I will agree that the bat in the montage is unnecessary, but the bat part that bothers me most is when Lucy goes to visit Dracula at Carfax, and when the doors open, behind Dracula at the back of the room is a giant, extremely detailed bat with wings outspread. He just moved into the place and has little time to find a fabulous decorator. Where did the bat come from, eh? The only thing that I can figure is that this proves Renfield purpose in the movie. I need to check the credits to see if he is responsible for the set decoration.

Badham claims he intentionally left the ending ambiguous, where it is not supposed to be clear to the viewer if that is just a wind carrying the cape off or if the Count lives on somehow. He also says that they were trying to hint that Lucy may be pregnant, and that they were not trying to suggest a sequel. I have my take on it, based on the evidence at hand. What do you think?

Aaron: I feel like that isn't very well implied by what we see on screen. The cape is clearly moving steadily and not quite with the wind, and the process by which they got it to move makes it look like a large, black paper airplane. Lucy’s smile to me seemed to imply that she knew Dracula had escaped, and was cheered by the fact.

Rik: A helicopter is pulling the cape, and yes, it looks too smooth for it to be the wind. I think he has escaped somehow. Lucy is definitely still under his spell, and I just thought the smile was in remembrance of their passion. But, is she pregnant? Can an undead vampire’s boys still swim? Doubt it, but it has happened in other films and TV shows. Badham offers it as a suggestion in his commentary, and he also says they did not mean to imply there could be a sequel, but I think he is full of beans.

Aaron: So, I think we’ve pretty much covered the film itself. Are there any other aspects you’d like to cover? I’d just like to point out the John Williams score, which is a much more tender, sweeping, and romantic mode than I’m used to hearing from him. It also sounded oddly familiar to me, and I think Wojciech Kilar might have reworked or quoted from his soundtrack quite a bit for the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola version.

Beyond that, maybe we can cover a bit of the Dracula mythology, because I found myself thinking of a few aspects I’d never considered before, based on how they’re presented in the film. What do you think of Dracula’s apparent ability to turn everyone he kills into a vampire? In order to turn Lucy, he needs to give her his blood, and yet everyone else he kills becomes a vampire as well. Assuming he didn’t give his blood to Mina, what do you make of her later resurrection? I’m assuming her appearance, markedly different from Dracula (more monstrous and decayed), indicates this is what happens when he feeds without sharing blood. If so, this shows a remarkable lack of care for where he leaves his victims, and seems a little short-sighted if he plans to make London his home.

Rik: I don’t think he really cares, or at least, the Dracula in this film version doesn’t really care. If I recall correctly, Dracula’s purposes for going to England are hinted at in the novel as that he wants to expand, over time, his race of beings, and that London is unprepared for dealing with someone of his power, unlike the people of his homeland. I think it is just pure bad luck for him that the place he chooses to start his eventual conquest has a connection to Van Helsing, who will figure out how to combat him.

Aaron: That brings up a good point, actually. Do you believe the Dracula story is about the triumph of the new world over the old, or an argument that we need to retain the knowledge of the old world? The fact that Dracula has lived for centuries in Romania only to be killed almost immediately after arriving in London speaks to the idea that the new world is able to vanquish the nightmares and demons of the old. And yet the new world only triumphs because of the superstitions and beliefs of the less technologically advanced older world.

Rik: I don’t have much to add to that summation of the story. It seems a fairly obvious case for such a metaphor to be derived from the story. The second part, regarding the irony that it is the old world knowledge that delivers ultimate defeat to Dracula rather than any modern technology, that is the most interesting to me.

Aaron: Also, the boat passage from Romania to London has always bothered me for some reason. It seems uncharacteristically risky for the Count. He’s clearly not averse to using human assistants, and yet he foregoes that security and sequesters himself for a long sea voyage, putting himself completely into the hands of possibly untrustworthy strangers. There are so many things that could have gone wrong on that trip, even without his habit on feeding on the crewmembers in a way that draws suspicion to his mysterious crates of Transylvanian soil. I suppose it speaks to the animalistic nature of the Count, who must feed even if it puts his life in danger.

Rik: Obviously, a vampire must feed. It’s always important to pack an extra lunch or two on a long trip, and the Demeter makes for a handy, seagoing lunch box.

Joking aside, I agree with your assertion of his animalistic nature being in charge. It seems his bloodlust gets the better of him on this trip, throwing aside his normal caution of humanity at large. But it shows the difference between the people of his old country – who are accustomed to the superstitions of vampires and how to keep them at bay – and those from other lands, as most of the sailors may be. In the normal course of things, a couple of sailors die on the trip, and your mind, as a fellow sailor, is going to look first for rational reasons this may have occurred. The reasonable must be approached as a possibility first; otherwise, you are a loony. It might take you a while to come around to “Hey, someone died on this ship… that means there must be a vampire on board.” You and I have each seen a zillion monster movies, so we would automatically think, were we in that situation, that a vampire is a likely suspect. But we are not the men on the Demeter, nor are we in their time. And vampirism, we must assume, is something none of these sailors have dealt with… ever. As the death count grows, and irrationality takes hold, certainly they might believe that something evil is among them, but at that point, it is too late. Their paranoia will get the best of them and they will not be operating with all of their faculties at top gear, which will make it all the easier for the Count to hold sway. I think mainly that Dracula is hedging his bets with the sea trip, knowing that he must take this opportunity to survive, as his homeland has become too dangerous for him.

Aaron: Well, I believe that brings us to the end. It has been a blast, good sir, writing up this piece with you, and I look forward to the future editions of Visiting and Revisiting. Thank you to all who have read through both of our sites, and we hope you'll come back to join us again for the next film in this series, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001). I'll be starting the conversation on that one, and finishing up over on the Cinema 4 Pylon. See you soon!

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