One of the first major post-Hammer adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, John Badham’s Dracula stars Frank Langella in the title role, along with Donald Pleasance as Dr. Jack Seward, Kate Nelligan as his daughter Lucy, Trevor Eve as her suitor Jonathan Harker, Jan Francis as her friend Mina Van Helsing, and Laurence Olivier as her father, Abraham van Helsing. For the most part, it follows the plot of the 1932 Universal version – which is to say it follows the plot of the stage version by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston – largely focusing on Dracula’s arrival in England and his purchase of Carthax Abbey. Unlike the 1932 version, however, there is absolutely no depiction of Dracula’s life before emigrating to the British Isles – the film opens with him arriving by boat – which turns out to be a canny move, since it allows Badham to transform Carthax Abbey into a fragment of Transylvania that just happens to have perched itself on British shores. As a result, the film plays out in several largely incommensurate spaces, as we move between the polite society and aristocratic drawing-rooms of the Seward family and the otherworldy cavernous recesses of Dracula’s abbey, which sits at the end of a long rocky peninsula that sticks out from the mainland like a Gothic nightmare of Mont Saint-Michel. Acting as something of a common denominator between these two spaces is Seward’s asylum – a vast and somewhat cyberpunky maelstrom of a space that often feels like a Dore illustration come to life. Gigeresque in its grotesquerie and visceral architectural forms, it’s hard not to believe that it wasn’t modelled on the spaceship discovered by the Nostromo, just as Carthax Abbey itself frequently recalls the set designs and prosthetics of Alien, released the same year.
While Alien may be a point of influence, however, the real homage here is to the Universal horror cycle, since it’s clear from the very outset that Badham has set out to craft a film that manages to convey the same sense of spatial and prosthetic dread as the original 1932 version. While the Hammer films pioneered a different kind of gore, they largely discarded the baroque theatricality of the Universal films – or pushed and deflated it to the point of camp – and it’s that lavish sense of big budget scale and spectacle that Badham sets out to reinstate here. As his treatment of the disco floor in Saturday Night Fever demonstrated, he was a director who really knew how to turn a single space, or series of spaces, into a sustained spectacle, and that’s very much the case here, even or especially as the different zones within the film never feel completely connected or commensurate. While Dracula’s abbey may only be a short horse ride from the town, it intrudes into the characters lives as if from a completely different universe, creating a quite emergent and uncanny sense of the supernatural that seems to have made its mark at the time, since Dracula unexpectedly turned into one of the most popular early VHS titles. In a strange way, its incoherent and bewildering spaces probably work better on the small screen than on the big screen, especially because the palette of the film seems to have been modified for television – a change that still remains in DVD versions – so as to emphasise the pools of darkness and shadow that connect all these incongruous and incommensurate spaces. Watching it, I was reminded of the way that rudimentary VHS could make an entire film feel as if it was set at night, or set underground, or still in black-and-white – and yet that limitation is a virtue here, imbuing the film with a visceral and material sense of obscurity and opacity, a black viscosity that bleeds the edges and distinctions between spaces into a single murky mass, blank as video tape.
In keeping with the Universal vision, Dracula is once again presented here as a sophisticate, an urbane man about town who is more associated with his penetrating, intellectual gaze and his demonstrative, dexterous hands than with the fangs that became so prominent in the Hammer cycle and Christopher Lee’s particular version of vampirism. Yet in the wake of sexual liberation and the greater freedom of 1970s cinema – of which Saturday Night Fever was such a prime example – Badham has considerably more scope than Tod Browning to paint Dracula as a plausible, compelling and seductive human character, imbuing him with a tactile, tacit ability to craft each social tableau to his advantage that almost gravitates the film towards a comedy of manner at certain moments, albeit always with a slightly awry and eerie edge. Of course, that makes the horrific moments – such as a gialloesque upside-down pan that reveals Dracula emerging out of aristocratic politeness towards his first victim – all the more terrifying, but that horror is given a different kind of sexual and comic quality here, especially in the potency Dracula holds over Lucy and the way in which that rouses Harker’s jealousy. After all, one of the compelling aspects of the story lies in the horror of confronting and contemplating an invulnerable – because undead – sexual and romantic rival, and Badham concots a wonderful combination of prudishness and lasciviousness – repressing the film’s desires only to expose them – that renders Harker’s anxious obsession with Dracula more poignant, passionate and horrifying than in any adaptation of Stoker’s novel that I have seen on the big screen.
Of course, the rapport between Pleasance and Olivier also has a lot to do with the film’s wry sense of humour. On the one hand, Pleasance is in fine form as the hysterically discursive overseer of the asylum, to the point where the film almost seems to frame him as an actor out of time, and much more at home within the expository histrionics that constituted some of the Universal cycle’s finest moments. Yet it’s Olivier who ultimately steals the show – in his anally retentive rationality, he’s the perfect complement to Pleasance, and the film really hits its stride once he arrives on the scene, with his dramatic presence utterly commanding the action as he takes the role of Van Helsing to the very precipice of absurdity without every quite jumping over the edge. More specifically, Olivier’s sheer conviction and presence as both a cinematic and theatrical actor forces the piecemeal spaces and atmosphere to cohere around him – a move that syncs quite naturally with Van Helsing’s character as well, whose whole role here is here presented as a wilful synthesis of an apparently unrelated and discrete range of spaces and phenomena – weird vagaries of tone and atmosphere – into an apprehension of the supernatural. Once Olivier is in the film, then, that sense of being on the edge of a range of diverse spaces gels into a more general liminality, a sense of being on the shore of this world and the next, that sees the actual coastline also used to better and better effect. By the third act, even the most sequestered, cloistered and domestic of spaces aren’t immune to the melancholy seagull score, which seems to suffuse everything like a salt stain, or a watermark that no amount of sonic scrubbing will remove.
Nevertheless, this comic angle ultimately works to make the horrifying moments all the more horrifying. After all, Dracula’s hypnotic and seductive power is so strong here that it can hold its own against regular deterrents (mirrors, crucifixes, garlic) while his tactility and dexterity – there is more focus on his fingers than in any other adaptation I’ve seen – means that he is more than capable of functioning during the day, subsisting on darkness rather than night. As a result, the film follows him as he moves from one pool of shadows to the next, making his way through all the little nocturnal repositories that persist during daylight hours, until the film feels suspended in a weird twilit zone between day and night, as well as between colour and black-and-white, as if Dracula were seeking out the black-and-white corners of a coloured world, lingering around the residual spaces of the Universal horror empire. It is in these spaces of metamorphosis and flux that Langella’s Dracula transforms from one shape into another, makes love to his victims and subsumes even the sunniest spaces into an ever-encroaching permanent nightscape, such that he can only finally be defeated by the most expansive and spectacular plein air sequence imaginable. True to that necessity, the film concludes with him being hoisted up to the mast and exposed to the sun and sea on the ship he sailed in on, as the camera pans out for a closing credit sequence that sets us adrift in the midst of an oceanic brightness that makes us painfully identify with Dracula’s demise after our own irises have spent ninety minutes acclimatising themselves to his palette. And yet this Dracula’s peculiar and pervasive invulnerability also makes the ending feel quite ambiguous – whether it is setting up a sequel or not, it’s profoundly eerie, and one of the best parts of the film, distending and extending Dracula’s tactile gaze until it is more mystical, expansive and sexual than ever before, not least because Van Helsing dies in the process of killing – or liberating – Dracula, imbuing the final shots with a Carpenteresque abruptness that creates a deeper and more troubling sense of incompletion, an eerie and unresolved resonance that perfectly and beautifully captures the final pages of Stoker’s novel.