Count Dracula got quite a headache in the 1970s. Hammer lost the plot trying to shoehorn their vampire into groovy modern-day London and he became the klutzy perma-tanned lounge lizard of 1979’s ‘Love at First Bite’.  But the decade closed with my personal favourite of all the Count’s outings – John Badham’s gorgeously photographed reimagining of the Balderstone and Deane stage play, which was enjoying a Broadway revival with Frank Langella in the title role.
 
Badham – fresh from his success helming the disco juggernaut ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – seemed a strange choice for the project, but he and screenwriter W.D. Richter (who’d just completed the extraordinary 1978 remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’) do a commendable job turning the Count into a romantic antihero, imbuing a genuine sense of passion and pathos between Langella (cast from his Broadway success) and Kate Nelligan’s fiercely independent but not too tightly corseted Lucy Seward.

Langella is dashing and charismatic, mannered without being effete. You can believe the loneliness of his Dracula’s undead existence as well as the malevolence and savagery he’s capable of meting out to his enemies.
 
The rest of the cast is impressive too: Laurence Olivier provides a steely and heavily accented Professor Van Helsing, Donald Pleasance is well meaningly clueless as the asylum director Dr Seward and Trevor Eve contributes a sulky turn as Lucy’s jealous fiancée Jonathan Harker. But it’s Jan Francis, playing Nelligan’s sickly best friend Mina Van Helsing, who’s my personal star of the show. She gives an exquisitely sad performance that sees her transformed from fragile beauty into the cinema’s most horrifying vampire bride. In one of the film’s best scenes her leprous, glowing-eyed ghoul implores her father to come to her like some plague-ravaged little girl lost, and it’s a chilling evocation of what a vampire’s bite can really turn a victim into.
 
Badham keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. It still looks fabulous, even after his controversial decision to bleach most of the colour out of the home-release prints to give the movie a more black and white feel.  Maybe there’s one misstep during a love scene that includes a bat silhouette flying through a blood-red haze of smoke and laser light but it’s a creative attempt to try something new and is a more interesting depiction of vampire communion than, say, Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder’s lifeless coupling in Francis Coppola’s version thirteen years later.
 
Richter’s lean screenplay includes all the scenes you’d expect in a good Dracula adaptation while adding some great standalone moments of its own including a terrific climax and a hugely inventive death for the Count. His exploration of the romantic side of the Count works well, and Jim Hart’s screenplay for Coppola’s movie owes a lot to the groundwork Richter put in here.
 
Music-wise, John Williams supplied one of the best scores of his career: lush and understated, with a main theme better than any of his more popular grandstanding works.
 
This is a wonderful version of an all-too familiar story, well worth a revisit on some stormy night when you’re hungry for a vampire movie with style and passion instead of the usual soulless ninety minutes of snarling and staking.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white