Take off your panties now, ladies, because Count Dracula's here to have sex and sell margarine and he's all out of margarine. John Badham's 1979 adaptation of Dracula
is a bit like watching a cart of beautiful ornaments and paintings being shoved off a cliff. This is a pile of elements, some good, some bad, that poke out from all over a glossy, big budget tarp.
Despite much of the dialogue between him and this version's Lucy sounding like a cheap conservative romance novel, and despite the costumes, effects, and staging that put him in the context of a cheap, conservative soap opera, Frank Langella as Dracula is one of the best parts of this movie.
In a production broad and aesthetically loud, Langella is an anchor of restraint and subtle menace, recalling Christopher Lee somewhat, though a touch gentler. It's a gentleness that's appreciable despite cheesy deviations in dialogue designed to make Lucy feel tender towards him, as when the famous "children of the night, what sweet music they make" line is changed to, "The children of the night, what sad music they make," so Lucy can coo over him and say it's actually very sweet and lovely music.
Langella is ported over from a stage production, a revival and revision of the same 1924 play that inspired the 1931 film. The 1979 version revises the story still more, beginning with the Demeter
wrecking on the beach outside Dr. Seward's asylum. Dr. Seward in this case is played well enough by Donald Pleasence, written at times as kind of a putz, in one scene angrily yelling an instruction to Mina for her to breathe over and over in response to the fact that she's unable to. This is one of the many examples of a screenplay that seems like, on each line, it was torn from the hands of one writer by another, yelling as he did so, "No, this
is how you write this character!" adding a line without deleting the previous to which he'd objected.
This is exemplified by Lucy, who functions mainly as the Mina in the novel--as in most adaptations, the names have been inexplicably swapped between the two women. I had trouble deciding whether she was an ineptly conceived feminist conception or a sexist's slander of feminism. In any case, she shifts between being a dick and a swooning slave. In an early parlour scene, when everyone thinks Dracula is just a mysterious foreign nobleman lately arrived in England, he responds to some sudden physical pain experienced by Mina with hypnotism, telling her in her entranced state that she has no pain, upon which Lucy suddenly remarks irritably, "And no will of her own, either!" despite having moments before supported Dracula's method in argument with Dr. Seward.
Dracula says he likes independent women with "blood in their veins" before the two of them begin waltzing. It's like everyone periodically draws their motivations from a hat.
Carfax Abbey is inexplicably a big gothic fortress since we never get to see Castle Dracula, unless it's the big unmentioned place shown in the opening credits, accompanied by a score from John Williams that peculiarly recalls the one he wrote for Superman
Laurence Olivier makes a very good Van Helsing, and despite having a lot of screen time, he feels underused. Maybe the best scene in the movie is the confrontation between himself and Dracula, despite it having begun with the line originally used for Harker's shaving mirror in the book being transplanted for a massive, expensive wall mirror Dracula hurls a vase at. "Forgive me, Doctor, I dislike mirrors. They are the playthings of man's vanity," as though this were in some way a plausible excuse for what he'd just done, and he congratulations Van Helsing when the professor miraculously perceives it as suspicious behaviour. But Langella and Olivier play it really, really well.
Sylvester McCoy! In a shot with Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasence and whoever the guy is playing Harker
! McCoy's part is tiny as a servant for the Seward household and asylum, but his distinctive physicality is in evidence nonetheless.
Dracula flippantly tosses his cloak to McCoy in his first entrance, the latter man taking it stiffly and nervously. McCoy is later seen bobbing rigidly as he runs words together to report Lucy's abduction from the asylum, this following a funny collision with an inmate where he spills his tea. Every day should include a little Sylvester McCoy.