Frank Langella should have sued Michael Crawford and “The Phantom of the Opera” years ago for misappropriation of acting. It is clear that the Phantom cribbed his unique sensual gestures and body movement from the performance of Langella as the title character in this film. Frank Langella did the play for a year before they made the movie, so I’m sure all those New York stage actors (paging Mr. Crawford) saw him do it live. Of course the film version keeps it preserved for everyone to see up till this day. All of Dracula’s hand gestures are slow, sensual and purposeful. No actions are wasted. His bearing and posture are commanding when they need to be and yielding when needed to convey his love for the bride that he has chosen for himself. I don’t want to sound too gay, after all I watched “Xanadu” right before this today, but Frank Langella was a good looking man. He made this movie and the best reason to see it is his presence and performance.
I remember reading about the play while I was doing research on one of the debate topics in college. Remember in the late seventies, there was no internet and if you wanted access to the New York papers in Los Angeles, you went to the library. There I came across the reviews of the stage production and I heard the rumors of a movie being made. As it turns out, the movie is a revision of the Dracula legend from a romantic perspective. The stage play is only partially included, since it was so bound to the format of a Broadway play. The script and the director for this project did an excellent job of capturing the romantic elements of the play while still making this an effective motion picture that has a broader canvas to work on. There are horror elements but they are all very subtle, the focus is on the sexual power that Dracula wields over the other characters. I was quite looking forward to this when it came out and I was surprised how effective it was despite the absence of big action set pieces and the bloody horror you would expect from a film about Dracula. That is not to say it was not frightening, but the scares come from background scenes and cool photography with a splattering of make up effects. To add an expectation of horror, listen to Percy Rodriguez do the voice over for the trailer. This is the same guy that sold Jaws to millions four years earlier.
While the two women that Dracula seduces, do have some horror elements and sport the teeth we come to expect, our lead character never shows fang and blood is not present in any of his scenes. The atmospheric elements account for most of the chills. We see a hand creeping slowly around the top of one of the boxes that carries Dracula’s native soil, there are some shots of the dead crew of the ship that brings him to England, but best of all, there is a fantastically spooky scene of Dracula crawling down a wall that raises the hair on the back of your neck. When Van Helsing confronts his own dead daughter, the denouncement is one of the most chilling things that you will experience. There are a couple of other effects and horror moments, but let’s get back to the romance. Dracula make his first full appearance in the film after several minutes of set up. It is a grand and sweeping entrance into a dining room by the door, not through the window at night. He is dressed to the nines and ready to lay-down some vampire pipe on the local lovelies. They are all too willing once they get a look at him. His hypnotic powers are enough to cause one woman to collapse and another to leave her fiance. Lucy is so anxious to get her some vampire loving that she does not even wait to greet the father of her dead friend when he arrives, instead she goes rushing into the arms of her dark lover. I think women were very understanding of this the way Langella was shot and dressed.
I looked at Bingo Long’s Traveling All Stars and Motorcade a couple of days ago, this movie was shot by the same director. This was John Badham’s third feature after “Saturday Night Fever”. He is a much more assured director with this movie. All of the first three films he did work because he gets the location of the story correct. 1930’s America was evoked very effectively in the baseball movie. Brooklyn in the 70’s feels like Saturday Night. The late Victorian era of this movie is wonderful, from the castles that are used as the exteriors for the asylum and the abbey to the sets of the interiors with grotesque faces as doorways, spiders in the foreground and mist in the hills and cemeteries. This movie was not nominated for any Academy Awards but it deserved to be for Art Direction and for one other element. The score of the film is by the great John Williams and it is lush, foreboding and romantic. I think it may have been overlooked because it was not as grandiose as the work he did for Lucas and Spielberg, but it adds the the atmosphere of the movie immensely.
We saw this movie at the Garfield Theater with Kathy and Art a year before both sets of couples married. My memory is that all of us liked it quite well and I think of course the girls liked it especially. I would not be surprised if romance that night got a bit overheated. The theater was huge, the movie was romantic and the crowds were somewhat sparse. I think I expected it to be a huge film with long lines, but it was only a modest hit and we probably saw it later in the week that it opened so on a weeknight the crowd was not great. The theater was not a passion pit drive in, but I think there was some cuddling going on and a couple of sloppy kisses exchanged. Youth of course is wasted on the young, it is so much easier to appreciate the time s of your life well after they occur. This was a late entry into my favorite summer ever and I have not seen it in twenty years, but it still holds up. Dee watched some of it tonight with Amanda and Allison watching as well. They have gone out with their cousin for dinner. I think I’ll sneak back in the family room and see if Frank Langella had the same effect 31 years later.