Staking the Wild Vampire

Dracula Directed by John Badham At the Sack Cheri

IN THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES of the new Dracula, Frank Langella literally rips out a man's throat, and you know nobody's gonna pull no punches this time. Let the tide of bloody dead babies commence: let there be impalings, gougings, slashings, stakings, necks broken with an appetizing CRRRUNNCHH in Dolby stereo, John Williams conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, repeating the same goddamned nine-note musical motif like a lobotomized organ grinder, bats tearing faces and crucifixes burning the flesh of latex-scarred vampirellas. "It's a love story," explained Frank Langella.

Well, poor Frank seemed at odds with director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) from the beginning--"What do you need blood and gore for? You've got me. What do you need other actors for?" But he was overruled, and as technicians plastered the sets with spider webs, large rodents and decaying corpses, Langella retired to his dressing room with his Barry Manilow and Kiss records "to put me in the mood for the love scenes."

You can almost hear it:

"Joe, gimme a little more pus on that dead baby--"

* 'Can't live, if livin' is without you--" *

"A few more gobs of blood on the corner of Lord Olivier's mouth--"

* "Can't live, can't live anymore--" *

And Laurence Olivier, wandering around the set, trying to remember if he's French or German or Hungarian this week, telling every horsefly to "Call me Larry, dear boy."

And so there is Dracula, the latest in a long line of remakes, a frisky summer shocker that will give you a decent evening out but not a whole lot more. But what am I to tell Director Badham when he says to me, "I played by your rules for good horror movies. I got a smooth script and a great cast: Laurence Oliver is Van Helsing. I kept it playful and tongue-in-cheek: huge, somewhat stylized sets, plenty of action, a leading lady with nice tits"?

HE'S RIGHT, of course. This Dracula has the ingredients to be the definitive version. It just doesn't happen to be a very good movie. It's cluttered and insecure; it always gives you a little too much instead of just enough to get you aroused. Dracula delivers, but always before you want it to, so you're never really hungry, never in suspense.

Badham obviously knows that horror movies are only fun when they run the risk of being silly. So his camera tracks all over the place, with insects and spider webs and skeletons in the foreground, and massive, Gothic, bat-like sets or magical, panoramic English cliffs and countrysides in the background. The bulk of the action occurs inbetween, and Badham reaches it by cutting rapidly or tracking or literally walking up to it, camera jiggling subjectively. Very little happens outside the frame, so we rarely worry about what we can't see, only about how vivid and nauseating what we are about to see will be.

Individual shots are often quite striking, although they have their share of phony backdrops and obvious bits of processing. But nothing really propels the images into each other. It's not the editor's-fault; Badham just never bothered to devise a cutting style, so special effects pop out at you mechanically, unsurprisingly, without the right build-up, like creaky hobgoblins in a decomposing funhouse. And because his close-ups are so brief and his cutting so nervous, we're never close to any character for long enough to build up any identification. The movie is thoroughly uninvolving.

This Dracula had its roots in the 1977 Broadway production of a 1927 play by John Balderston and Hamilton Deane, a corny, embarrassing old drawing-room comedy-melodrama with one or two amusing confrontations, sort of a "Vampire Who Came To Dinner." Director Dennis Rosa couldn't decide whether he wanted a campy parody of 30's horror movies or a straight chiller (which would have been impossible with that script). So he tried to do it both ways and it came out neither--a mess, complicated by the celebrated Edward Gorey's black-and-white cartoon sets, which reduced the play to the dimensions of cardboard. The most effective scene in the production--even though it was completely inconsistent with the tone of a 30's movie--was an erotic, sado-masochistic seduction of the ingenue by Count Dracula. The production had one indisputable asset: Frank Langella, the most endearing, cuddlesome teddy-bear Dracula ever to pierce a jugular.

W.D. RICHTER, the screenwriter, sensibly trashed nearly all the Deane-Balderston play, retaining only certain key encounters between Dracula and his nemesis, Van Helsing. The latter is no longer a pompous vampire hunter but an ordinary professor whose daughter. Mina, becomes Dracula's first victim in England. No corny lines remain; at his most indulgent, Richter keeps an episode in which Dracula hurls a candelabra into a magnificent drawing room mirror that does not reflect his image. "Pardon me," he tells Van Helsing, matter-of-factly, "I dislike mirrors."

Which is odd, since Langella looks as if he's been preening before one for the last 20 years. For Langella, Dracula is a haunted lover, a slave to his lust. He brings off the concept, while Richter and Badham whip up blood squalls around him. But the performance is a fraction of what it could have been. Maybe Langella is too good an actor to be frittered away on the screen. I don't mean that as an insult to films, but where else can an actor with no technical resources--a Jack Nicholson (good as he is), a Clint Eastwood, a Burt Reynolds--come off so well? Langella has broad features that express grand emotions, a voice as resonant and mellifluous as any in the American theater, and consummate physical control. In one scene in the stage Dracula, he brought off a piece of vocal and physical ballet: dodging and twisting around outstretched crucifixes, rasping out curses in defiance of his mortal captors, raging and hissing as he buckles into his cape and subsequently dissolves into a puff of smoke. How can he transfix us so in the face of Badham's busy camerawork and sudden flashes of gratuitous violence?