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?

Olivier has much the same problem, only much worse. He comes on with his elaborate fussing and bogus accent, and just as he begins to work his magic, the way he did under the sluggish lenses of Daniel Petrie (The Betsy) and Franklin J. Schaffner (The Boys From Brazil), Badham cuts away. Olivier is a man of the stage, and cold entrances don't suit him; it takes him awhile to warm up. The only time Badham holds on him for any length of time is after he's just rammed a stake through his daughter's heart, at which point he emits a series of ludicrously overwrought sobs. And the accent? "The vampire vants your blid," he explains at one point. The shame....the shame....

The only other thing worth mentioning about Dracula--aside from the terrible Latex, greasepaint and collodion jobs on a few of the vampires, and the turn-of-the century, tradition vs. modernism theme Badham and Richter apparently tried to concoct in the visuals--is the great love scene that stopped the show on Broadway. As Dracula and Lucy begin to embrace, their figures dissolve into multi-colored silhouettes and recede into the distance, whereupon a bunch of shapely limbs wind and unwind to John Williams' less than austere music. The whole thing is modeled on the title sequences in the Bond films, but aside from its inappropriteness, it's technically a cut-rate job. It is unspeakably bad. Who was responsible for this sequence? Who? I want to know his name. I can't believe it was Badham. Producer Walter Mirisch? Who? I want to know so I can tear out his throat, break his neck, impale him to the side of a boat, and butcher his baby.

SO WHO IS THE SCREEN'S greatest Dracula? Not Bela Lugosi, who gave a lugubrious performance in Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, which was utterly ruined by its failure to abandon the Deane-Balderston play. F.W. Murnau's German silent Nosferatuwas a good deal better, and even today provides one or two chilling moments, but Max Schreck's strutting rat did not have a whole lot of dramatic stature.

My vote goes to Christopher Lee, who played Dracula in seven Hammer films and one independent production. Lee is not a very good actor--he's usually much too stiff and rather boring--but something in Dracula tapped the best of him. True, it was an impersonal vampire, a far cry from Langella's more complex lover. But Bram Stoker's Dracula is not much of human being, either. Lee was such a commanding Dracula, statuesque and solemn but with tremendous reserves of strength, capable of exploding at any given instant into blazing, hellish fury. Yet he was also capable of displaying a kind of cynical tenderness that lulled his victims into a trance before he turned animal and sank his fangs into their throats. The latter Dracula films were undercut by hackneyed scripts, but the first--Horror of Dracula--remains the best to date, aided immeasurably by Peter Cushing's bloody marvelous Van Helsing.

It is the figure of Dracula himself, not the book, the play, or the movies, that has endured. If Superman is the fantasy figure of sandy-haired, scrawny, neo-Nazi Kansas farmboys, then Dracula is for the urban or suburban adolescent: chubby, acne-ridden, excrutiatingly lonely, the boy with nothing to do after school but tear the limbs off Barbie dolls and masturbate. Girls laugh at him, or, worse yet, ignore him altogether.

If you've ever been to a science-fiction convention you've seen them in a less egregious form: short, bad complexion, slightly overweight, greasy hair, glasses, copy of Stranger in a Strange Landdiscreetly folded over an otherwise prominent hard-on. At least they have something to talk about: the possibilities of sending Isaac Asimov to Pluto, or the time Mr. Sulu's left ball was shot off by Klingons. It's worse at Dracula conventions: the plastic fangs they wear inhibit conversation, and instead of meeting tall, gaunt, Continental types they find only themselves, or else fat, greasy middle-aged men. The shock of recognition: it's like casting a vampire into the sunlight.

DRACULA. Graceful, hypnotic, cultured, with the accumulated wisdom of 500 years. He can shrivel a potential rival with a burning glance, and back it up with action. No matter that he never sees the sunlight--the day is evil and harsh; it is for playing ball and going to school and applying fresh Clearasil after every class. Daylight means exposure. Whereas Dracula haunts the shadows, dissolves into a puff of smoke, a wolf or a bat. And he can hide his hard-on in his cape.

Voluptuous maidens fight to do his bidding, and after the first encounter he has no obligations: he doesn't have to give anything to hold onto them. No woman says, "I'm sorry, Vlad, it's just not working out--I guess you're not my type."

And another thing: he hurts people.

Men he merely mauls. But women--women he subdues with a combination of violence and gentleness, depending on their speed of submission. Dracula robs sado-masochism of its ugly, hideous, sordid side, and changes it into the brutally tender ballet of your innermost fantasies. (Yean, your fantasies, fella).

Vampires have always plagued such hysterical misogynists as August Strindberg, who saw women as the bloodsuckers, preying on the very soul of Man. Dracula is Our Champion,the only man capable of fighting back, of beating women at their own game. The whole thing smacks of sexism increased exponentially by psychosis, but that, after all, is what we go to movies for, to satisfy our primitive urges without actually acting them out.

No character can churn up these kinds of emotions and survive. Dracula must die at the end of his movies, and he's got to die bloody, so it hurts. Part of us dies with him--loving it--and the other part drives in the stake and loves it more, sending Dracula back where he came from, to hell, to the bubbling pits of our own souls.

DRACULA'S LONELINESS acquires real dimension, because after he has obliged us by providing a series of lurid thrills, we pull out on him too. And he goes knowing that he'll be back, that you can't keep a good man down, that you can't put a stake through your own heart of darkness. So we return to our isolated hells, knowing that he has the answer to our terminal loneliness, our inability to know--really know--other human beings: ingest them.