Release Date(s)1979 (February 19, 2019)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures/The Mirisch Corporation (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C-
“He has walked through centuries – untouched by time. He has seen empires rise and fall. He possesses the wisdom of the ages. Throughout eternity, no man has provoked such terrible fear, and such haunting desire... Dracula.”
1979’s Dracula is an interesting film because it’s one of the first, at least in the mainstream world, to explore the character as a figure of eroticism and romance. He’s less of a terrifying creature of the night and more of a charismatic demon in the sheets, so to speak. Although the film isn’t overtly sexual, one can’t deny the presence of Frank Langella, who only played Dracula once on film, but managed to make a memorable mark upon the legacy of the character.
On the other hand, Dracula is also a somewhat confused film. While the character is being portrayed in a much different way that relies less on horror and more on sex appeal, the more obligatory elements surrounding him seem to clash a bit. The story, though taking minor u-turns as this story often does from one interpretation to another, follows the original tale as we know it in a relatively straightforward fashion. It’s also interesting that we never see Dracula with his fangs extended, not unlike Bela Lugosi.
The film also features interesting locations and performances from all involved, including Laurence Olivier, who at the time was quite ill. Donald Pleasance offers himself up as a mostly ineffective character, scarfing down food in the middle of scenes during inappropriate moments. Kate Nelligan is memorable as Dracula’s potential bride to be, while Jan Francis has little to do until her reveal as the undead Mina (which I would argue is the most effective scene in the film, at least from a horror fan’s perspective). The bloodshed is minimal outside of the opening scene when the crew of Dracula’s approaching ship is attacked.
Even with its flaws, there’s plenty to enjoy about Dracula besides Frank Langella’s performance. It’s a beautifully-shot film, courtesy of Gilbert Taylor, with a wonderful score from John Williams. There were split camps of people while making it who wanted it to be different things, which happens more often than most folks realize, but that conflict doesn’t always wind up on screen here. It’s a different take, one that other filmmakers and authors would later dip into as well.
Dracula was previously released on Blu-ray by Universal Pictures in 2014, and this release contains, what appears to be, the exact same transfer with the desaturated color palette that has plagued the film since the early 1990s (a retroactive stylistic choice). Colors struggle to come through, but manage to occasionally, including the Dracula/Lucy lovemaking scene. Outside of that, it tends to border on black and white. Grain is sometimes so thin that it can barely be seen and blacks levels are often crushed. Speckling, lines through the frame, and occasional scratches are leftover, though minor in appearance. There’s also mild destabilization from time to time, which is obviously more noticeable in static shots. Despite its shortcomings, detail manages to poke through and everything is sharp and well-defined when given the chance.
The film’s audio is presented in English 2.0 DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH and French. The stereo soundtrack is quite aggressive, particularly in the opening moments aboard the ship at sea, and later when the sound of horse-drawn carriages pans across the sound field. Dialogue exchanges are clear and discernable, while sound effects have plenty of weight to them. John Williams’ score is perfectly realized, settling in nicely with the other elements without feeling overabundant. Everything is mixed together well, offering some nice atmospherics and no leftover distortion, hiss, crackle, or dropouts. It’s a fine sound experience, overall.
The extras on this release are pretty nil. They include a vintage DVD audio commentary with director John Badham, who pauses far too often for my taste, but does manage to offer up some interesting information about the making of the film. Also featured is The Revamping of Dracula, a very good 40-minute vintage documentary containing interviews with Frank Langella, producer Walter Mirisch, director John Badham, screenwriter W.D. Richter, and composer John Williams, all of whom who discuss the original stage play that Langella starred in, Laurence Olivier’s illness on set, Langella having to act opposite 8x10s of actors who weren’t available for one scene, everyone’s feelings on the aforementioned laserlight lovemaking sequence, Donald Pleasance’s insistence on eating in his scenes, and the execution of the film’s score, amongst other topics.
Also included are trailers for the Universal Classic Monsters and the Dracula TV series, advertising their respective Blu-ray and DVD releases. Missing from the film’s original DVD release are three image galleries: Production Design (18 stills), Behind the Scenes (20 stills), and Portraits (48 stills). It’s also worth noting that the previous Blu-ray release also featured a Digital Copy, which hasn’t been included here.
Sadly, 1979’s Dracula deserves a more befitting high definition release than this. It isn’t a perfect film, but it’s quite hypnotic and fascinating, and it’s a shame that newer generations are not seeing it in the way it was originally intended. This film could and should look better than it does, and it should also have a bevy of extras to go with it: documentaries, featurettes, trailers, TV spots – the lot. Perhaps a company that sublicenses titles from Universal will give us something better someday, but for now, this will just have to do.
– Tim Salmons