Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Film Comment: Dracula (1979)

Last night, I had the pleasure, for the first time, of watching the 1979 version of Dracula, with Frank Langella in the title role, and Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. I was quite taken with the stylistic presentation, as well as with the performance of the cast, particularly Langella’s sympathetic portrayal of the Count.

I am rather familiar with the 1992 Dracula film by Francis Ford Coppola, as I first saw it when I was about eight, and now, having seen another version that predates my very life, it does not escape my attention how much the Dracula of my childhood owes to this one. Aspects of the atmosphere and certain shots like the creepy image of Dracula crawling down a wall are reflected from one into the other. And more significantly, the romantic emphasis is present in both, and with it the impulse to humanize the character.

I noticed the interesting choice made in the screenplay for the Langella film, deviating slightly from a well-known line from the iconic 1931 version, which was in turn taken from the book. The original Dracula listens to the baying of wolves and comments, “The children of the night: What music they make!” But in 1979 he says instead, “what sad music they make,” and this prompts a few moments of dialogue during which the humanized vampire expresses melancholy at being unable to walk in the daylight. The scene deftly suggests a Dracula who is an outcast and a tragic character, and more than that, it gives voice to the contrasting impulses and experiences of human existence that are vitally important to understanding the vampire mythos.

It is extremely interesting to me to observe how much art and media has evolved in its treatment of the archetypes that our culture has created and let develop for periods of decades or centuries. The first impulse, I think, is always to give the most simplistic, one-dimensional reading to these things, and so Dracula has traditionally been interpreted as something that is purely and simply evil and threatening, and on that reading, subtext is not a major concern.

The same impulse to simplicity persists today, in the vampire mythos and in all shared folklore. In the case of stories with their genesis vaguely placed in the Dracula story, however, the impulse works towards the exact opposite side of the character, making the archetype exciting and attractive, and forgetting the rest. But the best vampire will always have an element of both: the sexual and the deadly, the thrilling and the terrifying. I think the 1979 version gets the balance of elements almost spot on.

Not all treatments of the character or those of his kind are so thoughtful, however. I daresay very few are. And we’ve had well over a hundred years of Dracula during which to refine the way we perceive him, and centuries more with the folklore on which he is based. I usually thumb my nose at remakes, but there’s something remarkable about culturally shared intellectual property like this story. Part of what’s remarkable about it is that it may take dozens of reinventions of a character or storyline to help us effectively draw out the meaning behind them, and to prompt good dialogue about metaphor and interpretation.

Or, put in a much more derisive way, we really might be so dumb as a culture that it takes us years to turn our interpretative eye toward character development, and many more years of phasing between emphasizing and ignoring it before we reach an intellectual breaking point and recognize that such a thing really is important to the story, no matter how it is otherwise being presented.

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