Friday, October 16, 2015

Because I Love To Count Things

Something like going along towards very nearly forty years ago, it was my great pleasure and honor to attend a showing of Edward Gorey’s original Broadway production of the Hamilton Deane / John Balderston stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Gorey was then at the height of his career, while the production made stars out of Frank Langella, and his replacement Raul Julia. 

When I saw it, Langella was about midway through his run as the Count. At six feet four inches tall, he was a commanding presence upon the stage, and he gave a performance that was expertly balanced between straight and — not comedy, but a kind of knowing: a way of saying “Yes, this is silly but I embrace it wholeheartedly.” 

This was echoed by the entire cast. When a production is this visually stylized, made to look exactly as if you have stepped into one of Mr. Gorey’s macabre books, it’s unwise to play it exactly straight. What they needed to do, and what they did brilliantly, was to play it straighter than straight. The closest thing I can think of to the style they achieved is the old Batman TV series from the mid-1960s. Everyone from Mina and Jonathan to Renfield and Van Helsing to Count Dracula himself played their parts with absolute conviction, but in an archaic style reminiscent of what we think of as the Victorian theater. A good deal of authentic Victorian stage magic went into the production as well: in the most effective example of this, Dracula turned into a bat right before our eyes and then flew out the window.

It was a masterful production and a wonderful experience for a young man who loved this sort of thing long before words like “Goth” were coined. I gave it a standing ovation. It doesn’t matter that I was only one standing. The actress who played Mina noticed this and threw me a smile. 

In 1930, a different Broadway production of the same play starred Bela Lugosi. With their deep future of monsters then only a gleam in Carl Laemmle Jr.’s eye, Universal Pictures bought the rights and made a famous film version starring Lugosi. Just over forty years later, history repeated itself: with a hit production of Dracula on Broadway, Universal again acquired the rights and again made a quick film version starring the Broadway lead — except that the results this time were not nearly so memorable.

The movie — which I watched again last week for only the second time since its release — is a misbegotten mess, helmed by a director (John Badham) who seemingly couldn’t make up his mind what kind of a picture he wanted to make; in any case no one has ever accused Badham of possessing the kind of lightness of touch that this version of Dracula cried out for.

Of course the first thing that got the heave-ho was Edward Gorey. One sees references to Gorey in the final picture, but overall the visual look of the picture seems the result of a split personality: too bland in the “normal” scenes, and too theatrical where Carfax Abbey and the Asylum are concerned. Gorey was never less than tasteful; here, especially in Carfax Abbey, the design is vulgar.

Langella plays the Count much the same as he did on Broadway: but his imposing physical presence is lost onscreen with the result that this Dracula is more pretty-boy than menace. And because nearly everyone else is playing their roles in a conventional movie-actor style, Langella appears to be the only person in the room who gets the joke. By the end of the picture, stuck between a rock and a hard place, even Langella is forced to play a bland old growling monster. 

Sir Laurence Olivier suffers similarly. He comes close to achieving a screen equivalent of the acting style that was so successful on Broadway, only to be thrown into action scenes he was so unfit for that an obvious stunt double was used. Until then, his performance is balanced on the head of a pin between comedy and drama. He may only have been doing it for the money, but at least he gave the producers their money’s worth.

The ultimate disappointment lies in Badham’s decision to include several sequences of full-on 1979-style horror and violence — things that were never in the play in any form. Somebody said somewhere that this is Dracula and so we must affright. The movie already had a split personality: at this point it topples well over the line into the area of not even knowing what kind of audience it aims to please. Lucy turns into a vampire with full fright make-up and blood on her lips, and is gruesomely staked by her own father. The body of an infant, cast aside by her in haste, is seen in close-up. Dracula all but twists off Renfield’s head. At the end of the picture, he receives a hook in the back and is hauled up into the sun where he roasts in vivid detail. 

“Why so serious?” Heath Ledger’s Joker might ask. This Dracula was, at most, intended to be a drawing-room thriller, not a Grand Guignol nor a Hammer movie. 

And yet the movie is not at its worst until it tries to portray Dracula’s seduction of his victims. This was something that was done brilliantly on the stage, where it was just two actors and some careful choreography. Here, Badham launches into an oh-my-god special effects scene with blood-red backlighting and filter work and John Williams hamming up the music score. This is where the picture actually becomes painful to watch. 

Langella deserved better. We, the audience, deserved better. The Count deserved better. This is a Dracula that is best forgotten — excepting only for reminding us of the brilliant stage production that spawned it.

— Frede.

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