Review by Mike Finkelstein
On a dark and stormy night (truly dark and quite stormy), a cargo ship crashes onto the coastline of Whitby, England. A man, Count Dracula, is discovered to be the only survivor of the ship, the rest of the sailors having been killed by some wild animal that somehow managed to get on board the ship. Dracula, although out of it for the day, soon recovers.
The Count came to England to find a new home, leaving behind his family castle back in Romania, wanting instead to walk among the people of London, so full of life and energy. Full restored after an afternoon asleep, the Count is invited to the home of Dr. Seward, where he meets Seward's daughter, Lucy, Johnathan Harker (Lucy's potential betrothed and the man who arranged for Dracula's new home at Carfax Abbey), and Mina Van Helsing. There, the Count proves to be an excellent guest and quite the dashing gentleman. Sadly, the evening ends early as Mina takes ill.
Soon enough, it is noticed that Mina is suffering from acute blood loss... and then dies from it. Her death is shrouded in mystery, one that only her father, Abraham Van Helsing (coming to town upon news of his daughter's death), can unravel. He believes that Mina was killed by a vampire, and soon enough suspicion falls on Count Dracula.
While Van Helsing works to prove Dracula is the evil demon, Mina comes back from the dead, eats a baby, and has to be put down by her father (all of this happening in quick succession). Additionally, Lucy starts to suffer from acute anemia and her personality begins to change. Now it's up to Van Helsing to prove that vampires exist, that Dracula is the master vampire on the scene, and to stop Dracula before he makes Lucy his bride for all eternity, condemning her soul to Hell.
Dracula 1979 (as it is commonly known, to distinguish it from other productions), is the second famous version produced by Universal. It shares a lot in common with the 1931 Universal production: a similar condensing of Bram Stoker's original story, placing the entire movie within the confines of England, and using a suave leading man to carry the movie as the titular vampire (the Hammer films, meanwhile, had a strong, silent Dracula for their productions -- a marked contrast). Truly, Dracula is the anti-hero of the movie. As the viewer, one is made to care for his story, made to cheer for him as he works his way through the populace towards his goal of settling in to England and starting a new unlife on fertile soil.
This is aided, in no small part, by Frank Langella's performance. Many consider Bela Lugosi (star of the 1931 US production) to be the best Dracula, but Langella gives a more nuanced, cinematic performance than Lugosi. Langella fills his Dracula with energy, suaveness, intelligence, charm, and sexiness, making for a Dracula that is commanding, scary, and sexy all at the same time (a feat few other on-screen Draculas have been able to manage).
Also of note is Kate Nelligan as Lucy. While seemingly a character setup as a puppet for Dracula to play with, her character proves vastly more interesting. Nelligan plays Lucy as a strong, modern woman, a perfect compliment to Langella and his commanding Dracula. Had Lucy been weaker, it's doubtful the audience would believe Dracula was interested in her. She'd be just another Mina, a woman to be turned and set off into the countryside to fend for herself.
Sadly, less impressive is the rest of the cast. Pleasence is normally dependable in genre productions (he's the best part of the Halloween series), but here his Seward seems neither intelligent nor interesting. Olivier's Van Helsing, a character that should be smart and courageous (to serve as a proper foil to Dracula) just comes off as frail and superstitious. If Van Helsing bests Dracula, the sense is he will do it not through skill and cunning but by luck alone.
Thankfully the rest of the production is up to the level of Langella's performance, from the sumptuous sets to the wonderful costuming and music. If there is any other flaw with the movie, it's due to the time period it came out in. The director throws in a few 1970s cinematic flourishes, scenes with odd lighting upon which our actors appear in monochrome (the worst is Dracula's first feeding on Lucy, which is shown in red on black with a bat flying in the background -- an odd sequence that reduces the potential sexiness and pulls the viewer right out of the movie). These moments, though, are thankfully few enough to not drag down the film.
For a definitive Dracula, one can look no further than Langella. For viewers looking for the best production of Dracula, certainly in this reviewer's opinion, Dracula 1979 is the obvious choice.