Two Dracula Flicks and a Great Rip-Off

October 31st, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Barb and I continued our Halloween season nightly horror film fest with a pair of Dracula movies, both of which I’d seen on their initial release and neither of which had made much of an impression on me. What a difference a few years makes.

First up was Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Stylish to a fault, flirting with incoherence, this Dracula shows what happens when a director goes with the hot talent of the moment. Gary Oldman – who was his era’s Johnny Depp for maybe fifteen minutes – is a singularly unappealing Dracula whose sexual appeal for his female victims is a bigger mystery than the thinking behind Anthony Hopkins’ ridiculously over-the-top Van Helsing. Other momentary stars help bring the lavish production down to dull earth – Winona Ryder, a very lost Keanu Reeves – despite some fun touches, in particular shadows that have a life of their own. With different casting, and a sharper script (this one is by James V. Hart, whose others “credits” include Hook and Sahara), this might have, well, flown.

When Barb complained that Dracula should be a handsome leading man type – not a quirky self-indulgent nebbish – I dug out Dracula starring Frank Langella. John Badham is hardly my favorite director – he was responsible for Saturday Night Fever, after all – but he does a very respectable job that, all these years later, comes across as the Masterpiece Theater version of Dracula.

Langella’s surprise Broadway triumph as the count, in Edward Gorey-designed play, ran for 900-some performances between October 1977 and January 1980. The actor fought to keep Dracula a romantic anti-hero in the film version, eschewing blood-shot eyes and fangs, and his lady love/slash victim, portrayed by Kate Nelligan, similarly sold the gothic romance at this version’s (stake-through-the) heart.

The film apparently suffered due to the recent release and success of the spoof Love at First Bite with George Hamilton, but it plays very well now. Coppola’s casting of the moment is defeated by Badham’s transfer of the Langella Broadway performance, Nelligan’s full-blooded heroine, and a supporting cast showcasing those crazy kids, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Donald Pleasance. A wonderful John Williams score is another big plus, and the script is in part by W.D. Richter, whose cultish credits include the likes of Buckaroo Banzai and Late for Dinner (which he directed but did not write).

The Blu-ray (and the previously released laser disc) are a revision of the theatrical version, with Badham desaturating the color to near black-and-white, to recall both the Gorey stage version and the original 1931 film, while the theatrical release had a kind of golden glow forced upon the director.

Anyway, decades later my opinion of the Coppola film worsened and that of the Badham film got elevated.

Happy Death Day

As Barb and I near the end of our horror festival, we took in the current theatrical release Happy Death Day, which is a slasher film/mystery variation of Groundhog Day. This is an example of why paying some attention to Rotten Tomatoes can pay off. I had seen the preview of Happy Death Day and contemptuously dismissed it as a rip-off. I was looking forward to both Suburbicon (directed by George Clooney from an early Cohen Brothers script with a top cast) and the nordic noir, The Snowman. The critical response to both was dismissal – Suburbicon rates 26% fresh and Snowman a staggering 8% fresh. Meanwhile, Happy Death Day rates 69% fresh with a lot of positive reviews.

Our only other possibilities were the well-reviewed downers Thank You for Your Service and Only the Brave. We were in the mood for neither, plus there was something Trump era-ish about both, and anyway Happy Death Day worked as part of our Halloween-month film festival.

And Happy Death Day is terrific. It is indeed a rip-off of Groundhog Day (which it cheekily admits right on screen in its second-to-last sequence) but it’s clever, witty and brings in some nice new twists to the stuck-day concept. Further, lead Jessica Rothe is appealing even when she’s playing the early, somewhat unpleasant version of her character (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Rothe must learn to be a better person as the day repeats – but she must also solve her own murder).

* * *

I am deep in the research for the upcoming Heller, which is about the Sam Sheppard murder case. I find the material disturbing in the same tough-to-get-to-sleep fashion of the research for Butcher’s Dozen and certain of the CSI and Criminal Minds novels.

I am also wrestling with the nature of the case, which does not lend itself to certain elements that Nathan Heller books always contain – specifically, sex and action. This feels much more Perry Mason, and I haven’t decided whether to just go with it or to find ways to make the book more typically Heller.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out what happened in this controversial case. Hint: it wasn’t the One-armed Man.

* * *

I may have provided this link before, but check out this nice “mini-interview” at Rumpus.

The actor who plays Wild Dog weighs in on the new costume controversy, which Terry Beatty sparked without wanting to. For the record, I think the costume sucks.

Finally, here’s a lovely review of the Mike Hammer short story collection, A Long Time Dead, from that great writer, Bill Crider.


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6 Responses to “Two Dracula Flicks and a Great Rip-Off”

  1. Glen Davis says:

    Ringo’s Son of Dracula is still possibly the worst Dracula movie ever made.

    I seem to recall reading that Sam Sheppard was an occasional professional wrestler, if that helps.

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    Never saw SON OF DRACULA. OLD DRACULA with David Niven is awful.

    Sheppard was a wrestler toward the end of his short life — he wrestled under the disturbing sobriquet, “Killer” Sheppard.

  3. Dennis Lynch says:

    I liked the ancient version of Dracula as portrayed by Oldman in the Coppola film, but am not sure how much of that was because I liked the makeup so much.
    But I thought his “modern” version of the character was ludicrous, starting with the fact that he was so short.
    The bat form was interesting, but I wonder if that was even him.

  4. Bradstreet says:

    I saw the Coppola version at the local movie theatre when it came out, and my main memory is of thinking twenty minutes in “Jesus, it isn’t going to be like this all the way through, is it?!” Over directed, over written, over designed, over acted, over everything. Oldman’s a decent actor, but he isn’t Dracula. The Badham isn’t perfect, but at least is knows what it is, and attempts to stick to that twisted fairy-tale romance idea. The best versions are still the original Hammer version (done on what was probably about equal to the catering budget of the Coppola) and the ’70s British TV version, with a splendid turn by Louis Jourdan as the undead Count (which probably cost even less!)

  5. Ron says:

    You don’t know what “worst Dracula film” is until you’ve seen “Andy Warhol’s Dracula.” Seriously. Udo Kier plays Dracula, and he needs the blood of “where-gins” to survive. Problem is, Joe Dallesandro keeps deflowering them. It has to be seen to be believed.

    On another subject: Max, I love the Quarry novels. It’s become my all-time favorite crime fiction series and character. I enjoyed the TV series and was sorry to see it was not renewed. Though I always imagine Quarry as a young Willem Dafoe, with James Coburn as the Broker (“You brought a GUN to dinner with me? Are you INSANE, man? This is neutral territory!”).

    But I always wondered, regarding Quarry as narrator, exactly who is he telling these stories to? Is he just setting them down for personal posterity in his old age, or is he telling the woman he settled down with at the end of “The Last Quarry” — or, heaven forbid, did the authorities finally catch up with him? Just curious as to whether you had any thoughts on that.

  6. Justus says:

    I agree with you on both Dracula films. Gary Oldman was brilliant as Zorg (Fifth Element) and Commissioner Gordon, but he just wasn’t Dracula. Keanu Reeves wasn’t at all convincing as Harker. Richard E. Grant would’ve been a better choice (instead, they had him for the role of Seward, which was really beneath his capabilities as an actor). I’m glad I got the audiobook version he did of Dracula. Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top version of Van Helsing is directly derived from the character in the book. I don’t think that was the way they should’ve done it, because Olivier’s approach (like Cushing’s) worked so much better. On the whole, I can see very little wrong with John Badham’s Dracula. Even concering the score (I must admit, I’m quite a fan of John Williams’ work), which I – as a music lover – think is a rather important part of a movie (and me liking it).