It is a dark and stormy night, and the seas off the coast of Whitby are churning in the gales and lashing rain. It's not a fit night out for sailors, yet there is one ship coming into view and heading towards the rocks; onboard, the crew are panicking. Not because they might be wrecked, but because there is a ghastly presence there, killing off the men trying to dump the crate that contains it overboard. They fail and the Captain, the only one left alive, struggles to get away but he has been bound with ropes to the ships's wheel, so before long the craft has been run aground... with what looks like a wolf jumping off it onto the shore.
And that animal is Frank Langella as Dracula, here repeating the role he won awards for on the Broadway stage when the old hit play was revived there, to great success as it turned out. It was natural, therefore, that he should be cast as the Count in this film version, but unlike Bela Lugosi who the play had also made a star of in America, Langella did not have an East European accent, and more than his predecessor emphasised the romantic side of things, with his villain looking more like the dashing hero than the affront to decent society he might otherwise have been.
Events and details are repeated from the celebrated Bram Stoker novel, but others are changed: not really for the purists, then, this version. Here, Mina (Jan Francis) is a sickly young woman marked out as victim from her first appearance, and she is the daughter of Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) as well. Dr Seward (Donald Pleasence) is head of the local lunatic asylum, and his daughter Lucy (Kate Nelligan) this time is the love interest for the Count, though she has to wait her turn so that Mina can be vampirised with some speed.
Indeed, Francis has barely welcomed Dracula into her boudoir than she is gasping for breath and quickly expiring. Van Helsing is called for, yet the expected battle of wills between him and his adversary is somewhat hampered by the fact that the Count has already turned his daughter into a bloodsucker, so whatever victory the Professor wins will only be a Pyrrhic one (that's without mentioning what happens to Van Helsing at the end, talk about getting a taste of your own medicine). So what W.D. Richter's screenplay is more engrossed in is the love story.
Compared with Lucy's ostensible boyfriend Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), the sensual and exotic Dracula looks like the far better bet. In fact, during the big love scene between him and Lucy, it uses so many special effects to suggest that she is being transported out of her body with desire that the John Williams soundtrack makes it sound as if this is a sequence from Superman. After all, Drac has special powers too, does he not? And that's the essential flaw in this incarnation: overstatement in every department. Therefore the horror moments are over the top, the lusts are highlighted and the whole production is dead set on shocking the viewer out of its preconceptions about the old tale. Look, it says, we can be modern with this! On the plus side, director John Badham manages to avoid outright camp, but there's more than a touch of the Mills and Boon about his Dracula.