Since two additional adaptations of Stoker’s novel also hit theaters in 1979, Werner Herzog’s art-house Nosferatu the Vampyre and the tongue-in-cheek Love at First Bite, John Badham’s Dracula was largely overshadowed upon its initial release. Also overshadowed was a superb score by maestro John Williams, one which comes on the heels of his other horror masterwork, 1978’s The Fury. While Dracula may be one of his lesser-known achievements, it nevertheless contributed to what many call his Golden Years, the period from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s in which the composer was truly at the height of his powers. Home video has luckily enabled Dracula to experience somewhat of a renaissance, but John Williams score still has yet to achieve the recognition it deserves, much less the total re-master it direly needs.
Williams’ Dracula is a smart match for the film. It exists primarily as an expression of Gothic romanticism and, as such, it is often more darkly beautiful and majestic than horrifying, only delving into the usual horror tropes when necessary. Such an approach is no doubt more suited to the composer’s grand, classical sensibilities. William’s self-reported ignorance of the vampire phenomenon also ensures that his score is markedly different from, say, James Bernard’s bombastic approach to the Hammer Dracula films. Indeed, Williams’ view of the Count was much more in line with Langella’s elegant, tragic womanizer: he regarded the tale as one of dark eroticism, a tragic love story much akin to that of Tristan and Isolde, from which he drew some inspiration.
Interestingly for John Williams, Dracula is a score that largely relies on a single theme. First introduced spectacularly in "Main Title/Storm Sequence", Dracula’s theme is an elegant, seductive piece of gothic mastery, incredibly malleable and gliding about its progressions with a dark, ensnaring quality. Stylistically, the theme is highly reminiscent of territories Williams would explore a year later in The Empire Strikes Back. In particular the theme bears striking resemblance to his material for Cloud City, though an unaffiliated, muted horn motif at 2:57 will also have you thinking of similar Imperial statements in his first Star Wars score. Throughout the introductory "Main Title/Storm Sequence", the main Dracula theme interacts with various other minor ideas, setting the precedent for the rest of the score.
"The Night Visitor" drips dark seductiveness, painted with melodramatic strokes of high-pitched strings, deep cello, and solo horn. As stated, there is no romance theme to be found here. Instead, Williams chooses to adapt the Dracula theme, scaling it down or building it up in truly dramatic fashion, emphasizing the supernatural influence the Count has over the film’s female characters. The increasingly urgent "To Scarborough" changes things up with a lively scherzo, a favorite rapid, musical movement of Williams’.
"The Abduction of Lucy" begins as a slithering flow and ebb of atmospheric strings before making a transition into a statement of the main theme, perhaps less forceful than its iterations at the album’s end but nonetheless propulsive. "Night Journeys" showcases the true adaptability of the main theme as Williams picks it apart and toys with its building blocks in various ways before returning to a fuller statement on whirling strings punctuated by a female choir. "The Love Scene" is an example of Williams’ application of the main theme to the film’s romantic elements, in this case occurring during the surreal wedding night sequence. This variation of the main theme relies more heavily on strings for a luscious, passionate feel to accommodate the oozing reds and mingling bodies onscreen. It ends with a drawn out, harmonically satisfying conclusion.
"Meeting in the Cave" is of somewhat lesser interest, though it features a brief, small-scale brass march at 1:36 that is faintly echoed at the beginning of the following cue yet never reappears after that. "The Bat Attack", though it features a minor crescendo of trembling, high-pitched strings near its start, is largely dissonant and is easily the most traditional horror piece on the album. Possibly because of the main theme’s absence, these two cues are the score’s weakest.
"For Mina" is a mournful piece that again has little in common with the main theme. Led by a solo horn with some respectfully subdued strings, it is the score’s last quiet moment before the explosive finale in "Dracula’s Death". A commanding piece of operatic proportions, "Dracula’s Death" features the best statement of the main theme outside of its concert-like performance in "End Titles". It is utterly climactic, steeped in Williams’s distinct interpretation of Gothic tragedy (even with a brief appearance by a church organ) and a fitting send-off to the Count. As stated, "End Titles" reprises Dracula’s theme in a concert-like performance. The "End Titles" are undoubtedly the theme’s most straightforward iteration, free from the complex adjustments and the horror trappings that Williams’ toys with throughout the score. If you are restricted to one cue, "End Titles" is surely the one to go with, but there is no feasible reason why one shouldn’t enjoy the entirety of this relatively short album.
I make such a statement, however, with one major caveat. John Williams’ Dracula is hindered by remarkably atrocious sound quality. Despite the dynamic performance of The London Symphony Orchestra, the recording renders the music muffled and distant, lumping together much of the ensemble and betraying many of the score’s intricacies. With so many glaring faults, it is truly surprising that Dracula has yet to receive a complete re-master. We can only hope that a new resurgence in interest in the film will correspond to a demand for a re-release of this score because, though not one of Williams’ better-known classics, Dracula is nonetheless a notable foray into Gothic romance for the Maestro.
A Few Recommended Tracks: "Main Title/Storm Sequence", "To Scarborough", "The Love Scene", "Dracula's Death", "End Titles"
Label: Varèse Sarabande
Availability: Out of print, 11 track edition (rare)