The new "Dracula" is a dazzler, a classic retelling of a classic text. From opening wolf howls through ominous, ambiguous concluding images, it sustains an exciting, witty, erotically compelling illusion of supernatural mystery and terror.

Director John Badham, screenwriter W.D. Richter and a superlative Anglo American cast and crew must have been sky-high over this opportunity. They've achieved a "Dracula" of unprecedented pictorial richness and sensuality, compared to which previous film versions are strictly bag-lunch diversions.

Although the script displays a cunning sense of humor, "Dracula" is not the kind of vampire movie an audience can feel superior to or safe from. Richter's ironic style tends to intensify the threat of corruption through seduction embodied so effectively by Frank Langella as the Count, who adapts his theatrical impersonation to the screen with admirable finesse and superbly devious sexual charm.

In the process of reinterpreting elements drawn from Bram Stoker's original novel, the theatrical adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston and earlier film productions, notably Hammer Films' "Horror of Dracula," Richter has introduced some fascinating changes and perserve twists. To readers who recall the idealized, virginal heroines of the novel, the Lucy and Mina of the film may seem especially shocking, since they act impulsively eager to embrace the Count's form of oblivion.

Given contemporary mores, this boldness - apparently unconscious on the part of Mina but deliberate on the part of Lucy - seems like an astute updating, and it was anticipated at least as far back as "Horror of Dracula." Moreover, it reflects sexual anxieties at least as powerful as those which underlied Stoker's portrayal of the women, spotless souls snatched away from the men who adore them by a supernatural agent of corruption.

Moreover, Richter confines all the action to an English setting, filmed in striking locations along the Cornwall seacoast. The movie begins with a storm at sea as the unfortunate ship bearing Dracula's coffin to England nears its destination. The finale, a thrilling confrontation between Dracula and the vampire-hunters Prof. Van Hesling and Jonathan Harker, played by Laurence Olivier and Trevor Eve respectively, is set a few miles off the coast as the vampire attempts to escape with Lucy in tow.

Aspects originally associated with Dracula's Transylvanian castle are now incorporated in the isolated, grotesque palatial ruin he occupies in England. In addition, the period now appears to be Edwardian. Harker drives a motor car and when transfusions are administered to the vampirized women, matching blood types are found. (Stoker, extolling transfusion in the 1897 novel, had been unaware that different blood types existed.)

The updating doesn't necessarily prepare one for the weirdly opulent spectacle of Lucy dining alone with Dracula at his cavernous, cobwebby estate, after being conveyed there by driverless carriage. The inescapable thought is that she is a precocious thrill-seeker, as reckless as the protagonist of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar." Kate Nelligan - a beautiful, vibrant young Canadian actress making an impressive film debut after several years on the England stage - makes Lucy's willful attraction to Dracula seem believably, creepily ahead-of-its-time.

Langella is an exceptionally seductive corrupter, but the filmmakers depict the consequences of total surrender to him with hideous effectiveness. The undead Mina is a truly horrifying specter, dominated by a bloodlust that chills.And the horror is insidiously enhanced by identifying Mina as the daughter of Prof. Van Helsing and Lucy as the daughter of his colleague, the psychiatrist Dr. Seward, now protrayed as a largely ineffectual and even disreputable medical practitioner by Donald Pleasence. Langella's Dracula is pitted not only against a distraught suitor, in the person of Eve's Harker, but also against the fathers of his victims - the loving and noble Olivier, and the obtuse and ignoble Pleasence.

Ever since playing the Simon Wiesenthal figure in "The Boys from Brazil," Laurence Olivier has sounded wearily Viennese. But as Van Helsing, a Dutchman, Olivier's tired Viennese tenor enhances one's sympathy for the decent, intrepid Van Helsing, who is never allowed by actor, writer or director to become the garrulous, patronizing old bore originated by Stoker.

Additional sexual tensions and rivalries endow certain sequences with a dreadful emotional impact. Olivier's confrontation with his transformed daughter is especially stunning, a horror sequence whose pictorial terrors are underscored by devastating emotional implications.

The result is a handsome production that beguiles the eye and excites the senses, while also churning up subconscious feelings, leaving a Freudian aftershock similar to the effect achieved by Brian De Palma in "Carrie."

Badham and his crew have succeeded at a number of spectral illusions evidently beyond the means or ingenuity of earlier film versions. The most spectacular effect is the image Stoker conveyed of Dracular scaling walls. Badham has improved on Stoker's original vision by having the camera pan up to the rooftop, from which Langella then descends on his initial attack against Mina.This fabulous vertiginous shot is then given a witty kicker by shifting to the interior of Mina's bedroom and showing Langella peering at her through the French doors while still upside-down.

Richter is emerging as an exceptionally astute and distinctively humorous screenwriter. Before adapting Badham's "Dracula," he did the screenplay for Philip Kaufman's remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Both films are graced by the sound of deftly composed and insinuating deadpan dialogue, a Richter specialty from his first original script. "Slither."

One example is the brilliant double entendre that caps a romantic interlude between Langella as Court Dracula and Kate Nelligan as Lucy, his all-too-winning victim. "You must forgive me for intruding on your life," Langella murmurs on a note of Byronic melancholy.

"I came of my own accord," Nelligan replies unforgettably, igniting a scintillating abstract sequence of vertiginous eroticism designed by Maurice Binder in the manner of his boldly silhouetted title sequences for the James Bond

The Richter touch also seems evident in remarks as succinct as the degenerate Renfield's "I been hit by a bat" or convoluted as Dracula's come-on to the self-destructive Lucy: "If at any time my company fails to please you, you will have only yourself to blame for an acquaintance who rarely forces himself but is difficult to be rid of." Richter's ironic lines aren't calculated to inspire horselaughs, like the heavyhanded jokes in the current Dracula spoof "Love at First Bite." They enrich a consistently classy presentation with an ongoing, breathtaking verbal wit.

The production work sets a standard that will be difficult to overlook when the next Oscars are passed out. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, production designer Peter Murton, art director Brian Ackland-Snow, editor John Bloom, costume designer Julie Harris, matte artist Albert Whitlock, composer Williams and "visual consultant" Binder may be safely regarded as deserving early favorites in their respective fields of specialization. The major studios seldom offer attractions as vivid and sumptuous as "Dracula" any more, but the rare exceptions are always a pleasure to behold.

In fact, with the possible exception of Roger Vadim's "Blood and Roses" - a movie version of the other great Victorian vampire story - there has never been a more beautifully visualized horror movie. CAPTION: Picture, Across a candlelit dinner table, Frank Langella as Dracula