A look at the two most famous comedy Counts.
Love at First Bite (1979), directed by Stan Dragoti, is still the best comedy on the Dracula theme. It isn’t directly in line with the major Stoker versions, but it does slot itself very cheekily into the mix, by claiming sequelitis to the Bela Lugosi original. Pasty faced and sans fangs, Count George Hamilton is the total antithesis to his usual persona of his unique sun-tanned lothario.
Evacuated from his home by the Hungarian authorities -“We will be back with the trapeze, parallel bars and Nadia Comaneci!”- Dracula sets off for New York with his scene-stealing familiar, Renfield (Arte Johnson). Quote: “You carry the master,” intones a beleaguered cab driver.
“I always do,” quips Renfield.
Screwball comedy triumphs as the Count conducts his search for the reincarnation of his lost love, Mina Harker (Susan St James), and is perilously pursued by the grandson of Dr Fritz Von Helsing (Richard Benjamin – stealing the film).
Interestingly, unlike most of the screen versions, the Count gets to utilise all of his famous abilities, changing into a bat, a mist and a large black hound, and makes better use of his infiltration into society. An oversight that would doom the later Hammer versions.
I loved the idea of turning the ancestral home into a training ground for Hungary’s Olympic prospects of the day. Dracula disco dancing? Anywhere else, it would be ludicrous. Here, it just fits right in.
Even the tired formula – Dracula searches for his lost love – has lasting resonance in this film, simply because the Count tells us that Mina Harker is still alive in another reincarnation – a top fashion model – than having to rely on soft focus flashbacks as in, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973), or adding an apocryphal prologue to a supposedly factual event i.e. the defeat of Constantinople by the original Vlad Tsepesh in Francis Ford Coppola’s fiasco.
Hamilton’s undead aristocrat pursues his nymphomaniac quarry with grim determination and campy Bela Lugosi mannerisms, all the while battling to stay dignified in a town where everything is totally over the top. His sole motive is Mina Harker. Dracula has already conquered the world and has no more use for it.
Throw Dick Shawn’s belligerent police detective and tired Roots gags: “Ben Vereen is a terrific dancer!”, into the bowl, and you have an amusing concoction to satisfy anyone with a funny bone.
Quote: “Who knows, by the 21st century, homosexuality may be the normal way of life?”
Leslie Nielsen: Dracula – Dead and loving it
When viewing this film, I was reminded of the quote of Christopher Lee that, “You may laugh at things in the film, but you never laugh at Dracula!”
Even George Hamilton held his dignity in Love At First Bite (1979), and had a self-deprecating manner that made him endearing as he delivered throwaway one-liners with relish:
“Children of the Night – Shut up!”.
Mel Brook’s first mistake is to parody the old Universal film starring Bela Lugosi, rather than go back to Stoker. Unfortunately, the 1931 version is already guilty of unintentional self-parody, and the years have not been kind to Mr Lugosi’s performance as a whole.
A madness for star name bankability has Leslie Nielsen step into the Count’s cape on the successes of his Naked Gun film series. While Nielsen is amusing and watchable by turns, he in no way resembles Bela Lugosi, nor does he seem in the slightest to have any European ancestry. He does try a cod-imitation of Lugosi with amusing results, but for the most part, he is just Frank Drebin with fangs. In one sense, it is worse casting than David Niven’s Count Dracula, in the supposed British comedy, Vampira (Old Dracula: 1974).
My own favourite lampoon in the film is Nielsen sporting a Gary Oldman hairstyle, which is revealed as being formal headwear. His cuddly character of Dracula is more fatherly than Van Helsing as he intrigues ladies by commenting on their amazing ucepital mapilliories. He uses bad judgement in picking Renfield as his slave when it is obvious that the man is certifiable before Dracula hypnotises him.
When confronted by his list of crimes to the people of Wallachia, he shrugs off explanations with a simple, “They had it coming to them”.
With the aid of a convincing double, Nielsen follows in George Hamilton’s (two)steps, becoming a terrific dancer, and launches into two impressive dance sequences in the movie. Brooks also arms Dracula with a horny, detachable shadow that, unfortunately, was hilarious when used straight in the Coppola film.
His Count does explore some interesting avenues. For instance, we learn that vampires do dream and that Dracula is not beyond the thought of being released from his curse if drinking the right blood a
nd, with CGI help, transforms into the cutest bat on record.
But, for the most part, he is left to Drebin-esque buffoonery, such as placing his coffin below a low hanging chandelier or slipping on bat droppings. He also narrows down his literary counterpart’s petty streak as he begins trading insults with Van Helsing in an ancient Moldavian tongue like a spoilt schoolboy.
Nielsen had been a competent character actor for many years. In 1958 he starred as Glenn Ford’s nemesis in the comedy western The Sheepman, and, in 1956, he had tried to teach Anne Francis how to kiss in the inspirational science fiction classic, Forbidden Planet, before turning up as victims, lawyers and family friends in various episodes of the hugely popular Columbo television series in the 1970s.
But in 1980 he was thrust into the limelight as a leading comedy actor when he took the role of the deadpan flight doctor in Airplane!. Ironically, the part had been turned down by fellow Dracula, Christopher Lee. In 1982 he had featured in the fun-filled but ill-conceived anthology film Creepshow. A bomb for its creators George A Romero and Stephen King.
A great all-rounder and gracious gent, Mr Nielsen died on 28th November 2010. “Fushta!”
All the cast in Dracula – Dead and Loving it, give their best in a film that cries out for a better storyboard. The present author would have probably gone with the type of story that fuelled The Return of Dracula (1958), or even the Lon Chaney Jr vehicle, Son of Dracula (1943). As it is, this companion piece to Brooks’ fabled Young Frankenstein (1974), fails to deliver freshness to an overused concept, and telegraphs most of its laughs long before they happen.