AVAILABLE ON REGION ‘A’ BLU-RAY and DVD
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Count Dracula and his manservant Renfield are expelled from Castle Dracula by Romania’s Communist government so it can be used by the national gymnastics team. However, Dracula has seen a picture of Cindy Sondheim, a fashion model whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his old love Mina Harker, so he and Renfield head for New York City. The sexually liberated Cindy turns out to be easy prey for Dracula, but unfortunately he has a rival, psychologist Jeff Rosenberg who’s the grandson of a certain arch-enemy of his….
There probably aren’t many films which you can tell if you’ll enjoy or not enjoy in the first two minutes. Usually it takes a bit longer than that. But this one opens with Dracula playing the piano while the wolves outside are howling so much that he cries out, “Children of the night, shut up”! It you don’t find this funny, than Love At First Bite probably isn’t the film for you. But if you do, than this spoof that leans more on the romantic than the bloodthirsty might do you nicely. While vampires set in the present day have fared pretty well and reached such diverse heights as Fright Night, Let The Right One In and Martin, the old Count himself has usually seemed a bit lost, efforts such Dracula 2000, Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula [which I do consider to be an underrated film but Dracula is hardly in it] and that disastrous final episode of the BBC’s Dracula from two Christmases ago just not coming off. Perhaps the premise of the caped, fanged aristocrat in today’s world is best suited to humour? I reckon that one day some writer and director will lick it. In the meantime though we have this 1979 comedy which tends to go for the obvious, yet which I enjoyed both as a teenager and [now after several decades] as a much older adult primarily for that very reason. As someone who’s a huge fan of the character and have reviewed a great many of his screen adventures, I loved and laughed at, for instance, Dracula ending up in the wrong coffin en route to America and climbing out of it during a funeral service in Harlem just after the priest has said, “Cuz when you is gone, you is gone! And there ain’t no way, no how no one is ever gonna bring you back here once you is dead”! Dracula politely says “good evening” and everyone flees screaming. Or when Dracula and his possible nemesis Jeff both try to hypnotise each other in a restaurant to the boredom of the lady present.
1979 was a bumper year for vampires. As well as Salem’s Lot and Thirst, we had no less than five Dracula films; Love At First Bite, the umpteenth version of Dracula starring Frank Langella, the remake of Nosferatu The Vampyre, Nocturna: Dracula’s Granddaughter which also brought the Count into the present day, and the sex comedy Dracula Blows His Cool. The inspiration for this one supposedly came about while George Hamilton was entertaining screenwriter Robert Kaufman with poolside impressions of Bela Lugosi, and thoughts turned to what would happen if Dracula lived in modern New York City, though I wager that the success of Young Frankenstein was also an influence. Both Blacula and Guess What Happened To Count Dracula may have been leant on for the script. Kaufman’s script was acquired by Melvin Simon, a shopping-mall entrepreneur with an interest in films. The project employed the same makeup artist as the 1931 Dracula, William Tuttle. It became the biggest grosser to that date for distributors AIP, though director Stan Dragoti was busted for cocaine possession upon arrival in France on the way to Cannes to promote it. In 2009, star George Hamilton said of a proposed sequel entitled Matrimony: Love at Second Bite: “It’s terrific. It’s all about old world school of Dracula in the Bela Lugosi 1940s up against the Twilight felons with humour. My character’s son is a sort of perennial student in California and he doesn’t want to acknowledge his father, Dracula, at all and he’s getting married into a family of televangelists. He met this girl that he’s in love with who’s a zoologist in a cave somewhere; he was a bat in this cave in South America. So now, Dracula’s forced himself to come to Hollywood for this big wedding and bring all of his relatives who are pretty ridiculous people. There’s a wonderful scene at the bachelor party in a strip club, it’s great stuff.”
So we begin in Transylvania, and Dracula is alive because the stake that Van Helsing used to supposedly kill him actually hit a cigarette case given to him by Renfield. As with many ‘serious’ Dracula films, the camera avoids showing us the awkwardness of Dracula getting out of his coffin; we then see him drooling over this magazine cover which has a picture of Cindy on it. This is yet another film which includes the ‘reincarnation of Dracula’s lost love’ element which many credit to the 1992 version, though it was introduced by Blacula in 1972 and used again in the 1974 TV version of Dracula. I don’t really know why it’s employed here, because after this scene it’s never referred to again. I get that they needed to get Dracula across the Atlantic, but could they not have just had him fall in love with the picture anyway. Renfield likes his insects as usual, though he has to be careful Dracula doesn’t step on his dinner. But Dracula here is weary, tired of his lonely life that makes him have to “Dress up like a head waiter”, though, as he leaves his castle to be met by loads of torch-bearing villagers, he may be right when he tells them that, “Without me Transylvania will be about as exciting as Bucharest on a Monday night”. But leave he must, though the book that Renfield got him to learn about life in a big city is quite a few decades out of date. Dracula is immediately a target for muggers in a scene possibly inspired by one in Scream, Blacula, Scream, but he has a few magic powers like being able to melt a knife blade. Aided by Renfield, he soon finds the object of his affections and immediately tells her that he can give her eternal life, causing her to mistake him for an insurance salesman. He easily whisks her onto the dance floor in the coolest vampire disco scene until Fright Night, a scene which for many years had the original music replaced because of a rights issue.
Cindy’s an easy pick-up for the Count and even tells him how she enjoys being bitten. Her night with Dracula proves to be amazing, and she starts to fall for him, much to the consternation of her psychiatrist and occasional lover Jeff. However, Jeff, even though you wouldn’t know it by his last name, is a descendant of Fritz[!] Van Helsing, and immediately knows what the bite marks on Cindy mean. The story rather restricts itself as it centres more and more on its love triangle, though any viewer would probably have realised by now that there’s not going to be any horror to go along with the humour. Indeed this Dracula is almost entirely sympathetic, the only thing he does that we don’t like being biting a homeless man. When he next gets hungry, he and Renfield carry out a heist on a blood bank. Hamilton shows great comic timing as well as an ability to hold back; when he does occasionally go for the goofiness, like when he says “I love you” and swoons a little himself when he says it, we feel that it’s earned. He also does a good impersonation of Bela Lugosi – though not as good as Arte Johnson’s mimicking of Dwight Frye’s incarnation of Renfield in 1931. Both are pretty subtle compared to Richard Benjamin as Jeff who chews more and more of the scenery as the film progresses, but seeing as his character is getting progressively more insane that’s just fine, and some of his delivery makes lines that wouldn’t otherwise be funny into laugh-out loud moments. Jeff has more than one reason to get rid of Dracula, who as he says “is better in bed with my girl than I am”, and we do rather like him even though we’re still routing for the Count. Despite being played by Susan St. James who sometimes appears distracted, Cindy is probably the most interesting character, one who can’t decide between independence and a more traditional female role in life, and the film can quite decide what’s best either, but I don’t think that her final decision in any way counts as subservient.
More tricky for some viewers today may be some of the humour, such as a Hispanic family mistaking Dracula in bat form as a “black chicken”, a scene even the defiantly un-PC me wasn’t sure about, though of course in no way do I think the film should be suppressed because of this. At times the script seems to be attempting a progressive look at race, with several jokes that seem well intentioned even though they may irritate some today seeing how [overly in my view] sensitive many are today. Three mentions of Roots attempt to offset the employment of a black character who keeps on stealing. At one point the script resorts to a dog under Dracula’s control peeing on a policeman, which some may consider to be the film’s low point, but because I have a puerile mind when it comes to comedy I chuckled. Of course much of the comedy is aimed fair and square at those who’ve seen a lot of Dracula and vampire movies. At one point the incompetent Jeff tries to kill Dracula with a silver bullet and Dracula replies, “isn’t that for werewolves”? Though if I’d written the scene I’d have had Jeff say, in reference to The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, ”My grandfather said that silver bullets do work against you”. Nobody seems to have actually heard of Dracula in New York City, though they do know what vampires are. It takes a while to get used to this but I guess it ends up working okay. We get a fairly good example of the archetypal cop character who doesn’t believe all this supernatural ‘nonsense’, Lieutenant Ferguson who is played with nice world-weariness by Dick Shawn, though the moment where he suddenly realises that he was wrong is almost thrown away.
The pace is left to slacken and there are other interesting pathways that it could have gone down but chooses not to do so, though saying that there aren’t as many fish out of water gags as you might expect, the Count soon becoming accepted despite his attire and manner. The signs of something a little more sophisticated are there, most notably perhaps in the commentary on big city life, which is shown to be rather superficial despite the liberalism. Cindy is a woman bored out of her skull with her decadent life – she smokes pot daily, pops Quaaludes like candy, sucks down booze as fast at she can, has a philosophy about men which is “you meet ‘em, if you do ‘em, you ball ‘em once and then it’s ‘adios muchaco’ ”, and wallows in therapy as an excuse for avoiding her own disenchantment with the “glamorous” world of a supermodel. Neither Cindy and Jeff seem to know what they want until towards the end, and don’t even seem to be able to communicate what’s on their mind. “Trust me, your life is in danger, I almost love you”, Jeff says to Cindy at one point, something which is in contrast to Dracula who always knows and says exactly how he feels while also following to the letter the principle of actions speaking louder than words. And he seems to be the only one capable of real love, at least until near the end. But I don’t want to pretend that Love At First Bite is full of social commentary and brain food, because it isn’t. Generally it’s just a goofy comedy that is unlikely to leave you in hysterics very often and is mostly content to give you more of the same thing, but it should keep you smiling if you like your vampires and remember when it was made. And it does leave you with the warm, fuzzy feeling that true love is possible in a world that’s cold and empty, with a final scene that all horror-leaning romantics might fall in love with.