Monday, 3 October 2016

Love At First Bite (1979)

October is here! This is the only time of year you can talk non-stop about werewolves and candy corn and Ray Bradbury and nobody looks at you sideways, and I intend to take full advantage of it!

We’re starting with an underrated gem in which George Hamilton plays Disco Dracula and Susan Saint James is his pot smoking lady love.

The 70’s were a culturally awesome time for horror, much in the way the 80’s would nail the fantasy genre. In 1972, American International Pictures made a movie about an African prince who visits Transylvania, gets turned into a vampire and sealed in a coffin until awakening in modern day Los Angeles. In 1974, the late, great, forever in our hearts Gene Wilder teamed up with Mel Brooks to astound one and all (including their investors) when they made a hit comedy out of a Christmastime release of a black and white spoof of Universal’s Son of Frankenstein. Sitting happily between Blacula and Young Frankenstein is 1979’s Love at First Bite.

I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s as good as either film, but it is good.

The story begins when the Romanian government commanders Dracula’s castle as a gymnastics training center for Nadia Comaneci. He has two days to pack up his coffin and his cobwebs and get out before they put in the balance beams.

It’s not the worst thing that could’ve happened to this version of Dracula. A sort of dusty gothic ennui has taken him over, and he’s been bored. Not to mention terribly lonely. One of his few enjoyments comes from American magazines that feature his latest obsession: fashion model Cindy Sondheim.

Dracula is convinced that Cindy is the reincarnation of his great love, and had been Mina Harker in a previous life. In order to turn her fully into a vampire so she can share his monstrous eternity with him, he has to bite her on the neck three separate times. Getting kicked out of the castle spurs him into action. He – along with his semi-immortal, bug eating sidekick Renfield (played delightfully to the hilt by Arte Johnson) – are going to hit up New York high society and find Cindy.

A lot of the comedy thereafter is about an out-of-touch European relic trying to blend into the nightlife. But even more of it is about how the expectations of movie audiences changed between 1931 and 1979, in the same way Young Frankenstein had explored genre shifts, but a little less elegantly. A running gag revolves around whether or not Dracula has seen Roots, and there are constant sly winks that hint the Hollywood version of 70’s New York is authentic as the Hollywood versions of 1930’s London or Transylvania in any time period.

There are terrific cameos from The Jeffersons; Sherman Hemsley turns up as a corrupt preacher whose funeral service is interrupted, and Isobel Sanford is an unsympathetic New York judge. Dick Shawn plays a haggard police detective who doesn’t particularly want to believe in vampires, but has to face facts, and Susan Tolsky gives a great, brief performance as Cindy’s agent. There’s more than a little Sue Mengers in it.

George Hamilton is a charming, clever Dracula, weighing the scales just right to evoke everyone’s memories of Bela Lugosi, but taking into account the necessary angles to make him seem both human enough to carry the story and inhuman enough to be funny.

If you’re of the camp that gets extremely annoyed by Susan Saint James, I’d still suggest giving this one a try. I know several people who can’t stand her, and a direct quote from one of them was: “I didn’t want to punch Susan Saint James in the face in that Dracula thing you lent me.” If you usually like her, you might enjoy seeing her with a very different look, as she sports fluffy blonde supermodel hair and ultra-glam nightwear throughout.

The absolute highlight of Love at First Bite, for me at least, is Richard Benjamin as Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg. Jeffrey comes from the Van Helsing family, but changed his name for professional purposes. He’s a psychiatrist to the rich and famous, and very happily strings Cindy along in a commitment-free affair – until Dracula appears and he almost instinctively transforms into an obsessive vampire hunter. Except he can't quite remember how it's supposed to work. Vampires are the silver bullet ones, right?

It’s worth adding, though, that a serious familiarity with Universal’s 1931 Dracula helps the humour a lot. So if you’ve never seen the movie that started the sexy vampire craze to begin with, start there. (Interesting tidbit: makeup artist William Tuttle worked on both the 1931 Dracula and Love At First Bite!) Otherwise, consider adding this one to your lighthearted Halloween roster.

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