Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hubrisween 2015 :: O is for Old Dracula (1974)

The year is 1973, and Count Dracula (Niven), feeling both the centuries of mileage and the arthritis in his fangs catching up with him, has really slowed things down and settled into a life off pampered comfort. And so, instead of going out on a nightly hunt for the blood he needs to survive, the non-living legend has turned his castle in scenic Transylvania into a haunted house tourist-trap, complete with malfunctioning frights, rubber bats, canned sound-effects, and a fake vampire with his snarky butler, Maltrevers (Bayliss), donning a tuxedo, cape, widow’s peak, and pair of fangs to entertain the guests.

But this is all a ruse to bring in live donors, who are drugged during the evening meal and then head home the following morning none the wiser and a pint of blood short. This serves two purposes for the Count: one, it keeps his personal blood bank stocked, and two, he screens each sample, looking for an extremely rare blood type he needs to revive his wife, Vampira, whose been on ice for the past fifty years after sucking the tainted blood of some diseased peasant.

And then the plot proper gets rolling when the latest batch of donors arrives: a quartet of Playboy Bunnies (Shirriff, Allan, Carlson, Bird), their escort, Angela (Linden), and a reporter, Marc Williams (Henson), there to do a spread and cover story on the ‘Most Bitable Playmate.’ Things get complicated when a servant’s rebellion forces Dracula to play himself but despite all temptation to “dig in” on this bevy of beauties he sticks with the plan. And to his glee, they find a match to revive his wife. The only problem is Maltrevers forgot to label the samples and so they’re not sure which unwitting victim was the match. 

Nonetheless, it is the blood-match that is important to the process. Thus and so, the Count just transfuses all the Playmates’ pilfered blood into the body of Vampira, who does indeed revive as hoped. But, there’s a catch. See, one of those Playmates was black and, apparently – and I’m using the film’s analogy, here – since there was a blue sock in a load of whites, well, Vampira (Graves) now has ebony skin. And if you feel that is kinda tasteless, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boils and Ghouls, believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet…

Originally shot in 1973 under the title Vampira, this movie was director Clive Donner’s fairly crass and desperate attempt to keep the swingin’ 1960s going for just a little while longer, hoping to mine the same mod, free love vein he’d found with What’s New Pussycat (1965) and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968). The film finally found its way to the States in 1975 when American International repackaged it as Old Dracula, hoping to cash on the success of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974). It didn’t help.

Such a mess is this film, and an uncomfortable one at that, but it needn’t have been. In the right hands, we could’ve had the horror comedy version of Blazing Saddles (1974) but Donner is no Brooks, leaving the film as one giant missed opportunity. For instead of embracing the situation with, forgive me, biting social commentary, instead it’s all played as tin-pan-alley burlesque for cheap laughs. “Black is beautiful”, echoes the Count and the audience groans. And not that there’s anything wrong with that [*wink*wink*nudge*nudge* Say no more], but, Dracula would like his old wife back in the original tint. Thus and so, they pack off to London to track down all the Caucasian donors to find the one with the right blood type to go through the process again, with the hope of *sigh* bleaching out the color.

Things are even more complicated than you think for the Count, as not only is Vampira now black but she’s still grounded in the 1920s. But this is quickly rectified after Vampira and Maltrevers take in some cinema – and not just any cinema, but some Blaxploitation cinema (I think it was Welcome Home, Brother Charles so, wow), which instantaneously transforms her into a liberated, street smart and sassy jive-talking soul sister, who quickly dumps the flapper duds for something a little flashier. And with her help, the Count puts the hypno-whammy on Williams, hoping the reporter can help round up all the girls he’s looking for and collect new blood samples for them to test. (The Count attempted to get them but, forgive him, he’s a bit rusty on the whole stalk and bite thing.)

And then the movie spends the next twenty minutes or so showing Williams luring each girl to his posh pad, giving them a roofie, enticing them into bed etc. etc. etc. Things go off without a hitch until Angela, his sort of girlfriend, grows suspicious over Williams’ constant memory lapses, stumbles on the truth at the most inopportune time, and winds up trussed-up in a dumb-waiter so her captor can complete his mission.

But then things really go off the rails when Vampira, feeling oppressed, sneaks off the reservation in search of some fun – namely sleeping with Williams. Dracula catches them in the act, chastises his wife, and orders Williams to forget the encounter. They have one more victim to check, and to assure the reporter’s cooperation in ensnaring her at a massive costume ball, they take Angela hostage. Luckily for all involved, Williams has figured out Dracula’s mesmerism triggers, derails them, and does his best to protect the last donor but, outnumbered, he ultimately fails. Well, sort of. See, something goes wrong with the transfusion, namely Vampira, who bolts upright and bites Dracula in the neck before it’s finished. And with the end result of that nibble, the film hits rock bottom.

Really, movie? Really?

I honestly feel kinda bad ragging on this film so much but despite its overall silliness and carefree attitude it cannot hide how tone deaf it is. And this kinda ruins a marvelous performance by David Niven as the AARP Count Dracula, who brings his usual sense of cool suave and dry wit to the character. And the comedy between him and Bayliss as the hep help is spot on. (You kinda wish the whole movie was just about them adjusting to 1970s London.) Everyone else – Graves, Henson and Linden are fine but ultimately wasted. There are some clever bits of business, namely the hollow false-fangs being used as blood-collecting devices, and the idea of turning Castle Dracula into a blood donor Roach Motel is kinda brilliant.

And all of that is why this film is so frustrating because there is so much wasted potential; and while sifting through the evidence I think most of the blame falls on the screenwriter, Jerry Lloyd, who had spent two years working on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, as well as the British TV comedy, Are You Being Served, which actually explains a lot in the whole throw everything at the wall and who cares what sticks; and then plugging this comedic attitude into a plot that is essentially a mash-up of Carry On Screaming (1965), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Blacula (1972), and Watermelon Man (1970) results in something simply not funny enough to justify or balance out the racial bait and switch. Therefore, Old Dracula is lost in the wasteland where truly bad films that aren’t quite bad enough to be good go to rot.

Other Points of Interest:

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Old Dracula (1975) World Film Services :: American International Pictures / P: Jack Wiener / D: Clive Donner / W: Jeremy Lloyd / C: Anthony B. Richmond / E: Bill Butler / M: David Whitaker / S: David Niven, Teresa Graves, Peter Bayliss, Nicky Henson, Jennie Linden, Linda Hayden

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