Sunday, November 19, 2006

Love at First Bite – review


Director: Stan Dragoti

Release Date: 1979

Contains spoilers

Love at First Bite is a gentle spoof of the Dracula story that (unlike Mel Brooks’ later film Dracula – Dead and Loving It) takes many leads from, rather than directly apes, the 1931 Dracula.

The film begins in Castle Dracula. We see Dracula rise from his coffin and the first thing we should note is that Dracula is played by George Hamilton. Now, the perma-tanned actor might not have been my first choice to play a vampire – after all a creature who has not seen the sun for 700+ years is unlikely to have such a tan and yet Hamilton really looks the part, he captures well the look of the gentlemanly Count as portrayed by Hollywood and later we get some lovely derogatory banter from Dracula himself regarding his attire – “How would you like to go around looking like a head waiter for 700 years?”

There is also some nice spoofing of the book, such as in the next scene. Dracula plays the piano as, outside, the wolves howl and we get the line, “Children of the night, shut up!” Dracula calls Renfield (Arte Johnson) as his blood has not been served at body temperature and asks for his magazines. He quickly casts them into the fire as they are smut and asks for his fashion magazine. On the cover is New York model Cindy Sondheim (Susan Saint James). She is Dracula’s love, an old soul he has met before. He knew her in Warsaw in 1356 where he bit her once, he knew her in England in 1931, where he bit her twice. The number of bites is important as, we find out later, it takes three bites to turn someone into a vampire.

Also interesting was the described England episode. The film takes elements from the book but changes them. The book was not set in 1931 but he knew Cindy then as Mina Harker. There is also description of how he nearly perished at the tip of Van Helsing’s (whose name is changed to Fritz rather than Abraham) stake. Dracula’s life was saved by the cigarette case Renfield had bought him.

He retires to his coffin with the magazine but is awakened by Renfield as production of mistrepresentatives of the Romanian Government are at the castle door (recognised as such by the fact that they wear shoes!) It transpires that the Comrade Count has 48 hours to vacate his castle before it is turned into a youth training facility. It is off to America and a search for Cindy. The leaving the castle nicely apes the generic Hammer mob scenes, with an effective production of mist from the Count.

a mix up with coffinsAfter several misadventures in the City, a mix up with coffins that sees Dracula rising at a funeral and some abortive attempts to feed amongst other things, Renfield gains the whereabouts of Cindy and it is time for the Count to woo her.

At this stage we meet Cindy’s shrink and on-off lover Geoffrey Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin). Rosenberg is an assumed name taken for professional reasons and he is actually the grandson of Fritz Van Helsing. He recognises the bite marks on Cindy’s neck immediately and tries to save the woman he loves (and who also owes him over $7000 in psychiatric therapy fees). It seems strange that he recognises the marks instantly and yet his attempts to prevent the Count are so bungling – but this is the source of the film’s comedy.

When he first meets the Count he offers him a cigarette from a mirrored case, which the Count smashes, a lift from the 1931 film. He gives Cindy a garlic necklace, which is thrown across the restaurant. the wrong iconHe then pulls out the big guns, as it were. The Count, and the audience, expects a crucifix. Indeed the Count throws his arm across his eyes in stereotypical fashion. However, on looking, he suggests to Rosenberg that he, “leave Cindy alone and find yourself a nice Jewish girl, Doctor!” Geoffrey has produced a star of David - a scene I felt owed a great deal (in reverse) to "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967).

reminiscent of LugosiThis scene concludes with Cindy walking out of the restaurant bored as vampire and hunter attempt to hypnotise each other. This scene is nice, from a genre point of view, due to the highlight lights used over Hamilton’s eyes, which brings to mind Lugosi’s Dracula.

Geoffrey institutionalisedThe next attempt by Geoffrey, having failed to get the police (in the form of Lieutenant Ferguson (Dick Shawn)) to believe his story, is to burn Dracula in his coffin. This is nearly successful but hotel staff, alerted by Renfield put the fire out and the Doctor is shipped off to a psychiatric hospital.

silver bullets are for werewolvesOnce he is released, through Cindy, he makes a further attempt. Three silver bullets through the heart. Why he needed three is beyond me but Dracula is quite safe. Silver bullets, in this, are only good for werewolves. It is back to the hospital for Geoffrey but, due to four punctured citizens and a blood bank heist, Ferguson releases him and the race is on to prevent the third bite.

Geoffrey is becoming obsessedWhat is nice about the movie is the fact that it switches around the normal genre position and makes Dracula the good guy. In fact Renfield says as much. We really root for Dracula and Cindy’s mortal protector is obsessed and unhinged, we really want him to fail.

The film pokes fun at Communist Romania occasionally and the attitude of citizens of New York when a power cut hits the city. There is a very stereotypical view of the black population of New York being criminals in street gangs, which is very much aimed towards spoofing the blaxploitation genre, that falls somewhat flat and is a little offensive in places.

As I said, Hamilton actually makes an excellent Dracula but special mention should go to Johnson as Renfield who relishes the role and plays it to the maddest extremes. There is a touch of the Dwight Frye to the performance and his infectious, malicious laugh will stay with you.

The effects and production values, in the main, are quite good – though as per normal, for genre movies, the bats are a little silly – that said, being a comedy, it doesn’t matter too much.

The humour, however, I found to be gentle, not laugh out loud funny and some has not dated to well. It is at its strongest when it apes the Dracula movies of yore and weakest when it attempts social observation. All in all, however, a pleasant little watch with a fairly simple story, 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Edna Sweetlove said...

As noted elsewhere, Edna STRONGLY disagrees with this review. This film IS laugh-out-loud funny and deserves serious recognition. In fact, it's a 9 out of 10 near-masterpiece filled with great comic scenes and memorable dialogue:
"This is not the lobby of the Plaza Hotel?"
"I am not a honky. I am a Romanian."
"I never drink vine. And I never smoke shit."
"Is that for me? Get the air bubble out!"
"Cut it out, Jeffrey. I'm starving."
"Drowsier and drowsier."
OK, I admit it's badly let down by a piss-poor car-chase finale but, aside from that, it SERIOUSLY wipes the floor with ANY other Hollywood vampire spoof out there.

The only other serious contender for Greatest Vampire Comedy is Polanski's DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, in Edna's book.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Edna, I mentioned on the Mama Dracula review that it is all subjective when it comes to reviews and, with comedy, doubly so.

For example, I prefer Dracula: Dead and Loving It to this. Why? I couldn't exactly tell you. It might be because it lampoons the Lugosi Dracula so well, but probably because it just hits the right spot for me.

That said, my favourite vampire comedy is The Fearless Vampire Killers - a marvelous film that this actually owes a little nod to (for the star of David gag, and this film did it well unlike Mama Dracula).

There are some great lines in this but I did find that some of the humour had aged rather badly - and was occasionally offensive to my (perhaps to well honed and politically correct) sensibilities. This is a film that I find I (in the main smile broadly to, rather than laugh along with).

In the end, however, neither of us are wrong.

Edna Sweetlove said...

Agreed - especially about Polanski (though Edna only accepts the English title, DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, and not the prosaic, sophomoric American THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS). The NY Jewish humour is rather nicely observed in LAFB: "I changed my name for professional reasons". Yee ha!!

One surprise in what you say: you found something offensive in LAFB??? Come on, this is PG-rated stuff!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Edna my DVD of Fearless Vampire Killers is the proper UK release but under the mentioned title rather than Dance of the Vampires.

I guess the humour I found offensive was the very stereotypical racial stereotypes (all the street thugs are black, for example), that were a parody of blaxploitation but are stereotypes - as I said, hyper sensitive and politically correct in all probability. The actual standard content is pg and none-offensive