Thursday, November 27, 2008

Vampira – review

Directed by: Clive Donner

Release date: 1974

Contains spoilers

When I first came across the concept of David Niven as a vampire, indeed David Niven as Dracula himself, I was thrilled. The fact it was a comedy didn’t phase me, after all Niven was in many a comedy and was a fine actor. However, even as a kid, when I first saw this, it struck me as completely off… that the film was inherently wrong and, quite frankly, offensive.

What am I talking about? There is a racist element to this picture that I cannot reconcile with my own conscience, made worse by the fact that it is this element that is the source of much of the comedy. Let us, however, begin at the beginning.

In a candle lit study sits Dracula (David Niven) – a particularly English upper-crust sounding Dracula, it has to be said, given that this runs on the idea that Dracula was indeed Vlad Tepes. His butler, Maltravers (Peter Bayliss), comes in and says he has fixed the fuse – putting the lights back on. This is a Dracula who rents his castle out for income – as Castle Dracula with Maltravers playing the role of the vampire. He likes to read Playboy and look at the veins.

It appears that Playboy are to do a shoot in the castle. They are bringing four models plus various staff including chaperone Angela (Jennie Linden) and writer Marc Williams (Nicky Henson). It seems strange, of course, that Dracula would discover that they are renting his castle by reading it in the magazine – though he hopes that one might have the special blood (triple O negative) that will resurrect his wife Vampira (Teresa Graves). I should mention that the shoot seems to be run by Pottinger, played by the great Bernard Bresslaw. The fact that they made all his dialogue sub-Carry On was less an issue with Bresslaw’s performance and more the scriptwriters trying to typecast.

However, before they arrive, Maltravers discovers that he has an issue with the maid, Helga (the delectable Linda Hayden). She has decided to leave and he gets Dracula to go and bite her – to make her compliant. Here is our main lore. A bite from Dracula makes you compliant and gives him telepathic control, if the bite lasts too long you turn. This is not dependant on the amount of blood drunk, it seems, but literally a question of timing. He mistimes. Now I have a soft spot for Hayden and have done since Taste the Blood of Dracula, so the idea of her with fangs was no bad thing.

They have the dinner party, and because Helga needs to be controlled Dracula plays himself. They put sleeping draught in just about everything… which seems to make Milton (Christopher Sandford) the photographer fall asleep but everyone else just gets a bit tired and goes to bed. After the event Dracula has Maltravers crossbow Helga through the heart – which means no more Linda Hayden, so that saving grace has gone.

They gather blood from all the ladies – Angela wakes up and so Dracula uses mojo, which is as dependant on his voice as his eyes it appears. Having tested all the blood one does indeed have the blood type but due to a labelling error they don’t know who. They transfuse Vampira with blood from all the models. Vampira is suffering from deep anaemia, caused by biting a poisoned peasant, and has been in deep freeze for fifty years.

Now it is here that the film becomes offensive. As she is transfused comment is made about her getting colour back and then that there is too much colour. Maltravers asks whether she might have gone off, during her time on ice, as she becomes black. Vampira seems quite taken by her new skin tone, Dracula says that black is beautiful but he will have to turn her back as people may talk.

So what has happened? It seems that using one of the model’s blood has changed her skin colour, due to the fact that Rose (Minah Bird) was black. It is suggested that it is like doing a white wash of laundry and slipping in a coloured sock that runs. The solution, run the special blood through again, without Rose’s blood (they do not even consider it might be Rose who had the special blood). Thus they need to go to England – where the models have returned – and Dracula bites Marc to make him gather blood for testing (why Dracula couldn’t use his powers and do this himself is never answered).

You might think I am being a little over-sensitive and politically correct, you might suggest that the film is of an age and, whilst its supposition is inaccurate, we should accept that it is of an age. I’d remind readers that, the year before, the most excellent series M*A*S*H had an episode Dear Dad… Three that attacks the ridiculous idea of ‘right coloured blood’.

Lore-wise things are fairly much standard, no reflection, sleep during day, sunlight and stakes kill, vampires become bats except… We have already mentioned the unusual turning lore. Also at one point Dracula is trying to control Marc telepathically but Marc is resisting. Dracula takes him over fully and Marc becomes Dracula… not just for us as the audience but also for the character whose blood he tries to extract – she sees David Niven. Why a telepathic takeover should physically change Marc is beyond me. When Dracula is in control of Marc his reflection vanishes.

The film culminates with Vampira biting Dracula and for some reason this changes his colour also – leading to David Niven being blacked up and, with blackface, the racism that underpins this film crescendos.

The humour fails generally. Much is offensively based around Dracula (or Old Dracula as the film was alternatively called, to tie in with Young Frankenstein) being embarrassed by his wife’s colour, her sudden promiscuity (with Marc) and her jive talk. There are the occasionally good lines, which fall to vampire lore for the humour “I’ll cross my fingers sir.” “I’d rather you didn’t!” However, these are few and far between.

Not good, 1 out of 10 mainly for Linda Hayden with fangs.

The imdb page is here.

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