One of the non-political things trending the most on the internet this week has been the new BBC TV adaptation of DRACULA. I haven't seen any of it yet--from what I've heard about it, I'd probably just be whining and moaning over it.
I did happen to view another radical interpretation of Bram Stoker's iconic character this weekend--a 1974 British film which is titled OLD DRACULA in the United States. (The British title is VAMPIRA.) The American title attempted to cash in on the success of Mel Brooks' magnificent YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. OLD DRACULA isn't anywhere near YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as a comedy, or as an overall film.
Count Dracula is played by David Niven, and the late 20th Century hasn't been too kind to him. He has opened up his castle in Transylvania to tourists, and his beloved wife, Countess Vampira, has been in a state of suspended animation for 50 years, due to taking the blood of a "poisoned peasant". A group of four Playboy playmates comes to the castle for a photo shoot, and the Count, with the help of his manservant, takes blood samples from each of the girls, hoping that one will be the proper match to revive Vampira. One of the playmates is African-American, and in the process of revival Vampira herself turns black (and is now played by Teresa Graves). The Count isn't really put off by this, but still decides to try and turn Vampira back to her original state by flying to England and getting more blood from the playmates. Various complications ensue, until Dracula and his wife become compatible in an unexpected way.
OLD DRACULA was written by one-time LAUGH-IN regular Jeremy Lloyd. I have a feeling Lloyd wasn't much of a English Gothic fan, for the while the story has plenty of opportunities to spoof the genre, it avoids this and instead goes for plenty of labored gags. There's a number of lines about "getting a bite" and "having a drink", but nothing that makes you laugh out loud. The script also doesn't seem to know at times if it really is an all-out comedy.
The story also doesn't know how to portray Dracula. David Niven plays the Count as "David Niven"--a charming, upper-class English fellow who reacts to everything with a knowing bemusement. (Niven's Dracula is about as Eastern European as Clint Eastwood.) There's no sense of menace from Niven's Count, even when he is supposed to be menacing. At times it feels as if the movie wants the viewer to sympathize with the Count, such as when he takes a wistful stroll through nighttime London and winds up saving a young woman from a mugging (the woman is played by Carol Cleveland, known for her work with Monty Python). But this Count also winds up lowering one of the main characters into a rat-infested well. We don't know whether to think of this Count as a joke, or mildly amusing, or a sad old man whose time has passed.
The British title of this film, VAMPIRA, is quite apt, since Teresa Graves is the most charismatic person in the film, and gets to play the most interesting character. Her revived Countess is hot-to-trot, and she's quite willing to partake in all that the culture of the 1970s has to offer. She even goes to see a Jim Brown movie! She also gets to call Dracula a "jive turkey", certainly the first (and no doubt the last) time that Stoker's Count has been given this label. The movie would have done much better to focus on her.
Teresa Graves as Vampira
The supporting cast of OLD DRACULA has plenty of geek culture notables, with featured roles for three Hammer-connected actresses--Linda Hayden (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA), Jennie Linden (NIGHTMARE), and Veronica Carlson (DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE). Hayden is bitten by Dracula--and subsequently dispatched by him--within the first fifteen minutes of the film. Linden plays a non-comedic role as a woman organizing the playmates photo shoot (she's the one who gets lowered in the rat-infested well). Veronica is one of the playmates, but other than looking gorgeous as usual, she gets very little to do, and her lovely voice is even dubbed over. One would think that with two actresses who had starred in other Dracula movies in the cast, some sort of in-joke would have referenced this, but it never happens. (Luan Peters, who appeared in a few Hammer films, also shows up here for literally a few seconds.)
Freddie Jones, another Hammer veteran, also appears--he's sitting next to the Count and his wife while they are in an airplane flying to London. Jones wears a horrible toupee, and he's using an American accent--at first I didn't even recognize him. Bernard Bresslaw also has a small role.
OLD DRACULA doesn't appear to have a low budget--in fact it appears to have more money spent on it than most "real" horror movies made around the same period. It's competently directed by Clive Donner, but instead of being funny or entertaining, it comes off as weird and strange. The climax features a disco party in which shots of people dancing go on...and on...and on. The ending also has David Niven wind up in blackface, of all things....and then the end credits show more of Vampira dancing the night away (which is maybe just as well, since she steals the film).
OLD DRACULA does prove that no matter what people say about any new adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, there's been plenty of bizarre things done to the Count over the years. It's not an unwatchable mess, but it is one of those "What the heck were they thinking when they made it??" movies. The blaxplotation elements surrounding Teresa Graves as Vampira might make a few folks cringe in today's world, but if the script had gone all out in that direction, it might have been more memorable.