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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Love at First Bite’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you find a way to stand out in the crowd if you can get others to laugh at you…

Love at First Bite (1979)
Distributed by: American International Pictures
Directed by: Stan Dragoti

1979: It was a good year for rock albums, the Pittsburg Steelers (again)…

…and Dracula.

Dracula, the most recognizable vampire in the world, was the star of four movies about him. You had Frank Langella in John Badham’s fairly faithful to Stoker’s novel adaptation Dracula. You had Klaus Kinski as the original film Dracula, no longer going under the pseudonym Orlaf, in Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu the Vampire. You had John Carradine playing Dracula again for Harry Hurwitz’s Nocturna.

And, you had George Hamilton, trying to laugh about it in his film…

We open in Castle Dracula, in Transylvania, as Hamilton’s Count starts his day night. It’s not going well, as the “children of the night” keep howling over his piano playing, and the decanter of blood he drinks from isn’t at body temperature. He points this out to his faithful ghoul Renfield (Artie Johnson) when he arrives with magazines for his master, so that Dracula could drool over the women in them.

Dracula throws the men’s mags into the fire, wanting only a copy of the fashion magazine Pizaz featuring on the cover supermodel Cindy Sondheim (Susan Saint James). Dracula is convinced that Sondheim is the latest reincarnation of a woman he has desired over the centuries, noting in passing that she was once Mina Harker in 1931 (the same year Bela Lugosi’s Count hit the screens). Dracula tries to go back to his coffin with the mag, acting like a thirteen-year-old boy with a hot fashion spread to “enjoy,” ifyouknowwhatImean, when his night gets a whole lot worse…

He’s informed by the Romanian government that they are using eminent domain to claim his castle, for use as its newest gymnasts training center. They give him 48 hours to clear out on his own, or face being placed in “an efficiency apartment with seven dissidents and one toilet.”

This gets Dracula to stop reading about Sondheim and actually pursue her. He packs up and heads to New York, where from the beginning things don’t go well: Thanks to Renfield’s bumbling, the wrong casket is claimed at customs, and Dracula wakes up at dusk at a funeral in Harlem overseen by Reverend Mike (Sherman Helmsley).

After a side trip inspired by a similar scene in Scream, Blackula, Scream, Dracula flounders around in pursuit of Sondheim. When he turns into a dog to pursue her, animal control takes him to the pound. When he turns into a bat to get blood, he’s chased out of a few apartments before settling on a wino who’s blood makes Dracula tipsy.

Finally, he makes contact with her at a disco that tries to be Studio 54, where he finds his love across the ages is more messed up than Margaux Hemmingway. She expects him to be just another meaningless one-night stand, but after he bites her on the neck, she can’t stop thinking about him.

She shares this obsession with Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin), her analyst and on-again-off-again lover who over the last nine years says he thinks he maybe loves her, professional ethics be damned. When he notices her bite marks, however, Jeffrey is alarmed; we find out there that his grandfather was Dr. Fritz Van Helsing, who first discovered Dracula (and presumably vampires in general). This moves Jeffrey, whose real name was originally Van Helsing but was changed for professional reasons, to take up the family business.

But can Jeffrey stop the Prince of Darkness? How can he when he has trouble convincing Lieutenant Ferguson of the NYPD (Dick Shawn) about the danger everyone is in. To make matters worse, Cindy is tired of Jeffrey’s shenanigans, and when Renfield suggests off-hand that he and the Count are actually the good guys, we’re inclined to believe him, when comparing the suave vampire to this yutz

Speaking of “foolish,” that’s probably a pretty good description of just about any script from Robert Kaufman. His extensive work in television and films is often simply a string of gags that try and capture the zeitgeist. Most of the jokes in his scripts have short shelf lives, as the ones in this film referring to Roots and the 1977 New York Blackout fail to find the mark years later. And in the hands of Dragoti, who took up directing films after years in advertising, there’s not much that the director does to help.

Thankfully, the cast is there to pick up the slack. The film came about when Kaufman and Hamilton were rifting on the Lugosi film, and Hamilton’s care for his character is evident. He’s the center of the film who’s often the straight man, more Margaret Dumont than Groucho Marx, granting others the chance to get more laughs around him. (Probably his biggest gag is his just being in the film, in that a vampire is being played by an actor whose rep is built on his suntan…)

Hamilton as the producer of the film is also able to pull in skilled talent. He has the good eye and fortune to get the right people for their roles, from Benjamin and Johnson through cameos by Helmsley and Isabel Sanford (as a judge who doesn’t share time here with her co-star from The Jeffersons). With them in the film, the performers bring life in an otherwise zombified package.

When Hamilton brought the project to A-I, he found he had an unexpected hit. His career was briefly kick started as the world discovered his comedic talents, making him in demand again after a slow fade during the 1970s. Love at First Bite’s biggest legacy was Hamilton’s revival, which got him plenty of work through the 1980s.

The biggest legacy of the film, if nothing else, was that Hamilton was at least the funniest of all the Draculas of 1979…

 

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