Not "so bad it's good," but rather, "so tacky it's watchable-like-a-minor-car-wreck"...it that makes sense. M-G-M, through their increasingly interesting M.O.D. ("manufacture on demand") Limited Edition Collection (now distributed online through Warners' own M.O.D. service, the Archive Collection), has released Old Dracula, the British blaxploitation horror-comedy filmed under the title Vampira in 1973, which was released by Columbia Pictures in the U.K. in 1974...and which was subsequently acquired by American International Pictures in 1975 for release here in the States (with a re-title to cash in on the explosive success of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein). Starring a handful of familiar British faces (among them some Hammer alumni beauties), along with the singular personification of debonair suavity, David Niven, Old Dracula won't scare you, nor will it elicit maybe more than a chuckle or two (or "titter," if we're going along with the film's few Carry On double entendres). However, it probably is necessary viewing for fans of Niven, considering the incongruity of the casting, as well as for lovers of 70s British horror films.
Transylvania, 1973. Count Dracula (David Niven), with the aid of his somewhat snippy manservant, Maltravers (Peter Bayliss), has opened up Castle Dracula to the public, allowing vacationers to pay for the privilege of experiencing the manufactured terrors of his tacky, tourist-trap home, complete with Maltravers dressing up as the Count, fake sound effects such as wolves howling and people screaming, and obviously mechanical bats flying around the dining hall. Why has the Prince of Darkness stooped to such an ignominious occupation? Quite simple: he's looking for an extremely rare blood type to bring his beloved wife, Vampira, back from the dead ―a neat trick since she, as a vampire, is already supposed to be the undead. So, when tourists arrive, he knocks them out with sleeping potions and siphons off samples via I.V.s, so he can examine them in his lab. Imagine his surprise, then, when a bevy of beautiful Playboy® Bunnies visit the castle (for a "Most Bitable Bunny" contest and photo shoot), and one of them possesses the rare blood type. Applying his curative, Dracula is even more shocked when he sees his wife, Vampira, transformed into a beautiful black goddess (Teresa Graves), the result of a mix-up in the transfusion...or at least, Dracula doesn't really think it's a mix-up, because he's not prejudiced, but he wants his old wife back, but it's okay if she's black because, "Black is beautiful," as he says, but he'd still rather have her the way she was, but...oh, never mind. So now it's up Drac to enlist the aid of groovy London writer Marc Williams (Nicky Henson) to gather samples of the four Bunnies' blood for the "proper" serum, before his increasingly street-wise, sassy black wife drives him to distraction.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS
I sorta remember seeing Old Dracula on the bottom of a drive-in double-bill (with what else: a re-release of Young Frankenstein) in 1975. A few flashes of Niven baring his fangs and a particularly good-looking Cathie Shirriff topless were all that came to mind when I tried to remember the film prior to watching this disc. However, what I remember more than anything from the movie was my old man sadly saying, "Niven's done," as we drove out of the lot as the final credits rolled (do you remember craning your neck out the window to get that very last look at that huge screen as you rolled out of the drive-in?). Niven had always been an actor my father particularly admired for his suave, easy-going, humorous, effortless manner, and to see this charming, skilled performer reduced to starring in an exceedingly tame, mostly unfunny B-grade horror spoof was apparently a big downer for him (as it probably was for most of Niven's fans, no doubt).
I can see his point today. While I'm not prepared to write-off Old Dracula completely, it is a study in missed opportunities. Produced to cash in on not only the reinvigorated horror genre, mining some of the high-gloss chills/laughs of more recent horror entries like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but also the burgeoning blaxploitation market (AIP's Blacula had been a big international success), Old Dracula succeeds at shortchanging itself on both counts. It's a strange-feeling movie: it's a vampire flick that could have successfully exploited subtexts like sex or race comedies, but it oddly, even discreetly, sidesteps both of these potentially interesting sidelines. Instead, we see Niven biting people (which, truth be told, is bizarre enough in its own right to garner interest in the film); we hear the rather lame attempts at racial humor; and we see a bit of nudity here and there. But clearly, the makers of Old Dracula aren't really interested in pursuing any of this on any level other than passing whimsy. This does have the unintended side effect of giving Old Dracula a rather light, carefree, easy-to-take atmosphere...but that careless tone also robs the movie of any real juice.
All discussions about cultural context for the racial humor, and the validity of the horror elements in the overall canon of the genre aside, Old Dracula biggest mistake is that it's just not funny enough to sell itself to the audience, who would instantly forgive its various genre shortcomings if they were busy laughing at the movie. And it's not as if we're talking about untried comedic talents behind the scenes here: the screenplay was written by Jeremy Lloyd, of Are You Being Served? and 'Allo 'Allo! fame, and the direction was courtesy of Clive Donner, whose many credits included titles like Nothing But the Best and What's New, Pussycat?. Unfortunately, Lloyd's lines often ping off the actors like weak sitcom rimshots, such as the opening scene where Drac reads a Playboy® and exclaims, "Have you ever seen a prettier pair of veins?", or a Carry On clunker like this one when a well-endowed Bunny hears the scary piped-in music at the castle, "Do you believe that organ? It's giving me goosebumps!" "And such big ones, too!" Not all of the lines in Old Dracula are that bad...but more are than not, and they can tempt the unsuspecting viewer to groan, not chortle.
It doesn't help, either, that the second lead in the film, Teresa Graves, of Get Christie Love! fame, is so awful in her substantial role here. Asked to be regal and sexually predatory at first ―which she confuses with grotesque mugging and eye-rolling ―she's then required to gradually become hip and street, which Graves can't seem to pull off, either (when she calls Niven a "jive turkey," it's truly weak and embarrassing). She shows zero chemistry with Niven, so why do we care if she stays black or changes back to white? And while we're at it...if Drac doesn't really mind all that much that she's black...then why should we care about his search for the "cure" in the first place? Niven makes an amusing throwaway joke about Transylvania being a "small town where people would talk" if he came home with a black wife, but he also repeats with complete sincerity one of the decade's most recognizable pop culture epitaphs: "Black is beautiful." So...what's the point of the entire film, if we're not sure where Drac stands on his wife's skin color? Of course, the answer lies on the surface: Old Dracula doesn't care, either. It's just a one-note joke, with the "pay-off," if you can call it that, coming at the end of the film when Niven appears in blackface (and a more unconvincing, ludicrous make-up job I have never seen).
So...with all that qualifying: why should one watch Old Dracula? Well, there are a couple of convincing reasons, first and foremost of them to see Niven at the tail end of his lead performing days. Niven doesn't have much to work with here, and he may seem at times to be distracted (or bored, more likely), but when he gets something funny to do, it's like a brief window onto his former glory (I love it when he's so excited about giving people the frights). At this point, Niven only had one or two more bona fide starring roles left in his career before he trailed off into indifferent supporting roles and cameos in undistinguished international fare. But truth be told, quality roles had all but dried up for him years prior to 1973, so Old Dracula shouldn't have been that much of a shock to fans after seeing him show up in films like The Statue or Prudence and the Pill. Watching Niven here, you almost wish he could have played Dracula straight; Niven's penchant for usually going "light" in his career could have used a few more shake-ups, and perhaps playing one of horror's great icons in a formidable, scary manner could have been a career highlight (he at least has that gliding, debonair quality we associate with the "classic" interpretations of the Count). So Old Dracula may have a paucity of truly funny jokes and one-liners, but one can't help but enjoy Niven, even in such reduced circumstances (even a joke about Niven's never-mentioned toupee is delivered with a gameness that's appealing).
Other elements of Old Dracula may pique the interest of horror fans, including some fun little tweaks to the expected conventions (the duration of Dracula's bites―not the frequency―determine the level of vampirism in the victims), or the handful of cool bits of business Lloyd and Donner come up with to keep us occupied, such as Helga's death by reverse-sighted crossbow, and Freddie Jones' (one of my favorite British supporting players) somewhat creepy death in the airplane, via Graves' bite. I was even happy (for obvious reasons), for the completely gratuitous (and therefore entirely welcome) appearance of Monty Python alumni Carol Cleveland, who gets her shirt ripped open for no apparent reason other than to titilate us. And certainly Peter Bayliss is amusing to watch whenever he's on (not enough, in my estimation), with one line―he appears suddenly, as if summoned by Dracula, intoning, "You rang a bell in my head, sir?"―that had me hit the floor. Those compensations, combined with the generally seed, funky 70s production design and set dressing (I love Drac's double-wide 2-fer plexiglass-covered coffin), make Old Dracula a valid trip back for Niven fans and 70s horror completists.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.