Old Dracula / Vampira Movie Review
Director: Clive Donner
Writer: Jeremy Lloyd
David Niven: Count Dracula
Teresa Graves: Countess Vampira
Peter Bayliss: Maltravers
Nicky Henson: Marc
The movie fully accepts that Count Dracual is Vlad the Impaler. As a spoof of the vampire genre, it is heavily influenced by the classic Hollywood mythology surrounding Dracula, but with a few extra twists to serve the plot. Let’s start with how to kill a vampire. The two well known ways for a vampire to die is by sunlight or a stake through the heart. However, the film introduces a third deadly weakness for these blood suckers that even his familiar Maltravers is unaware of. If a vampire drinks from a deeply anemic person, that vampire will die. However, this death is not as permanent and can be reversed if given a transfusion from a specific blood type. Although these are the only 3 ways to kill a vampire, they can be easily hurt and even knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. While garlic is not mentioned in detail, a quick shot during a montage suggests this is a weakness. While a vampire needs to drink blood to survive, the effects of the bite vary by how long the victim is fed upon. A quick bite will put the victim under the vampire’s control. A longer drain will turn the person into a vampire. Drinking a person’s blood is not the only way to control a mortal. Eye contact can also be used to hypnotize a person. The ability to transform into a bat seems to be a standard power and mirrors will not show their reflection. Rather than having an unnatural pale complexion, their skin tone is more natural. (This trait is central to the film’s plot.)
Count Dracula no longer goes out to hunt for his meals, but has turned his castle into a tourist attraction to lure people to him. For 50 years, his wife Vampira has been dead due to feeding on a deeply anemic person. In that time, Dracula has searched for a rare blood type that could revive his beloved wife. After collecting samples from a group of Playboy Playmates staying the night at his castle, he finds someone with triple negative blood. However, the samples get mixed up and he doesn’t know which of the girls blood was a match. To make things more complicated for him, one of the playmates was black and the process changed Vampira’s skin tone to black as well. Dracula must now go to London to discover which woman has the rare blood type he needs to change his beloved wife back to her original appearance.
While many people today say that Old Dracula is a rip off of Young Frankenstein, the film actually started filming and was released in Europe under the title “Vampira” before Young Frankenstein hit theatres. However, while this film was critically panned, Young Frankenstein was praised and would later rank as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Producers wanted to capitalize on Young Frankenstein’s success, so they changed the title to Old Dracula for its U.S. release. Many theatres would often make Old Dracula and Young Frankenstein a Double Feature.
David Niven: The Academy Award winning actor was the draw for this film. He was not only a talented actor, but popular among the movie going audience. In a 1945 Popularity Poll of British Film Stars, Niven was ranked number 2. His work in film and television easily crossed drama and comedy. This made him the perfect choice for a comedic film based on a horror character with such gravitas.
Terresa Graves: While Teresa Graves may not have been a star, she has an impressive resume. While her regular appearances on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” is probably her most recognizable work, she is credited as being the second African-American woman to star in her own hour–long television series and the first for a drama series.
Peter Bayliss: This English actor trained at the Italia Conti Academy. Bayliss’ training would lead him to successful roles on the screen, stage and radio. His comedic timing and physical presence were fully utilized as Dracula’s familiar.
Nicky Henson: Nick Henson has an impressively long acting resume. While larger leading roles mostly eluded him, he was able to land a few in some low budget exploitation films. His role as leader of a zombie biker gang in the 1973 film “The Death Wheelers” would be the most notable of these films.
I was a little worried when I started this film. The 2 minute acid trip opening with a shadow of a bat or human dancing was a bit disturbing. However, knowing this movie was from the mid 1970s, I was going to let it pass.
The movie begins with us going through Dracula’s dark and creepy castle. His familiar, Maltravers, comes in letting us know he has fixed the power and they can turn the lights back on. Dracula is happy, because he loves the light and no longer has to sit in the dark. Dracula then proceeds to look at a Playboy Magazine while they discuss blood as if he is choosing from a list of fine wines. This was the perfect setup for what we are to expect from the rest of the film. We’re going to get the classic Count Dracula with a lot of silliness thrown in.
In 1974, they were updating Dracula for modern times and putting this gothic character from the Mauve Decade into the Me Decade. It might not have been on purpose, but putting Dracula in a time period that was about nurturing your individuality and expressing yourself worked for the storyline. The fashion of the time makes watching it today even more visually appealing. Using Playboy models as many of the characters could have made this a lewd film, but instead nudity was used sparingly giving it a more tasteful approach.
The performances are great, but the humor often falls flat. While this film might have failed to win audiences and critics over at the time, today the silliness with dated sets and effects make it much more amusing. The melding of a horror film with the science fiction set pieces was great. There were moments it was like watching 2001 a Vampire Odyssey. Seeing the different coffin designs that move away from the old wooden box was amusing. From automatically retractable glass tops to foldable travel caskets, the set and prop department had fun with this film.
A Vampire’s ability to turn into a bat is used several times and referenced a lot. Rather than having to watch some dated special effect to create the transformation, they relied on transition and fade edits. This worked nicely in being bad, but not so horrific that you get completely taken out of the story. The close up shots of them in fruit bat form was very amusing. I’m not sure why they went with fruit bats instead of vampire bats, but the comedic results were the same.
The main plot in the story is very difficult to watch today. Count Dracula wishes to revive his wife Vampira, after she died from drinking the blood from a deeply anemic person. In order to do this, he must give Vampira a blood transfusion from somebody who possesses the same rare blood type. As luck would have it, one of the playboy models staying at his castle has the blood he has been looking for over the last 50 years. However, a mix up occurs; they don’t know which girl the blood came from and which blood was used in the transfusion. The process brings Vampira back to life, but her skin tone has changed from white to black. This is because one of the girls was black. The rest of the film revolves around Dracula trying to turn his wife back to her original complexion. At this point, I almost stopped watching the film. While this made me very uncomfortable because of our modern sensibilities, I decided to keep watching. You can’t turn your back and ignore history. I’m glad I decided to keep watching. The film turned out to be better than I anticipated. When you look at when it was created and what points were trying to be made, the inappropriate content can be better digested.
First, this film was made at the height of Blaxploitation, so while this movie does not fit that category, you see how they were trying to tap that market. Also, neither Dracula or any of the other characters are racist. Dracula is not upset that his wife is black, but that Vampira is not her old self. Dracula has no problem loving the woman in front of him. The movie is about accepting change and growing with the times. While it is offensive for today’s audience, from a historical point of view it was very progressive.
1 out of 5
This vampire tale is about as scary as Count Duckula.
3 out of 5
While the attempts to be funny fall flat on their face, the story they tried to create is more ludicrous.
2 out of 5
I don’t recommend this movie to the casual movie watcher. It’s offensive and not well done. However, if you are a classic film buff or into vampire movies it might be worth your time to steam it for free one night.