There’s no doubt 2008 was a huge year for vampires, with the completion of the Twilight book series and the release of the first film, HBO’s launch of True Blood, based on the Charlaine Harris books, and the surprise of Let the Right One In, a Swedish film based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel. But it still wasn’t the biggest year for vampires.
That year was 1979, and the vampire in the spotlight was the king of them all. John Badham’s revisionist Dracula, starring Frank Langella, competed with Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu, featuring Klaus Kinski. But the surprise winner, in box office terms, starred the tanned and vaguely smarmy George Hamilton: Love at First Bite.
The Badham and Herzog films have weathered the past three decades pretty well. Herzog’s is considered a classic, and Badham’s codified the popular notion of vampires as seducers more than slayers (Langella never even sports visible fangs). But the Hamilton film, directed by the forgotten Stan Dragoti (probably more famous for once being married to supermodel Cheryl Tiegs), was the popular success.
Seen today, the film is both crudely of its era and surprisingly timeless. The most dated aspect is racial humor so cliche’d it probably should’ve produced cringes even in 1979 (it didn’t; I saw the film in the theater in Jackson, TN, and all of us of every race laughed our fool heads off). The stars of TV’s The Jeffersons, Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford, have cameos as, respectively, a hypocritical preacher and a tough-talking judge. A Puerto Rican family, starving because the father refuses to find work, mistakes Dracula in bat form for a “black chicken.” And on the streets of Harlem, Dracula is referred to as a “honky” and a “mother.”
But between these ill-advised bits are some surprisingly fun, deadpan scenes that retain their power to tickle. Central to this is that Hamilton plays Dracula mostly straight: no matter how silly the situation, the king of the vampires never loses his essential dignity. Even such groaners as Dracula getting drunk on a wino’s blood, or being mistaken for a waiter due to his tux, work because Hamilton goes for the reality among the silliness.
Susan St. James, of McMillan and Wife and Kate and Allie, co-stars as Cindy Sondheim, the supermodel reincarnation of Dracula’s great love. Much like Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, St. James is too much actress for the part: she takes an underwritten character and brings her to vivid life thanks to her own innate skill and intelligence. And actor (Goodbye Columbus)/director (My Favorite Year) Richard Benjamin goes beyond the comedic call of duty as psychiatrist Jeffrey Rosenberg (real name Van Helsing, but he changed it “for professional reasons”). The scene in which he and Dracula have a stare-off, each trying to hypnotize the other, is a highlight.
But ultimately the story is a romance, and a rather sweet one at that. The chemistry between Hamilton and St. James works like gangbusters, creating a subtle poignancy beneath the goofiness. It’s closer to the tenderness of Young Frankenstein, in fact, than the crude slapstick of Dracula: Dead and Loving It. And it’s that aspect that stays fresh no matter how much time passes.
A NOTE: In the theater, on TV and on videotape, Dracula and Cindy dance to the Alicia Bridges disco hit “I Love the Night Life” in arguably the film’s best-known moment However, the DVD replaces the song with something generic and, presumably, cheaper. What’s most annoying is that the trailer on the DVD does include the song. I sympathize with the DVD’s producers for not wanting to shell out the no-doubt-astronomical geld for the music rights, but it’s a significant loss to those of us who remember it. So here’s the scene the way it should be:
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