Wednesday, April 29, 2015

#1,717. Love at First Bite (1979)

Directed By: Stan Dragoti

Starring: George Hamilton, Susan Saint James, Richard Benjamin

Tag line: "Your favorite pain in the neck is about to bite your funny bone!"

Trivia: This movie had the same make-up artist as 1935's Mark of the Vampire: veteran William Tuttle

One day, in the spring of 1979, we were visiting some family friends when we all decided to take in a movie. The film we settled on was Love at First Bite. The theater, as I remember it, was fairly full, and people (myself included) were laughing throughout the movie. It wasn't until today I realized that was the last time I laid eyes on a single frame of this film. It never played on cable TV when I was growing up, and if it was available to rent on video, I didn’t bother to do so. There have been other instances of long gaps of time passing between my first and second viewings of a film, but I don’t recall another that stretched for 36 years!

Though he has lived there for centuries, Count Dracula (George Hamilton) is being evicted from his castle. It seems the Romanian Communists want to convert it into a gymnasium for loyal party members, and have given the Count and his faithful servant, Renfeild (Arte Johnson), one day to get out. So, with no time to make any plans, Dracula decides to follow his heart to New York City, where Cindy Sondheim (Jill St. John), the girl from the fashion magazines, lives. After a slight mix-up at the airport (his coffin is re-routed to a Harlem funeral home), Dracula and Renfeild get a room at the Plaza Hotel. Before long, Renfeild tracks Ms. Sondheim down, and the Count meets her in, of all places, a discotheque. Almost immediately, the two begin a passionate affair, with Dracula placing the first bite on Cindy’s neck during their initial night together (it’ll take 3 bites to turn her into a vampire, which is Dracula’s ultimate goal). Their happiness is threatened, however, when Cindy confesses all to her psychiatrist (and sometimes boyfriend) Dr. Jeff Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin), who, as fate would have it, is the grandson of none other than the Count’s arch-enemy, Dr. Van Helsing! With the help of Lt. Ferguson (Dick Shawn), one of New York’s finest, Dr. Rosenberg makes several attempts to destroy Dracula and sever the hold he has on Miss Sondheim, but what he doesn’t know is that the Count and Cindy are genuinely in love, and plan to spend eternity together.

Many of the jokes in Love at First Bite, especially in the opening scene, would have gone right over the head of my 9-year-old self in 1979, mostly because at that point I hadn’t yet seen the original Dracula, which this movie pokes fun at (and quite effectively, I might add). I laughed when the Count, playing the piano in one of the dark, foreboding rooms of his castle, got fed up with the constant caterwauling of the wolves outside his window and shouted “Children of the Night! Shut up!” Funnier still was Arte Johnson’s take on the character of Renfeild, mimicking that creepy laugh Dwight Frye let out when they found him, half-mad, below decks of the abandoned ship in the classic ’31 film. Every moment of this brief Transylvanian-set sequence had me smiling ear-to-ear, and that smile turned to chuckles once the two arrived in New York City, where, in the late ‘70s, not even the sight of Count Dracula walking down the street was enough to draw someone’s attention (the scene where Dracula, looking for sustenance, transforms into a bat and flies around the city features some of the movie’s funniest moments). George Hamilton, doing his best Bela Lugosi impersonation, is at his absolute finest, paying tribute to the horror icon while, at the same time, satirizing his mannerisms. He makes for a suave Count Dracula, and we can see why Jill St. John’s character, a hip New York model, would fall for him as quickly as she does.

Then, at about the halfway point, things start to go very, very wrong. It’s around this time that Richard Benjamin’s Dr. Rosenberg makes his grand entrance, and while I don’t lay the blame for the movie’s lackluster second half solely at the actor's feet, Benjamin doesn’t do much to help his own case, either (his portrayal of this key character is far too quirky to be effective). The main problem, I think, is that, as the film continues, George Hamilton isn’t featured nearly as much as he is at the beginning. Instead, we see Rosenberg interacting with Cindy and making half-hearted attempts to kill Dracula. Without Hamilton, Love at First Bite flounders badly, and neither Benjamin nor the usually solid Dick Shawn provide enough laughs to make up for his absence.

Sure, a few of the scenes with Dracula are as corny as those without him, but somehow Hamilton makes them work. When he’s not around, the jokes fall flat, and Love at First Bite suffers as a result.

1 comment:

Lisa Merle said...

Never saw this one but will track it down,
it's about time already! Sounds like it'a
been an underrated comedy for many years.
so I'm glad you wrote about it ~ time for
the next generation to enjoy!

[BTW, the actress is Susan Saint James, not
Jill St John.]