Here at The Dissolve, we’ve written before about the specific allure of vampires on film: their malleability as metaphors or protagonists or villains, their place in the popular culture, the way they can be used to represent an end to the flaws of the human condition. But what we didn’t much discuss at the time was how they can be funny, too. In that previous conversation, built around Jim Jarmusch’s haunting Only Lovers Left Alive, Scott Tobias mentioned that he didn’t want to see a found-footage vampire movie, that it sounded like a terrible idea. Then we actually got to see the next best thing: What We Do In The Shadows, a loose mockumentary about sketchy, questionably competent vampires from Flight Of The Conchords actor/writer Jemaine Clement and director Taika Waititi. Their ridiculously enjoyable film reminded us that vampires can be funny, too—at least sometimes. Looking back on more than 60 years of comedy vampires, we found a few films worth watching, but mostly features that should be nailed back in their coffins. So we applied the fine-toothed comb of By The Numbers, our occasional feature that breaks a category of films down by statistics, to see how the decades of vampire comedies stack up to each other. Let’s do the math:
With Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (hey, it’s Frankenstein’s monster, we say pedantically) the three main Universal monsters (Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolf Man, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, and Glenn Strange as Monster) are brought together chiefly to scare the wits out of Lou Costello. And while that’s a perfectly inspired reason to do it—and with production values that exceed those of the original monster movies—the film struggles so desperately to get them together that the plot is a rare combination of labored and ludicrous. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play Chick and Wilbur, respectively, a couple of a postal workers tasked with delivering two giant crates to a wax museum. Those crates contain live cargo in the form of Dracula and the Monster, with the former leading a fiendish plot to revive the latter—perhaps with Wilbur’s soft brain.
The film basically delivers the same joke over and over: Wilbur wanders away from Chick (or vice versa), encounters Dracula or the Monster, does variations on a humina-humina-humina reaction, and breathlessly tells his disbelieving buddy all about it, mimicking the Monster’s locksteps or Dracula’s hypnotic mojo. And yet it’s hilarious every single time, because Lou Costello is Lou Costello, and Meet Frankenstein has the production values to set him loose in a secret-passage-filled castle against the monster-movie genre’s biggest stars. As for the vampire factor, Lugosi mostly plays it straight, like Chick and Wilbur are just another pair of blood-sacks who have wandered onto his domain. But there’s a strain of mocking self-awareness to his performance that lets audiences know he’s in on the joke. [ST]
In the 1960s, Roman Polanski made Knife In The Water, Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Rosemary’s Baby. Which of these is not like the others? Of that incredible run—on par with John Frankenheimer and Jean-Luc Godard for the decade’s best—The Fearless Vampire Killers has aged as the least-respected effort, with cause: Polanski’s feel for slapstick comedy wasn’t nearly as assured as his wizardry with psychodrama. Yet the lowbrow earthiness of the whole production is strangely winning, as this director known for plumbing the darkest recesses of the mind indulges in the low pleasures of heaving bodices and bushy mustaches. This is Roman Polanski, man of the people, for better or worse.
Polanski also co-stars as the skittish assistant to a disgraced professor (Jack MacGowran) in the mid-1800s who has written about vampires, but has yet to find any proof to back up his findings. When the pair literally stumble onto an inn in an Eastern European village, they get the confirmation they need—and then some. But actually vanquishing the vampires—and saving a luscious damsel-in-distress, played by Sharon Tate—is another matter, for which they are vastly unqualified. Polanski has an unsteady hand for physical comedy, but The Fearless Vampire Killers has great production values, with authentic decor and costumes and architecture, and a handful of brilliant sequences, like a ballroom dance among the undead where information is whispered between whirling partners. Polanski managing to slip a theme about the unstoppable spread of evil into a film this frivolous may be its neatest trick. [ST]
Stan Dragoti’s Love At First Bite was one of the biggest sleepers of the late 1970s, grossing more than $40 million on a tiny $3 million budget, and ranking 13th (spooky!) at the box office that year. Though the film hasn’t exactly aged like a fine wine—those multiple Roots references indelibly date it as a product of the Carter era—it’s easy to see why audiences were seduced and amused in the first place. In perhaps his most successful lead performance, George Hamilton stars as the world’s tannest version of Count Dracula, a good-natured ghoul who is unceremoniously evicted from his castle in Eastern Europe to make room for a gymnastics facility. He ends up, alongside insect-devouring man-servant Renfield (Laugh-In veteran Arte Johnson) traveling to New York in search of a lost love played by Susan Saint James as an adorably neurotic, pill-popping supermodel named Cindy Sondheim. Fish-out-of-water gags ensue as the fabled old bloodsucker disco-dances and tries to intimidate a New York populace that isn’t about to be scared by anything as meek as a vampire bat, especially one seemingly made of rubber and held aloft by strings. The love affair between Hamilton and Saint James is played relatively straight, which lets Richard Benjamin steal the film as a descendant of noted Dracula adversary Van Helsing who somehow also ended up in New York. His quintessential neurotic Jewish doctor is driven to hysteria and madness in an attempt to prove to the world that his romantic rival for Cindy’s affections isn’t just better-looking and more suave, but genuinely evil. His character’s attempts to prove to a disbelieving world that Hamilton’s Dracula is a vampire and must be eliminated provide most of the film’s campy laughs, while Hamilton’s low-key performance lends the film a genial charm that makes it one of the most winning of all vampire comedies. [NR]
Ostensibly a comedy, Vamp has, to be generous, three moments that evoke light laughter. It’s often strangely serious, and when it’s not, it’s filled with cringe-inducing attempts at humor—a teen-sex farce that regularly drops the “farce,” a riff on vampire horror and Scorsese’s After Hours that forgets to riff cleverly. Richard Wenk’s film follows Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler), two fraternity pledges looking for a local stripper to bring back to campus as an offering to their future frat bros. They snag a ride to town from a nerdy rich kid (Gedde Watanabe, in an offensively one-note performance) by agreeing to “pretend to be his friend for a week,” and then, inexplicably, their car spins around several times in the middle of an intersection, transporting them to an alternate dimension where trash drifts ominously through the streets, everybody is a vampire, and everything—even the sewer system—is lit like a cheap 1980s bat mitzvah. Of course, the hapless protagonists don’t notice the whole vampire thing until about halfway through the film, when they wander into the After Dark strip club, and AJ is seduced and subsequently devoured by a stripper/undead queen played by the stunning (and underused) Grace Jones. Keith spends the rest of the movie racing around the squalid underworld, attempting to escape a similar fate while also managing to ingratiate himself to the one non-vampire in the entire city—a perky blonde stripper named Amaretto (Dedee Pfeiffer).
In its (three) best moments, Vamp is vaguely clever and self-aware, sending up frat culture (“All this for a fucking fraternity,” sighs Keith at one point), vampire stereotypes, and seedy B-movies. In most of its moments, it’s rote and uninspired, getting by on endless chase scenes, beautiful women dancing half-naked, awkward attempts at banter, and endless references to Las Vegas. The universe Wenk creates is confusing and inconsistent on multiple logistical levels—for instance, at times, the vampires appear to be able to survive on each other’s blood without harming each other, but they spend the movie roping in humans and snacking on them. And the vampires don’t seem remotely interested in eating Amaretto, even though she works underground with them. (Related: How and why is Amaretto here?) Perhaps an Amazon commenter’s description sums up Vamp best and most hilariously: “This is a fun movie for people who don’t take vampires seriously.” [RH]
The strange little Cuban animated feature Vampires In Havana makes some pretty implausible choices. It’s certainly possible to buy that a European vampire figures out a scientific formula that protects vampires from sunlight, but when he decides to refine it by settling down in Cuba because the main ingredients of his “Vampisol” sun-cure are rum and strained pineapple, it becomes clear that this is vampire lore on a par with a Rocky And Bullwinkle Show installment of “Fractured Fairy Tales.” The flat, egregiously ramshackle animation, somewhere between a Jay Ward show and Fritz The Cat, supports that impression.
The plot, such as it is, centers on a battle pitting European aesthete vampires against tough American mobster vampires in an attempt to gain exclusive control of the Vampisol formula—not to protect their power, but to protect their line of artificial indoor beaches, which will go bankrupt if vamps can just cruise to Acapulco instead. Caught in the middle is Pepito, a fun-loving jazz trumpeter raised on the formula from birth, and thus immune to sunlight and completely unaware that he’s a vampire. He has no interest in vampire wars—he’d rather hop into bed with any jazz-mad barfly who’ll have him, then seduce his irked girlfriend Lola back to his side with trumpet solos that make her cleavage vibrate in sympathy, luring her unwillingly back into his arms. No specific joke lands especially hard; this is all mildly ribald, playful goofery that mostly sympathizes with Pepito as a gone-native Cuban more interested in his country’s politics than in vampire politics, but willing to ignore either one in favor of an open stage with a backing band, or a quick tumble in bed with a willing stranger. Drinking blood is boring and passe, he suggests. Rum drunks and dance-floor foreplay are where it’s at, man. [TR]
Years before Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced antics and complete lack of shame made him a standout on In Living Color and then one of the biggest, most irritating movie stars alive, he starred in the regrettable 1985 vampire comedy Once Bitten as teenager Mark Kendall, a guileless young man whose life, in time-honored teen-sex comedy tradition, revolves around losing his cursed virginity. He’d prefer to lose it to his longtime girlfriend Robin (Karen Kopins), but she keeps making him wait. So when a sexy, gap-toothed vampire known only as “Countess,” played by supermodel-turned-actress Lauren Hutton, homes in on Mark as one of the few remaining virgins in mid-1980s Los Angeles, his plans change, and his complexion soon becomes as bone-white as his wardrobe is pitch-black.
Yes, the dumb-ass, sex-obsessed teenager begins acting for all the world like a vampire, even winning a costume contest at a school dance for his uncanny imitation of the undead. But this moronic sex farce keeps up some ambiguity about whether he’s genuinely lost his virginity, or has just been drained of blood. It turns out Countess needs to drink his blood three times for the full transformation into vampirism to happen, so Mark hovers throughout much of the film in a strange state between vampire and human. It’s surprising that a teen sex comedy released at the height of the AIDS crisis doesn’t comment on it even obliquely, but Once Bitten has so little on its mind beyond giving the teen-sex genre a gothic twist that it manages to avoid commenting on anything, beyond teenagers’ need to get laid, regardless of the context. That almost qualifies as impressive. Almost. [NR]
Released two years after Teen Wolf and Once Bitten, My Best Friend Is A Vampire was one of the less-successful entries in a mini-wave of supernatural-themed teen comedies in the mid-1980s. It’s not hard to see why: Anyone showing up to see vampire action no doubt walked away severely disappointed. After getting bitten by a beautiful vamp who lures him to her abandoned mansion, Jeremy (Robert Sean Leonard) spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what’s going on with some help from his vampire mentor Modoc (Rene Auberjonois), barely popping his teeth in the process. Also on hand: David Warner as a vampire-hunting professor who’s trying to put a stake through Jeremy’s heart, and Evan Mirand as Jeremy’s girl-crazy best friend.
Since this is a 1980s comedy, most everyone around Jeremy assumes his odd behavior comes from being gay, but the film happily minimizes the gay panic by suggesting maybe that isn’t the worst thing in the world. (There’s even a shot of Jeremy’s parents, played by Kenneth Kimmins and Fannie Flagg, reading the 1983 book One Teenager In Ten: Writings By Gay And Lesbian Youth.) But also since this is a 1980s comedy, he isn’t gay, and the film’s attempts at humor not revolving around Jeremy’s attempts to procure pig’s blood concern the various ways he embarrasses himself while courting the offbeat, saxophone-playing Darla (Cheryl Pollak). Another requisite 1980s touch: Oingo Boingo on the soundtrack. [KP]
In 1985, Martin Scorsese turned a thesis script from Columbia Film School student Joseph Minion into After Hours, an energetic black comedy that Scorsese credits for reviving his career. Vampire’s Kiss, based on another original Minion script, suggests all the After Hours credit shouldn’t go to Scorsese: Take away the supernatural element, and Vampire’s Kiss is another nocturnal comedy that scores dark laughs from the anxieties of a bureaucrat who’s terrified of women. In one of the craziest (and best) performances of his career—and that’s saying something—Nicolas Cage stars as Peter Loew, a literary agent who gets bitten by a one-night stand (Jennifer Beals) and becomes convinced that he’s transforming into a vampire. His suspicions may be true or false—there’s evidence both ways—but his behavior grows undeniably more erratic: He torments his secretary (Maria Conchita Alonso) about a misfiled contract, dons a pair of plastic vampire teeth (he lacks the cash for a better set), and turns an upturned couch into a makeshift coffin.
Surely one of the odder projects to sneak through a major studio in the 1980s, Vampire’s Kiss works best when Minion’s obsessions and Cage’s derangement partner up. Minion chooses the narrowest possible avenue for Peter’s madness: A missing contract for a book that was published years before and that the author doesn’t care to have all that urgently. For this, he taxis all the way from Manhattan to Queens to drag his terrified secretary back to work, incredulously recites the alphabet, and stalks the city like a creature of the night. In turning generic male aggression into something uncommon and supernatural, Minion blows it up big enough to let viewers to recoil at its comic grotesquerie. [ST]
Sundown: The Vampire In Retreat is one of those films where everyone on set seems to have gotten different instructions. David Carradine plays elder vampire Count Mardulak with a dignity suitable to Christopher Lee in a Hammer horror film. As vampire-hunting outsider Van Helsing, Bruce Campbell comes to Mardulak’s isolated Western town in full Evil Dead eye-rolling, over-the-top mode. M. Emmet Walsh plays an overalls-wearing vampire hick named Monty with a “Screw the haters, I’m gettin’ paid!” straight-faced amusement, while Jim Meltzer and Morgan Brittany, as paid consultants coming out west to fix the artificial-blood factory that sustains Mardulak’s town of vampires, seem to be reaching for the pained melodrama of a Douglas Sirk film, without any capacity for grasping it. The film is much too campy to just be a failed drama: Monty opens the film in novelty shades and a giant straw sombrero, ripping the head off a random asshole who offends him, then awkwardly hiding the dripping head behind his back as he directs newcomers David (Meltzer) and Sarah (Brittany) into town. But Sundown doesn’t rely on gags and punchlines, either. It’s a ready-made cult novelty, an action-horror-Western-comedy-romance-drama with as many tones as genre-hyphens.
David and Sarah’s arrival sets off a big Western-style shootout between Mardulak’s vampires, who have sworn off human blood, and a traditionalist leader who thinks that as apex predators, vampires deserve to act on their instincts. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of extra business going on with a glowery Twilight-before-Twilight love triangle between Sarah and old flame/new vamp Shane (Maxwell Caulfield, frequently snarling and occasionally naked). Some innocent bystanders (one played by Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook) witness Mort’s murderous tantrum and wind up in vampire jail. And then there’s Sarah’s tiny, weird white-haired daughter, with her vampire fixation and prophetic dreams. There’s a ton of stuff going on in Sundown: The Vampire In Retreat, and not all of it is comedy. But virtually all of it is laughable. [TR]
It’s rare that the first entry in a franchise is relegated to a footnote within that franchise’s overarching lore, but that’s precisely the position the 1992 comedy Buffy The Vampire Slayer holds within the Buffy-verse. Preceding Joss Whedon’s beloved cult TV show by five years, Fran Rubel Kuzui’s film is a sort of dry run for a pre-Sarah Michelle Gellar Buffy Summers, and an unfortunate object lesson in how a Whedon project can go spectacularly off the rails when placed in the wrong hands.
Whedon, who wrote the Buffy screenplay, was famously displeased with Kuzui’s final product, which Whedon thought didn’t do right by the character who went on to become his most beloved creation. It’s easy to see why: The Buffy movie is a mess, albeit one that can’t entirely obscure the potential beneath its flat performances, sluggish pacing, and cheap visuals. Mannequin Two: On The Move star Kristy Swanson sleepwalks through the role of ditzy teenage vampire-slayer Buffy, wearing an expression of perpetual bemusement as she attempts to wrap her mouth around Whedon’s signature snappy dialogue. (The script was heavily altered, making it even easier to pick out the genuine Whedon bits amid all the junk.) She’s offered little assistance from a similarly at-sea Luke Perry as a leather-jacketed bad boy she teams up with, or from sleepy lion Donald Sutherland as Buffy’s pre-Giles Watcher, Merrick. Together, the three of them take on a series of slow-moving, bat-like vampires born of local vampire king Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and his acolyte Amilyn (Paul Reubens). Hauer and Reubens seem to be the only ones clued into Buffy’s campy nature, and they deliver relatively lively performances that still can’t bring this one back from the dead—though Reubens’ protracted, improvised death scene briefly threatens to do so. [GK]
In the great tradition of approximately 38 percent of Mel Brooks movies, Dracula: Dead And Loving It is a tiresome, unfunny, unoriginal spoof of a genre film. In this particular case, Brooks lampoons the 1931 classic Dracula, which starred the unmatched Bela Lugosi as the Transylvanian vampire. Here, Leslie Nielsen takes the fangs as a clumsier, less competent version of the villain, one who smacks his head on household objects and regularly slips on his comrades’ guano. He’s just moved next door to a group of repressed, overly polite English folk (Steven Weber, Amy Yasbeck, and Lysette Anthony), one of whom, Dr. Seward (Harvey Korman), just happens to own the sanitarium down the street that’s locked up Dracula’s newly faithful slave, Renfield (Peter MacNicol). As Dracula begins to prey on his neighbors—mostly just the ladies, in hopes that one or the other will become his “bride for eternity”—Professor Van Helsing (Brooks himself) steps in to help the hapless Brits defeat their equally feckless foe.
The humor doesn’t really extend beyond “bathroom,” “slapstick,” “here’s a shit-ton of blood spurting in the air,” and “misogynist in a way that reflects poorly rendered satire or complete self-indulgence.” Audiences should be thankful for this—any further attempts at sophistication or subtlety would likely have caused the film to fall even flatter and harder than it already does. In a better movie, scenes like the one in which a bloodlust-ridden Yasbeck attempts to seduce her horrified fiancé and is shamed for exhibiting sexual desire would inspire discussion about misogyny in horror films, or at the very least, read clearly as lazy parody. As it stands, Dracula: Dead And Loving It is too toothless, witless, and full of lengthy shots of heaving cleavage to incite any emotion other than, “Is this supposed to be an incisive comment on something, or is Brooks just enjoying these boobs?” This movie is 90 minutes long, but feels overblown by about 48 of them. [RH]
In 1995, Eddie Murphy once again unsuccessfully attempted to broaden his horizons by starring in Wes Craven’s Vampire In Brooklyn as Maximillian, a suave vampire with a Nick Ashford vibe who travels to a dimly lit, pre-gentrified Brooklyn in search of the last of his kind, half-vampire cop Detective Rita Veder (Angela Bassett). Upon arriving in Brooklyn via the requisite corpse-strewn ship of death, Maximillian recruits Julius Jones (Kadeem Hardison) as his helper-ghoul/Renfield-figure, and tries to seduce Rita into joining him in the ranks of the fully undead through a sinful dance of seduction.
But he meets resistance in the form of Rita’s partner Detective Justice (Allen Payne), a dreadfully boring cop who nurses an unrequited crush on Rita. His bland yearning for her pulls the misbegotten film unmistakably in the direction of mopey romance. Though ostensibly a horror-comedy, Vampire In Brooklyn is dreadfully short on what could charitably be called “jokes,” and seldom even attempts to be scary. The film can’t seem to decide whether Maximillian is a conventional villain, a sexy anti-hero, or an unconventional hero, and its conception of Brooklyn seems to center on using as few extras or lights as possible. [NR]
Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer proved there was no target too broad or easy for them to lazily send up with the 2010 Twilight spoof Vampires Suck, which rehashes the plots of the first two Twilight films through the pair’s signature lens of lazy disdain and cultural references. The renaming of Twilight leads Bella Swan and Edward Cullen as “Becca Crane” and “Edward Sullen” (played by Jenn Proske and Matt Lanter) is about as creative as Friedberg and Seltzer’s script gets; beyond that, it’s the same “Bella/Becca is a bore,” “Edward is creepy,” and glitter-vampire jokes that have been run into the ground since Twilight worked its way into the collective consciousness. Oh, and lots of hitting: Friedberg and Seltzer seem to delight in having their leading lady punched in the face, kicked, and generally humiliated at random intervals. It’s much, much worse on every level than the films that inspired it, and only qualifies as a comedy in that it’s self-described as such. Every copy of this film should have a wooden stake driven through it. [GK]
The reunion of Amy Heckerling and her Clueless star Alicia Silverstone for a lighthearted 2012 vampire comedy carries over much of the good-natured humor and candy-colored aesthetic from their 1996 hit, in service of a undead-buddy comedy about two sweet-hearted vampires, Goody (Silverstone) and Stacy (Krysten Ritter) living it up and living off rat blood in modern-day New York. Heckerling’s script is full of dopey, moldy jokes that sound fresher than they should coming out of the mouths of Silverstone and Ritter, and the delightful friendship between Goody and Stacy carries the film for a while. However, Vamps’ effervescent charms are eventually derailed by a sloppy plot involving the pair’s love interests—Richard Lewis as Goody’s former ACLU-lawyer boyfriend, and Dan Stevens as a descendent of the Van Helsing clan, both of whom seem just fine with the girls’ undead condition—and the “stem” vampire who turned them both, played by a scenery-chewing (and jugular-chewing) Sigourney Weaver. Not helping matters is a persistent Luddite bent, as Goody, who was turned in the 1840s, repeatedly bemoans modern technology, pop culture, and an ever-changing Manhattan. It’s all in service of a genuinely touching ending, but combined with Vamps’ outdated comedic style and even more outdated-looking effects, it adds up to an old-school feel that doesn’t mesh well with the film’s modern trappings. Still, Vamps has a good amount of fun with the vampire mythos: For example, Stacy attends vampire support-group meetings, and decorates her coffin as if it were her high-school locker. And while Stacy and Goody aren’t quite a movie pair for the ages, they’re a refreshing change of pace within the realm of vampire movies, comedic or otherwise. [GK]
Tim Burton’s willingness to take on the big-screen adaptation of the cult supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows has to be one of the least-surprising announcements in recent years. Burton has spent much of the 21st century putting his personal stamp on iconic properties with goth appeal, from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory to Sweeney Todd to Alice In Wonderland. Though the original series wasn’t really a comedy, it often came close, whether via bizarre plotlines or a tight production schedule that let a lot of bloopers make it on the air. Burton’s version plays up everything that made the original insane, and until a last act dominated by a dull CGI battle sequence, it doubles as a clever culture-clash comedy. Awakened from 200 years of slumber to the much-changed Maine of 1972, vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) sets about restoring his family’s fortune by taking up residence in a dilapidated family mansion inhabited by descendants including Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloë Grace Moretz.
The film’s second-best joke comes from the way they aren’t particularly befuddled, or impressed, to have a centuries-dead ancestor in their midst. The best is Depp’s deadpan performance as an arch, black-clad vampire trying to make his way in the shaggy-haired, plaid world of the early 1970s. He’s a Peter Cushing bad guy in an Elliott Gould anti-hero world, and Burton milks that for every laugh he can. Eventually the laughs run out, and the story reveals itself as a mess of half-thought-through ideas, but it’s a much funnier film than its dire reputation suggests. [KP]