Friday, May 23, 2008

Mama Dracula (1980): or BloodSucking Freaks

If an aged Vaudevillian slips on a banana peel and no one laughs, is it still comedy?

I admit that one of the reasons I selected Mill Creek's 50 Drive-In Classics box set to follow the legendary and (probably) never-to-be-topped 50 Chilling Classics compendium (still the deal of the century folks--get one today!) is the presence of one title among the fifty forgotten films presented there that begged--nay, screamed--to be watched: 1980's Mama Dracula. I mean, come on. MAMA DRACULA. How could you not want to watch that film?

The more I learned, the better it sounded--a zany vampire spoof at the tail-end of the seventies, and starring Academy Award™ Winner Louise Fletcher in the title role? A pair of famously wacky twin vampires? An Elizabeth Bathory-based plot that promised loads of nudity along with the laffs? Last Tango in Paris hottie Maria Schneider to boot? How could it go wrong?

Let me count the ways...

We open on a portrait of the severe-looking Countess Erzebet Dracula (Fletcher, doing her best Nurse Ratchet scowl), as a deep but also fey/gay voice-over details the particulars of her history. This is the standard Bathory stuff--she kidnapped virgins from the village and bathed in their blood in order to preserve her youth, she was locked up in a tower for her crimes, she disappeared later, yadda yadda yadda--ending with the ominous line, "Today the Countess lives still, and continues to pursue her eeeevil destiny..." All in the voice of the MC from Queer Eye for the Creepy Guy. You laughing yet?

Next we cut to a laboratory, where a stereotypically nerdy professor-type who looks like he just stepped out of a Men-At-Work video (Hello, Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive!) is cajoling his bunnies into giving him blood samples. The bunny-poker is Professor Peter Von Blood, who on second look is actually the spitting image of Jon Cryer in his immortal role as Duckie in Pretty in Pink.

"This'll make Molly Ringwald fall in love with me!
Or at least knock her out long enough that it won't matter."

Dr. Duckie has big dreams--he spends a couple of minutes presenting himself an imaginary Nobel Prize for his work in blood research (seriously, with a name like "Von Blood," you think he's going into economics?) and a moment later receives an engraved invitation to the first annual World Blood Congress hosted by none other than Countess Dracula. As he boards his transatlantic steamship in New York Harbor, we get a close-up of the Statue of Liberty--which (with Looney-Tunes sound FX) suddenly sprouts a pair of vampire teeth! How 'bout now, you laffin?

There's a little bit of cleverness as Von Blood orders his dinner on the ship, obviously uncomfortable with the high-class Maître d', and as he opens the menu we find the film's credits inside. (I'll have the Fletcher Falafel, thanks!) We get more shots of differing modes of transportation as Von Blood makes his way across Europe by train, headed for Transylvania, natch. One of the passengers is holding a nespaper that has the headline, " "TERROR: FIVE MORE GIRLS ARE MISSING!" ," extraneous quotation marks included. Now THAT made me laugh--yes, I got my first chuckle of the movie from an unintentional grammar gaffe. That should tell you something.

In Harker mode, Duckie ends up at a pub in the Carpathians, where all the villagers still dress like extras from Bride of Frankenstein. There's some "comical" tooth checking, the pub owner offers his daughter to Von Blood, forcefully encouraging him to deflower her (if she's not a virgin, she'll be "safe," see?), and as Duckie dances with the buxom virgin we get more "hilarious" cartoon sound effects over closeups of the girl's cleavage (Gerald McBoob-Boing!) before a heavy, ugly henchwoman who speaks only in grunts shows up to whisk him away. It's all sub-sub-Mel Brooks level comedy, and while I enjoy boinging boobs as much as the next guy--hell, as much as the next 5 guys put together--it still all seemed a little desperate and sad.


So Duckie finally makes it out to Castle Dracula, where he meets the Countess's twin sons (more on these two in a minute) and Mama Dracula herself. It was at this point that I realized things were just not going to get any better. Louise Fletcher is not just phoning it in--she's gone back in time to the Old West and is dictating her role to a clerk in green visor, vest, and white shirt with a garter on the sleeve who's tapping it out in Morse code. She's clearly having no fun, and the success of a would-be zany comedy like this almost depends on the sense that the people involved all think it's a hoot. Here, you get the sense that almost everyone involved would rather be having a root canal or a proctological exam--which come to think of it, would probably be more entertaining.

So the gist of the plot goes like this, and stop me if you've heard this one: Countess Dracula needs virgin blood to maintain her youth, but thanks to the recently-ended Swingin' 70s, virgin blood is in record-low supply. She's lured Duckie to her castle in the hopes that he can take a small sample of virgin blood and use SCIENCE! to reproduce it indefinitely, creating a blood-red fountain of youth. To give him the raw material he needs, she and her sons kidnap virginal girls from Mama Dracula's fashion boutique--which is named, cunningly, "Vamp Boutique"--conveniently located in the sprawling Paris-like metropolis only a half-hour's drive from her castle in the heart of the Carpathian mountains. Yeah.

Of course the missing girls raise the suspicion of the town police force, which seems to consist entirely of a fat old man in Sherlock Holmes gear and his nubile, virginal daughter, played by Schneider (the daughter, not the fat man). While the old man bumbles listlessly from one tired slapstick gag to another (and his catch phrases of "Sabotage! Sabotage!" and "You know my methods!" summarily fail to inspire the chuckles they're so plainly striving to), his considerably smarter but no more comedically-talented daughter suspects the truth about Vamp Boutique and uses her position as lead actress in a traveling drama troupe (seriously, don't ask) to infiltrate Castle Dracula and get to the bottom of things. It all ends in a gala fashion show at the castle with a would-be zany ending and a nonsensical epilogue that once again inspires little more than a sardonic smirk.

"This better be real booze if they expect to keep me on this set."

I said earlier that the comedy here is sub-sub-Mel Brooks level, and that bears repeating. At his best Brooks is able to take the old Vaudeville gags and twist them into delirious but affectionate extravaganzas that gain as many smiles from their transparent good nature and warmth as from their hoary comedic tropes. (Think of "Doin' the French Mistake" from Blazing Saddles, or Marty Feldman's inspired performance as EYE-gor in Young Frankenstein ["IIIIIIII ain't got no body!" "Call it...a hunch!" "What hump?"]) But here that warmth, affection, and knowing corniness is completely absent. It's as if the actors know the things they're doing are supposed to be funny, but are clueless as to why, and furthermore don't care enough even to try to sell it.

For a few examples, early on Fletcher is having a therapy session with a stereotypically Jewish shrink, who inexplicably shouts all his lines at top volume. That's supposed to be funny. Fletcher relates a disgusting dream in which a naked young girl transforms into a naked old crone--so disgusting a sight, she says, "Even my horse was throwing up!" Yes, that's the punchline. Dr. Duckie works tirelessly in his lab, and is extremely disappointed when in one experiment he produces not blood, but a gold brick! He tosses it into a huge pile of alchemical loot with a disgusted sneer. Hilarious? And about a later scene in the boutique where a Little Orphan Annie lookalike wards off her vampire attackers by lifting her dress to flash panties with a cross on the front and a Star of David on the back--this last can-can style, naturally--well, the less said the better.

Oh, and the pub girl whose father was trying to protect her by helping her lose her virginity? She finally succeeds, which leads her to invite all the pub-goers to a gangbang in the back room that ends up LITERALLY making the pub explode! Cause it's a gangBANG, see! Is this thing on?

I know Louise Fletcher is renowned more for her dramatic prowess than her skills as a comedienne, but still, her performance here is just painful. Still, it's not all her fault. Apparently the writers and director thought having an Academy Award™ Winner pronounce normal words in silly, nonsensical ways equalled comedy GOLD. For instance, it's not "the castle," it's "the CAST-ull." Every time. Seriously, did anyone laugh? And apparently in the 70s and early 80s pronouncing "virgin" as "WIR-gin" was the height of hilarity--not only do they wring that gag to its dregs here, but I remember another unfunny comedy from the same era that did the same--Zorro, the Gay Blade. But at least that one had George Hamilton.

"Say, Maria--do you ever talk to Brando these days?
Could you put me in touch with his agent? I'm about to be in the market for one."

For all her notoriety and nubile-ness, in this flick Schneider is a black hole of acting ability--her mere presence makes the people around her WORSE, simply by the cosmic power of her sucking. Dr. Duckie is similarly execrable, performing his canned zaniness and mad doctor scenes like the ADD kid in the drama club. (A scene where he bounces gleefully around his new laboratory--which honest-to-God looks like a brewery--is just embarassing.) The Inspector looks like George Kennedy after a three-day bender--which is to say, like George Kennedy all the time--and couldn't make you laugh if you were on nitrous oxide. Really, it's that dire.

The only potential bright spots in this long, dark tea-time of comedy are the Countess's twin sons, played by the debuting Wajnberg Brothers. These two guys make quite an entrance, looking for all the world like the emaciated offspring of Bela Lugosi and Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Their strange voices and weird mannerisms in their early scenes are actually just freaky enough to be entertaining, and an early strange interlude where one of the brothers spouts nonsensical surreal poetry and discovers his sibling trapped in a grandfather clock (A Rollin homage? No, definitely not.) is probably the standout scene of the movie, followed closely by a dreamy shot of the two of them bathing in blood with Mama.

But unfortunately the director can't let a good thing be good enough, and by the 45-minute mark the brothers are so overused as to be annoying. He even has them go through a 5-minute recreation of the famous Harpo/Groucho "mirror routine," which they don't have anywhere near the physical comic sense nor the timing to pull off. Again, embarrassing.

Don't dream it. Be it.

(Giving credit where credit is due, there is ONE scene in the movie that inspired honest chuckles and something approaching enjoyment--Von Blood requests 10 gallons of blood for testing, which means the brothers have to procure 10 virgins from the boutique. They do this by opening a secret panel in the changing room while the girls are trying on dresses, scaring them into a faint, and dragging them off. The montage that follows the 10-gallon request is actually pretty funny, as a parade of topless girls falls into the brothers' arms, one after another, but not passing out before answering the question, "Wirgin?" As the quest goes on, the brothers get tired, letting their fatigue show through yawns as they try to scare the topless girls. Hey, it's not much, but I enjoyed it.)

I commented some time ago that I feared I had watched too many awesome movies in a row--I'd given something like seven 2.5-to-3+ thumbs ratings in a row, and I felt the streak was bound to reverse at some point. And here I am, giving Mama Dracula 0.5 thumbs, the second less-than-one-thumb review in as many weeks. Don't watch it. Watch Love at First Bite (also with George Hamilton! Hey!) or Dracula: Dead and Loving It. You'll thank me later.

As to this funk I'm in, looks like it's time to break out my unwatched Rollin, Naschy, and Meyer. I need to do something to break this streak. Oh well, thank God for AMERICAN XPRESS!



Karswell said...

Well here is one film that I have not seen yet... and apparently I guess I don't need too.

Speaking of Molly Ringworm, I watched Office Killer the other night and it wasn't too bad. Not great but it had a couple really nice demented moments and gore.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I've heard that Molly's 1995 suspense/thriller Malicious is pretty good...or at least that she gets topless in it. Which amounts to the same thing, right? :)

houseinrlyeh said...

Oh, God, I watched this atrocity on a different Mill Creek set (100 Horror Classics?) and am really impressed by your endurance to write in detail about it.
I...just couldn't.

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