Camp Vamp

Mel Brooks' Dracula isrise-from-the-dead funny

Mel Brooks has said that he sees his new Dracula: Dead and Loving It as a companion piece to his Young Frankenstein. That's giving himself a lot to live up to; his satire of Son of Frankenstein, as spoof or simply as comedy, is one of the funniest movies ever made. But it's not as if he had much choice in the matter, really. After all, when Brooks announced he was making a Dracula movie, everybody and their dog immediately thought of Young Frankenstein.

So has Brooks produced another dead-perfect, faultless satire of a horror film? Well, actually, no. But he has produced what is his most successful, and most laugh-out-loud funny, movie in quite a while. It may not be a comedic masterpiece, but it's still a hoot.

With Dracula, as with Blazing Saddles, Brooks has tackled a whole genre, not just a single product. In Young Frankenstein, he focused on parodying the look of a single studio (Universal) and a single movie (Son of); here, he's gone after the whole Dracula oeuvre. Brooks has drawn some campy elements from the Universal/ Lugosi films, yes, but, that was just a jumping-off point. The bare bones of Brooks' plot patiently follow the details of Bram Stoker's novel; elements from Francis Ford Coppola's operatically over-the-top Bram Stoker's Dracula are lifted for sight gags; and the heaving bosoms that were as much a staple of the early '70s Hammer films as Christopher Lee are replicated in Dead and Loving It's serious cleavage. And there's more: one of the grandest scenes, a ballroom episode, had to have come from The Fearless Vampire Killers, an obscure and amusing Roman Polanski film. In his search for the spoofable, Brooks and his writers were as thorough as scholars.

That scholarliness, though, was limited to the research; since Dead and Loving It is a Mel Brooks movie, plenty of the jokes are sophomoric. But who would want a Mel Brooks movie without pratfalls and potty jokes? (Okay, some of us could do without the scatological humor -- in this case, psychiatrist Dr. Seward's obsession with enemas -- but we'll accept it as crucial to Brooks' style.)

Dead and Loving It has no particular "look"; instead of aping the style of a particular director, Brooks has opted for costumes and sets accurate to the time of Stoker's novel (save, of course, for the heaving bosoms). In this exquisite Victorian setting, Brooks lets his cast loose for typical Brooks business -- clowning, mugging, making bad puns and just being zany. And the cast is more than capable of following their director's lead.

The surprise here is Leslie Nielsen, who, while he has more than demonstrated a knack for broad comedy, has never shown the toothy verve required for wittier satire. In fact, in everything from Forbidden Planet to Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, Nielsen has displayed all the subtlety of a yak. But Dead and Loving It has him doing almost complex comedy. His Dracula engages in physical comedy, sure, and in obvious jokes, but his Dracula also has moments of believable anger and cruelty. For the first time, Nielsen mixes straight dramatic acting and goofing, and the result is delightful. (Nielsen's Bela Lugosi accent is also far better than it has to be. One wonders if he polished it to such a high shine because he hoped to show up, or at least come close to, the work of Martin Landau in Ed Wood.)

The rest of the cast may be one of the reasons Nielsen seems to have made an extra effort. It's one thing to deliver unrelated one-liners in a Naked Gun movie; it's quite another to merely tell jokes while surrounded by a quality cast, and the Dead and Loving It competition is tough.

Brooks himself plays Dr. Van Helsing, the expert on Nosferatu. Brooks favorite Harvey Korman is cast as Dr. Seward, father of Mina (Amy Yasbeck), guardian of Lucy (Lysette Anthony) and head of an insane asylum. Steven Weber has the role of young Jonathan Harker, and though this is his first Brooks film, he proves to be a perfect Brooks actor. He can play the straight man and he can do physical comedy, all with complete conviction.

The best work of all, however, comes from Peter MacNicol. MacNicol, perhaps most noted as the baby-stealing curator in Ghostbusters II, has the minor role of Renfield, Dracula's toady and assistant, but he makes a major impression. Renfield is an Oxford- trained solicitor who, under Dracula's spell, becomes stark staring mad. One aspect of that madness is an appetite for insects -- "lives, lives, little lives!" as MacNicol's dapper and obsessive Renfield puts it -- but the comedy comes from the fact that he's aware of how his peculiar habit of scarfing down bugs might be viewed, and so tries to hide it even while indulging it.

Renfield ends up a candidate for Dr. Seward's asylum, and his intake interview with the good doctor is a beautiful thing. For those who know nothing of the story of Dracula, Renfield escorts the Count to England and, arriving mad as a hatter, is hauled off to the loony bin. In Brooks' movie, Dr. Seward interviews his new patient at a tea table in a formal garden. The morning is beautiful and sunny and, of course, insects are buzzing about.

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