By Charles Taylor
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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.
Renfield, who wants to stay free so he can serve Dracula, wants to appear perfectly sane. At the same time, the bugs are terribly attractive. So, as though trying to conceal an ordinary faux pas, like a bit of tissue paper clinging to his shoe, Renfield tries to conceal his insect appetite. He snatches his prey while Dr. Seward isn't looking and, eyes bright, flatly denies having eaten anything odd. Korman's doctor is very British and proper, and he finally cannot bear Renfield's bald-faced lies. When Renfield tosses a fork to the ground, announces, "Oh, I've dropped my fork," and dives under the table after a grasshopper, Dr. Seward insists that his patient is not normal. "You've got a bug in your mouth right now," he says, which is not an unreasonable assertion, given that Renfield is crunching away with a grasshopper leg sticking out of his mouth. Renfield denies this with a tight shake of his head, but the doctor is not fooled. "My god, it's fighting for its very life," Dr. Seward says, capping the whole scene of clandestine insect eating with an unexpected show of sympathy for crawling things.
Weird twists, such as the doctor's compassion for the grasshopper, add a great deal to the movie and help keep this free-ranging parody interesting. Suspense is not part of a spoof; the strength of a movie like this is in the quality and timing of the jokes, as well as in some surprises. (One of the best surprises is a gag from Renfield. The not-so-surprising and charming cameos are from Chuck McCann and Anne Bancroft.)
Dead and Loving It is sprightly, and it has the true enthusiasm for the subject matter of Brooks' other good movies. It's a merry, untidy overview of the bloodsuckers we've known and loved. It celebrates both the fun of monster movies, and Mel Brooks' incorrigibly crude sense of humor.
Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
Directed by Mel Brooks. With Leslie Nielsen, Lysette Anthony, Steven Weber, Harvey Korman and Amy Yasbeck.
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