Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Drinking Wine And Eating Chicken
The recent passing of Leslie Nielsen seemed to bring out a huge range of memories from people all over the internet as they remembered every single time he made them laugh since the release of AIRPLANE! way back in 1980, an event that forever altered his career from serious journeyman actor to iconic comic figure—well, except for working with Barbra Streisand in NUTS, maybe, but I’ll leave that up to you. Just a few days after his death I was walking down the street when I flashed on his first appearance in AIRPLANE! where he is seen with a stethoscope around his neck while answering the question that was asked right before we cut to him (“Excuse me sir, I’m sorry to wake you, are you a doctor?” “That’s right.”) and I immediately started to laugh at remembering just how deadpan his response is. Over the following week I continued to laugh as I revisited some beloved episodes of POLICE SQUAD! but I also took another look at one film I have a fondness for though I’m well aware that not many others do. DRACULA DEAD AND LOVING IT remains the final film that Mel Brooks has directed and it’s a modest piece of work, in no way the hysterical gut buster that things like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN or THE NAKED GUN still are today. You could even call Nielsen’s presence in the title role somewhat of a comedy violation, even if he was the ideal name to cast in the part at the time. The surprise of someone with such a grave persona playing Dr. Rumack and Frank Drebin was long in the past by this point and as a serious actor he certainly had no history in any kind of classic horror film, let alone the type of broad comedy that Mel Brooks always specialized in. So there’s nothing about him playing Dracula that constitutes a spoof—he’s just a comic actor in a Mel Brooks film. Nothing wrong with that, of course, especially considering he does a pretty good job and, besides, it’s not like we’re dealing with complex mathematical equations here in deciphering the meaning behind his playing the role. It just seemed worth pointing out.
The film didn’t do much business when released at Christmas 1995 and considering how quaint some of its humor seemed then, let alone how it plays now, I suppose that isn’t much of a surprise. But I have a pleasant memory of seeing it with some people at the Cinerama Dome—somewhere I have a photo of myself standing below the marquee that I’ve always liked—and even watching it now I find myself genuinely laughing so much of the time that I frankly don’t mind the movie one bit. It also displays a genuine affection for the type of film it’s skewering of the sort that even makes it a little endearing. Every now and then I’ve encountered someone in the world who knows the “We have Nosferatu today!” joke, so I hope there are a few people out there who feel the same way I do. It’s not great but it’s certainly boisterous in spirit and definitely isn’t the nadir for either Brooks or Nielsen that some have made it out to be.
The plot is basically the plot of DRACULA, or at least a close facsimile of what the world accepts as the plot of DRACULA: In 1893, solicitor Thomas Renfield (Peter MacNicol) travels to Transylvania where he is “shheduled” to meet with Count Dracula (Leslie Nielsen) to finalize his purchase of London’s Carfax Abbey. Renfield is of course totally unaware that Dracula is in fact a vampire and soon finds himself enslaved to do the Count’s bidding, beginning with his ocean voyage as he makes his way to England and continuing once they arrive. Once there, Dracula meets his neighbors from the local sanitarium run by Dr. Seward (Harvey Korman) whose daughter Mina (Amy Yasbeck) is engaged to his assistant Jonathan Harker (Steven Weber) but it really is ward Lucy Westenra (Lysette Anthony) who Dracula has his eye on. Once she begins to display the efets of Dracula feeding on her blood Dr. Seward calls in the famous Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Mel Brooks) who may be the only one to uncover just who is behind this unspeakable evil once and for all.
Coming just a few years after the release of the Coppola-directed BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, it’s clear that film’s success was a point of inspiration for director Brooks along with his colleagues and there are definite nods to it throughout, along with references to other versions of the tale. But in plot and approach much of DEAD AND LOVING IT feels like a deliberate cross between the legendary Bela Lugosi classic directed by Tod Browning and the Technicolor beauty of the famous Hammer approach, particularly in Terence Fisher’s classic HORROR OF DRACULA which began that series and it comes complete with a blatant aping of one of that version’s most famous shots. Even Hummie Mann’s fine score essentially blares “It’s DRAC-ULA!” throughout in just the right James Bernard-Hammer tradition. Almost all of DRACULA DEAD AND LOVING IT is shot on deliberately stylized soundstages and the sumptuousness (very nice effects work too) feels very much like Brooks is reveling in the chance to make this sort of old-style movie-movie as much as anything. When compared to the sequel plotline of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN this film’s approach to what is commonly known as the classic Dracula tale (story by Rudy De Luca & Steve Haberman, screenplay by Mel Brooks & De Luca & Haberman) is surprisingly straightforward with a few plot points such as the massacre on the Demeter and the plight of Lucy being presented basically without any humor added to things at all.
Several years ago Tim Lucas in Video Watchdog pointed out that the number of such moments made him wonder if Brooks would have been perfectly happy to play the whole thing straight and I can’t help but imagine the director, once a suitable take was in the can, having his actors play versions of scenes without any jokes so he could cut together an alternate version just for his own pleasure. Some of this makes DRACULA DEAD AND LOVING IT feel a little spare as if it deliberately avoids ever moving too far away from the plot for the sake of a laugh but enough of the jokes that are there do work even on their own old fashioned level (“Shheduled?”). Mostly it’s the random asides or just bits of business done by its cast in the middle of shots that work best but it’s still able to pull off the occasional comic high point with the best probably being the staking of Lucy by Jonathan with Van Helsing cleverly standing off to the side (“We should have put newspapers down!”), a sequence which for me remains so flat-out hysterical, getting me to laugh no matter how many times I’ve seen it, that it alone pretty much justifies the whole movie being made.
Along with the laughs and affectionate feel for old movies, not to mention maybe more direct nods to Stoker than might have been expected, I’ll concede that it is maybe a little thin—Brooks doesn’t seem to be digging for any greater joke within the basic subtext of the story and there’s not much done with the idea of young women expressing sexual liberation in the face of the straight-laced older men outside of a few obvious gags. I won’t even make the claim that every joke at all works—one shadow gag spoofing what Coppola did is fine, we really don’t need more of them. But, particularly when compared to things like SPACEBALLS and ROBIN HOOD MEN IN TIGHTS, the humor here seems completely intrinsic to Brooks’ basic style of comedy and almost nothing feels added to make things more commercial or to appeal more to kids--the rap music in ROBIN HOOD comes to mind as well as just about anything in SPACEBALLS which pretty obviously was spoofing a genre that Brooks didn’t have the same sort of affinity for. Enough of it works that at times I felt like he could have gone even further with both the story as well as the overall comic approach—good as Nielsen is, it feels like he’s missing a big sequence for himself in the second half when things focus more on Renfield and Van Helsing. Also, the inclusion of two (count ‘em) dance numbers involving Dracula and Mina (as close to the requisite musical number as we get) makes it seem like Brooks was holding back from having the characters flat-out burst into song and it might not have been such a bad thing if they had—this just provides me with another daydream of a Dracula musical written by Mel Brooks hitting Broadway. But as it is the film contains numerous moments I look forward to throughout, whether during the escalating madness of the breakfast meeting between Korman’s Dr. Seward and MacNicol’s Renfield, Dracula succeeding a little too well in trying to hypnotize Renfield, the twisted YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS-type sketch feel to the autopsy presentation that introduces Van Helsing (wait, wasn’t this the opening of QUINCY?). For reasons I can’t even explain I have a particular fondness for the ‘daymare’ of Dracula stepping into what looks like some kind of recreation of a Renoir painting to sample ‘drinking wine and eating chicken’ which is one of the most bizarre, out of left field things I can imagine from a Dracula movie and exploring his basic character but I kind of love it. And, yes, I like the “We have Nosferatu today!” joke as well. Maybe the film just displays enough likable enthusiasm that I wind up laughing through every single one of its ridiculous pratfalls. It’s a Dracula movie where Jonathan Harker pokes Dracula in the eyes Three Stooges style. What’s not to like?
And even if his performance is spoofing Lugosi more than anything he ever did as a straight actor Nielsen is totally game as Dracula and on occasion displays timing as perfect as anything he’s ever done elsewhere in his best films (“Renfield…I don’t care.”), offering some terrific comic takes as whatever silliness going on is getting screwed up due to powers beyond the great Count’s control. Not appearing until a half-hour in, Brooks as Van Helsing is always enjoyable to watch, seemingly trying to literally spit out every single one of his lines in someone’s eye and never even going too crazy with the spoof element to his character, confident enough that going crazy with some of his otherwise straight explanatory dialogue will be funny anyway. Even matched up against actors like Nielsen and Korman in his scenes, Peter MacNicol pretty much steals the film out from everyone in a truly awesome performance as Renfield, combining a Stan Laurel/Jerry Lewis persona in the normal version of the character until he moves into a full on Dwight Frey impression, fully committed to what he’s doing whether leaping after insects or pausing to speak to Dracula upside down so he can get a good look at him, going beyond comic impersonation into something that feels truly unencumbered and fearless. Weber and Yasbeck (both on WINGS at the time) are both spirited but play things a little too much like a 70s variety show sketch, each probably assuming that they’re going to break up any second (that said, extra points to Weber for his immediate response the second time he stakes Lucy). Harvey Korman, who you’d expect to play it like a 70s variety show sketch instead fully commits to his Nigel Bruce impression and with every self-satisfied indecipherable sound he spits out turns the role into a full-fledged comic persona while Lysette Anthony, eagerly licking blood from her lips, displays a huge amount of intensity as Lucy, almost playing things straighter than anyone else and there are a few shots of her that could easily have come from a Hammer film—too bad she wasn’t around to appear in any at the time. The always welcome Mark Blankfield is an orderly at the sanitarium, Chuck McCann is an innkeeper and Anne Bancroft cameos early on as “Madame Ouspenskaya”.
It’s not something to make any great case for but I’ve always been able to get enough pleasure out of DRACULA DEAD AND LOVING IT to have a soft spot for it. Since it appears this will be Mel Brooks’ final work as a film director I’m glad that it somehow seems true to his own comic style and twisted love for these old movies that he often skewered, not to mention his willingness to let some of his cast members go to the absolute limit to try to get a laugh. And who knows, maybe someday a person looking for a Leslie Nielsen movie they haven’t seen yet will give it a try and be won over so I won’t have to be the only one out there defending it. Along with the number of genuine laughs that it produces is an enthusiasm for what it gets to do that is certainly there in the best Mel Brooks films and I suppose I respond to that feel as much as anything. Those high spirits go a long way.
“For the sake of her eternal soul we must destroy her. The only way is to drive a wooden stake through her heart.”
“Oh, that’s horrible. Is there no other way?”
“One other. We could cut off her head, stuff her mouth with garlic and tear off her ears.”
“Give me the stake.”