Friday, May 29, 2015

Monster Serial: LOVE AT FIRST BITE


1979 saw a boom in vampire films being released.  The Werner Herzog  remake of the classic NOSFERATU, Frank Langella’s version of DRACULA, and the creepfest from Stephen King, SALEM’S LOT, were just some of the bats flying around the belfry of many horror fans.

Within this batch of cinematic blood suckers was yet another version of the Lord of the Undead, but this time Dracula was going modern ... whether he liked it or not.  LOVE AT FIRST BITE gloried in the disco days of the late 70’s while paying homage to the classic films that starred Bela Lugosi as the classic version of Dracula.  While they poked fun at Lugosi’s Count, it wasn’t with a very sharp stake…but with a sharp wit and a slew of modern problems.

LOVE AT FIRST BITE was written by Robert Kaufman, a man known for goofy comedies on the big screen as well as on television, having written for THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.  It starred some familiar faces at the time and is filled with cameos.  Throughout the movie, stars like Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, and even Michael Pataki, who played Dracula in DRACULA’S DOG and another bloodsucker in GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE.

George Hamilton, ironically the man known for his tan, is Count Dracula.  But the make-up work on Hamilton is so good you can’t tell how much he loves the sun.  This is due to William Tuttle who actually worked on Bela Lugosi in the 1935 classic MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and who worked on some big films over his storied career, including the 1974 horror comedy classic Young Frankenstein (which helped set the path for LOVE AT FIRST BITE to be made.)

Richard Benjamin who had made a mark in sci-fi with the movie WESTWORLD and the TV series Quark would play the Count’s nemesis Jeffrey Rosenberg (who was secretly a Van Helsing). Arte Johnson, a classic comedian, would be Renfield.  The lovely Susan Saint James, known for her work on TV as in MCMILLAN & WIFE, would be Dracula’s love interest, the very new world Cindy Sondheim.

The film begins in Transylvania, with Dracula, lonely and still in his castle, pining away for Cindy Sondheim as he looks through his fashion magazines.  He sees within her the soul of many a previous lost love, including Mina Harker.  A knock on the door heralds the arrival of the government.  They are taking the castle and Dracula is basically being evicted.  Even in Transylvania, the modern age doesn’t need or fear a vampire.

Dracula and Renfield pack up and leave, but not before telling the local mob that Transylvania will miss him once he’s gone.  Because seriously, what is there in Transylvania besides Dracula?  So they fly to New York where Dracula has decided to pursue his dream of wooing Cindy.

Taking a suite at the Plaza Hotel (after a mix up of coffins which causes Dracula to have to walk through Harlem and meet some of the locals) they discover where Cindy will be.  Dracula’s not really loving modern New York and it doesn’t seem to love him.  But then he sees Cindy at a local disco where she is every night.  The Lord of the Undead proceeds to sweep her off her feet (literally, in one of the best numbers EVER ... at least in my opinion) and he spends the night with her, giving her the first bite of three that will turn her into a vampire.

The next morning Cindy is telling her ex-boyfriend and current therapist Jeffrey about the experience.  The “hickey” she has disturbs him.   Meeting Vladimir, he and Jeffrey have a “who’s got the biggest hypnotic powers” showdown, causing Cindy to leave disgusted with both of them.  Eventually, after trying to set fire to the Count’s coffin and then trying to shoot him with silver bullets (that’s for werewolves not vampires), Rosenberg is committed, but joins forces with the police who finally start believing him.

Dracula has won Cindy, who decides she’ll go with him after a daring rescue of Cindy from an elevator she’s stuck in during a black out.  They dash to the airport with Rosenberg and the Lieutenant hot on their heels, but they miss their plane.  Dracula’s coffin is going to Jamaica and there’s nothing left to do but fly as a bat to escape.

Cindy realizes that she must finally choose what she wants in this world, something she’s never truly done.  Rosenberg calls out to her that he thinks he loves her, and Dracula — who has always loved her — waits her decision.  When he sees her hesitation he backs away, bowing and admitting that there is no room left for one such as him, or even for romance in the world.  But then something happens which rarely does ... Dracula gets the girl and Cindy becomes one of the undead, as Rosenberg and Lieutenant Ferguson arrive to stake the cape Dracula leaves behind.   Fluttering down from the sky is a check from Cindy for Rosenberg to pay for all her psychiatry sessions, and proving she’s actually become responsible for her life (or undeath.)

Rosenberg keeps the cape which Lieutenant Ferguson immediately asks to borrow because the two men determine it’s all about the cape (which I can’t fault logically ... sometimes it is).

LOVE AT FIRST BITE on the surface is a great comedy, but it’s also a bittersweet look at the culture at the time (and even today it hits a little too close to home).  Vladimir looked around and saw that the modern world was slowly destroying romance and chivalry, and when he meets Cindy he finds a woman who’s lost who she was to the world around her and trying to be what they all want; a pretty face, a dutiful girlfriend, and trying to fix what really makes her who she is away.  He accepts her and loves her for exactly who she is.  And that’s why for once, Dracula gets the girl and keeps her.  He’s not the monster in this movie. In a way, the ‘70’s is the film’s real villain.

This essay is one of dozens featured in our new
book, "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial."
For many years LOVE AT FIRST BITE was one of the highest grossing independent films ever made, and went on to be a huge hit and cult favorite.  When it arrived on television though many people missed the original song in that glorious dance scene which was “I love the Night Life” by Alicia Bridges due to licensing.  The DVD release also had to have the song removed which is a shame.  It was replaced by “The Man That I Love.” *

George Hamilton wants to eventually make a sequel and has been talking about it for the last few years.  It would in fact take on the influence of the Twilight phenomena as it applies to Dracula and would also include Dracula’s son in the mix.  But sadly nothing yet has come of this.  We can only hope that Hamilton gets his wish and we get to see him back in the cape, because if LOVE AT FIRST BITE taught us anything ... it’s all about the cape.

(* Editor’s Note: During production of this series, Shout! Factory released LOVE AT FIRST BITE on Blu-ray. The new edition also restores the Alicia Bridges song to the film’s dance scene.)

JESSICA DWYER is the host of Fangirl Radio and editor/writer of the website Fangirl Magazine.  She has written for various sites over the years and is a staff writer for HorrorHound Magazine for which her work has been nominated for the Rondo Hatton Awards.  Her short fiction has been published by Post Mortem Press.  She is currently working on producing and writing various projects for film and television as well as an upcoming book.

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