The year 1979 was a grand one for cinematic vampires. There was John Badham’s DRACULA with Frank Langella, Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE with Klaus Kinski, Tobe Hooper’s telefilm SALEM’S LOT, and a few others of varying quality. Also that year came LOVE AT FIRST BITE, a send-up of Dracula movies with George Hamilton in the lead role, proving his comic talent alongside an ideal cast. One of AIP’s final theatrical releases, LOVE AT FIRST BITE was a hit when first released, and maintained a steady stream of fans over the years through frequent cable TV showings. The film now gets a Blu-ray release as a double feature with the 1980s vampire spoof ONCE BITTEN, featuring a very young Jim Carrey.
A suave but lonely Count Dracula (George Hamilton, EVEL KNIEVEL) spends his nights drooling over a model in an American glamour magazine. The angry villagers are sick of centuries of bloodsucking, so they drive him and his “aristocratic shit” out of Transylvania and on to a flight to New York with his trusty, bug-munching sidekick Renfield (Arte Johnson of “Laugh-In” fame). Dracula’s coffin accidentally winds up at a funeral home in Harlem, but he eventually makes his way to the Plaza Hotel. His obsession with cover-girl Cindy Sondheim (Susan St. James, HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH CO$T OF LIVING) is fueled when he meets her in a nightclub, pulls her out onto the dance floor and later is invited to her apartment for a night of necking and lovemaking. When Cindy tells her ex boyfriend and psychiatrist Dr. Jeff Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin, GOODBYE COLUMBUS) about her experience and shows him her neck nips, Rosenberg realizes Dracula is alive and well, and he's determined to hunt him down, being the grandson of Professor Van Helsing. As Rosenberg attempts to kill the vampire, Dracula and Cindy become more deeply involved, and the hapless monster hunter is believed to be insane and thrown into Bellevue Hospital. When reports of a blood bank heist hit the newspapers, Lieutenant Ferguson (Dick Shawn, THE PRODUCERS) has no choice but to believe Rosenberg's fantastic theories and help him capture Drac before he bites Cindy for a third time, the charmer in vampire lore.
More than 35 years after its release, LOVE AT FIRST BITE still holds up as a picture to giggle at and enjoy. Hamilton is perfectly cast as the Count, doing the heavy accent well and physically getting it right, even if it’s for the sake of laughs. Hamilton was always good in comic roles or in serious ones, but this is one of a handful he’ll be best remembered for. St. James seems unlikely as a glamour model, but is quite good since she has great comic timing, and the character of Cindy is basically, a pot-smoking, pill-popping, therapy-seeking mess who wears wigs and tons of make-up. Although Dracula seemed to pick out an unreachable, larger-than-life woman on a magazine as his love, she turns out to be a wreck who really needs what he has to offer, and this makes the chemistry between the two shine. Johnson obviously studied Dwight Frye’s Renfield very carefully, and has the irritating laugh down perfectly and takes the insect-eating cliché to the max, issuing in some very funny moments. Benjamin, one of the most underrated comic actors of the 1960s and 1970s is very funny as well. You might find it hard to believe that a descendent of Van Helsing would be stupid enough to pull out a Star of David on a vampire, or shoot him with silver bullets, but Benjamin pulls it off so well, and the more crazy his character becomes in the film, the more amusing he is to watch. Shawn (another underrated comic actor who left us too early) is also fun as the police detective who finally gives in to believing in vampires.
LOVE AT FIRST BITE is not overly hilarious, but it still guarantees a good number of laughs and is an enjoyable farce from start to finish. Lots of the jokes and dialog seem like they could have come out of an episode of “The Munsters,” but of course with more of a late 1970s edge to them. Even though Hamilton’s Dracula in voice and appearance is modeled after Bela Lugosi, once the Count arrives in the Big Apple, the movies seems to be more inspired by the modern vampire flicks of the early 1970s. When Dracula is unsuccessfully threatened by street thugs in Harlem, it’s very reminiscent of a scene in SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM (as is a scene with a drunk, but this time Drac is naïve enough to put the bite on him). A few parts are reminiscent of the earlier, British-made VAMPIRA (aka OLD DRACULA, with David Niven as the Count in swinging England) as well, yet the film never really rips off anything, but rather spoofs or pays homage to other vampire flicks. Since this is 1979, political correctness goes out the window, so in good fun Dracula is seen calling a misplaced black man’s corpse a “Schwarzer", in bat form is chased by a family of hungry Puerto Ricans who think he’s an escaped black chicken, and in dog form he pisses on the leg of an irritating police officer.
During the height of their “The Jeffersons” TV fame, both Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford have separate and short but memorable cameos. Hemsley plays the reverend who crashes through a window at the site of Dracula’s open casket, and Sanford is a judge who calls Benjamin and Shawn “honkies,” and screams, “…and our people have come a long way for you to be coming in here with that voodoo Dracula shit!” Also in small cameos are Michael Pataki (THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA), Ronnie Schell (“Gomer Pyle: USMC”) and former child actor Barry Gordon (THE SPIRIT IS WILLING). Eric Laneuville (THE OMEGA MAN) appears in a running gag as a street punk who just can’t stay out of trouble.
ONCE BITTEN has a centuries-old glamorous vampire Countess (Lauren Hutton, GATOR) living in a posh California mansion. In order to retain her youthful appearance, she needs to put three bites on a virginal adult male before Halloween, with her previous vampirized casualties living in coffins in her enormous abode. In the meantime, lanky high school virgin Mark Kendall (a 23-year-old Jim Carrey, MAN ON THE MOON) is frustrated that his sweetheart Robin (Karen Kopins, CREATOR) won’t put out, so he foolishly drives (in an ice cream truck which he somehow owns and operates) to a freaky Hollywood singles bar in the hopes of a chance one-night-stand. Separated from his two loser friends during a near-riot, the Countess abducts Mark and takes him home, easily seducing him and putting the bite on him somewhere below the belt. With no recollection of what happened, or whether or not he had his first sexual experience, Mark and Robin are now feuding about their relationship, as the Countess continues to stalk him, putting a second bite on him (which occurs in a clothing store dressing room). Mark gets weirder, paler, and has acquired a taste for raw hamburger meat. In total competition with the Countess, Robin does what she can by reading up on vampires and intervening before the third bite can be put on Mark, which is planned as a ceremonial event to occur before the vampiress’ deadline is over.
Released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company in the wake of other light horror comedies such as TEEN WOLF and TRANSYLVANIA 6-500, ONCE BITTEN is a mildly amusing affair which doesn’t have much style or horror elements for that matter, but it seems to embrace more 1980s teen comedy movie clichés than HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. Mark and Robin are introduced to us parked in a lot where every car around them has copulating couples (in various positions), Mark has two idiot sidekicks who are always trying to score (one of them makes a pass at a transvestite and later both of them have an embarrassing episode in the boy's locker room), sudden dream sequences occur (where Carrey is made up to look like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula) and there’s a semi fantasy dance sequence (during a gymnasium Halloween bop) where Mark, Robin and the Countess all strut around ballroom style as if they’ve been doing it for years (and the two ladies of course get all sexy while Carrey does air guitar on his own leg). The hijinks are as crude as can be allowed for a PG-13-rated film (with at least one “F” bomb) and there are lots of sight gags and one liners tossed around (so expect jokes about waking up on the wrong side of the coffin and being out of closet for centuries). One of the more ingenious components is having the Countess’ prior victims as loyal undeads from various eras (one is from the Civil War, another from World War 1, and there’s even a “flower power” girl from the 1960s). Carrey does show his comic abilities and constant over-grimacing, but it’s hard to think that anybody saw this film upon release (or during its numerous cable TV airings) and said “this guy is going on to great things”. Cleavon Little (BLAZING SADDLES) plays the Countess’ gay servant/chauffeur Sebastian, but he's basically a stereotype with very little to do. Peter Elbling (aka Harold Oblong of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) plays an Indian-accented bookstore owner and familiar TV actor Richard Schaal (THE HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS) can be seen as Mark’s concerned father.
LOVE AT FIRST BITE arrives on Blu-ray in a 1080p HD transfer in the film’s proper 1.85:1 aspect ration. The opening low-lit Transylvania scenes which looked a bit murky in the previous DVD release look much better here, and it’s an excellent transfer all around. The original film elements are in very good condition, with only very minimal speckling, and colors are nicely saturated and generally accurate looking. Detail and clarity are also well-handled, and fleshtones also look accurate. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio track has its dialogue, music and effects presented cleanly, and optional English subtitles are included. The great news here is that the hit song, “I Love the Night Life” by Alicia Bridges, played during the memorable dance floor segment, has finally been restored, as it wasn’t present on the DVD release or any other previous home video incarnation for that matter. ONCE BITTEN is presented in 1080p HD in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. For all the film’s flat-looking cinematography, it’s a nice clean transfer with fine detail, with facial textures faring well enough, and clarity and sharpness is also good throughout. Colors are perfectly stable, and there’s very little picture grain or blemishes to be seen. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio track fares well and adequately replicates dialogue and music clearly with no signs of hiss or distortion. Optional English subtitles are included.
Extras are limited to an original theatrical trailer for LOVE AT FIRST BITE, as well as three different radio spots for the film, and the original teaser trailer for ONCE BITTEN is also included. (George R. Reis)
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