Mel Brooks is a maestro of lovingly parodying genres and conventions. From the western BLAZING SADDLES to specific stories like ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, Brooks manages to take genre tropes to play them for laughs. He took a stab at the FRANKENSTEIN mythos and Universal horror movies with the Gene Wilder-led classic YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but his other major horror spoof, DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, never reached the acclaim of his prior horror-esque hit. The film was derided and panned upon its original release and became a box office failure. But, there are still many reasons why DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT deserves to return from the grave.
Released in 1995, the spoof movie was a couple of years on the heels of the lauded Francis Ford Coppola adaptation, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, which provided a well of material of which to spoof, like the iconic wig which Nielsen’s vampire briefly wears before hanging it up like a hat. Coppola’s version opened the door to Brooks’ DRACULA parody, though much of the humor and homage extend to a variety of different iterations of the gothic masterpiece, with the storyline rooted in the original 1931 Universal DRACULA. In terms of narrative, it follows the original closely, starting with Renfield going to meet The Count in his ancestral Transylvania home.
The opening features a surprisingly humorless montage of vampire folklore, showcasing dozens of different and creepy pieces of art from European history. On top of that, there are allusions and jokes related to the Hammer DRACULA series that starred Christopher Lee as the unholy Count and Peter Cushing as his erstwhile enemy, Dr. Van Helsing. There’s also a shout-out to the Roman Polanski horror-comedy THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.
It wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks movie without an ensemble cast or Mel Brooks, himself, in a highlighted role and in DEAD AND LOVING IT, the director and writer prominently stars as none other than Dr. Abraham Helsing, playing the part as a parody of Sir Anthony Hopkins’ riveting and bombastic performance in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. There is also frequent Brooks’ actor Harvey Korman as Dr. Seward who seems to think that enemas are a cure all for everything from nausea to insanity. Steven Weber makes for a good and ditzy Jonathan Harker who is not afraid to share his Victorian British stuffiness and may serve as a riff on Keanu Reeves’ performance in Coppola’s DRACULA. A major highlight of the casting is Peter MacNicol as a rather zany, hammy Renfield, evoking Dwight Frye’s original manic performance along with Tom Waits’ in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA topped off with a sprinkling of his earlier comical performance as the similarly mind-controlled lackey of Viggo The Carpathian, Janosz Poha in GHOSTBUSTERS II. And watch out for cameos by Anne Bancroft as a gypsy and Italian comedian Ezio Greggio as the terrified coach driver!
Leslie Nielsen Is Dracula!
There have been many actors of stage and screen who have put on the trademark cape and fangs to bring the undead terror to life. But I have to say that comic legend Leslie Nielsen’s safety-prone prince of darkness is one of the funniest, making a dynamic entrance before Renfield in his castle… and falling down a flight of stairs after slipping on some “children of the night” crap. He’s fine. His animated shadow, not so much. Nielsen’s performance is clearly rooted in Bela Lugosi’s iconic version of the character, from his mannerisms and expressions he evokes the hypnotic look of The Count, and even teasing out some of Dracula’s sexual themes like seducing Lucy and Mina to him during their dances while his shadow just lets loose and grinds in the background!
Being a Leslie Nielsen role, there’s also plenty of hilarious slapstick, including The Count rising from his coffin into a low hanging chandelier, being knocked about a moving boat, and accidentally crashing into a closed window while a bat. But perhaps one of the film’s biggest highlights is the chemistry between The Count and Mel Brooks’ Van Helsing. When they first meet, Helsing recalls Dracula’s ancestor, Vlad Tepes, who butchered thousands, including his own citizens, and impaled them on spikes. Dracula simply responds. “They had it coming.” Also starting a running gag through the film with the tenacious Dracula trying to get the last word on Van Helsing and vice versa.
It’s A Bloody Good Time
Outright horror spoofs, especially competently made ones with an affection for horror rather than mockery are feeling exceedingly rare. Mel Brooks is a maestro of comedy because the movies and conventions he parodies are done so with a wink and respect. He demonstrates this in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and that same appreciation for the genre is evident in DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT. And despite being evil incarnate, Dracula shows his foibles and fears, such as when he has a “daymare” while resting in his coffin.
So, if you’re looking for a horror parody that still packs some serious bite, I implore you to revisit DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT!