Mel Brooks’ “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” is clearly a film that could not exist without some heavy-duty literary and cinematic ancestry. Even with all that baggage, this comical take on Bram Stoker’s famous novel may be the best vampire movie since the elegant British production of “Horror of Dracula” (1958).
Heck, the Brooks version might even be the best since Universal Pictures’ “Dracula” of 1931. Brooks has the advantage of a title player who seems as coldly menacing as Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, yet who can take a pratfall with the best of the slapstick comedians.
This is Leslie Nielsen at the peak of his craft. Hard to believe 15 years have passed since the parody called “Airplane!” - a brash knockoff of the Mel Brooks style - reinvented Nielsen as a rambunctious comic player. Even more difficult to believe that Nielsen seems scarcely to have aged since then (he turns 74 in February).
As the predatory Count Dracula, Nielsen is a formidable, vigorous creature.
Nielsen’s Dracula is a clumsy oaf, albeit an assured and dashing figure, in a league with Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and Nielsen’s own Lt. Frank Drebin of the “Naked Gun” comedies. Under Brooks’ direction, Nielsen exercises acting muscles he has not used since his leading-man days, and Brooks matches him on the screen as well, playing the role of the vampire-hunter Van Helsing.
Rounding out the principal cast are Brooks stalwart Harvey Korman, as the proprietor of a sanitarium where Dracula seeks out prey; Peter MacNicol, as the hapless real-estate broker, Renfield, who becomes a slave of the vampire; and Amy Yasbeck and Lysette Anthony as the Victorian maidens whom Dracula would make his brides. Korman and Brooks have the film’s best bit of wordplay, an understated little set piece that blindsides the viewer with a double-whammy gag involving popular music and vampire legendry.
MacNicol’s Renfield starts as a takeoff on Dwight Frye’s 1931 portrayal but veers so far onto its own course as to become a substantially original characterization.
The film tracks the familiar yarn with deceptive faithfulness, reducing to absurdity such iconic moments as Dracula’s awakening from the coffin - and transforming the cosmic battle of wills between Dracula and Van Helsing into a deliriously petty squabble.
Speaking of which, a word of warning: Stay through all the closing credits, or else you’ll miss the final shot in that clash.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” Location: Magic Lantern, North Division and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by Mel Brooks; starring Leslie Nielsen, Mel Brooks, Peter MacNicol, Harvey Korman and Amy Yasbeck Running time: 1:30 Rating: PG-13