Love at First Bite (1979)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: February 10th, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Contrary to popular opinion and what its title might lead you to believe, Blacula isn’t just a Blaxploitation riff on Dracula. In addition to bearing little resemblance to Bram Stoker’s famous bloodsucker, it actually introduced (or at least helped to popularize) elements that later Dracula adaptations would adopt, like the Count waiting for centuries to find the reincarnation of his lost love and becoming a fish-out-of-water in modern times. Because of this, it is fair to say that Love at First Bite—which arrived seven years after William Crain’s film—is just the white version of Blacula. If that sounds absurd, then I think you have your first clue that Love at First Bite is gleefully dumb as hell.
Your second clue? A ridiculously tanned Count Dracula (George Hamilton, eternally bronzed) pining away in his decrepit Transylvanian home for Cindy Sondheim, (Susan Saint James) the American fashion model he believes to be the reincarnated Mina Harker. When Romania’s communist government (how interesting that the torch-bearing villagers morphed into card-carrying commies as soon as a Cold War was on) repossesses his home, it’s a good excuse to travel across the pond to reconnect with the soul of his dearly departed love. Accompanied by his trusted assistant Renfield (Arte Johnson), he departs for the States in a coffin, only to immediately meet with hijinks when his trip becomes a comedy of errors.
Calling it a “comedy of errors” is just a really nice way of saying it’s a total fucking disaster, I guess. One of the film’s first memorable gags has Renfield mixing up his master’s coffin with an actual dead guy’s, and it culminates with Dracula emerging right in the middle of a funeral service in Harlem (presided over by Sherman Hemsley!). It’s funny in the most obvious way, which is true of most of the film—everything is broad as all get-out, with practically everyone mugging for the camera in a spoof that takes some easy and obvious shots.
Some of it obviously hasn’t translated well into 2015, like a recurring gag with a black character who can’t stop stealing and looting. Some homophobic remarks are amusing in the worst kind of way these days, especially when the offending character corrects herself by accepting that same-sex relationships will be considered normal in the 21st century. You’re inclined to laugh because, hey, she’s sort of right, but then you realize we’ve only come so far on this issue, so it’s not really funny at all. Mortifying, maybe, but it was 1979. I don’t want to imply that Love at First Bite consistently dates itself like that, but there’s like at least three references to Roots.
At least it functions as another great time capsule for late 70s New York, that weirdly grimy yet alluring dreamscape teeming with bright lights, swanky high life, and disco. It’s my understanding that this New York City is now a ghost that can only be summoned via celluloid, and it somehow makes me nostalgic for a place and an era I never witnessed. Growing up with idealized (?) version does make it the NYC of my childhood, I suppose, and I’ll always naturally gravitate towards anything that features it as a setting—even a really dumb, white bread vampire comedy like this. Some of its dated humor (which has to be fairly looked at in the context of 1979) excepted, Love at First Bite is harmless at worst. At best, it’s amusing enough, with some of its sight gags (such as a Van Helsing descendent mistakenly trying to ward off Dracula with the Star of David instead of a cross) producing some chuckles here and there.
With everyone surrounding her acting like a total goofball, James has the opportunity to be a little more straight-laced and brings exasperation and flightiness to the role. She borders on becoming the platonic ideal of the progressive 70s woman—she smokes, sleeps with whomever she pleases, and is generally a walking disaster (think Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane taken to the extreme), but James steals the show as Dracula’s sex object, a role that’s often marginalized. Love at First Bite’s biggest success is revealing just how ridiculous men can be when fighting for a woman’s affection, as Dracula fights Van Helsing (who doubles as Cindy’s psychiatrist) for both his life and his lover. Granted, the film undercuts its own subversiveness by actually having Dracula charm Cindy off her feet (literally), but it’s nice while it lasts.
Dracula is still the least interesting guy here. Hamilton is terminally corny and often feels like the butt of the film’s jokes, which, again, would be nicely subversive if the film didn’t recant by the end. The script re-imagines Dracula as a benign sort of trickster with powers similar to a Jedi knight: he’s capable of turning into a bat, sure, but why do that when he can move objects with the wave of his hand? (Of course, this doesn’t stop him from turning into a bat during one sequence, much to the horror of a Latino family who mistakes him as a “black chicken”—repeat to yourself “it’s 1979.”) Rarely has the infamous Count been more ridiculous or demystified, but you have to expect that at this point. By '79, Dracula wouldn't have even been among the top ten scariest guys in New York City. Having just endured the Son of Sam a couple years earlier, I'm guessing the city wouldn't have been sweating an asshole in a cape.
Johnson’s Renfield garners more laughs as he has to contend with the increasingly bonkers escapades of his master, and, while there’s predictably a recurring gag about his appetite for bugs, it’s one of the rare understated bits of humor in the film. What’s odd is how the film is so bonkers throughout, yet never really feels like the absurdist farce it should be. It’s a film where Van Helsing lights Dracula’s coffin on fire in the middle of a hotel room, and it’s not even the climax. Director Stan Dragoti never quite takes the reins and pushes Love at First Bite into the type of otherworldly territory ZAZ would begin to inhabit just a year later. The weird material here just struggles to leap off of the screen, so the film settles for sitcom-style flatness.
It aspires to that level of laughs, too, and the funniest thing about it is its existence: it’s sort of interesting that it skirts around race, almost as if the filmmakers had to acknowledge that, yes, they’re making a Whitesploitation take on Blacula. None of its actual jokes get any better than that.
Love at First Bite has been out of print on DVD for a while, but the heroes at Scream Factory have come to the rescue once again with a new Blu-ray release. While the disc isn’t as loaded with special features (there’s a trailer and some radio spots), it is a double feature that pairs Love at First Bite with Once Bitten to form a nice romantic-vampire-comedy duo for couples to sink their teeth into (just in time for Valentine’s Day). Enthusiasts will also be pleased by the stellar presentation, which should come as no surprise given Scream Factory’s track record: the film elements are in great condition, and the transfer itself retains detail and strong contrast levels. Anyone who missed the boat on DVD will find it worth the wait. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: