Written by: Dimitri Villard (story), David Hines, Jeffrey Hause, & Jonathan Roberts (screenplay)
Directed by: Howard Storm
Starring: Jim Carrey, Lauren Hutton, and Cleavon Little
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Being a vampire in the 20th century is a nightmare!"
Worlds collide as the 80s reach their apex in Once Bitten. By 1985, horror had obviously re-established itself as the genre for the teenage crowd, but trailing just behind—at least for the teenage horndog crowd—was the sex comedy. If teens weren’t paying to see their cinematic counterparts lose their heads, they were paying to see them lose their virginity. No wonder, then, that Once Bitten looked to meld both into a synth-soaked romp that turns the virginity quest into a nightmare when one sex-crazed guy’s dreams come true in screwy fashion.
Okay, maybe calling it a “nightmare” is overselling it since Once Bitten is a harmless, neon-splashed goof, but Mark Kendall (Jim Carrey) would argue that his life sucks. Still a hopeless virgin as a high school senior and unable to convince his girlfriend Robin (Karen Kopins) to go all the way, he desperately joins his buddies for a wild night on the town that leads them to a singles club in Hollywood. To his amazement, Mark is lured over the bar by an older woman (Lauren Hutton) who suggests they head to her place (meanwhile, his friends are being busted by a police raid). Of course, there’s a catch: the sultry blonde is a 300-year old countess in need of virgin blood in order to stay alive, and she and her bloodsucking cabal plan to make Mark their annual Halloween sacrifice.
It’s a dire situation played very lightly. Let’s just say that Once Bitten likely holds the record for “Movie in the Biggest Hurry to Get to an 80s Pop Montage.” No less than about ten minutes in—after we’ve met the Countess and seen Mark strike out in the backseat of a car with Robin—does it speed to a sequence with Mark and his buddies hitting the streets of LA in their ice cream truck. Set to the strains of the film’s theme song, it colors Once Bitten as irrecoverably bouncy, silly, and (of course) 80s. You could imagine the montage appearing in any number of traditional sex comedies of the time, and the film more or less lives and dies by the same conventions of that genre.
The chief concern with any such film is just how good-natured its quest is. 30 years later, I don’t know if we consider these type of virginity hunts to be as charming as we once did since they trend towards sexism in their objectification of women; those that endure do so with the concession that sometimes boys will be boys and leave one hoping its leads don’t prove to be completely awful human beings. Once Bitten passes this litmus test in the sense that Mark and his friends wouldn’t be absolutely insufferable to be around. They certainly have one-track minds and are caricatures of high school boys (despite clearly looking like 20-year-olds—when Carrey has to lie about being older than he is, it’s funny for this reason rather than the intended one), but they’re fun goofballs. With this being the 80s, you run into some unfortunately expected homophobia (and transphobia), which is not meant to excuse it but rather understand it. Plus, each instance makes the boys seem even more ridiculous than they already are. Their idea of ultimate horror isn’t the vampire seductress—it’s the possibility that the entire school might think they’re gay after some locker room shenanigans.
Once Bitten is sort of up to that in general. After all, it flips the script by turning the hunter into the hunted when Mark becomes prey for the Countess. Having been subjected to the same aggressive, lustful behavior he’s used to pressure his own girlfriend, he’s suddenly not as interested in sex. You wish the film did more with this role reversal by even attempting some sort of commentary on the inherent sexism of male virginity quest; instead you have to settle for a couple of sharper-than-average gals (for this genre) duking it out for Mark’s affection. Robin is no dummy, and Kopins does what she can to make her more than just a mountain to be conquered. She can only do so much, though, when Once Bitten is the sort of film that features a Halloween night dance-off between she and Hutton to settle the score between the two (fact: 90% of 80s teen comedies end in dance-offs or some kind of race). It’s also the sort of film where the solution to thwarting a vampire involves fucking in a coffin.
Which is to say it’s kind of awesome, naturally. As a PG-13 comedy, it’s not as ribald as most of its contemporaries, yet it’s sweet and outlandish enough to amuse for 90s minutes. Carrey makes for a solid lead and even shows hints of the rubber-faced hysterics as he slowly turns into vampire; mostly, though, he has a nervous, fidgety (and toothy--look at that disarming grin!) energy that allows him subtly hint at his comedic talents through wry reaction shots and punctual dialogue delivery. His increasing exasperation bounces off of Hutton’s own agitation at her plight: apparently, it was once much easier to find and seduce virgins.
Most of the resulting broad, obvious humor only lands thanks to a deep, colorful bench playing the Countess’s associates, here billed as “Confederate Vampire” (Joseph Brutsman) and “Cabin Boy Vampire” (Stuart Charno, one of two Friday the 13th alums to appear*—look out for Dominick Brascia indulging his sweet tooth again towards the beginning). However, it’s Cleavon Little who steals the show as Sebastian, the Countess’s droll yet flamboyant assistant. When the Countess orders him to literally come out of her closet, he reminds her that he already did so decades ago. While not the epoch of humor, Cleavon consistently spins these sort of quips into gold.
Once Bitten is one of those 80s time capsules that's stilly enjoyable despite not being especially witty. Guided by Adam Greenberg’s signature pastel-tinged photography (which set the genre standard with staples Lemon Popsicle and The Last American Virgin), director Howard Storm rightfully steers the film into screwball territory without deviating. Even though it wasn’t the most auspicious of leading-man debuts for Carrey, who wouldn’t headline another film for nearly a decade, it’s found its niche as a cult object, and Scream Factory has put a new shine on it with a new Blu-ray treatment. Arriving alongside Love at First Bite on a double-feature disc, it’s been restored to a fine presentation: the film elements are finely preserved with grain intact, and the DTS-MA stereo track fills your room with wall-to-wall 80s tunes. That’s probably somebody’s idea of hell, and that’s somebody I probably don’t want to know. Like most of Scream's other double features, it's light on supplements and only features a trailer, so anyone curious to hear Carrey's thoughts about the film 30 years later will be left wanting.
He doesn't have much to be ashamed of: much like his character in the film, Once Bitten is awkward but charming so long as you don't wake up on the wrong side of the coffin. Buy it!
*Correction—there are actually three: Carey More (on of the twins from The Final Chapter) appears as a vampire as well.
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