Dracula: Dead and Loving It
Review by Mike Finkelstein
When it comes to comedy, Mel Brooks is a genius. He created a great number of works, wrote on many more, and had a long and distinguished stand-up career. There is no doubt that, among our comedy great, Mel Brooks stands near the top, an honor he has earned over and over again. With that said, his career is not without its failures, and there are none as particularly noteworthy as Dracula: Dead and Loving It. What should have been a lovely companion piece to another of his career greats, Young Frankenstein was, instead, the film that basically killed his directorial career.
Let's be clear, Brooks had made uneven films before Dracula. Spaceballs didn't really take off at the Box Office, and only gained traction on home video and cable. History of the World, Part 1 managed decent numbers but took years to grow into a cult classic. Hell, Life Stinks performed terrible and is hardly discussed at all now. But only Dracula: Dead and Loving It can lay claim to being the director's last official cinematic work, the film that made Hollywood say, "you know, Mel, maybe you shouldn't be behind the camera." And when you watch it, you can understand why.
One of the reasons why this film feels like such a lesser work is because it's only a parody around the edges. When you look at his other films, like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs you'll note that none of them are direct parodies of any one story. Sure, Saddles lampoons Westerns and Spaceballs is primarily focused on Star Wars, but Dracula is one of two films Brooks made that directly riffs on another story fully and completely (the other being the monetarily successful but artistically empty Robin Hood: Men in Tights). Dracula: Dead and Loving it is a parody of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and you get the vibe that sticking to just one story to parody left Brooks without a lot of ideas.
If you've seen any version of Dracula then you know this story; Brooks does rearrange some minor elements here and there, like swapping around characters, omitting others, and changing a few surnames. For the most part, though, you'll know this well. Renfield (Peter MacNicol) goes to Romania to meet with Dracula (Leslie Nielsen) to sell him Carfax Abbey in England. Dracula signs the papers, then makes Renfield his slave, with the two of them traveling back to England via the Demeter. Once there, Renfield ends up in the asylum while Dracula goes about stalking the girls associated with that asylum's head doctor, Doctor Seward (Harvey Korman). He first stalks and kills Lucy Westenra (Lysette Anthony) before going after Mina Seward (Amy Yasbeck), and it's only through the actions of her father, her fiance Johnathan Harker (Steven Weber), and the famed Dr. Van Helsing (Brooks) that Dracula is eventually defeated, saving Mina from an eternal unlife.
Honestly, I think I would have liked this film more if it found ways to color outside the main lines of Dracula. This film is too dedicated to the main beats of the story, using that original tale (mostly via the stage-play version that has formed the basis of most cinematic adaptations) has the structure of the whole film, that it can't really find a way to truly explore the character of Dracula or the world around him in funny ways. It's too staid, too tedious, just slapping on easy jokes to the main story without really being creative.
The humor doesn't help matters at all. Most of the jokes in the film are terrible, with the characters played broad and over-the-top. Brooks seems to have thought that having characters talking in a funny voice and say lines as loud as possible, over and over again, was the same thing as writing jokes this time around. It wasn't. This leads to a lot of drawn out scenes were game, wasted actors repeat lines over and over again, going as big and loud as they can, all in the hopes they manage to wrest any sense of humor out of the script. By and large they fail.
The biggest disappointment of the bunch is Nielsen. The actor is famed for his dry, comedic performances, having started as a dry, dramatic actor before Airplane recontextualized her performance style for laughs. Honestly, I think a dry, straight-man performance for Dracula could have been great, and I would have loved to see Nielsen bring that to the role. Instead he's as broad and sloppy as everyone else, often mugging for the camera. It totally doesn't work for Dracula, and it does the film no favors whatsoever.
The only performer that actually does well in the film is Steven Webber as Johnathan Harker. He plays the character like a restrained, English fop, unable to give into any of his base instincts because he's an English gentleman. Webber nails this, and nails every comedic thing the film asks of him. Any time I laughed it was because his Harker was in a scene, playing the lines as straight as he could while giving his all towards making Harker as uncomfortable as possible. Webber is why Dracula: Dead and Loving It is watchable at all.
And if I have to credit anything else, I will say that the production is at least handsome. The film has the style of classic Hammer Horror movies, straddling the line between the old Universal films and the monster movies to come after. Clearly Brooks knew he wanted to riff on those films, their style and substance, and his production team absolutely delivered. Like with Young Frankenstein, you absolutely could see a real horror movie filmed with the sets and costumes provided for this parody. When you look at it you get a sense of what Brooks wanted, it's just when characters open their mouths that everything falls apart.
Considering the uneven quality of Brooks's works leading up to Dracula: Dead and Loving It in 1995, I can absolutely understand why Brooks never got back in the director's seat again. This is a dull and dreadful bomb, a movie that really makes you question if Brooks had any more funny ideas left in him. It's been three decades (at the time of this writing) since Brooks directed a film, and I think that's probably for the best. He made some absolutely legendary films, grand comedic gems that will live on forever. He also made Dracula: Dead and Loving It. At the very least he understood that if you can't go out on a high note, leave when you've made something so bad there's no recovering from it no matter how hard you try.