Regular readers will know that at the weekend, we lean into the oldies and look at films which are not a recommend…I’m going with the American title for this one, tacked on to cash in on the success of Young Frankenstein; this horror-comedy was frequently on a double-bill with this Mel Brooks’ classic. But Old Dracula isn’t cut from the same cloth at all, it’s a hideous, with-it comedy which features racial and sexual assumptions that would turn your hair white; let’s slip into our Hazmat suits and wade warily into the toxic spill that is Clive Donner’s justly forgotten film.
‘Black is beautiful,’ announces Count Dracula as he contemplates the changing nature of society in 1974. Disco music is here, times are very different, and an old vampire has his work cut out to keep with the new, groovy beat that the world is wigging out to. Played by David Niven with little conviction, Dracula is portrayed as a vampire out-of time, yearning for his true love Vampira, whom he hopes to awaken with some fresh blood. Unfortunately for Dracula, he’s been cutting corners in terms of donors, and the blood of a black woman has been utilised, meaning that when his lost love awakens, she’s played by Teresa Graves.
This is a horrible set-up for comedy, and it only gets worse. It’s explained that Vampira’s racial impurity is the result of cross contamination, like putting red socks in with white shirts in the laundry (exactly the metaphor used here). Since obviously a black woman is impossible for a white man to love circa 1974, Dracula sets out on a mission to find three white women to vampirise and steal their blood to wash out the offending blood and somehow purify his lover. That may well be the single worst concept for a film I’ve come across this year, and one that reeks of out-dated racist assumptions. Only in a white dominated society would it be suggested that black people have to be cured of blackness, and the suggestion that we should laff-along as the count attempts to fix this is revolting.
If race isn’t handled well here, neither is sexism. Women are just sexed-up victims here; the Count’s first conquests are a bevy of Playboy bunnies staying at his castle for a photo-shoot (that’s 1974 I guess). We see Niven wandering the sex-clubs of Soho where such films as ‘Snow White and the Seven Perverts’ are playing, and the level of humour peaks when Vampira asks Dracula if he ‘wants to see my black bottom?’ Screenwriter Jeremy Lloyd was on more familiar ground with sitcom Are You Being Served? , but when long, contrived comic set-ups end on a zinger like “My dry-ice box is not designed for trembles.’, it feels like Old Dracula has been translated from another language.
People say there are no real movie stars anymore, but when you look at the 70’s output of Peter Sellers, Richard Burton or David Niven, it’s clear that movie stars killed the notion of stardom themselves by poor choices. Like Niven’s The Statue, Old Dracula aka Vampira is a terrible, objectionable film that should be, as Paul Newman said in The Towering Inferno, ‘left standing as a monument to bullsh*t’. The final image, of Niven in blackface, should be a warning to the complacent; racial and sexual prejudice is alive and well and living in the entertainment industry, it’s just better hidden now than it used to be. I’m not saying that films like this should be banned, or that they cause racism; they reflect views that were considered mainstream within our lifetimes, and should be called out for their assumptions about their audience.