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‘Dracula: Dead and Loving It’ (and Loving It)

'Dracula: Dead and Loving It' (and Loving It)

Readers, I don’t ask you for much; just your undying loyalty and a willingness to read a lot of articles about Arnold Schwarzenegger. But those things require almost no effort on your part. Here, I call upon you to act. A grave injustice has occurred in the film criticism world, and we cannot allow it to stand. Together, we can right this great wrong.

We can change “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”‘s 9% on Rotten Tomatoes.

To put it in context, 9% is an almost impossibly low number on RT. It puts 1995’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” Mel Brooks’ funny spoof of “Dracula” movies (particularly 1992’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” by Francis Ford Coppola), in the company of some of the worst movies ever made. Halle Berry’s “Catwoman,” widely regarded as the crummiest comic book movie in history, has a 9%. Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups,” which was so tossed off it barely qualifies as a movie, has a 9%. A 9% ranks “D:D&LI” well below any of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies; even “Revenge of the Fallen” sports a relatively robust 20%. So does “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” “Plan 9 From Outer Space?” 64%!

(Wait, what? 64%?! Have we finally reached the point where “Plan 9,” legendary ultimate cinematic stinker, is actually overrated? A conversation for another time.)

The negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes include pieces from Variety, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader, USA Today, and the Washington Post. Among Top Critics, only Janet Maslin and Mick LaSalle recognized “Dracula”‘s greatness.

Alright, alright, so greatness is overstating it slightly (or greatly). How about “recognized its thoroughly decent-ness?” “Recognized its totally solid-ness?” “Recognized its frequent hilariousness?” Something like that.

It’s a funny movie, which is why I was surprised to find its “Catwoman”-esque reception on Rotten Tomatoes. I saw “D:D&LI” for the first time at my 15th birthday party; my parents brought two carloads of friends to Movie City 5 in East Brunswick, New Jersey. We all laughed. In the 17 years since, I’ve seen since maybe half a dozen more times; I just watched it again last night. It still cracks me up.

If I had to guess why “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” got so brutally panned, I’d point to the time in which it was released. In late 1995, beside the early works of guys like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, the movie looked about as cool as a shelf-worn bottle of Zima. Surrounded by comedies full of macho swagger and flights of profanity, Brooks’ “Dracula” looked downright quaint; and it’s certainly a long way from the edgy, boundary-pushing of “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.” In place of the bold racial humor and good taste demolishing jabs at Nazis and the Holocaust, “Dracula” goes for old fashioned screwball banter and cartoonish gore. At times, it might actually be closer to the tone of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” than Brooks’ own “Young Frankenstein.”

“D:D&LI” is deeply, almost defiantly old fashioned. It was shot mostly on sound stages, on plywood and plaster sets that look like leftovers from some forgotten Roger Corman quickie. The cast includes such demographically challenged actors as Brooks, Leslie Nielsen, and Harvey Korman; the younger roles were mostly filled by TV staples like Steven Weber, Amy Yasbeck, and Peter MacNicol. The jokes are predictably corny. 

But corny does not mean unfunny. Maybe I’m an easy lay, comedically speaking, for Mel Brooks, but I think some of these sequences work incredibly well. This one, in which Brooks’ Professor Van Helsing instructs Jonathan Harker on the way to properly stake a vampire is one of my all-time favorite comedy set pieces. Brooks’ punchline after the second, uh, eruption, is magical.

There’s an argument to be made that this is Brooks in his comfort zone; and maybe even rehashing himself. Brooks did spoof the horror genre twenty years earlier in “Young Frankenstein.” That’s a tough movie to top — and “D:D&DI” certainly doesn’t. It brings very little new to the table for Brooks as a director or as a comedian, except incorporating ZAZ axiom Nielsen into Brooks’ stable of comedy actors, a move that reaps some very big dividends, in scenes like this one, where Nielsen nails just the right note of exhaustion as a Dracula who is having trouble communicating his mind-control instructions (the mindless, it seems, are a bit hard to mind-control). 

I can concede the feelings of familiarity — but I think they’re kind of a strength, not a weakness. In many ways, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” is the ultimate Mel Brooks movie; if not his funniest work (okay, definitely not his funniest work) then certainly his Mel Brooksiest. It almost plays like a Greatest Hits album in movie form; you can see Brooks pulling bits, jokes, actors, themes, and flavors from all his old work. Like “The Producers,” there is a mentorship between an older man (Brooks’ Van Helsing) and a younger one (Weber’s Harker). Like “Spaceballs,” there is a similar relationship between the villains, where a charismatic leader bosses around a dopey lackey. From “High Anxiety,” you have the sanitarium setting. The several ballroom dancing sequences nod to Brooks’ love of musical theater. The “Young Frankenstein” connections are obvious. The fact that Brooks has, to date, never directed another movie only enhances the feeling that this is a sort of extended curtain call for his career.

And a curtain call deserves a round of applause, if not a standing ovation. Anyway, it doesn’t deserve a 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics, talk to your editors about assigning you a review, then posting it to the site. Readers, write these publications and demand retractions. Better yet; write your congressmen and women and tell them that unless they improve this situation you won’t be voting for them next Election Day. In the midst of a battle of the wills with Van Helsing over who can get the last word in a conversation, Dracula says he will “not be drawn into such a childish exercise.” I wish all these critics didn’t feel the same way.

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