For his twelfth (and possibly final) directorial feature, Mel Brooks sinks his teeth into Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi, and Francis Ford Coppola in this blood-sucking spoof of “Dracula”.
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In addition to directing, co-writing, and producing “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”, Mel Brooks plays Professor Abraham Van Helsing, a legend among his scientific colleagues. As he instructs his classroom upon the grotesque procedures during an autopsy, his students pass out and fall to the floor one by one.
His nurse (played by Jennifer Crystal, Billy’s daughter) enters and says: “Oh, professor! Ten out of ten!”
“Yah. I still got it!” Yes, Mr. Brooks, in your lifetime of creating some of the funniest and raunchiest entertainment in cinematic and television history, you have still got it.
. This is the Mel Brooks we remember from “Young Frankenstein”, not the one we so awkwardly met when he told us “Life Stinks.” It is a victorious return to his combination of screwball and heartfelt comedy, and is his most enjoyable film since “Spaceballs”. The timing is presented at a more comfortable pace, and thus the performances are once again hilarious due to the fact that the actors are having so much fun with the material.
Lifting elements of the story directly out of the original classic, Brooks and company are faithful to Bram Stoker’s text, but also manage to spoof the more recent cinematic versions. Due to its impressive visual style and clever production design, the movie seems to ridicule Tod Browning’s 1931 classic “Dracula” more than any other medium. Even though it is filmed in color.
As Count Dracula, Leslie Nielson gives one of the funniest performances of his career, and this is the man who was Lt. Frank Drebin. Doing a mastered impression of Bela Lugosi, he challenges Brooks’ Van Helsing in a childish and hysterical battle of insults. Yet he also romances Mina Murray (Amy Yasbeck) with the same dexterity and charm as Gary Oldman in Coppola’s spellbinding adaptation. His ability to mimic the same character from separate versions is something to behold. And it is a sincere pleasure to watch him share the screen with Mr. Brooks. Nielson’s straight-faced expression in the midst of comedic genius is truly a remarkable quality. It must be mind-bogglingly difficult to restrain a smile.
But there are several other actors who are doing some of their funniest work here. First of all, there is the late Harvey Korman doing his best Nigel Bruce, who played Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. His buffoonish performance of Dr. Seward is almost a perversion of his already perverted Dr. Montague from “High Anxiety”.
Peter MacNicol, excellent as the hopelessly insane insectivore Renfield, pays genuine tribute to Dwight Frye, who played the same character in Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Younger viewers unfamiliar with Browning’s version may not realize that MacNicol is doing a near perfect impression of Frye’s laughter as he scrambles to the ground in search of bugs.
And Amy Yasbeck’s sultry glare above her wistful smile suggests an homage to the great Madeline Kahn. Her natural talent for physical comedy is indicative of Brooks’ preternatural ability to direct gifted actresses struggling with absurd situations.
And speaking of whom, recognize the woman playing the Transylvanian gypsy who sells Renfield the cross before he encounters the Count? The late and great Annie Bancroft does her husband a favor in this short but nonetheless crowd-pleasing performance.
“We drive it to a combination of silly, old-fashioned, slapstick, physical comedy and high-faluting satire bordering on homage,” Brooks says in the commentary while reflecting on the production value of his “Dracula”.
But perhaps the most impressive scene in the whole movie is Jonathan Harker’s execution of Lucy Seward. Understanding the dynamic effect of authentic emotional reaction, Brooks neglected to inform the actor Stephen Weber that the corpse in the coffin would release a volcanic funnel of blood once struck with the wooden stake. The result is priceless as Webber’s Harker is soaked in 200 gallons of blood. The joke is so good, they had to perform it twice. After Weber stabs the corpse a second time and is drowned in blood again, Brooks’ Van Helsing emerges from a corner.
“She’s still not dead!”
“She’s dead enough,” Weber says in terrific deadpan, dropping the mallet.
We miss you, Mr. Brooks. In these days of over-the-top cinematic comedy filled with Apatowian pop culture references, it would be wonderful to see you direct one more feature. My personal recommendation: “History of the World, Part II”.