There have been many different film incarnations of that ultimate of vampires…Dracula. Everyone knows Bela Lugosi’s version, with that thick accent. We also had the likes of John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman…just to name a few. But for a very proper and refined version of the blood sucker we turn to David Niven. In 1974, Niven appeared in an odd film that was part horror spoof, part blaxploitatin film. In the UK it is known as Vampira, but in the US it is known as Old Dracula.
In this version, Dracula (Niven) no longer wants to be bothered with having to go out and hunt for victims. Therefore, his castle is now a tourist attraction/hotel where people come for some vampire-themed fun. Of course, this is just a way of bringing the victims straight to Dracula. The latest batch of visitors to Dracula’s castle consists of a group of Playboy models and their photographer who have come to do a spooky photo shoot. With the help of a dinner laced with sleeping potion, the guests are quickly put into a state where the count and his butler, Maltravers (Peter Bayliss), can get blood samples from everyone.
Now, the reason the count is after samples of the blood is that he’s been searching for a rare type of blood needed to resurrect his long dead bride, Vampira. Finally, with this batch of Playboy bunnies, he finds the rare blood needed. Unfortunately, Maltravers mixes up which sample came from which girl. No matter, though, the count decides to mix it with the other samples for the transfusion. However, since one of the young models was black, Dracula’s bride is resurrected as a dark-skinned beauty (Teresa Graves). Vampira kind of digs this new look, though Dracula sets out to find a way to change her back, after all “it’s a small town, people will talk.”
Dracula decides that he needs to find the girl who had the rare blood he got a sample of. He decides to use one of the people working with the models, Marc Williams (Nicky Henson). Dracula puts him under his spell and gives him a set of fake vampire teeth that will collect blood samples when he bites the girls. Meanwhile, Vampira embraces her new look even more. She even takes in a blaxploitation film and starts to speak like the characters in the film. She also starts to pursue Marc on her own, apparently not satisfied with what old man Drac has to offer.
Old Dracula is a strange mix of horror, comedy, and elements of the blaxploitation genre. It’s almost to be expected that the film is a bit uneven. I will say that casting David Niven as an aging, tired version of Dracula was an inspired choice. Niven does a great job of giving us a vampire who has grown a bit bored of the whole blood-sucking gig but has gotten creative with how to get the blood he needs without having to work too hard at it. I really enjoyed his laid back, cultured take on the character.
On the other hand, it goes without saying that the story is a bit awkward. I mean the major plot device is that Dracula accidentally turns his vampire bride black and needs to change her back. The film certainly has a few uncomfortable moments. The ending is especially rough. I won’t spoil it, but I’ll just say be prepared to cringe. On a positive side, it was nice to see that Vampira embraces the fact that she’s now black and essentially becomes a blood-sucking Pam Grier in the process. Teresa Graves, who was a regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In for a while, has a good sense of comedy and brings some real sexiness to the whole thing.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the cast really falls flat and causes portions of the film to drag. Nicky Henson looks a bit like Oliver Reed but has nowhere near the screen presence the often-inebriated star. Likewise, the various models that Dracula is seeking blood samples from all blur together.
Supposedly, this film was called Old Dracula in the US to try and capitalize on the success of Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. Pretty lame. While the performances of David Niven and Teresa Graves make the film interesting on a certain level, the film falls short in many ways. It does have a few funny moments, but is ultimately not that successful on a comedic level. Likewise, the horror element is not that strong either. Oh, the film will make you squirm, but because of it’s uncomfortable premise, not for any scares.