Vampires played a notable role the horror-intensive cinema year of 1979, including revivals of Dracula and Nosferatu as well as the original miniseries version of Salem’s Lot. However, the surprise fang-baring champion of the box office Drac pack had more to do with Mel Brooks than Bela Lugosi: it was a modest indie production called Love At First Bite, helmed by a second-time director and featuring a cast better known for their work on talk shows and t.v. series. Perhaps the reason this unassuming contender did so well was because it was much more in sync with the late ’70s zeitgeist than its competitors.
Love At First Bite brings Count Dracula (George Hamilton) out of the shadows and into the Me Decade: he’s trying to hold onto his Bela Lugosi-style past but finds himself kicked out of his old manse by communists who now own the land so they can turn it into an Olympic training facility(!). With the help of faithful valet Renfield (Arte Johnson), he relocates to the Big Apple. He seeks out Cindy (Susan Saint James), a model who is a reincarnation of an old love. This promptly brings him into conflict with her therapist and old flame Dr. Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin), who happens to be a descendant of Van Helsing…
Watching Love At First Bite today offers a pleasant nostalgia trip: Robert Kaufman’s script harkens back to the kind of genial spoofing that Mel Brooks popularized with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, piling on gags that have varying degrees of shamelessness but also showing a genuine fondness for the genre it’s sending up and investing the story with genuine characterizations and tidy plotting that support the laughs. It’s also worth noting that Kaufman cleverly mines satire-worthy elements of the ’70s – pill popping, the sexual revolution, an overreliance on pop psychology – that make Dracula’s old-fashioned confidence in himself look positively charming, thus enhancing his romantic appeal to the film’s worn-down-by-modern-life heroine.
Stan Dragoti’s direction paces it all nicely, keeping the gags flowing but also remembering to bring in some romantic touches to keep the film’s vampire/human love affair compelling: the film’s best-known scene involves Dracula charming Cindy by breaking out some old-fashioned Hollywood dance moves at a disco (another example of old values triumphing over modern jadedness in this film). Charles Bernstein, better known for his action scores, contributes a fun score that mixes vintage horror orchestral with late ’70s pop elements and cinematographer Edward Rosson does a nice job of updating Universal Studios-style horror atmosphere for the late ’70s.
That said, it’s the performances that really drive Love At First Bite. Hamilton reveals himself to be an ace at deadpan comedy here, capturing all the Lugosi mannerisms nicely and deploying them to subtly humorous effect while Saint James brings charm to a character that is a satire of the jaded “cosmopolitan woman.” Johnson lends nice support to Hamilton, doing an excellent Dwight Frye impression, and Benjamin manages a performance of ever-escalating lunacy as a would-be monster killer (in the film’s funniest running gag, he can never quite get vampire killing methods right).
In short, Love At First Bite is a likeable romp that has aged well because it uses its time and setting as a source of humor rather than just set dressing for its comic shenanigans. It’s one of the better horror comedies out there and well worth inclusion in any survey of this subgenre.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory has recently issued this title as part of a two-for-one double disc along with Once Bitten. The transfer looks suitably rich and detailed and fans will be happy to know that the hit song “I Love The Nightlife” has been restored to the 2.0 stereo soundtrack (it was removed from the prior DVD version). The extras are a fun theatrical trailer and a few radio spots.