In Living Color might have been the breakout moment for Jim Carrey but he had been at it for a good few years by the time he joined the cast of that comedy show. Long before he hit the big time with In Living Color and the Ace Ventura movies, he had a lead role in the 1985 horror comedy Once Bitten. It came and went at the theaters but built up an audience via VHS rentals and cable. That said, the Jim Carrey you see in this film is so radically different from the one who became famous that you might feel like you’re experiencing an alternate reality.
In Once Bitten, Carrey plays a nebbish-y teenage virgin named Mark who can’t seem to seal the deal with his girlfriend Robin (Karen Kopins), who is holding out for the “right time” to have sex. Disheartened, Mark allows his equally nebbish-y pals Russ (Skip Lackey) and Jamie (Thomas Ballatore) to talk him into sneaking into an adult night club to find experienced older ladies. Mark is the only one who scores and is taken home by a lovely woman who calls herself the Countess (Lauren Hutton).
However, Mark’s one night stand has unexpected side effects. He doesn’t know that the Countess is actually a vampire who must dine on his virgin blood three times before Halloween to preserve her eternal youth. Mark finds himself in the position of having to fight off new vampiric tics to his personality as the Countess and Robin fight over what’s left of his virtue.
Once Bitten is emblematic of the kind of mild fare that used to dominate the pre-primetime schedules of pay cable stations during the mid-to-late 1980’s. Despite the potential satirical avenues inherent in exploring teenage male sexual anxiety and the novelty of making a man the chased virgin in a sex comedy, Once Bitten is more interest in meek innuendo than sharp comedy.
The resulting consistently pulls its punches, resorting to a steady stream of neutered, sub-Three’s Company gags about swinging and sex. Also, for a film that focuses on sexual behavior as subject matter, it espouses a sad worldview in which men are hormone-driven morons and women either behave like priggish old maids or wanton harlots. The direction by t.v. vet Howard Storm is as lackluster as the script, giving the film bland visuals and slack pacing to the gags (this is really felt during the finale).
However, the biggest shock in Once Bitten is how it misuses the resource of Jim Carrey. He gives the role a committed performance but is straight-jacketed by its “nice guy nerd” archetype, with a only a few glimpses of his skill for elastic physical comedy on display. Hutton does solid work as a prototypical vamp, with nice support from Cleavon Little as her prickly valet, but it’s not enough to overcome the mediocre material.
That said, Once Bitten has a few appealing elements for the diehard ’80s nostalgists. The soundtrack has a charming period-specific vibe, with plenty of endearingly goofy pop-rock tunes with an AOR vibe somewhere between Laura Branigan and the Footloose soundtrack (the title song will be stuck in your head after you see it). There’s also the occasional inspired sequence, like a dance-off during a school costume ball between Kopins and Hutton or a moment where Carrey’s pals spiral into some distinctly Reagan-era gay panic about their own sexuality.
Ultimately, Once Bitten is best left to those aforementioned ’80s addicts as its decade-specific elements and the novelty of watching a pre-fame Jim Carrey are its prime assets. Everyone else will need to approach it with their expectations in check.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title was recently issued by Scream Factory as part of a two-for-one disc with another vintage vampire comedy, Love At First Bite. The transfer is solid, enhancing the color and detail of its so-so visuals and bringing a little lossless 2.0 stereo oomph to the pop-rock songs on its soundtrack. The one extra is a rather weird teaser trailer that shows no footage from the film itself.