Vampira aka Old Dracula – UK, 1974 – overview and reviews

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‘Look who’s up and at it again!’

Vampira is a 1974 British comedy horror film directed by Clive Donner (Spectre) from a screenplay by Jeremy Lloyd, co-scripter of British TV sitcoms Are You Being Served? and ‘Allo ‘Allo!. It stars David Niven, Teresa Graves and Jennie Linden.

For its American re-release by Independent International, the film was retitled both Old Dracula and Old Drac, in an attempt to cash-in on the success of Young Frankenstein.

Count Dracula (David Niven) is an old vampire who, because of his advanced age, is forced to host tours of his castle to get new victims. In an attempt to revive his long-lost love, Vampira, Dracula sets out to collect blood from the bevy of Playboy Playmates living at his castle…

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Review:

There’s a lot of fun to be had in Vampira, as long as you are not looking for anything ground-breaking – the continual Playboy references, the dolly birds, the long-lost Soho backdrop and the whole blaxploitation element give it a certain nostalgic charm, as do the cast of 1970s comedy and horror mainstays. It’s not exactly a forgotten classic – but it’s a charming, inoffensive (unless you are determinedly seeking offence) and enjoyable time-waster that deserves to be better loved than it is.

David Niven is Count Dracula, who has opened his castle up to tourists who believe him to be a mythical figure while trying to find someone with the rare blood group needed to bring his wife Vampira back from the dead. When a bunch of Playboy models and photographers descend on the castle for a photo shoot, it seems he’s in luck – one of the models has exactly the blood he needs.

However, his transfusion from Afro-Caribbean model Mynah Bird has an unexpected side-effect – it turns Vampira black. Okay, so let’s pause here. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this is staggeringly racist – that Dracula’s aghast reaction suggests that nothing could be worse than turning black. But of course, that’s an idiotic, equally reactionary response. It’s not unreasonable, after all, for the Count to want to return his wife to her ‘natural’ form – and at no point does he (or anyone else) express the view that Vampira (played by Teresa Graves) is somehow rendered unattractive by this change – quite the opposite, in fact, as she is delighted at the results. If anything, the film is trying to emphasise a culture clash, between fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned white Dracula and his increasingly modern, funky black wife as she takes in modern culture (picking up street talk from a viewing of Black Gunn, and rather painfully calling Dracula a “jive turkey” at one point). In fact, the film seems to have one foot in the blaxploitation genre, and the ending suggests that Dracula’s efforts to change Vampira back are both futile and pointless, and that he should just go with the flow. He’s clearly going to have much more fun with his black wife than he ever had with the white version.

Anyway – Dracula and crew head off to London to track down the models and arrange another transfusion (the reasons behind this are a bit wooly), taking possession of agent Marc (Nicky Henson) who is tasked with collecting blood samples from the likes of Veronica Carlson and Andrea Allen via a pair of false fangs, while the feisty Vampira is determined to both enjoy the nightlife of London and do some vampiric seducing of her own, much to the irritation of Dracula.

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Under normal circumstances, Niven would make a poor Dracula, but here, he has the right combination of old-school charm and irritability that this character requires. The film has fun pitching him against 1974 London, with its sex cinemas, fleshpots, and muggers, and while he occasionally looks a little ill-at-ease, that actually fits nicely with the character he’s playing. Graves, meanwhile, is funny and sexy, and a supporting cast that includes Jennie Linden, Bernard Bresslaw, Carol Cleveland and a shamefully wasted Linda Hayden is a lot of fun.

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Given that writer Jeremy Lloyd had created Are You being Served? and would go onto ‘Allo ‘Allo!, the comedy is more subtle than you might expect – though let’s not pretend that this is sophisticated humour. But it’s often quite sharp and witty, with some great sight gags. It’s also obvious that this film was a considerable influence on the later Love At First Bite, which lifts several moments from this – and doesn’t always improve on them.

David Flint, MOVIES & MANIA

 

Other reviews:

“It’s a strange-feeling movie: it’s a vampire flick that could have successfully exploited subtexts like sex or race comedies, but it oddly, even discreetly, sidesteps both of these potentially interesting sidelines.” DVD Talk

“There are laughs, but they come either from isolated lines of dialog or from the sheer incoherence of the plot. There are thrills – or, more accurately, there is one thrill, a fairly boring one as horror-film thrills go. (Will the heroine get trapped in the well with the rats and the rising water?) And there’s a great deal of fang-sinking … But for the most part, this is a depressing exercise…” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“The fitful vampire parody doesn’t disguise that the film’s prime purpose seems to have been more one of softcore titillation. In the end, Vampira/Old Dracula has more in common with the Percy (1971) and sequel or the various Confessions films than Bram Stoker. The presentation of swinging London in the latter half is certainly livelier than the whole of the modernized Dracula we saw in Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972Moria

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“What’s the point of constantly invoking Playboy and boasting a large cast of attractive young women if the discreet glimpses of nudity are fleeting? (My best guess: to hook a wider audience.) Sexploitation, or at least a more complete ribaldry, would have granted the film a sense of purpose. As it is, Old Dracula isn’t nearly as much fun as it ought to be.” Jeff Kuykendall, Midnight Only

Main cast:

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Image credits: Midnight Only

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