‘Look who’s up and at it again!’
Vampira is a 1974 British comedy horror feature film directed by Clive Donner (Spectre; What’s New Pussycat?) from a screenplay written by Jeremy Lloyd, co-scripter of British TV sitcoms Are You Being Served? and ‘Allo ‘Allo!. The World Film Services production stars David Niven (Eye of the Devil), Teresa Graves, Jennie Linden (Doctor Who and the Daleks), Nicky Henson (Psychomania; Witchfinder General) and Peter Bayliss. It was shot in 1973 and produced by Jack Wiener (F/X and F/X2).
The funky soundtrack score was composed by David Whitaker (Vampire Circus; Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde; Scream and Scream Again). The Vampira disco theme song was by The Majestics.
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 bevvy of models living at his castle…
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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, the 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 the Count 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 woolly), 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.
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 1973 London, with its seedy 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 scintillating, and a supporting cast that includes Jennie Linden, Bernard Bresslaw, Carol Cleveland and a shamefully wasted Linda Hayden is a lot of fun.
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 it can’t be argued 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 and MANIA
“The humour exudes an aura of stale farce as the filmmakers laboriously try to update a fifties comedy format by introducing more bosomy females and modish references to race.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“Although the opportunity for social commentary is there, the jokes in Old Dracula are all kept quite innocent and non-controversial. The newly Nubian Vampira loves the new modern world (having died during the 1920s) and starts to really enjoy being black. She uses slang phrases like “right on”, “out of sight”, and, oh my, “jive turkey”. Black Horror Movies
“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
“Niven is the only top-shelf actor in the picture, and the starlets surrounding him (Graves included) are terrible; furthermore, the storyline drags from one repetitive incident to the next, becoming tackier with each passing scene. Ultimately, Old Dracula makes the mediocre 1979 Dracula spoof Love at First Bite seem sublime by comparison.” Every ’70s Movie
“The cast is game enough; all three leads put their best feet forward to make a go of it, and each one adds a little flavor to the mix. What fails them is the script; despite a couple of cute ideas here and there, it’s painfully short on laughs, and the story gets less and less interesting as it goes on. It all builds up to a twist that is a) obvious once you see the setup, and b) awful when you see the final make-up job.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings
” …lifeless dreck no matter how many Playmates or “mod” Halloween parties Donner throws at us. Offensive? Yes, it is. Niven’s change (he really looks embarrassed to be in blackface–rightfully so) magically solves every problem, overlooking how he’s treated his wife for the entire film. What might be more offensive than the subject matter is the complete waste of talent both in front of and behind the camera.” The Horn Section
“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 in Chicago Sun Times
“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. 1972” Moria
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” …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.” Midnight Only
“Goofy, silly and showing complete disregard for political correctness, Old Dracula is a pretty odd comedy […] Niven does his best to make the picture work and succeeds more often than not – he’s a charming old vampire here, as debonair as you’d expect him to be, essentially a class act in a classless movie.” Rock! Shock! Pop!
“The idea of David Niven playing a comedic Dracula seems like a no-brainer but Old Dracula is one of those films that is so dated and unintentionally racist that you worry you’re going to go to Hell just for watching it. It seems like the film was trying to satirize race relations in the same way that Godfrey Cambridge and Melvin Van Peebles did in Watermelon Man but most of the jokes fall flat.” Through the Shattered Lens
Count Dracula: “It’s not like the old days when one could go out for a bite locally.”
Count Dracula: “Yes, black is beautiful.”
Cast and characters:
David Niven … Count Dracula
Teresa Graves … Countess Vampira
Peter Bayliss … Maltravers
Jennie Linden … Angela
Nicky Henson … Marc
Linda Hayden … Helga – House on Straw Hill; The Blood on Satan’s Claw
Bernard Bresslaw … Pottinger – The Ugly Duckling
Cathie Shirriff … Nancy
Andrea Allan … Eve – Scream – and Die!
Veronica Carlson … Ritva – Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed; Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
Minah Bird … Rose
Christopher Sandford … Milton
Freddie Jones … Gilmore – The Satanic Rites of Dracula; Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Frank Thornton … Mr King – Carry on Screaming!, The Tomb of Ligeia; Tell-Tale Heart
Aimi MacDonald … Woman in Hotel Room
Patrick Newell … Man in Hotel Room
Kenneth Cranham … Paddy, the Delinquent
Carol Cleveland … Jane, the Delinquent’s Victim
Luan Peters … Pottinger’s Secretary – The Devil’s Men
Marcia Fox … Air Hostess
David Rowlands … Drunk
Ben Aris … Policeman
Nadim Sawalha … Airline Representative
Hoima McDonald … Playboy Bunny
Nicola Austin … Playboy Bunny (as Nicola Austine)
Penny Irving … Playboy Bunny
James Payne … Taxi Driver at Airport (uncredited)
Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, England
The Embankment, London, England
The Heathrow Hotel, Heathrow Airport, Hillingdon, England
Soho, London, England
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1
Passed with an ‘AA’ certificate by censors the BBFC on 30/01/74. There are two brief scenes of topless female nudity in the film but we have been unable to verify whether these were in the ‘AA’ release. It seems very doubtful.
Actor Frank Thornton, who plays an estate agent, also played Dracula in a TV advert for Smiths Horror Bags, a corn and potato snack that was popular in the 1970s.
Makeup artist Philip Leakey worked on Hammer’s seminal Dracula (1958).
Assistant director Bert Batt worked on a slew of Hammer horror films in the 1960s.
Some image credits: Midnight Only