Never mind the comparisons to his “Young Frankenstein”– Mel Brooks’ latest spooky spoof isn’t even as wild and crazy as “Old Dracula.” There is just enough amiable silliness in “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” to ensure a long afterlife on cable and cassette for this atypically restrained Brooks comedy. But theatrical prospects, particularly during the high-stakes holiday season, appear anemic.
Leslie Nielsen toplines to agreeable effect as Count Dracula, depicted here as a dead-serious but frequently flustered fellow who’s prone to slipping on bat droppings in his baroque castle. (Imagine Nielsen’s “Naked Gun” cop in fangs, tux and black cape, and you’ll get the idea.) Despite his initial appearance in a fluffed-up wig very similar to Gary Oldman’s hairdo in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula, ” Nielsen sticks with a Bela Lugosi accent and a traditionally Continental interpretation of the part.
Brooks and co-screenwriters Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman take some affectionate pokes at almost every screen version of the “Dracula” story, even to the point of including a few sight gags that evoke “Nosferatu.” There’s also a ballroom sequence that can be viewed as a tip of the hat to Roman Polanksi’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers.” Much of the pic sticks close to the storyline of Todd Browning’s 1931 version, with Dracula putting the bite on a visiting solicitor (Peter MacNicol), then moving on to London in search of fresh blood. But the overall look of the pic is closer to the more stylish Hammer horror flicks of the 1950s and ’60s.
As Lucy, a demure Englishwoman who’s transformed into a decadent bloodsucker, Lysette Anthony is drop-dead perfect in the way she recalls those bosomy vampiresses that Christopher Lee used to recruit. And she dies pretty much the same way they did, too.
Trouble is, while “Dead and Loving It” earns a fair share of grins and giggles, it never really cuts loose and goes for the belly laughs. Compared with the recent glut of dumb, dumber and dumbest comedies, Brooks’ pic seems positively understated. Indeed, there isn’t much here that would have seemed out of place (or too tasteless) in comedy sketches for TV variety shows of the 1950 s. And what little risque humor there is seems mighty tame when compared with what often gets by on contemporary shows such as “Saturday Night Live.” As a result, unfortunately, “Dead and Loving It” is so mild, it comes perilously close to blandness. Even “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” had a higher wackiness quotient.
The only real sparks are set off by MacNicol as Renfield, the solicitor who develops a taste for flies and spiders after being bitten by Dracula. MacNicol has been effective in previous comic turns (“Ghostbusters II,””Addams Family Values”), but nothing that he’s done onscreen before has buzzed with quite the same manic zaniness he displays here. This is his breakthrough role, and it is meant as the highest praise to say that MacNicol does Dwight Frye (from the original Tod Browning version) even better than Dwight Frye did.
Brooks himself playfully mangles his dialogue with a Middle European accent as Professor Van Helsing, vampire hunter extraordinaire. As Mina, Harker’s fiancee, Amy Yasbeck is amusingly saucy once Dracula has the chance to nibble on her neck. But neither Brooks nor Yasbeck ever gets a laugh as big as those earned by Anne Bancroft in her one-scene cameo as a gypsy woman named — of course! — Madame Ouspenskaya.
Cinematographer Michael D. O’Shea and production designer Roy Forge Smith do a fine job of capturing the ambience of the various “Dracula” movies that Brooks tweaks. Other tech values are fine.