Mel Brooks’ Bad Dracula Comedy Drove a Stake Through His Film Career
Who would find Dracula funny? The iconic bloodsucker has terrorized readers for more than a century and moviegoers for almost as long, that wretched beast striking at night, taking a bite out of vulnerable necks with menacing delight. But occasionally, the film industry decides to tweak Bram Stoker’s infamous creation, making the harrowing world of vampires hilarious in movies like The Fearless Vampire Killers and What We Do in the Shadows. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nicolas Cage has himself made not one but two vampire comedies: He starred in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss, and he’s back this Friday with Renfield, in which he plays a preening Dracula in modern times badgering his long-suffering indentured servant Renfield (Nicholas Hoult).
It’s pretty easy to understand what’s amusing about the ageless creature. With his thick accent and haughty demeanor, the dude may be scary, but he’s also kind of a pompous stuffed shirt. Also, what’s with the formal wear all the time? Of all the memorable horror monsters, Dracula is probably the most pretentious, which makes him the easiest to mock — just so long as he doesn’t get his fangs into you, of course.
No doubt these were some of the reasons one of Hollywood’s most brilliant comic minds decided to spoof Dracula and Dracula movies. Unfortunately, this was 1995, when Mel Brooks’ powers were fading. To be fair, Dracula: Dead and Loving It isn’t quite as terrible as its reputation would suggest. But it still represents a low ebb in Brooks’ career — plus, it effectively ended his film career. Brooks would get his comeback eventually, restoring his legacy, but that doesn’t entirely detract from Dracula: Dead and Loving It’s very hit-or-miss quality. At the time, though, it really seemed like Brooks had lost his comedic touch — people treated this movie like a catastrophe.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Brooks was a god. Jumping from being a writer on Your Show of Shows to co-creating Get Smart, he made the transition to movies effortlessly, winning a screenplay Oscar for his first feature, 1967’s influential The Producers. Subsequent hits like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein only further burnished his reputation as a genius of smart, lowbrow comedy. Whether mocking silent cinema (Silent Movie) or Hitchcock (High Anxiety), he would take genres apart, laughing at their conventions and inserting ribald, crass, beautifully irreverent gags. Brooks was an impish prankster with a big heart.
“My comedy is midnight blue,” he said in a 1975 interview. “Not black comedy — I like people too much. Midnight blue, and you can make it into a peacoat if you’re on watch on the bow of a ship plowing through the North Atlantic. The buttons are very black and very shiny and very large.”
But by the late 1980s, Brooks was having a harder time finding worthy targets for his comedy. (If anything, he was more interested in flexing his muscles as a producer, helping get The Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s brilliant remake of The Fly off the ground.) The very uneven Spaceballs, which satirized Star Wars and blockbuster culture in general, had terrific moments, but also felt a bit tired. Spaceballs is beloved by Gen-Xers who grew up on the sci-fi films Brooks spoofed, but it wasn’t a hit, and neither was his follow-up film, 1991’s Life Stinks, a change-of-pace comedy that wasn’t a parody.
He was more successful — at least commercially — with Robin Hood: Men of Tights, which capitalized on the popularity of Kevin Costner’s hokey mega-hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and from there he decided to have some fun with vampire films. Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning Bram Stoker’s Dracula had been a sensation when it came out in 1992, and that movie formed much of the inspiration for Brooks’ subsequent parody. But he was also drawing from personal experience — specifically, how much the 1931 Dracula had freaked him out as a boy.
“I believed Bela Lugosi was Dracula,” Brooks said in 1996. “I absolutely believed it. There were close-ups of his eyes that made me believe. I was afraid to look at the screen. And I had nightmares that he would be climbing up the side of 365 South Third Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, up my own fire escape, come into my bedroom window and sink his fangs into my neck. … I’m glad now that I made him funny, so I’ve exorcized that demon, got him out of my system. I can laugh at him.”
Writing a screenplay with Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman, Brooks essentially told the Dracula story, which originally appeared in Stoker’s 1897 novel, introducing us to the notable central characters, including Renfield (Peter MacNicol), Mina (Amy Yasbeck) and Van Helsing (Brooks). As for Dracula, he was played by Leslie Nielsen, because if you were going to do a spoof in 1995, of course you would cast Leslie Nielsen. The former dramatic actor had reinvented himself in the 1980s, playing a deadpan doctor in Airplane! before making his name as Frank Drebin, an utterly clueless L.A. detective in the short-lived Police Squad! series, which morphed into the popular Naked Gun films. From there, he turned Drebin into an entire on-screen persona, appearing in so-so 1990s spoofs like Repossessed and Wrongfully Accused in which he played similarly stoic idiots.
In the midst of all that came Dracula: Dead and Loving It. It was both perfect and also part of the problem that Brooks cast Nielsen in the role. In the mid-1990s, spoofs, Mel Brooks and Leslie Nielsen were all a bit unfashionable — aging institutions whose best days seemed way behind them. Brooks and Nielsen were both 69 when Dracula: Dead and Loving It came out over Christmas 1995, and there was certainly a laid-back, don’t-reinvent-the-wheel quality to the film, with Brooks focusing on groan-worthy gags, Borscht Belt humor and plentiful sexual innuendo. (When Harvey Korman’s Dr. Seward introduces Van Helsing, mentioning all his scientific bona fides, Van Helsing jumps in to add, “And gynecology.” “Oh,” Seward responds, “I didn’t know you had your hand in that, too.”)
Depending on your perspective, Dracula: Dead and Loving It was either pretty lazy or the work of a bunch of old pros having a lark.
It seems a little weird to put a vampire comedy out for the holidays, although I suppose Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in mid-November. But Dracula: Dead and Loving It was met with scathing reviews. “Either this is the lamest Mel Brooks comedy ever or it’s too close to other contenders to make much difference,” wrote Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. “A major liability is straight-hunk-turned-aging-lampoon-hero Leslie Nielsen as the count, if only because double Bruce Barbour seems to get almost as much screen time as Nielsen himself, which leads to a lot of choppy continuity.” The film tanked, and while Nielsen went on to do more spoofs, Brooks seemed like he’d had enough.
“They really hurt. They bother me,” Brooks said the following year about Dracula: Dead and Loving It’s bad notices. Still, he tried to buck himself up by remembering that he was Mel Brooks and his critics weren’t. “I have a body of work,” he quipped. “And some of them just have a body.”
Did Brooks’ magic abandon him? Or had audiences changed? Matt Singer, a film critic and passionate Brooks fan, argued in 2013 that it might have been more the latter than the former. “In late 1995, beside the early works of guys like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, the movie looked about as cool as a shelf-worn bottle of Zima,” Singer proposed. “Surrounded by comedies full of macho swagger and flights of profanity, Brooks’ Dracula looked downright quaint; and it’s certainly a long way from the edgy, boundary-pushing of The Producers and Blazing Saddles. In place of the bold racial humor and good-taste demolishing jabs at Nazis and the Holocaust, Dracula goes for old-fashioned screwball banter and cartoonish gore. At times, it might actually be closer to the tone of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein than Brooks’ own Young Frankenstein.”
Singer isn’t the only person who’s taken up Dracula: Dead and Loving It’s cause in recent years, with the defense being that it’s actually a very lighthearted, silly comedy, nothing more and nothing less. But at the time, the movie’s critical and commercial failure felt like confirmation that Brooks should realize he didn’t have it anymore — that he was old news comedically. Brooks sorta felt the same way.
“I was seeing that at this point, Mel Brooks pictures were not doing as well as, let’s say, a Judd Apatow picture,” Brooks recalled in a 2012 A.V. Club interview. “I said, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to do something else instead of just making more movies.’ I thought, and I thought, and I thought, and I said, ‘I shouldn’t make another movie. I should follow a different road and a different vision.’”
Brooks hardly disappeared from the scene — he won a series of Emmys for guest-starring on Mad About You — but just a few years after Dracula: Dead and Loving It’s failure, Brooks dusted himself off and made a musical out of The Producers, writing the music and lyrics, and co-authoring the book with Thomas Meehan. Starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, The Producers became a phenomenon, winning 12 Tonys in 2001, including three for Brooks. Seemingly overnight, he was back on top. “I was Mel Brooks again,” he told the A.V. Club. “And I was giving the world the best of me. I was giving them the songwriter in me, as well as the comedian, as well as the producer.”
Even if Brooks hadn’t enjoyed a late-career comeback with The Producers, his greatness would still be assured. But that Broadway success was a satisfying capper, and at 96 he remains a beloved institution, with devotees like Nick Kroll paying homage to him with projects like History of the World: Part II, a nod to Brooks’ 1981 comedy. In 1995 when Dracula: Dead and Loving It was dead on arrival, it drove a stake through Brooks’ film career — at least as a director. (He’s done plenty of voice work since then, and appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm.) But in retrospect, with all the good will he’s accrued after decades of doing great work, Dracula: Dead and Loving It’s threadbare charms are a little easier to accept now.
“It almost plays like a Greatest Hits album in movie form; you can see Brooks pulling bits, jokes, actors, themes and flavors from all his old work,” Singer wrote in 2013, later adding, “The fact that Brooks has, to date, never directed another movie only enhances the feeling that this is a sort of extended curtain call for his career.”
Artists rarely go out on top, and with Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Brooks was no different. The movie is pretty stupid, but it’s not a total embarrassment. And besides, stupid humor was always one of Brooks’ specialities.