Mama Dracula (1980) Mama Dracula (1980) -**

     You remember Full Moon High, right? It’s okay if you don’t— that’s what the link is for. I ask because Mama Dracula is kind of like the Full Moon High of 1980’s vampire movies, except that it isn’t about teenagers, and never comes within half a mile of a high school. And it’s an art film. And it’s Belgian. And it borrows a lot of its humor from Blood for Dracula and The Fearless Vampire Killers. All of which ought to mean that Mama Dracula isn’t like Full Moon High at all, except that somehow it really, really is. Both movies are overly long, bafflingly structureless, often painfully corny horror comedies that seek to duplicate the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker technique of overcoming the weaknesses of any individual gag by shoveling them at the audience in such profusion that it becomes almost impossible to keep up, and both movies fail at least partly because they never manage to reach the overwhelming pace of an Airplane! or a Naked Gun.

     Peter Von Bloed (Jimmy Shuman) is a brilliant but impoverished young hematologist who lives in a dumpy little New York apartment with his grandmother (Suzy Falk, of Scenes from a Murder and Jailbait)— Gram Stoker, if you can believe that shit. Von Bloed is working on a formula for synthetic blood, and while he’s nowhere near success as yet, his preliminary findings have apparently won him a fair amount of notice. One evening, he receives a letter from Countess Erzsebet Dracula (Louise Fletcher, from Exorcist II: The Heretic and Flowers in the Attic), inviting him to attend the International Blood Congress at her castle in Transylvania. There are at least four red flags in this letter— blood, Countess Dracula, Transylvania, and Erzsebet as in Erzsebet Bathory— but Peter fails to notice any of them. Overjoyed at this sudden professional validation, he books himself a flight to Romania at once.

     Inevitably, Countess Dracula’s castle is not located in downtown Cluj. Although there is a town comfortably close by, it mysteriously seems not to have a railway station; Peter’s train merely comes to a halt in the middle of the woods, at which point the ticket taker ejects him and his baggage beside the tracks. Pursued at a distance by the usual unseen pack of howling wolves, Peter nevertheless finds his way unharmed to an inn, where he receives a curiously emphatic welcome. The proprietor (Jose Gral) practically throws his cute, blonde daughter, Virginia (Marie-Françoise Manuel), at the new guest, unmistakably with the intention of getting the two kids laid, and the Gypsy band immediately strikes up a raucously upbeat tune as if to offer further encouragement. The amatory reception quickly goes off the skids, however, when Peter explains his business in the area. In fact, the countess is evidently so unpopular among her subjects that nearby objects— glasses, dishes, small articles of furniture— spontaneously break at the mere mention of anything to do with her. Then along comes Countess Dracula’s maid and valet, Rosa (Michel Israel), to collect Peter, and the whole crowd makes themselves as scarce as possible. You can see why, too. Picture a cross between Glenn Danzig and Superman IV’s Nuclear Man, only fat and ostensibly female, and you’ve got Rosa nailed.

     She’s not the weird member of the Dracula household, either, as Peter discovers when he arrives at the castle and meets Vladimir (Marc-Henri Wajnberg) and Ladislas (Alexandre Wajnberg), the countess’s twin sons. The twins are a living refutation of the tradition that Judaism is sited on the X chromosome, for although Erzsebet is as Gentile as they come, Vladimir and Ladislas both sport Frank Zappa-like Jew-’fros and vast, Hebraic beak-noses that would not be surpassed until George Lucas applied cutting-edge computer graphics to the problem in Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. They’re also the queeniest pair of poofters that ever you’ll meet, even though the main third-act plot thread (to the extent that it makes sense to speak of either “acts” or “plot” in the context of Mama Dracula) later requires that we accept them as straight (or at least bi). Seriously, no conceivable amount of drag would suffice to make Tim Curry less masculine than these two. Vladimir and Ladislas basically do the “Dracula’s brides” thing with Peter after Rosa drops him off to return the carriage to the stables (an odd point in itself, since we’ll later see that the countess owns a perfectly serviceable 1930’s Rolls Royce), but before they have a chance to sink their fangs into the doctor’s neck, the lady of the house makes her grand entrance and takes Peter off the twins’ hands.

     Even Peter isn’t so dense as not to notice that he’s the only apparent guest at the castle, so it will come as no surprise that there really isn’t any International Blood Congress meeting this week. The whole thing was merely a plausible-sounding ruse to get Von Bloed out to Transylvania so that he could step up his synthetic blood research under Countess Dracula’s patronage. The countess, you see, is a great deal older than she looks. Oh, she’s not technically a vampire (although her kids certainly are), but she has preserved her life and youth through several centuries by means of regular baths in the blood of virgin girls. The twins’ clothing boutique, Vamp, serves as a front operation for harvesting said victims, but as a different Dracula learned some years before, modern mores have made virgins a much scarcer commodity than they were in previous eras. That’s where Peter comes in. The countess is prepared to fund his experiments to the tune of a million US dollars, and to provide him with whatever he needs by way of equipment and laboratory space. In fact, there’s already a pretty decent mad lab set up for him in the dungeon (converted from an industrial-grade brewery, from the looks of things). It’s just a question of how soon Von Bloed can start.

     Actually, it’s also a question of adequate raw materials. Peter had been using rabbit blood as his starting point back home, but now that he’s got a serious backer, it quickly becomes apparent that only human blood will do. So far as he can tell, he’ll require at least ten gallons’ worth, which works out to at least ten virgins at the usual rate of about one gallon of blood per human circulatory system. That’s a lot more victims than Vladimir and Ladislas have ever collected at one time before, and the heightened activity naturally attracts equally heightened attention, of both the official and the vigilante persuasions. The regulars at the inn have always regarded the Draculas with immense suspicion, of course, but now the fiances of the vanished girls have their dander up, too, and are banding together under the leadership of one particularly aggressive and determined man (Vincent Grass, later of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian). Meanwhile, the local commissioner of police (Jess Hahn, from Sexy Sinners and The Trial) is on the case with his best detective, a prodigy of investigation by the name of Nancy (Maria Schneider, from Merry-Go-Round and Memoirs of a French Whore). The situation is further complicated when the whole Dracula household (Peter included) goes to check out the theater where Nancy likes to spend her off-hours performing, and all concerned save possibly Rosa end up falling in love with the girl cop. The Draculas being the sort of people they are, their response to this turn of events is to kidnap Nancy (weirdly, we never see the kidnapping itself— she just turns up locked in one of the castle towers without explanation), which doesn’t obviously redound to their advantage.

     Wasn’t there some movie during the Joel Hodgson era of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” that one of the Satellite of Love’s inmates accused of having nothing to do with itself? That’s as good a description of Mama Dracula as any. It has roughly half an hour’s worth of actual story, parceled out stingily across fully twice that much random zaniness. We’ll get a short scene that advances the plot somehow, followed by a much longer one of Vladimir and Ladislas clowning around the castle. Or we’ll get one plot-advancing scene bracketed by two in which the innkeeper attempts to get Virginia de-virginized, or the countess talks to her psychiatrist, or (again) the twins goof with each other at the Vamp boutique. The Nancy subplot comes straight out of nowhere, at a time when Mama Dracula has seemingly been getting along fine without a love interest for more than an hour, and appears to exist solely to allow a denouement that no one could possibly predict on the basis of anything that had happened previously. The climax hinges on a fashion show at the castle which arrives similarly unheralded; I can’t think of anything since The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s concluding floor show that rings the “wait— we’re doing what now?” bell half as hard. Basically, it takes an almost boundless love of weirdness for its own sake (and an almost boundless capacity to be amused by weirdness for its own sake) to get much enjoyment out of Mama Dracula. It also takes a great deal of sheer patience, because the cumulative meanderings make the film feel much longer than it really is. I was sure this movie was in the two-hour class until I looked at the clock, and discovered to my astonishment that only a bit more than 90 minutes had elapsed. You have to be able to care less about what Peter Von Bloed is up to than about the simple opportunity he presents to spend time with a character who is equal parts Harold Lloyd, Udo Kier, and James Lorinz in Frankenhooker. You have to be able to extract endless mirth from the mere presence of the Oscar-, Golden Globe-, and BAFTA Award-winning Louise Fletcher in a loopy arthouse horror comedy. You have to not mind how many of these jokes you’ve seen before in at least two previous notable skewerings of the vampire subgenre. And as with far too many not-very-funny comedies from days of yore, you have to believe that both Jews and men in women’s clothing are inherently hilarious. If you can do any or all of those things, you might find Mama Dracula worth your while to some extent. If you can’t, then God help you.



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