Absolutely not a film to be judged by today’s neo-puritan standards, “Vampira” (released as “Old Dracula” in the US to cash in on the recent success of “Young Frankenstein”) is steeped in the saucy, cheeky and, yes, casually racist and sexist humour of the early seventies but taken on its own terms, it has a certain amusing charm, thanks in large part to David Niven’s wonderfully elegant Count Dracula.
Down on his luck, Count Dracula (David Niven) has been reduced to opening up his castle as a tourist attraction to help pay for its upkeep. With the help of his faithful retainer Maltravers (Peter Bayliss), Dracula puts on cheesy horror shows for overnight guests, feeding on their blood during the night as they sleep. When a group of Playboy Playmates visit the castle for a photo shoot, Dracula sees his opportunity to test their blood for the rare type which will revive his long-lost love, Vampira. But when the blood samples get mixed up, Dracula’s experiment has mixed results as his love comes back to life, but as a black woman. Determined to reverse the process, Dracula follows the group back to London to find the right blood transfusion to restore Vampira.
Although there’s a crassness to Dracula’s reaction to his bride (played fleetingly by an uncredited actress), it’s clearly driven by wanting his wife back as he remembered her rather than any aversion to her new ethnicity. Indeed, it’s difficult to sympathise with Dracula under any other interpretation because his newly revived bride, played by Teresa Graves, is absolutely stunning. Vivacious and sexy, there’s a tacit acknowledgement of empowerment and equality underpinning the of-their-time racial jokes, most of which are benign but some of which tread a very fine line indeed. Ultimately, though, this is a story of Vampira’s growing pride in her identity and revelling in it, eventually winning Dracula around too.
Graves is an alluring delight and injects a real sense of mischievous fun which compliments Niven’s droll elegance wonderfully. Both of them deserved a stronger vehicle than “Vampira” provides and while there are amusing moments and witty dialogue – nearly every exchange between Niven and Bayliss is an utter delight (Peter Bayliss comes close to stealing the film), the whole film just isn’t funny enough.
There’s no sign of Dracula as a bad guy here, really: he doesn’t really mean to kill anyone and there’s even a scene where he interrupts a mugging/ sexual assault in a car park, rescuing the young lady in question (who brushes off the quite brutal experience in a damming summation of the social mores of the time). Apart from that oddly discordant moment, though, the rest of the movie plays out as a low-wattage bedroom farce. There’s the usual bed-hopping antics and mistaken identity shenanigans you’d expect from a tame sex comedy although there are a few moments of titillating nudity, again standard for the time. Every now and again, though, a little edge pokes through and there are little shards of genuine darkness and horror still visible that suggest this was lightened up into a frothy, bawdy comedy from a much more horror-oriented script at some point in its development.
It ends on a weirdly welcome progressive note, even if it involves an astonishingly misjudged make-up joke, and there’s a lot of old-fashioned humour to get through to get there but there’s no denying that Niven – past his prime but still wonderful to watch – and the sensationally alluring Teresa Graves manage to inject just enough bite into proceedings to avoid leaving a bad taste in your mouth.