When I last reviewed Vampira – also known as Old Dracula, a retitling that shamelessly tried to cash in on Young Frankenstein – in the 2000 book Ten Years of Terror, I was very dismissive of the film, which I declared to be both woefully unfunny and dubiously racist. What can I say? I was clearly a much more humourless and right-on prig back then. As it turns out, I was completely wrong about the film. It’s no masterpiece, certainly, but there’s a nostalgic charm to this, a few good chuckles and the contentious racial element of Clive Donner’s film needs to be contextualised rather than simply condemned. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
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. But his transfusion from Afro-Carribean model Mynah Bird has an unexpected side-effect – it turns Vampira black.
Okay, so let’s pause here. It’s easy – and I know, because I did it – 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 Dracula 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 wooly), 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 1974 London, with its sex 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 sexy, 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 let’s not pretend 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.
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.