Monday, October 30, 2006

Dracula: Dead & Loving It: Renfield saves the night

Dracula: Dead & Loving It is, first and foremost, one of the great movie titles. I mean, come on. It's a Brooksian finish to a classic item, just like one of the film's great lines: "Children...of the night...What a mess they make." Simple. Brilliant.

and all its incarnations are prime material for satire simply by dint of their premise. Bloodsucking wraith -- alone with a lifetime of pain -- must feed on the supple necks of the misbegotten aristocracy, who then turn into vampires themselves. It can be a fairly rote allegory for the black plague or the degenerative nature of madness and isolation (as teased out by Werner Herzog in his creepy, stylish adaptation) or the need for artists to feed on helpless, exploited victims (as teased out by the wonderful, enchanting Shadow of the Vampire).

But before this turns into a college thesis, let us rejoice in the great pleasure of Leslie Nielsen as the count. If one lives for hundreds of years, one would have to develop a great sense of humor to survive psychologically, right? If we're using straight logic, Nielsen is the most believable of the Dracula incarnations. He sucks blood and cracks jokes. It's a way to make the eons pass. And there's still no drop in the body count.

Twenty years earlier, Brooks was more successful with a different MGM monster adaptation; Young Frankenstein, the funniest movie ever made, relied on the inherent comedy of silly situations rather than point-and-shoot gags, like D:D&LI, which deigns to feature the Stooges' two-finger eye poke during its climax. Yes, Brooks's comedies have dwindled in quality over the years, and D:D&LI is by no means a deviation from that trend. Why, then, do I love it so?

The answer is Renfield, who is usually the annoying, pitiable, one-dimensional dumbass in the Dracula story. Peter MacNicol, that tremendous and under-recognized comic talent, plays Renfield in D:D&LI for all he's worth (and I can't even find a clip on YouTube, or a photo on Google images). It is the most committed comic performance in the history of motion pictures -- more so than the Marx brothers, or Harold Lloyd, or Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, or those madcap fellows (Mostel, Wilder, Mars) in The Producers, or even MacNicol's own triumphs in Addams Family Values ("Brava!") or Ghostbusters II ("He is Vigo!"). MacNicol has so many whizbang moments in D:D&LI that it's hard to recover from laughing before the next one hits you.

It's all in his skittish delivery, his "Renfield shriek," his deft maneuvering of pratfalls -- plunging out of the sanitarium, eating bugs at the breakfast table, "losing" the tail of the guards. Consider his reaction after it turns out he was followed, or after he realizes he's addressed Dracula as "master" instead of, well, "Mister! Mister!" This is a Renfield for the ages, and his aggressive mastery of the second banana role makes the count shine as well, even as he's killing him, even in spite of Dracula's disparaging final line, which employs that Brooksian finish: " asshole!"

This post is part of The Film Experience's Vampires Blog-a-Thon. Click Bela Lugosi to get to the headquarters, where scads of other bloggers are opining about one of cinema's most enduring subjects. Tomorrow's post: a by-the-minute diary of my viewing of The Exorcist, a film I swore I'd never watch again after it reduced me to hysterics in 7th grade. Well, I did watch it again. And I survived. But it was dodgy at points...


Rusty said...

The Addams Family Values camp scenes absolutely slay me.

"Cause that's what being privileged is all about!"

J.J. said...

Due credit also goes to Buffalo's own Christine Baranski. She and MacNicol are a pair for the ages. They should host every awards show, in character.

lucy fur said...

Don't forget Harvey "Give 'em an enema" Korman. Outstanding.

Kamikaze Camel said...

The best bit in Addams Family Values is the cracking a smile bit. Hilarious.

Anyway, I haven't seen D:DaLI, but this entry actually sorta makes me want to. I won't it. But I nearly wanted to.


i've never seent his on account of my fear of Mel Brooks but i liked this post. and i too love MacNicol in AFV.

"white meat. and dark meat. take it awayyyy"

J.J. said...

Fear of Mel Brooks? Sounds like you need to address this on your own blog.

I'd love for everyone to see D:D&LI, but I know few would share my enthusiasm. People's tastes have become so refined.

JavierAG said...

This was one of my favorite films as a kid. Mina and her servant idiotically responding to Dracula's call is possibly the funniest thing ever.

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