You’d never get away with a plot like this these days. Indeed the twist ending will come as just as much of a shock to modern eyes as it would have been intended to be for the film’s original 1974 audience – but for entirely different reasons. That said, there’s an underlying sense of social progressiveness that underpins the conservatism of most of the comedy, that rescues Vampira from being entirely a relic of another age.
It’s the 1970s, and Count Dracula survives the twentieth century by hiring out his Transylvanian home as a haunted castle, playing up its vampiric reputation to the unsuspecting tourists upon which he feeds, prudently and anonymously, while all the while searching for a host of the particular blood type he needs in order to resurrect his dead lover, the Countess Vampira. When a group of Playboy models arrive at his home on a promotional shoot for an article about a rakish author’s new book, Dracula finds the sample he requires but carrying out the transfusion comes with an unexpected side effect: the Countess revives in the form of what modern parlance would have it a Person of Colour.
If that wasn’t offensive enough, the Count then spends the ensuing two-thirds of the film’s running time tracking down a “cure”.
Except that’s not the whole story. Appearing during the middle of the American Blaxploitation boom, Vampira is a very English take on the genre – brimming with groovy dialogue, music and fashions – and is essentially a story about liberal youth rubbing up against reactionary traditionalism. From the pen of Jeremy Lloyd – the writer behind Are You Being Served? and ‘Allo ‘Allo – the plotting is deceptively thorough and the characterisation nicely arch, but never ostentatious. It’s an easy-going if occasionally eye-opening watch, the chasteness of the necking (not that kind of necking) and briefness of the nudity at odds with its inherent message about permissiveness and transformation.
David Niven is delightfully still and aristocratic as the Count, with just enough of an air of playfulness to establish the actor’s complicity in the narrative. His side-kick, Maltravers (Bayliss) is his perfect foil, a deadpan funny man who keeps the comedy from sliding into slapstick. Elsewhere there are jobs aplenty for familiar British character actors and comedians – the Carry On films’ Bernard Bresslaw among them, which should give you an idea of the tone – and a roster of hot young(-ish) talent to keep them all on their toes. Nicky Henson is especially well cast as the author with just as much of an eye on the girls as the almost sexless, non-aging Dracula does.
A very entertaining combination hiding the then quite daring and outré within the familiar and cosy.
VAMPIRA (AKA OLD DRACULA) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: CLIVE DONNER / SCREENPLAY: JEREMY LLOYD / STARRING: DAVID NIVEN, TERESA GRAVES, PETER BAYLISS, JENNIE LINDEN, NICKY HENSON / RELEASE DATE: 14TH AUGUST