A BITE OF NOSTALGIA: LOVE AT FIRST BITE
I have a vague memory of my first encounter with the horror-comedy Love at First Bite (1979). One weekend, when my siblings and I were over my dad’s, we watched a battered VHS copy, or maybe it was on TV (the picture quality was poor). I was young at the time, and with a very short attention span, so I wasn’t all that interested in what was on the screen. However, I do remember being fascinated by George Hamilton because he didn’t resemble the classic Universal Studios version of Dracula. As a kid, I also recognized Hamilton as the evil warlock Desmond, starring alongside Cathy Moriarty, Shelley Duvall, and more in the highly campy Casper Meets Wendy (1998). (It’s funny how even then, I had a knack for placing faces with movies.)
A BITE OF NOSTALGIA: LOVE AT FIRST BITE [FILM REVIEW]— Horror Oasis (@Horror_Oasis) October 5, 2021
I wonder how this simple, quirky horror-comedy was able to have such a lasting impact. Is it really anything special, or does our love of it come purely from nostalgia?https://t.co/zL9jXF206u@GeorgeHamilton
Several years later, I found a Fotonovel adaptation of Love at First Bite at a local rummage sale. A Fotonovel (or photo novel, if we’re not talking about Fotonovel Publications) is basically a comic book novelization of a movie – but with actual full-color images from the film instead of illustrations. My interest in the film began to grow.
I also later discovered that “Love at First Bite” was a family favorite on my mom’s side. Apparently, my grandmother had a mini-crush on Hamilton, so this was a regular on her watch list. From my mom: “She thought Hamilton was cute…your grandmother always liked horror movies, especially vampire movies like ‘The Lost Boys’ and ‘Salem’s Lot.’ She also liked ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Amityville Horror’ (she thought James Brolin was cute, too).
With three generations of family members enjoying the film, I began to wonder how this simple, quirky horror-comedy was able to have such a lasting impact. Is it really anything special, or does our love of it come purely from nostalgia? Recently, while browsing at my local comic book store, I found “Love at First Bite” on a double-feature blu-ray along with the Jim Carrey vampire comedy “Once Bitten” (1985). Of course, the blu was released under one of my favorite labels, Scream Factory. This was a sign to me that, after twenty-something years, it was finally time for a rewatch.
Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. What I forgot about “Love at First Bite” is that it takes place after the events of “Dracula.” We learn that Vladimir (Dracula) escaped from Van Helsing with assistance from his daylight guardian, Renfield. He also failed to turn his soulmate (reincarnated as Mina Harker) into a vampire. Several decades to a century later (the timeline feels a bit unclear), Vladimir’s given new hope when he sees supermodel Cindy Sondheim on the cover of one of his magazine subscriptions. On a soul-deep level, he knows that Cindy is the reincarnation of his one true love. After being exiled from Castle Dracula by the Transylvanian government, Vladimir and Renfield head to New York to find Cindy.
What I most enjoyed about “Love at First Bite” was the way it interpreted classic horror characters. Offbeat reimaginings of Dracula and Renfield are paired with original characters who have a connection to the original plot from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Let’s take a look at our main players:
George Hamilton plays a highly sensual and romantic Dracula (another ultra-romantic Dracula that comes to mind is Gary Oldman’s version from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film). This is a Dracula who takes only what he needs in terms of blood to survive, and his main purpose is to find and court the old soul he knows in Cindy. One thing I love about this film’s version of Dracula is his acknowledgment of his perceived flaws. He knows that he’s alone, that he isn’t perfect, and that he’s out of his element in a new and contemporary world. He laments to Renfield, “How would you like to go around dressed as a head waiter for the last 700 years? …How would you like to dine on nothing but a warm liquid protein diet while all around you people are eating lamb chops, potato chips… How would you like to not have Christmas presents, Easter egg hunts, garlic toast?” This is a Dracula who feels tired and past his expiration date – but he has a renewed sense of purpose when he meets Cindy. During his scenes with her, he always cuts straight to the point and tells her exactly how he’s feeling: “I am Dracula, a great power, and yet I’m humbled before you. You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved.”
Cindy, played by Susan Saint James, is no damsel. She drinks, smokes, and is sex-positive. She frequents a disco club almost every night (I’m surprised she doesn’t bring a bodyguard, since she’s one of New York’s most popular models). Despite a seemingly glamorous life from the outside, she isn’t happy. We see a soft sadness in her eyes in her first scene – a nighttime photo shoot. Several people are touching up her outfit and applying makeup. Vladimir transforms into a dog and approaches her, giving us her first bit of onscreen joy. Vladimir later finds her at the club, and the two hop into bed together pretty fast. The film wastes no time getting these two characters together. I guess we have to remember that her soul recognizes him, so right away she feels intrigue, mystery, comfort, and a mix of so many other emotions. The most surprising thing about Cindy, for me, is her matter-of-fact “it is what it is” attitude about Vladimir being the Dracula. She knows pretty early on who/what he is, and she’s totally fine with it. The morning after she receives the first bite, she tells her therapist and unofficial boyfriend Jeffery, “If last night was any indication of what it’s like to be a corpse, it sure beats the hell out of living.” So, she never really questions what he is – he just is, and that’s enough for her.
“If it hadn’t been for that cigarette case I got you for your birthday, [Dr. Van Helsing] would have driven that stake right through your heart,” Renfield muses at the start of the film. Second to Cindy, perhaps the most surprising character for me is Renfield. He really is present through the whole movie and facilitates everything for Vladimir – from the luggage and his coffin at the airport, to booking a hotel, to meeting with the head of a modeling agency and frightening her with a snake so he can locate Cindy. While Renfield doesn’t always get it right and makes mistakes, the film depicts him prominently and in a positive light. He is clever, resourceful, and he cares about his master.
I’d have to say that there really aren’t any hardcore villains in this film; everyone is pretty much likable – even Jeffery, Van Helsing’s grandson and Cindy’s therapist and lover. Jeffery’s sole mission is to destroy Vladimir before he turns Cindy. Perhaps Jeffery’s biggest problem is his reluctance to commit to Cindy after nine years of “dating.” During her therapy session, he tells her, “Darling, I almost love you.” He never quite wants to take the leap, and when he does, it’s too late. Instead he spends his time maniacally focused on finishing what Van Helsing started. And once more, we never really get to hate him because 1) he’s funny, and 2) we see that from his point of view, he’s doing the right thing. He’s trying to protect Cindy.
Memorable Lines and Inappropriate Humor
Characters aside, “Love at First Bite” contains a bounty of memorable one-liners and funny moments. Are they “roaring with laughter” inducing moments? I don’t think so, but you’ll still get a few chuckles in. It’s more of a silly wink-at-you humor, knowing full well it’s poking fun at the source material – Stoker’s novel. It’s very much in the same vein as “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.” Vladimir’s first lines in the movie are, “Children of the Night, shut up!” In New York, when Vladimir and Cindy have their first conversation at the club, Vladimir tells her he can give her eternal life, to which she replies, “Oh no, not another life insurance salesman.” In another scene, Renfield mimics a rooster crow to signal to Vladimir that the sun’s coming up and to return to his coffin. And, despite not having seen the film for many years, my mother remembers the petty argument between Vladimir and Jeffery (both pros at hypnotism) when they meet at a restaurant: “You are getting sleepy…sleepier and sleepier.” “No, you are!” “No, you are!” “No, YOU are!” It’s enough for Cindy to leave the restaurant by herself and let the two men have at it.
Despite these memorable moments, there is dated and problematic racial stereotyping in some of the other jokes and scenes. “Love at First Bite” was released in April of 1979; if the movie regularly aired on TV today, there would likely be a disclaimer, similar to ones released by Warner Brothers and Disney. The disclaimer before “Tom and Jerry” cartoons perhaps word it best: “Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.” One problematic scene includes an out-of-work father of a Latino family trying to catch Vladimir in bat form, believing him to be a chicken. Another racially charged scene includes a Black street gang facing off with Vladimir, and one of the gang members runs away with a TV. There are other scenes that fall flat and feel dated, but these two sticks out to me as problematic because they are obviously racist and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. It’s a shame because there are a lot of diverse supporting actors in the film. The strongest character who doesn’t fall into racial stereotyping is perhaps the judge played by Isabel Sanford, who dismisses Jeffery’s claim that Dracula is running amok in New York.
Before movies like “Fright Night” and “The Lost Boys,” there was “Love at First Bite.” While “Fright Night” was one of the earlier films to make vampires cool and contemporary, “Love at First Bite” takes a step into the city and into the 20th century, but it relies heavily on the traditional Bram Stoker source material. For that reason, and for the issues mentioned above, the movie feels dated. “Love at First Bite” has one foot in the past and one foot in the present – and that sort of sums up my fondness for the movie. My grandmother’s appreciation for the film (or maybe her appreciation for George Hamilton) and other horror movies clearly influenced me. So maybe some of it is nostalgia. But as a longtime horror fan, I’ve also learned to appreciate various elements of the movie on my own. If you’ve seen the movie, or if you have the double-feature blu paired with “Once Bitten,” I’d love to hear your thoughts on either film! You can reach me at the links below.
Bret Laurie is an editor, writer, and longtime horror fan living in Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in English at Worcester State University and currently has six years of editing and social media marketing experience.
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