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REVAMPING HIS CAREER

Mel Brooks has clearly lost a step in recent years. But before writing him off as the literally 2,000-year-old man, have a look at Dracula: Dead and Loving It. It's a satire that has some of the old Brooksian flash and fizz.

The Guinness Book of Records tells us there have been more than 160 movies about Dracula, his assorted brides, descendants and sidekicks, from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu in 1922 to Francis Ford Coppola's incarnation seven decades later. Talk about undead: Everyone but John Wayne seems to have impersonated the world's favorite vampire at one time or another. Even George Hamilton.

Now comes Leslie Nielsen.
Even those who say Brooks can't hack it any more will have to admire his casting here. The bumbling, white-haired cop from the Naked Gun movies makes for an equally inept Dracula: hurtling fang over cape down a flight of cobwebbed stairs; plastering himself against a ceiling, then crashing to the floor; fouling up the spells he casts so thoroughly that he winds up hauling a plump maid out of a darkened boudoir instead of the sleeping beauty. Nielsen gives off plenty of trademark bafflement, but as always, it's wrapped inside his vain try at dignity. You half expect him to bite his own neck. You don't expect him to check his elaborate wig (half Gary Oldman, half Liberace) at the door, but he does that, too.

Bram Stoker wouldn't be able to make heads or tails of Brooks's goofy plot, and that's probably just as well. Suffice it to say that the befanged one buys a gloomy English manor house this time around, then has to endure a storm-tossed sea voyage from Transylvania during which his coffin bangs back and forth across the hold while he groans from within.

In England the count finds himself situated next to a sanatorium whose batty proprietor, Dr. Seward (Harvey Korman), believes in nothing so deeply as the frequent enema and who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of nubile maidens on the premises. Faithful Brooks fans will recognize the Borscht Belt humor; what they may not be prepared for is that this Dracula lives up in many places to the comedian's best movie. Believe it or not, Young Frankenstein is about to turn 22, and the new picture makes for a nice companion piece--same surreal take on Gothic horror, same playfulness with language ("Nosferatu? You mean she's Italian?"), same over-the-top physical comedy.

Brooks himself plays Van Helsing, a wild-eyed loon who takes as much delight in grossing out young medical students viewing their first autopsy as he does in getting in the last word on his vampire antagonist--in a hilarious language called Moldavian. True to his best form, Brooks also provides two elaborate dance numbers featuring Nielsen and pretty Amy Yasbeck--one of them based on the old saw that a vampire leaves no image in a mirror. There's a nice piece of business about shadows moving of their own accord on a castle wall, and one featuring a bedroom strung with 500 or so pounds of garlic to fend off the bloodsucker. Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee may not have approved, but Brooks and Nielsen puncture the Dracula legend with unbridled glee. Not since Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle clumped through their famous "Puttin' on the Ritz" duet in Young Frankenstein has Mel Brooks seemed to have so much fun.

There are some flat spots, too. It's tough to keep up the intensity in a comedy this broad, and Peter MacNicol's Renfield, a dolt who's become the Impaler's slave, seems to have the most trouble. Not so the movie's deadpan Jonathan Harker (Steven Weber), who plays straight man--and sexually repressed English twit--against the others' wild antics. When voluptuous Lucy (Lysette Anthony), who's already got fang marks on her neck, comes on to Jonathan, he protests: "But I'm engaged...and you're dead!"

Luckily, though, the movie is not. Mel Brooks has parodied Hitchcock in High Anxiety, the Western in Blazing Saddles and Errol Flynn in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, among others, with mixed results. But there's something about horror movies that brings out the best in him: The exaggeration and dark style of the genre work awfully well against his knockabout brand of humor. Based on the current evidence, the old master's comedy career, too, is happily undead.

 
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