Following his Lugosi-voiced performance in Dracula Sucks, pornstar Jamie Gillis reprised the role, clean-shaven this time and with a natty blue-lined cloak, in the extraordinary Dracula Exotica (1980). Written and directed by Warren Evans (aka Shaun Costello), it’s not a sequel to the earlier film but an entirely new take. Though among the sleazier items in an already sleazy genre, it does surprisingly strange things with its lead character: well before Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, its ‘origin’ sequence shows how Dracula became a vampire (oddly, Coppola plumps for a similar explanation). Influenced slightly by Love at First Bite, in that this Dracula also comes to New York looking for love, it was aptly retitled Love at First Gulp for its trimmed UK theatrical release. The preponderance of oral sex scenes might be dictated by the vampire theme – but could also be just the kink of the filmmakers.
Some slo-mo bat footage flickers under the credits (as in Herzog’s Nosferatu) and then ‘Leopold Michael George, Count Dracula‘ (who forgets one of his names from time to time) narrates a lengthy flashback which establishes that four hundred years earlier he was a frilly-shirted Romanian prince in soft-focus love with virginal, devout Sirka (Samantha Fox, not to be confused with the British nude model and singer of the ‘80s), a gamekeeper’s daughter his father forbade him to marry. Dejected during an orgy at the castle, accompanied by gypsy music and featuring porno regulars like Ron Jeremy (who juggles apples while he ought to be paying attention elsewhere) and Randy West, Dracula drags Sirka to the dining table to be mass-groped by the drunken throng. Overcome by lust and clearly misinterpreting her refusals, Dracula rapes the protesting girl, who then commits suicide – prompting the prince to ‘curse and defy the laws of the church’. In return, God denies the Count sanctuary in either heaven or hell, gives him an eternal thirst for blood and (compromising his pornstar status) fans ‘the burning fire of lust within’ while condemning him ‘never to be satisfied’.
Four hundred years later, things get complicated as Dracula’s castle is a tourist attraction in Communist Romania and Sirka has been reincarnated as Sally Iancu (Fox again), an Irish-Romanian ‘Federal Intelligence Bureau’ agent whose boss thinks the vampire is a high-ranking Soviet spy. Dracula gets mixed up in a complex espionage plot, and comes to America ‘as a member of the cultural commission’. Sally has to meet her FIB controller ‘Big Bird’ (Eric Edwards) in a 42nd St porno theatre and go down on him while they watch a highlights reel of Evans’ earlier hit Fiona on Fire, then deal with a succession of strange characters, including an Eastern European diplomat (Bobby Astyr) who dresses her up as a little girl for an incest fantasy scene that turns out to be a set-up for his uncomfortable assassination. Even odder are Dracula’s brides, who have been failing to bring him to orgasm for a century – the vamps are played by actresses (Denise and Diane Sloan) who seem to be twins and certainly one-up Madeleine and Mary Collinson in the ‘of Evil’ stakes. Rather ungraciously, the Count has his cockney minion ‘Renfrew’ (Gordon G. Duvall, doing a remarkably good Peter Butterworth impersonation) pour holy water over them to clean house before departing for the States.
Arriving in New York on a fog-shrouded ship, Dracula has a Yorga-style fight with three thuggish drug smugglers (‘it seems that the ship carried a cargo even more dangerous than myself’), who are probably worn out from an energetic session with Puerto Rican spitfire Vita Valdez (Vanessa Del Rio). Vita stabs Dracula and steals his wallet, whereupon the vampire bites her and turns into a) a vampire and b) his secretary. An especially perverse sex-horror scene has Vita’s naked corpse mauled in the morgue by a necrophile (Joel Caine aka Herschel Savage) who is surprised when she comes to fanged life and bites him – a twist on a well-remembered scene in Blacula. This is a rare instance of porn played for suspense: we immediately guess the punchline, but it’s delayed as ominous music drones while the morgue attendant has sex with the unresponding dead woman, who only shows her fangs after he’s finished his business.
Not content with being vampire, spy and cultural commissioner, Dracula becomes a Broadway producer – apparently as a way to meet girls he can feed off. Eventually, inevitably, Dracula and Sally get together: she shows up to audition and sings a traditional Hungarian song which impresses him, and they have a romantic night-time-in-New York montage. Being in love stirs the Count’s conscience and he can’t bring himself to seek out victims (‘who is less entitled to life than I?’) while appearing in Sally’s mirror to glare seductively at her (prompting imaginative use of a candle). Sub-plots rear up again as Big Bird and Vita make separate jealous attempts to assassinate Dracula before he can flit the country with Sally. Dracula and Sally finally have sex, and the Count’s redemption is signalled when their lovemaking leads to his first orgasm since death (‘now my love, redemption is at hand’) intercut with silent movie-style crashing waves and (poetically) the ticking of a clock that stopped when Dracula became a vampire. The treacherous Vita turns into a skeleton while pleasuring the equally treacherous Renfrew, while the lovers transform into ‘doves of peace’ and fly happily towards the rising sun – which is at least an ending we’ve not seen in a Dracula movie before.
Though Dracula Exotica has the expected bits of silly comedy (an offscreen crash as Dracula flies through the window Renfrew forgot to open), it’s weirdly serious about its vampire love story and intricate spy nonsense. Evans seems to be trying to make a ‘proper film’ with a plot (too much of it, in fact) and characters (Fox plays Sirka and Sally as different people – they even have sex differently); he also pumps in the fog to stage striking gothic tableaux between grungy, rather unappealing sex scenes. It’s not exactly good, but unlike most Dracula/vampire-themed smut films, it’s not just a rote sexfest with fang-flashes and some cloak-swishing. If Gillis’s first stab at Dracula was a Lugosi parody, this is more like a Frank Langella homage – down to the flared disco-look cloak and the smouldering Italianate brooding.