Long before the Twilight saga Jim Carrey was turning into a bloodsucker while simultaneously looking for love. The year was 1985. The film was Once Bitten.
Howard Storm’s strange but alluring tale of vampire’s chasing virgin blood is like the celluloid lovechild of an unfortunate sexual encounter between Porky’s and The Lost Boys. Yet, while it tries dearly to comment on eighties youth culture in the guise of modern vampire mythology, it ultimately fails at both. Two years after the release of Once Bitten, Joel Schumacher would get it spot-on with his take on the teen-fuelled, modern vampire genre with The Lost Boys, because his film was much more clearly orientated – that and the fact it had a cracking script and great soundtrack. Released the same year as Once Bitten, Fright Night worked a whole lot better because it forgot about silly, idealist pretensions and went to town on the conventions of a genre that were begging to be deconstructed. However, Once Bitten does still have something of an attraction – Jim Carrey. Yes, I said Kim Carrey! In one of his earliest film roles he shows real signs of the manic comic performer he would become. And, without any doubt, mature temptress Lauren Hutton strutting around trying to find a legal virgin to seduce is nothing short of every teenager’s dream, and the youth sex culture presented to us makes for some quite hilarious comic moments.
The film begins with Sebastian (Cleavon Little) taking a glass of blood to the Countess (Lauren Hutton) who comments, much like a wine tasting, “Austrian Peasant. Early 1700s. O-positive.” We then learn that Halloween is only a week away and that if she does not find a virgin before the week is out, she will lose her youthful looks. She sends out her band of merry bloodsuckers but they keep coming back empty handed, claiming the best they could find was an eleven-year-old. Eventually though, she happens across Mark Kendall (Carrey). Mark’s girlfriend still hasn’t put out after a long relationship and he languishes in a sexless world battling raging hormones. Deciding to head to the city in a desperate attempt to find a woman who’ll take his virginity, Mark falls into the arms of the Countess. For some reason, she must drink his blood three times before Halloween arrives to ensure her survival. In doing so, Mark will become a vampire himself. But will he realise what’s going on before it’s too late?
Sebastian, the Countess’ butler, driver and general slave asks her, “Did we get up of the wrong side of the coffin this evening?” which provides a good clue as to the direction of the humour. It isn’t as if Once Bitten isn’t funny, it’s more a fact that nothing feels quite right. The balance between what is ostensibly a vampire survival guide coupled with bawdy teen sex comedy never reaches the potential it could have, and where individual scenes are enjoyable on their own, as a whole they’re less fulfilling. The Lost Boys, for example, didn’t have trouble mixing comedy with the mythology of the vampire legend – but who could resist the charm of the Goonies meets Near Dark plot, something Once Bitten simply does not have. Odd visual glimpses (which the director will probably claim mean something), strange incoherent plot points, the Countess’ terribly contrived and uninteresting gang of bloodsuckers, and a couple of awful dream sequences have you scratching your head. They’re just out of place – perhaps director Storm was trying too hard?
On the plus side, the sex gag running through the film with people constantly finding places to acquaint themselves with the opposite sex – from cars to coffins – is very funny, and Mark’s testosterone-fuelled friends Thomas Ballatore and Skip Lackey are great in their desperate plight to lose their virginity (‘I’m a mature person, you’re a mature person. Let’s just throw away our inhibitions and get down to what we really want to do!’).
Jim Carrey shows off his talents well before the likes of The Mask and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective came along (the films that projected him into the $20 million a movie bracket), especially in a dance scene where he plays his leg like a guitar. Though the scene is another one that feels strangely out of place. It’s actually so entertaining that even though it feels like another film altogether you just have to give Storm credit for raising a smile. This little dance-off ends up being one of the film’s highlights. The Countess and Mark’s girlfriend, played by Karen Kopins, (acting wise she’s terrible in this film, but she’s drop dead gorgeous so I’ll let her off) strut their dancing moves to win Mark’s affection, but he ends up joining in and it turns into something straight out of Grease – will Sandy get her man?
It is very difficult not to enjoy a film where, during a sexual encounter, one character asks the other, “Have you got any protection?” and the guy pulls out a rubber glove. Equally, when Mark, having begun the vampire transformation, goes to a fancy dress Halloween dance and everyone thinks he’s dressed up as a vampire yet he proclaims: “I’m Not Wearing A Costume!”. Or when his girlfriend goes to the school’s librarian to seek help overcoming her undead nemesis – it’s extremely funny watching a guy say: ‘”Goodness gracious. You know, it is most unfortunate the shocking reputation that vampires are having these days”, with an accent that is part David Letterman, part Apu out of The Simpsons.
Other films might do a similar thing with more finesse (Fright Night, The Lost Boys) but there’s something remarkably quirky about Once Bitten. And while it might be a flawed film, it has enough up its sleeve to warrant a viewing.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Howard Storm
Written by: Jonathan Roberts, David Hines, Jeffrey Hause, Terence Marsh
Starring: Lauren Hutton, Jim Carrey, Cleavon Little, Karen Kopins, Megan Mullally
Released: 1985 / Genre: Teen/Comedy/Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
This review is part of 31 Days of Horror: