Every now and again, a movie is made for a perculiar reason. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was made by the Quaker Oats Company because they had obtained the rights to the use of Willy Wonka for a candybar line. As it turned out, the candybars melted too quickly and the line flopped. But the movie persevered and became a classic.
Marty, the 1955 movie, won four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine. It was meant to be a flop. Hecht-Lancaster Productions, which was co-owned by Burt Lancaster, had intended the movie based on a 1953 TV movie to bomb. Why? So they could write it off on the taxes. Every expense was spared. But the movie became a hit.
Transylvania 6-5000, released in 1985, was funded by the Dow Chemical Company. You see back during the 1980s, the Cold War was still ongoing and Eastern Europe was a lot different than what it is now. Yugoslavian law prevented any money Dow had from being repatriated. So, they had to find a way to use the money to be spent in Yugoslavia to make a profit. And what better way than produce a movie.
But there’s only so many movies you can film in Yugoslavia. Enter Rudy De Luca, who had worked with Mel Brooks on Silent Movie and High Anxiety as well as helping found The Comedy Store with Sammy Shore, father of Pauly. De Luca had been trying for years to get the script to made at New World Pictures, an independent studio and distribution company, co-founded by Roger Corman. With help from producers Mace Neufield, who had produced the first and second Omen movies, and Thomas H. Brodek, who were able to talk with Dow about financing.
With a budget of $3 million, production began with an impressive cast consisting of Jeff Goldblum, Ed Begley Jr., Geena Davis, Carol Kane and Joseph Bologna, among others. Locals were used as extra and most filming was done on location. Sara Grdjan, who plays the an American in an crucial role, was a local who didn’t speak English and had to learn to speak her lines phonetically.
The premise has two journalists for a tabloid, Jack Harrison (Goldblum) and Gil Turner (Begley) who are sent to Transylvania by Gil’s father, Mac (Norman Fell). His office has received a home video of some American tourists in Transylvania who claim to be attacked by Frankenstein’s monster, even though it’s referred to just as Frankenstein. Hesitant, they go to Transylvania where they are surprised by how the city looks quaint and “cute” as they say. They’ve also arrived as the city is celebrating its annual wine festival.
But Jack is more interested in a fellow American tourist, Elizabeth Elison (Teresa Ganzel). Gil, on the other hand, wastes no time asking people if they have seen Frankenstein around town. This results in the locals including the mayor, Lepescu (Jeffrey Jones) making fun of him. All Jack and Gil see are just some weird locals. They go to stay at a hotel owned and operated by Lepescu who wants to turn it in a theme hotel with a worker, Fejos (Michael Richards) acting goofy.
There’s also a hunchback servant, Radu (Josh Byner), and his overly-attached wife, Lupi (Kane). At first Jack and Gil don’t notice much except for Fejos’ odd behavior which is hardly what Mac is looking for. When he goes to the location where the video was shot, Gil meets Inspector Percek (Bozidar Smiljanic), who seems sinister. Most of their investigations at first turn up short.
But they learn of a doctor, Victorio Malavaqua (Joseph Bologna), who’s receiving care at the local sanitorium. Malavaqua lost his license but still works on people in a dungeon/lab with Radu and Lupi as his assistants. A running joke is that Malavaqua is a very nice man when he’s outside of the lab but turns into the “mad doctor” when he steps across the threshold into the lab. And Malavaqua’s work is behind the mysterious video.
It turns out that the man who everyone thinks is Frankenstein’s monster is Hundayi (Peter Buntic), a local who was in a traffic accident that left his body mangled and Malavaqua treated him, which explains his stiff gait and appearance. And there is Larry Malbot (Donald Gibb) who suffers from a condition where he grows body hair all over and has been getting treatments through Malavaqua. In the end, most of the “freaks” are just regular people being treated by the doctor. Odette (Geena Davis) is a nymphomaniac who is constantly trying to get it on with Gil.
The Scooby-Doo like ending where it’s revealed that characters are just suffering from health problems and issues kinda tries to wrap the movie up with a deus ex machina. I feel that De Luca was struggling with the budget. He’s trying to make his own version of Young Frankenstein but doesn’t have the spark that Brooks brought to that movie. This was the first and last movie De Luca ever directed. He would go on to appear in Spaceballs and Life Stinks, which he co-wrote.
There is a little bit of charm and humor to the movie. The scenes between Goldblum, Begley and Fell have a nice back and forth banter as Fell plays Mac as someone who doesn’t care that the tabloid he owns is crap and takes pride that it’s crap. There’s also a subtle reference to Goldblum’s role in The Big Chill where he criticizes how he’s only writing stories that people can read while going to the bathroom. Mac tells Jack he hired him “to raise the vocabulary” of the paper, which means most of the newspaper has been printed with simple words with the fewest syllables, which was a statement on the dumbing down of journalism.
There’s also something humorous how none of the accents by the locals seem authentic and how most of the signage is in English when it would be in Romanian. And there’s also the question of how Lepescu mocks Jack and Gil for expecting Transylvania to be like from the horror movies but is operating a castle as a hotel to cash in on the horror lore. But the movie does have a goofiness to it. Goldblum and Begley play their roles perfectly.
Maybe De Luca needed some more writers to help him with the script. The set-up is great, it just seems to be muddled at times. And there’s a buildup up Elizabeth as a character and then she disappears mostly through the middle. But like I said, I feel there was some budget issues. Produced on a $3 millon budget, it made over $7 million at the box office. It’s not a huge success but at least Dow got to make a profit.
What do you think? Please comment.