The Wynorski Project - Part Seven "Transylvania Twist"
The Wynorski Project
At the urging of his Uncle Ephram, Dexter Ward seeks out Marissa Orlock, a beautiful blond recording artist whose father, Marinas, disappeared decades earlier with a dangerous mystical tome capable of unleashing terrible evil on the world. Just minutes after they meet, Marissa and Dexter learn that her father has died and they must travel to Transylvania to claim her inheritance and find the book. At Castle Orlock they are joined by her father’s old friend and executor, vampire hunter Victor Van Helsing, Marissa’s evil Uncle Byron, his manservant Stefan and his three busty “adopted daughters” Patty, Laverne and Maxine. Blood is shed, a lot of cleavage is exposed (but no breasts are bared), stuff explodes and there’s a happy ending for everyone but Uncle Byron.
I find myself stuck in a difficult position discussing Transylvania Twist. The problem is that I think there’s a lot of potentially great material in the film. Jokes that—on a purely conceptual level—display a lot of insight and wit. But I never laughed once. Intellectually, I appreciated what Wynorski and R.J. Robertson, the film’s screenwriter, were trying to do, but I never actually connected to the material. And I’ve yet to figure out why this is. Hopefully I’ll figure it out somewhere around the 1000 word mark.
Despite all of the humour found in his previous films, Transylvania Twist represents the first outright comedy Wynorski directed that was actually intended to be an outright comedy from its inception (unlike Deathstalker II, which turned from a straight sword and sorcery movie into a comedy during production).
According to the Internet (an admittedly shaky source of information) Wynorski actually replaced Charles B. Griffith, the screenwriter of the original Not of this Earth, The Little Shop of Horrors and Death Race 2000, as director. While Griffith had moved on from scripting to directing with efforts like Smokey Bites the Dust and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II, the fact that Transylvania Twist was written by Wynorski’s good friend and frequent collaborator, Robertson, suggests to me that he had always been its intended director, even if Griffith temporarily got the assignment first.
Unlike their previous three collaborations (Big Bad Mama II, Deathstalker II and Not of this Earth), Transylvania Twist marked the first time Robertson and Wynorski were able to create a completely original work, which I think explains why it doesn’t feel as laboured and tedious as those other films. Unfortunately they chose to strike out on their own in a genre that had already been mined clean over the past few decades.
Successful parody, I find, is very rare. Either filmmakers fail by being too toothless and doing little more than acknowledging a series of broad pop-culture references (see Repossessed or any of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s films) or they become too savage and essentially denigrate any audience knowledgeable enough to appreciate its jokes (Slaughter High strikes me as the best example of this). Even the most famous parodists exhibit, at best, spotty track records. Mel Brooks gave us the transcendent Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (a film whose success I believe should actually be credited more to star/screenwriter Gene Wilder than anyone else), but he also made Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, both of which suffered from being too overtly influenced by the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker Airplane! school of rat-ta-tat-tat 100 JPS comedy.
Not only does a film like Transylvania Twist suffer in comparison to a much better film like Young Frankenstein, but it also suffers when its inevitably compared to a much worse film like Transylvania 6-5000 (a film written and directed by occasional Brooks collaborator Rudy De Luca), because the association alone is enough to bring it down.
In terms of actual content, the film Transylvania Twist most resembles is John De Bello’s Return of the Killer Tomatoes, a film which does a good job of finding the fine line between childish mockery and prescient satire. Many of Twist’s best moments are ones that poke fun more at the medium itself than the horror genre. For example I appreciated the scene shot in one take in which the cameraman has to run through library stacks to catch up with his subjects, only to become distracted by a blonde’s abundant décolletage:
It’s a fun potshot at the pretentious done-in-one camera shots made famous by Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, even if it doesn’t even come close to matching their bravura grandiosity.
Equally good is the moment where Marissa (80s sitcom star Teri Copley) becomes aware of the sound of the bassoon playing on the soundtrack, only to open her closet and find Patty (Wynorski regular Monique Gabrielle who is oddly credited as “?” in the end credits) sitting there playing the large woodwind instrument. Pretty much the exact same joke can be found in De Luca’s Transylvania 6-5000—with a violin substituted for a bassoon—but it works much better here thanks to the way Copley and Gabrielle downplay it, refusing to offer any acknowledgment of its absurdity.
Unfortunately as clever as these moments seemed, they still failed to make me laugh. Some of this, I think, can be blamed on Wynorski’s failure to maintain a consistent tone. A dilemma faced by filmmakers who enter into this kind of comic territory is that much of the material will inevitably seem juvenile and broadly simplistic, which often makes the more sophisticated and adult material seem out of place. Another explanation is that for every clever conceit that comes close to working, there are several that fail abysmally instead. The best example of this is the scene where Marissa and Dexter wander onto the vacant set of The Honeymooners, which turns their world black and white and causes their every statement to be followed by canned studio laughter. Not only is it a detour away from the film’s horror parody theme, but it’s a terribly dated and tired reference even when you remember that the film was made 22 years ago.
And despite the bassoon episode I mentioned above, Wynorski ruins a lot of jokes by flashing a bright spotlight on them. Not intent on just being the 1000th director to feature Forrest J. Ackerman in a wordless cameo, he also has to make sure we get it by having the former publisher hold a copy of his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, despite its incongruity with his role as funeral director.
Also adding to the lack of laughter is Wynorski’s tendency to direct his actors to play the material as broadly and over-the-top as possible. Many potential parodists forget that what made the early Z-A-Z films so enjoyable was that they featured recognizable actors playing their roles completely straight. Airplane! succeeds because it features Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves giving the same performances they would have given if they had been cast in a drama instead. The humour comes not from any feigned wackiness, but instead the hilarious contrast between the normal and absurd.
That said, there is a great performance in Transylvania Twist thanks to Wynorski veteran Ace Mask (also a highlight in The Return of Swamp Thing), who plays Van Helsing. The flashback scene between him and Brink Stevens is about as close as the film came to arousing a chuckle out of me.
The rest of the cast is unfortunately hit and miss. Robert Vaughn as Uncle Byron never gels into his role, while Your Show of Shows vet Howard Morris as Marinas Orlock comfortably plays out the same shtick that made people confuse him with Arte Johnson for decades. Steve Altman as Dexter was obviously cast for his impression skills, which go a long way towards reminding me why I innately dislike impressionists and Angus Scrimm appears to have been cast as Stefan solely to justify the Phantasm joke that comes near the end. Even Boris Karloff, who provides a posthumous cameo via clips from Roger Corman’s The Terror, fails to come off that well.
As per usual in a Wynorski film, the female cast was clearly chosen more for their ability to properly fill out their sexy costumes than to sell jokes. Copley tries her damnedest to do a good job, but at a certain point her Marilyn Monroe act starts to feels too overtly contrived. And I suspect that the kind of professional jealousy alluded to in the most recent commentary for Not of This Earth might explain both Gabrielle’s stilted, unconvincing performance and the bizarre non-credit she receives at the end.
In the final analysis Wynorski’s seventh film is one I wanted to like, but whose simple failure to compel the correct response from me forces me to deem it a failure. I dunno, maybe I was just in an especially assholish mood this week….
Sorority House Massacre II/Hard To Die