Director: Rudy DeLuca

USA - 1985

    Hoff! Hoff! Hoff!


So my lovely wife George and I were sitting in our local Turkish restaurant, waiting for our falafel plates and listening to the T-pop they were piping in (did I mention I sometimes love living in Chicago?), when George changes the subject and asks, “So, what’s the deal with Transylvania 6-5000?”

What’s the deal, indeed.

I’d just recently bought the aforementioned movie on a trip to the in-laws, visiting her parents and her brother and his fiancée; the men of that clan are notorious collectors of visual media, so when the women went off to shoNorman Fell.  Always a good sign.p after lunch, we went to Best Buy to trawl through the DVD aisles.  Thankfully, they’ve finally started treating DVDs like VHS tapes, and releasing any old trash they feel like.  So came Transylvania 6-5000 into our possession, which sparked the question.

I have fond high-school memories of seeing Transylvania 6-5000 on the HBO.  I recalled it as a madcap comedy with a loose grounding in the classic horror stereotypes, and a cast of well-recognized Hollywood luminaries camping it up, but frankly, I’d glimpsed nary a frame since, and when I saw it on the Best Buy aisle, I felt compelled to purchase it (it was the same way with Top Secret; oh, how the cinematic Muse moves through our lives…).  As it happens, George had heard of it, but not seen it, so it was clear that a viewing was soon to be in order.

Which brings us to this review, naturally enough.

First, you have to realize that Transylvania 6-5000 is supposed to be a screwball comedy.  It has Stooge-like elements, fish-out-of-water elements, some fairly random visual gags, and, yes, a number of things that fall flat on their own, but which can be enjoyed in the context of thAnd yet another sign of quality.e greater whole, I think.  Then again, I’ve been known to be quite forgiving if properly charmed by a film.  The leads in Transylvania 6-5000 are Jeff Goldblum (of Earth Girls are Easy, with Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans, The Favor, the Gold Watch, and the Very Big Fish, with Brits Natasha Richardson and Bob Hoskins, and a number of more successful mainstream pictures) and Ed Begley, Jr. (from Meet the Applegates and many, many others, stretching back into the ‘60s).  The partnership is quite good; it was just for this one film, but they seem to have an almost Road-movie “bickering opposites” kind of chemistry, which makes me wish they’d done more together.  They’re both pretty good with language, which works for the word jokes, and it’s nice to see them able to take a good physical gag here and there.  Pratfalls can be worth it.  But it’s mostly when they play off each other that they really shine.  It’s good, I think, when the buddies in a buddy-movie start off with a functioning (if prickly) relationship.  Of course, things get unhinged later, but that’s after the comedy is well underway.

They play a rather Abbott & Costello-like pair of reporters working for a trashy Enquirer-like rag: Goldblum’s Jack Harrison is a sITT Tech showed me how!erious journalist fallen on hard times, and Begley’s Gil Turner is the hapless but earnest son of the publisher, Mac Turner (Norman Fell, handling himself about as well as he did in Hexed).  Some tourists shot a video of what they claim was the Frankenstein monster (mis-identified, as is usual in these movies, as Frankenstein, himself), so Jack and Gil are sent to Transylvania (which, I initially thought, looks not too unlike a Northern California town, though with more lederhosen.  (I later find out it was shot in Yugoslavia, which surprises me, and still doesn’t explain the lederhosen)) to look for Frankenstein.  However, once they arrive, the first thing that catches Jack’s eye is Elizabeth Ellison (played by Teresa Ganzel, the unwealthy man’s Goldie Hawn).  You’d think since they just came off a long bus trip from wherever the train station was supposed to be, he’d have noticed her when they were both still on the enclosed space of the bus, but apparently not.   Elizabeth is vacationing in Transylvania with her daughter, Laura (Sara Grdjan, in her only film role to date), trying to get some distance from her messy divorce.  She’s handy with aTeen Wolf was also made in 1985.  Coincidence?! bottle, which is mentioned in passing and then becomes more and more evident as we approach the conclusion.

Gil, on the other hand, besides being the dim-witted foil for Jack’s antics, is immensely credulous of the whole Frankenstein monster story, as well as any of the other legendary monsters.  It takes him only a few moments of conversation in the local hotel to turn them into the laughingstock of the whole village, particularly the Mayor, a man named Lepescu (Jeffrey Jones, of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Howard the Duck) and the local police commander, Inspector Percek (Bozidar Smiljanic).

Their hotel is actually an ancient castle, in the process of being renovated.  They are met at the gate by the bellman/manservant, Fejos (Michael Richards, of “Seinfeld” fame, in an almost incoherent performance filled with lunatic energy).  Fejos performs an inexplicable puppet routine, the first of many completely random and surreal “comedy” bits.  In a way, Fejos’s antics must be accepted in the same way that the bloodshed in Dead Alive must be accepted – let it wash over you, and past you, and you might see the genius on the other side.  Not that Michael Richards is necessarily a genius, but the oddity of his physical comedy in this film, the sheer strangeness, has its own charm, if you can transcend the annoyingness of it.  And with Richards, Jones, Goldblum, and Begley, they’re the tallest cast in show business, already.  And when we finally meet Geena Davis, that height average just keeps climbing.

Fejos is just one of the strange inhabitants of the castle; the actual owner is Lepescu, who wishes to turn the place into a tourist attraction.  The domestic staff is comprised of diminutive “hunchback” Radu (the redoubtable John Byner) and his equally diminutive and bent-over wife Lupi (Carol Kane, of “SCTV” fame), and they comprise the lower end of the height range in the film.  Neither has an actual lump on their back, but they certainly act as if they do.  Lupi’s life goal is to be near her beloved husband and to help him.  Of course, Lupi’s interpretation of “helping” is not necessarily the same as that of an objective observer.  Comedy!  Well, actually, some of it is.  That’s the tricky thing with this film; some of it really seems forced, but that’s mixed in with the stuff that seems like it could be demented genius.  Could be.

So the bumbling reporters find no indication of Frankenstein, although there does appear to be something amiss in the town.  An old gypsy tells them of a werewolf, her son (though theThe best parts of the’s a red herring at first).  As the movie goes on, Gil sees things – a sexy vampire woman, for one.  He also gets tipped that that Mayor Lepescu and the Inspector are up to something.  They both go to intimidate the chief doctor at the local asylum, Doctor Malavaqua, a good-hearted man (played by Joseph Bologna) with a serious problem – whenever he enters his secret lab, he musses up his normally slicked-down hair and just goes nuts.  He’s a mad scientist, but only within a certain defined area.  Which is good for a few gags, but makes you wonder how he travels.  He doesn’t seem to realize what happens to him, but he does remember his activities inside the laboratory.  It’s one of the many things that doesn’t quite hold up to logical thought, but then again, it’s a madcap comedy, innit?

Or is it?  In portraying it as a comedy fable, the writer/director, Rudy DeLuca, cloaks his points in the safety of metaphor.  The Transylvanian town, so intent on dismissing its haunted past in favor of tourism and merchandising – is it so different from our own culture?  Recall how the Disney corporation wanted to take over a number of historical sites in and around Washington DC some years ago, no doubt to sanitize and spin the history of our nation safely, even more so than our Wow.  This movie truly represents a "Who's Who" of Hollywood.textbooks do, and charge people $3 for a can of soda pop.  Think of how, in recent years, they’ve taken the scariness of the Grimm’s fairy tales, or the mythology of any number of other stories from many cultures, and, for the most part, neutered them by de-fanging the monsters and throwing in a few show-stopping musical numbers.

The business conglomerates, personified by Mayor Lepescu, and the authoritarian forces of the military, as portrayed by Inspector Percek, allow the media free reign, as long as they don’t question the party line.  As soon as they begin to root out the uncomfortable truth, the reporters are victimized, framed and imprisoned.  One might think the film were prescient, except that in modern America, the media is owned by business conglomerates, and so doesn’t bother to print what would be bad for business.  Unlike Jack and Gil, the watchdogs of our liberty have been muzzled by their new owners.

And of the “monsters,” of which there are a number?  I hope I don’t tip anything when I say they are mere representations of greater ills in the world, representing the objects of our intolerance of anything different, of the “other.”  Xenophobia has always run rampant in our culture, and it’s served the purpose of the government and business to encourage that paranoia all through the Cold War; it led to greater power and money for those at the top.  It’s been such a successful tactic, is it any wonder we’re still fear-mongering whenever we Another Ed Begley Jr. pick for good measure.can get away with it?  In the movie, the forces of the Establishment continue this tactic, ignoring and denying any presence of the “other” until it makes itself known, and then trying to whip the crowd into a murderous frenzy.

So, under the safe illusion of entertainment, does DeLuca illustrate a scathing criticism of Cold War politics, media repression, and human intolerance?  Can understanding the “monsters” of the world really bring about peace and a bigger readership for this page?  Is Fejos not actually crazy, but merely sane in a crazy world?

Probably not.

Still, if nothing else, the above few paragraphs show how easy it is to ascribe meaning to the meaningless.  Therefore, read all media criticism with a grain of salt.  For that matter, distrust authority of all sorts.  You’ll be glad you did.  (Climbing off the soapbox, now.)

So, is it worth a watch?  I believe so, if only to see the collection of mid-‘80s talent on display, and to hear Jeff Goldblum sing snippets of Fiddler On The Roof while strangling Ed Begley, Jr.  It’s silly, and sometimes so abstract and absurdist as to be nonsensical, and that can be off-putting to some.  When someone says a given movie is stupid, it could be because they don’t understand it (an example being the people who just didn’t understand O Brother Where Art Thou and told my sister it was dumb), or it could be because the movie really is stupid.  I believe I understand Transylvania 6-5000, and I can tell you this: it’s tricky.  It walks a line between annoyingly juvenile and brilliantly loony, and everybody’s going to make their own judgments on any given joke.  It’s best to see this film in a frame of mind where you can be happy with either end result; that way, no matter how you feel about it at the end, you’ve had a good time.







These are the times of which to cherish...

Gyspy fortune-tellers!  Can’t get enough of them Gypsy-fortune tellers!

- Just as Jack plays straight man to Gil’s antics, Gil ends up playing straight man to the even loonier comedy of Fejos, and that plays for some of the best little throwaway gags in the film.  Between the inexplicable puppet, Fejos’s “meditation” techniques, and the little evasion dance that Gil and Fejos do one time when Gil is on his way to town, there’s more than enough evidence to class them as the movie’s secondary comedy partnership.

- Tertiary comedy pairing would have to go to Radu and Lupi.  As annoying as her characters may get, as shrill and nasal as she may make her voice, I still find Carol Kane so enchantingly pixie-like, I can’t get particularly put off by her.  The obvious love with which she invests every interfering act in this film is a good example of her work.

The Frankenstein Monster, when we see him in action, is pretty funny.  In fact, all the classic monsters are fairly amusing, even though sometimes it’s a big stretch as to how and why they’re in the state they’re in.  Still, with a movie like this, you’ve got to roll with the plot.

- Fake headlines have rarely been so obviously fabricated.  Wait, what am I saying – I see the Weekly World News!  I should know better!




Buy it! We love your money!




-- Copyright © 2003 by E. Mark Mitchell





Home  Reviews  Ramblings  Mail  Updates  Links