In Not Guilty, we look at movies that the general consensus tells us that we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should embrace -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time we head back to the '80s to scare up a few laughs with the often-overlooked horror comedy Transylvania 6-5000.
The horror comedy genre started back in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it really exploded. Granted, there had been some notable classics before then; Abbot and Costello had a number of horror comedy flicks in the '40s and '50s, the '60s gave us Little Shop of Horrors, and, in the '70s, the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show debuted.
But it wasn’t until the '80s that horror comedy graduated from producing sporadic cult classics to mainstream success, thanks to hits like Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Beetlejuice. While those movies earned their place as sentimental staples in numerous childhoods, their triumph brought on an onslaught of less-than-memorable flicks from the decade attempting to join the party. One such film is Transylvania 6-5000, the wacky American/Yugoslavian horror comedy that didn’t fare nearly as well as its peers at the box office.
I have a soft spot for this movie, probably because I remember it playing fairly frequently on HBO and finding the ridiculousness of it pretty funny. The theme song has managed to stay ingrained in my brain decades later, as have other parts of the movie. So, of course, this meant it was time to revisit this lost gem from my childhood and give it the Not Guilty treatment.
Here's why Transylvania 6-5000 might be worth a second look.
Michael Richards is hilarious
Richards plays Fejos, the barely competent butler/assistant to Transylvania’s mayor/hotel owner Lepescu. Fejos, like his employer, is a big fan of jokes, and Fejos has plenty of them. Whether they’re particularly good is another question.
But the jokes aren’t supposed to be good, and it’s that off-brand anti-humor that makes everything Fejos does so funny. His wannabe comedian antics are supposed to elicit eye rolls and groans while he clueless pushes on, blissfully unaware of how unfunny he is.
Watching Richards in Transylvania 6-5000 is like watching Kramer’s long-lost Romanian cousin. The same physical comedy that Richards brought to Seinfeld was present in Fejos, just with more goofy gag jokes and a bad accent. His lack of awareness along with the indifferent to at times annoyed reactions from everyone around him make every scene with Fejos that much funnier.
Jeff Goldblum and Ed Begley Jr. made a perfect comedy pair
How Goldblum and Begley didn’t end up making multiple movies together escapes me, because this was a pairing that worked perfectly even if the movie itself wasn’t top-notch. The two play a pair of mismatched reporters sent on a harebrained assignment to track down mythical monsters in Transylvania. Jack ( Goldblum) is a disenchanted journalist who is fed up with the sensationalism and hack reporting that have become status quo with his job and just wants to do “real journalism." Gil ( Begley) will pretty much do anything to appease his editor, who happens to also be his dad.
Goldblum as an apathetic and sarcastic writer played perfectly off Begley’s over-eager, clumsy muckracker. The two of them nailed the all-too-real stereotypes of two types of journalists: the seasoned and embittered pro who loves to hate his job and the over-zealous newbie who just wants kudos from his editor despite the assignment.
The chemistry between these two is reminscent of those early Abbott and Costello movies, like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Sure, it's not of that classic comedic caliber, but the rapport is definitely there. Begley is the hapless schmuck who keeps finding himself in all sorts of unbelievable scenarios with no witness and no way out of them.
It’s a beautiful mess
Part of seeing the brilliance behind Transylvania 6-500 ( and yes, I just called it brilliant) requires appreciating the messiness of it. It’s not as perfect as a Mel Brooks classic, which it’s pretty obvious the movie aims to be from the start ( director/writer Rudy DeLuca worked on a few Brooks films, so it’s not such a reach).
But that unpolished, low-budget campiness adds an endearing quality to the movie. It feels like a really long SNL skit in which all the players are thoroughly enjoying themselves, even as things get progressively sillier and weirder and the humor may not be making anyone other than them laugh. For example, there’s a dinner scene of some sort shortly after Jack and Gil arrive at the hotel and Fejos is serving them. Goldblum almost completely breaks character a la Jimmy Fallon and starts laughing at Richards. The scene, which was completely improvised, speaks volumes about Richard’s comedic chops and gives a glimpse at how much fun was had on that set.
That unpolished element, which there’s plenty of, adds a special something to the movie. It’s a reminder of why it was such a fun watch as a kid. Watching it instantly brings you back to a time when sometimes things were just funny because they were silly, stupid, and they made you laugh. I've mentioned the '80s Vortex before and how movies from that time are often a reminder of how less refined and aware we were as a culture, but this isn't that. It's slapstick and camp, the kind of goofy humor that made you laugh deliriously at sleepovers with your friends when you were younger. Transylvania 6-5000 is simple, and that simplicity is even more appreciated when compared to the over-produced, big-budget films that saturate the market today.
Do you think Transylvania 6-5000 is a horror comedy worth revisiting, or does it belong in the dust pile of history? Let us know in the comments!