Transylvania 6-5000 is an odd duck. Existing in a horror-comedy realm of slapstick humor, Mel Brooks sentiment with heavy hints of corporate influence and Universal Monsters, it boasts all the trappings of a surefire cult classic. And yet, it somehow remains an illusive, rarely talked about film in even the most enthusiastic of horror circles.
While the film gets many things right, it also makes some choices that seem to defy logic. Simultaneously eliciting genuine laughs and inevitable eye rolls, this off-kilter balance of elements seems to ultimately leave many viewers questioning what it is they just watched. Consistently creating a dichotomy of opinion since its initial release, Transylvania 6-5000 retains a unique legacy cherished by some, maligned by others. In celebration of the film’s 35th anniversary on November 8th, let’s take a look at the weird, strange trip that is Transylvania 6-5000.
“Like a train about to fly off the rails […] Transylvania 6-5000 teeters on the brink of destruction in a transfixing and oddly enjoyable way.”
Odd from its very inception, the film originated due to the Dow Chemical Company’s business dealings in Yugoslavia. Obligated to spend a certain amount of its proceeds within the country, the company decided to produce a film. Using the natural locale as cinematic inspiration, the company opted for a humor-tinged monster movie. Named after a Glenn Miller song called Pennsylvania 6-5000 (which it spoofs ad nauseum), the movie was written and directed by Rudy De Luca.
The story revolves around two tabloid-style journalists sent to Transylvania to investigate reports of a real live Frankenstein monster plaguing the town. Jack (Jeff Goldblum), an aspiring investigative reporter, resents the assignment and dismisses any authenticity to the story. Paired with Jack is the endearingly hapless Gil (Ed Begley Jr.). The son of the newspaper’s owner, Gil remains open-minded and accepts the assignment with an eager attitude. Soon the two find themselves at a quirky hotel knee-deep in mystery, intrigue, monsters, scientific experimentation, and a small-town government conspiracy.
Originally intended to be a television production, the choice to hire De Luca as the writer made perfect sense. Although perhaps best known for his writing and acting work on Mel Brooks productions like Spaceballs and High Anxiety, De Luca was also a frequent writer on comedic television shows like The Carol Burnett Show. Undeniably well versed in the laughs department, De Luca’s ability to handle the film’s comedic tone was never in question. However, perhaps more questions should have been raised when it came to De Luca’s directing ability. Quickly escalating from TV movie to a full-length feature film, Transylvania 6-5000 would prove to be De Luca’s very first foray into such a large production…and it shows. Thankfully however, the production scored big time when it came to its cast.
It’s always fun looking back with the privilege of hindsight to see how things like casting unfolded. When still planned to be a television production, De Luca fought to get Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari to play the parts of the reporters. Although both starred together in the comedy series Bosom Buddies, they were relatively unknown and production would not sign off on the young Tom Hanks. Paul Reiser (Mad About You) was also turned down for the same reason. However, when Jeff Goldblum and Ed Begley Jr. were offered as options, the duo had just enough experience under their respective belts to get green lights. Each still young and on the verge of stardom, Transylvania 6-5000 offers a rare look at a pivotal moment in their careers as each begin to truly embrace their own style and on-screen personas.
Also among the film’s stacked cast are comedic icons Carol Kane (Scrooged), John Byner (The Black Cauldron), Joseph Bologna (Big Daddy), Michael Richards (Seinfeld) and of course, Geena Davis (The Fly). All at various stages in their careers at the time, each brought invaluable contributions to the film in their own unique ways. To illustrate this point, let’s talk about one of the more obvious weak points of the film; the wealth of lingering, unedited scenes. Sometimes stagnant and unnecessary, there are times when it feels like the camera has simply been left rolling far longer than it should. However, this flaw can often be quickly forgiven considering the moments where this tactic proved beneficial to the film thanks to the talent in front of the camera.
For example, there’s a famous scene where Kane and Byner (playing a married couple working in the hotel) were only given direction to cut fruit in the Transylvanian hotel kitchen. What resulted is a minutes long, completely improvised comedic back and forth between the two professionals that highlights not only their character dynamic, but their talent as well. Another comes from a surely improvised performance from pre-Seinfeld (and pre-racist rant) Michael Richards. Exhibiting familiar Kramer-like behavior, Richards forces Begley Jr. to smell a variety of foods and drinks while serving the newly arrived reporters breakfast in the hotel. Awkward and strange, it’s nearly impossible not to laugh at the sheer length and absurdity of the moment. So impossible in fact, Goldblum poorly conceals his own breaking composure.
“Completely bonkers and absurd from beginning to end, Transylvania 6-5000‘s legacy lies in this murky realm of eccentricity.”
It’s in these moments, these likely unscripted performances, that Transylvania 6-5000 gains traction. Unfolding like a live-action Scooby-Doo theater production, the movie feels very strangely un-movie-like. Although the story and script are most certainly there, the caliber and array of comedic talent seem to dictate the direction more than De Luca himself. Imbuing the film with a strange, voyeuristic feel of authenticity, this approach creates an atmosphere that many movie-goers are simply unaccustomed to. Like a train about to fly off the rails, or the latest reality TV obsession, Transylvania 6-5000 teeters on the brink of destruction in a transfixing and oddly enjoyable way.
Joseph Bologna playing an Italian plastic surgeon with a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde complex seemingly dependent on his location within a room? Sure! Why not!? A werewolf that’s actually a man suffering from hypertrichosis? It’s in there. Geena Davis as the vampiest pseudo-vampire that ever vamped? Obviously a major highlight of the film. Questionably aggressive sexual advances from our lead character and oddly adult content for a PG-13 film? Yep. All this and so much more can be found in Transylvania 6-5000.
Completely bonkers and absurd from beginning to end, Transylvania 6-5000‘s legacy lies in this murky realm of eccentricity. Garnering one of the shortest reviews ever from famous film critic Leonard Maltin, he famously reviewed the film by saying simply, ‘Transylvania 6-5000 stunk.’ However, one could argue (and I am) that this film is not for the Leonard Maltin’s of the world. This film is not a shining example of prestigious, notable or even competent filmmaking. It’s a film that defies logic, accepted modes of execution or simple genre classification. It’s a film that highlights comedic acting chops and foreshadows stardom to come. It’s a film that paired up Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum for the very first time (thank Crom), and it even has a few monsters in it. While time often provides a critical lens that calls attention to a film’s flaws or attributes, Transylvania 6-5000 has remained fairly consistent. Still just as bananas as ever, Transylvania 6-5000 will inevitably have you laughing and scratching your head in its own quirky way.
What are your thoughts on Transylvania 6-5000? Are you a fan of its oddball comedy? Despise its stuttering execution? Share your thoughts with us over to Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook, and get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.