I first saw Once Bitten in 1995 when I was home from school with a fever. Maybe it was the fever talking, but I loved it.
I first-rewatched Once Bitten three nights ago when it came on Starz. Guess what? It’s not quite the movie I remembered.
It’s time to play Nostalgia Buster, which is where I seek to answer the age-old film fan question, “Does it hold up?”
The Film: Once Bitten
The Plot: A horny teenager’s quest to punch his V-card results in an encounter with an older woman who turns out to be a centuries-old vampire (played by former supermodel Lauren Hutton) who has to ritualistically feed on virgins to maintain her appearance. Basically, it’s an 80s teen sex comedy with a supernatural twist.
Backstory: Once Bitten is a classic case of a movie which would be forgotten and lost to history if not for the convenient fact that one of its stars went on to become insanely famous. See also: Johnny Depp’s Private Resort. In this case, that star is Jim Carrey, who was just 23 and several years into his stand-up career when Once Bitten was made in 1985. The film didn’t do much of anything at the time of its release, destined to instead be revisited once Carrey skyrocketed to film stardom in 1994 off of Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber and The Mask.
What I used to like about the movie: Jim Carrey’s affable persona. The dance scene. The fun melding of vampire movie and 80s teen comedy tropes.
What I noticed upon re-watch: Lots. Let me list them for you.
1. Jim Carrey Is Kind of an Asshole, and He Totally Gets Away With It
Once Bitten is very much so an 80s comedy, but there are some interesting homages (a little bit of Grease sprinkled here and there) and plays on the familiar tropes. Is there a protagonist desperate to lose his virginity? Sure, but in Once Bitten it’s not good enough for Mark Kendall (Carrey) to just be rejected by his girlfriend Robin (Karen Kopins) at the city’s makeout spot. No, he also has to get out of his car and despair as an overhead shot perfectly establishes that every other parked car on that hill is rocking and everyone other than him seems to be having sex.
Once the Countess and Mark have their first encounter and the supernatural begins to meld with the teen comedy, vampirism functions as a metaphor for puberty exactly the same way Teen Wolf (which came out the same year) used teenage lycanthropy as its puberty stand-in. Mark starts going through “changes” which alarm his parents, and he frequently awakes from vivid dreams about the Countess.
So, give Once Bitten credit – it is not wholly unoriginal, and there are a couple of funny running gags, especially the way the Countess always pushes down some random, innocent pedestrian whenever she leaves a room in anger. However, there is a despicable quality to the plot in that Mark plans to cheat on his girlfriend rather than continue waiting until she’s ready.
Not cool, man.
It’s initially a stray thought born out of frustration, mumbled during a conversation with his horny best friends Jamie (Thomas Ballatore) and Russ (Skip Lackey). Mark actually frames it in a positive light, reasoning if he could just have sex with some random girl in the city he could go back to having fun with Robin and stop pressuring her into something she doesn’t want to do.
Total dick move.
It feels like the movie knows that, though, or at least Jim Carrey (and the studio executives sending down script notes) did. Mark only goes into the city and heads to a trendy bar because his friends talk him into it and invite themselves to go with him. Once there, he’s the first to give up and ask that they just go home. When the Countess beckons him over, he does awkwardly flirt with her, but he only goes home with her because an exaggerated domestic dispute incites a riot and police raid of the bar, meaning the Countess more or less grabs his hand and insists they escape together.
Come with me if you want to, um, cum?
He’s very much so a kid in over his head, and he never physically cheats on Robin, although what the Countess does to him kind of seems like the vampire version of oral sex. He doesn’t know that, though. The Countess tells him they had sex, or at least heavily implies it. His initial reaction is of relieved joy, but by the next day at lunch he’s reluctant to talk about it because he doesn’t really remember anything. Robin, of course,overhears this conversation, and instantly breaks up with him.
Yeah, good for her. Fuck that guy.
Oh, no, no, no. It’s the 80s. She forgives him a couple of days later.
Mark: I called you ten times last night. Why didn’t you pick up?
Robin: There’s nothing to talk about. You go out behind my back. Pick up a woman at a bar. Go home with her, and then pretend nothing happened. Well, I don’t want to talk about that.
Mark: That’s not fair. I was drunk.
Come on, man. You can do better than that.
Mark: I made a stupid mistake. I’m sorry. I’m a teenager. I’m supposed to make stupid mistakes. I wouldn’t try to hurt ya, you know that.
Just walk away Robin. This man will bring you nothing but heartbreak. If you take him back now how many “Oops, but in my defense I was drunk” incidents will he try to get away with in the future?
Sigh. Probably plenty because Robin ends up blaming herself.
Robin: I guess that’s why I’ve been so mad because I think maybe you did what you did because of me. Because I was making you so frustrated.
Mark: No you weren’t. I mean, you were, but you’re supposed to. That’s part of being a teenage girl. You’re supposed to say “no,” and I’m supposed to get pissed off.
Robin: You make it sound like the 50s.
Mark: I guess I’m an old-fashioned guy.
Robin: I really want to do it. That’s what’s so funny. I think I want to do it as much as you do. I just have to know when I’m ready, then I’ll know. I swear I’ll tell you.
And with that, Mark puts his arm around her shoulder and they walk to class together, reunited. To some degree, this scene feels written as if Mark and Robin realize they are characters in a movie, what with the frequent references to “Isn’t this what teenagers are supposed to do?” Still, wow, way to let yourself be a doormat there, Robin.
Let’s just say women rarely fared well in 80s teen comedies. To be fair, Robin later proves quite forceful, and she’s the one who ultimately saves Mark. However, I had forgotten just how easily she forgives his apparent transgression.
2. The Dance Scene Is Still Super Fun, Albeit Wholly Illogical
The most obvious reason to watch Once Bitten is to glimpse Jim Carrey’s talent in its infancy, looking for signs of the version of rubber-faced actor we would come to know.
For the majority of the film, Mark most resembles Carrey’s mild-mannered Stanley Ipkis from The Mask, often hunched over and comically exasperated but usually rather ingratiating. There are little flashes of Carrey’s signature comedy. He impersonates Robert DeNiro. He contorts his body like an In Living Color character while trying to make Robin laugh at work. But as Carrey performances go this would mostly fall in the restrained category.
Boom, then this high school Halloween party scene happens, and it’s like you’re watching an early Mask rehearsal. Sing it with me now: “Hands Off! He belongs to me/Hands Off! He’s my private property/Hands Off! I’ll tell you just one last time…The boy is mine”:
Look at them doing one of those clearly rehearsed, but technically “unrehearsed” teen comedy dances. Awwww. And look at Jim Carrey and his noodle-like body, undulating back and forth between Robin and the Countess. Love this scene!
However, re-watching this through adult eyes you can’t help but wonder: Is no one at the school alarmed a half-naked older woman they’ve never seen before just crashed their big dance and rather suggestively circled one of their students? I don’t even mean that in the modern context whereby female teachers seducing younger male students at school is a legitimate issue now. I simply mean it in the sense that there’s a complete stranger at the dance, and everyone’s just clapping along, not questioning it.
3. Good Luck Getting All of the Songs Out of Your Head
3-Speed. Maria Vidal. Real Life. Moses Tyson, Jr. Private Domain.
I have no idea if any of these artists (or the various others on the Once Bitten soundtrack) did anything else of note in their careers. I’ve never heard of them before, but they are all over Once Bitten. 3-Speed’s “Once Bitten” theme song, in particular, plays multiple times throughout the movie. They even made a music video (with such 80sisms as a headless bass and a keytar!):
I am now 3 days removed from re-watching the film, and “Once Bitten” and Maria Vidal’s “Hands Off” and “Just One Kiss” are still stuck on repeat in my head. It’s a reminder of a time when there used to be lots of teen comedies, and they all had stacked soundtracks full of various short-lived bands. You might have never actually bought the soundtrack, or any of the other albums by the involved bands, but those songs would stick with you for days if not weeks.
4. ‘Twas a Different Time, i.e., The Dated Humor
So many older films display a casual racism or homophobia which we didn’t pick up on back then but are made uncomfortable by now. Once Bitten is no different. For its first hour, there are little dated jokes here and there (e.g., Russ being scared by the hot woman who turns out to be a man), but at the 71-minute mark it crosses into deeply unfortunate territory.
First, Robin meets an exposition-spouting bookseller (played by Peter Elbling) who gives Short Circuit‘s Fisher Stevens a run for his “brownface” money. Through him, she learns about the ritual the Countess is attempting to perform, which is easily verifiable by looking for bite marks on Mark’s inner thigh. Rather than go to Mark with this (which he later tells them they should have done), Robin enlists his useless best friends and asks them to try and sneak a look at his legs in the gym shower.
Second, when Jamie and Russ try the ole “dropped bar of soap trick” on Mark in the shower everyone else freaks out and starts shouting, “Fags in the shower!” over and over again.
Lastly, Jamie and Russ go to their jobs at a hot dog stand and argue over whether the school branding them as gay is the most humiliating thing possible. Mark saunters into the kitchen area where they’re arguing, and calmly asks the obvious “What was that shower scene all about?”, almost as if Jim Carrey himself was talking to the screenwriters.
5. But It’s All So Incredibly Campy That It Almost Makes Up For It
As directed by lifelong sitcom helmer Howard Storm, you can debate whether or not Once Bitten is “an unintentional triumph of bad taste” or “even more of a tongue-in-cheek campfest outside the confines of USA Up All Night.” Is it funny for how wrongheaded it is, or is it a camp delight, intentionally funny more often than not?
This is perhaps only an argument because of the ways in which Once Bitten now looks dated, particularly in the message it sends to girls and the cheap, gay-panic humor. For the time in which it was made, though, this is quite clearly an intentional campfest, and all involved seem to play it that way. The opening montage road trip to Hollywood is packed to the brim with crazy, over-the-top imagery, such as a gorgeous woman taking a lion for a walk. The final chase sequence through the manor never takes itself remotely seriously, stacking one light-hearted joke on top of another.
Cleavon Little’s every single moment as Sebastian is a gay man’s delight. He’s the type of character who’ll exit a closet and proudly declare, “Oh honey, I came out of the closet centuries ago.” He sneaks in all sorts of bitchy little comments which are even funnier now, indicating he doesn’t exactly approve of Mark as the Countess’ latest ritual candidate. Over-the-top, sure, but nowhere close to what Meschac Taylor would do to the black, gay queen stereotype in Mannequin two years later.
The final solution to the problem, Robin and Mark knock out his virginity by having a quickie in one of the coffins, is also handled in a tongue-in-cheek manner, with the Countess quickly arguing, “You couldn’t have! You’ve been in there less than a minute!” before concluding “You could have, but you didn’t have time to enjoy it.” It might seem like a troubling ending, since Mark is clearly getting more out of that encounter than Robin, who has given up her own virginity to save his life. However, it’s also the most obvious ending, and it sort of beat The 40-Year-Old Virgin to the punch by several decades, giving the central couple the quickie before closing with them going back for a second, hopefully much longer round which they both can enjoy.
Does all of that compensate for the film’s flaws? Maybe not completely, but there is still a charm to Once Bitten I just can’t deny, even if it now looks more like a museum piece, a glimpse into a version of 80s cinema which is long, long gone.
What about you? Do you have fond memories of Once Bitten? Have you ever re-watched it and revisited those fond memories? Were you, like me, stunned to see Megan Mullaly in that small role as the ticket-taker at the dance? Let me know in the comments.