Dracula and Van Helsing seem more than a little confused, fighting the good fight of virtue against evil in a modern setting dominated by painful Mod fashions and flaky pop rock ‘n’ roll. Hammer’s desperation bid to make itself ‘relevant’ at least gives us Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who keep the show on the rails despite the disastrous concept. The two leading ladies are favorites as well.
Dracula A.D. 1972
Warner Archive Collection
11972 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date October 16, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame, Michael Coles, Marsha A. Hunt, Caroline Munro
Cinematography: Dick Bush
Production Designer: Don Mingaye
Film Editor: James Needs
Original Music: Tim Barnes
Written by: Don Houghton
Produced by: Michael Carreras, Josephine Douglas
Directed by Alan Gibson
“But the movie is terrible.”
“Don’t worry about that. Caroline Munro looks great, that’s all you need to know.”
Yes, overheard comments like this one are the best defense of Dracula A.D. 1972 that I can muster.
A sizable segment of the horror aficionado crowd goes for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee without question, in whatever show they appear, wherever it may be found. My serious collector friends can tell me in which Euro films feature Lee speaks with his own voice, and which ones are dubbed. Peter Cushing couldn’t quite match Lee’s actor-for-hire globe trotter credentials, but I admire his appearance in the cut-rate but rather fun 1977 film Shock Waves.
The studio that owed its big success to Lee and Cushing mostly used them as marquee bait and sandwiched them into more horror offerings as cheaply as possible. Lee complained that he was pressed into playing Dracula umpteen times by executives that claimed the studio would fold, driving good men out of work — and when he relented to help the team, Hammer tried to lowball his fee. When the bottom fell out of the Brit film industry Dracula remained Hammer’s only sure-thing franchise, so Lee donned fangs and contact lenses several times more, for unworthy scripts.
There isn’t much to be said for Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972, as even loyal Christopher Lee fans agree that it could be the nadir of the Dracula series. Almost nobody defends the film except perhaps to compliment its cinematography. Hammer’s attempts to ‘get with the times’ was like a middle-aged man behaving like a kid and embarrassing himself. They first tried sexing up their horrors, a ploy that mainly gave them ratings that eliminated the under-18 market that kept them going. But this film’s attempt to inject the iconic Dracula character into Mod London (about six years too late) is to wince at.
A prologue shows a wild coach chase in 1872. Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) corners and dispatches his vampire foe Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), but fails to note that a stranger has collected the Count’s ashes in a small vial. 1972: Van Helsing’s grandson and namesake (Cushing again) is now a professor as well, and is concerned about the wild parties attended by his sexy niece Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham). He has plenty of reason to be upset, as one of Jessica’s more dissipated cronies is Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), a descendant of the fellow who collected the ashes. Johnny’s idea of a trippy time is to perform a black mass and resurrect a demon … you know, just for kicks!
One can tell that a film company is playing a short-term game when it puts its year of release in the title. Even the down-market 1958 picture Frankenstein 1970 had the sense to hope that it would stay current for at least twelve years. Dracula A.D. 1972 also plays to lose by courting the hip youth market, an ambition that only the top trend-setters could get away with. By all accounts, the glory days of ‘swingin’ London’ with its Mod Clothes and carefree consumerism happened in 1966 and lasted for only 15 minutes or so. After that point even the Beatles embarrassed themselves with a disastrous Carnaby Street store that was a disaster. In films there were only a couple of wonderful Beatles efforts and perhaps the dreamy short subject Tonight Let’s All Make Love In London, the spirit of which, I’m happy to say, reached all the way to the backwater of San Bernardino, California. For every clever Beatles romp there were three or four excruciating vehicles for bands like Herman’s Hermits.
Six years later, watching the House of Hammer attempt to portray a gaggle of with-it London swingers is a painful experience. It must have been equally agonizing when it was new, especially for the Brits. The fashions for the young ‘birds’ are worse than awful — to see Mod styles at their best one should reference 1968’s Wonderwall. This is clearly a 50-ish film executive’s notion of British youth. I can’t see teens or young adults that have just watched Stanley Kubrick’s futuristic Droogs grooving at the Korova Milkbar, having much patience with Johnny Alucard’s gaggle of pretenders with their day-glow paisleys and groovy headbands.
Hammer apparently decided that falling revenues in the late ’60s could be turned around by chasing flashy trends, when the fact was that the creativity level of their once-popular horrors had fallen through the floor. If the old monsters no longer seemed novel, it wasn’t because they took place in Victorian times, it was because the stories were too repetitive and predictable. And when Hammer did put together a novel idea the productions were often too cut-rate. The ambitious The Devil Rides Out and Quatermass and the Pit needed to be bigger in all respects. They weren’t half as successful as the equally ambitious One Million Years, B.C., which was given lavish resources.
But by 1971 the studio was in a tailspin, putting out a Dracula movie every year because the only thing left that they could pre-sell were the good names of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Dracula A.D. 1972 brings the horror icons back for a few days of filming, in a screenplay written to favor other characters. But nobody rose to replace the Old Guard. Hammer struck out with every attempt to create a new horror star. Audiences rejected Ralph Bates no matter what he was in. Perhaps the old men thought that Christopher Neame could come back in a vampire romp titled ‘Johnny Alucard:’ — “Hey kids, he’s a James Dean vampire – you know, one of your own!”
As might be expected, the underlying message in Drac ’72 is conservative drivel about loose morals leading to damnation. It’s taken as gospel that youngsters into sex, drugs and rock and roll are a-slip-slidin’-away into the devil’s lair. The most depraved among them, Johnny Alucard, is just the old drug-pusher character from JD films, jazzed at the idea that he can be a new Prince of Darkness if he just unleashes the scourge of Dracula. Young people hate the world, want to destroy it and need to be restrained by their wise elders. You know, the ones in power who start wars and use their religions to persecute each other. Who says Hammer films aren’t relevant?
Dracula A.D. 1972 is competently shot and acted to little effect; the script plods along and Alan Gibson’s attempts at style don’t impress. Angles on the women seek out ways to display cleavage, sometimes distractingly so. Weak attempts at comedy show Hammer ill-equipped to alter its formula, and the police subplot simply wastes our time. The opening scenes of a rockin’ love-in being busted up by the cops look worse than a Monty Python parody, with dope-smoking ‘youths’ getting it on under the buffet table and prissy old dames grimacing at the horror of it all. Young Jessica comes home from this cornball orgy and assures her uncle the Professor that she’s both a virgin and hasn’t used hard drugs; in truth she’s a personality-challenged ‘bird’ like all the other women in her little male-dominated group.
True, in terms of horror glamour Stephanie Beacham overpowers the screen with sheer woman-power: tasked with being a dolly-bird, she indeed looks ‘smashing.’ But being female and less assertive doesn’t pay for Caroline Munro’s exuberant Laura Bellows, who foolishly volunteers to be, like wow, a Bride of Satan. Munro’s dance and a sexy sacrifice scene insures that Dracula A.D. 1972 still has some loyal fans for sheer nostalgia — in the decades that passed, Munro’s name brand as a horror siren first class has not diminished one wit.
Christopher Lee’s Dracula expresses his glee at being free once again, but since he never leaves the deconsecrated church (set) where he was revived, he never discovers what it’s like out there in the far future. There is not a hint of the kind of satirical fun found by Jack the Ripper in the comparable Time After Time. I’m told that Lee insisted that the character not be taken out of the Gothic setting, which defeats the premise. It’s likely that he didn’t want his Dracula to be shown strutting down a modern London lane in dark glasses, looking like Peter Cook’s caped Devil in the comedy Bedazzled.
Alan Gibson’s mechanical direction offers nothing new to replace the old Terence Fisher ‘Gainsborough Thriller’ staging technique — until the finale, action scenes are just whatever coverage can be grabbed with the least effort. Despite coming off as flexible and creative as ever, Cushing and Lee are not allowed to be anything more than window dressing in their own movie.
As with most Hammer shows after the early classics, the narrative seems abbreviated. Dracula is revived early enough, but then the forward motion ceases. The finale ought to be the ending of Act 2. The final proof of genre cluelessness arrives when Van Helsing methodically works out the Alucard-Dracula anagram on a sheet of paper, like a kindergartner figuring out a block puzzle. “Hm, this can only mean one thing – a disciple!” Hammer seems to think that its audience is some unknown mass that never saw a horror film … now even the most familiar occult expert in the movies has to strain his noggin to figure out what should be ‘givens’ not requiring additional exposition.
Dracula A.D. 1972 does put together some acceptable action blocking for the climax, and Cushing and Lee are able to animate their scene together with the dashing stage physicality that served them well in the past. Is it unfair to say that the limp rock music behind their climactic grappling plays like a bad joke? By now Dracula should be checking himself into Maladroit Monsters Anonymous, for he can’t go more than a scene or two without impaling himself on the first wooden object available. I mean, hide the toothpicks, Drac might hurt himself — in The Satanic Rites of Dracula he’s killed because he stumbles into some bushes! Compared to Dracula Has Risen from the Grave or even Taste the Blood of Dracula, this show is an uncomfortable snooze.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Dracula A.D. 1972 will thrill its fans — and it can boast plenty of fans that disagree loudly with what I’ve said above. The good news is that the transfer is exemplary — the show is in terrific condition. The HD rendering allows us to check out the complexion of every London ‘bird’ in detail. Chris Lee’s bloodshot contact lenses look more painful than ever. We can now see much better the layered dissolves and gore makeup in Drac’s multiple destruction-resurrection sequences.
Due to the improved contrast range the opening scene now looks at least a little more ‘day for night’ than the too- bright transfer on the older DVD. As with most Warners library product there is no added value package of extras, just the original trailer. I didn’t see the movie when it was new but I did see the trailer in a theater, and the audience laughed it off the screen. Several years before, the trailer for Dracula Has Risen from the Grave had drawn a chuckle or two, but Christopher Lee’s appearance was met with approving applause.
The trailer calls out the band Stoneground as the group that plays at the swingin’ Mod party. They’re a real group apparently flown over by Warner Bros. — they were also in the ill-fated rock tour musical Medicine Ball Caravan.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dracula A.D. 1972
Movie: Fair + / Good — minus minus
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 16, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson