Friday, May 1, 2009

Dracula A.D. 1972

It’s Hammer Time.

I watched “Dracula A.D. 1972” (1972, naturally) the other night and, while recognizing its faults, thoroughly enjoyed myself. When I first saw it 20-some years ago I didn’t care for it at all, and hated the “mod” aspects that Hammer brought to their Dracula films.

Now it’s almost like a period film, with the 1970s music, fashions and slang seeming almost as antiquated as the Victorian-era costumes and manners of Hammer’s earlier Dracula films.

“Dracula A.D. 1972” opens with a poorly staged and photographed prologue showing a runaway coach and fight scene between Dracula (Christopher Lee) and his nemesis Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Dracula is impaled by a broken coach wheel and disintegrates into dust.

One hundred years later Dracula is revived by a disciple Johnny Alucard (dig that groovy spelling kids) during a black mass at an unconsecrated church. The resurrection scene here is very effective. Director Alan Gibson doesn’t skimp on the chills here. While not possessing large budgets, Hammer always made their films look good, and the abandoned church and fog-drenched graveyard adjacent to it is a marvelously atmospheric set.

At this point, the film picks up here to its credit and detriment.

Credit: Dracula starts biting members of the group that resurrected him. Scotland Yard calls in Professor Van Helsing (Cushing again) because he has helped them before on a case involving the occult, and Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) knew the victims. Unknown to her grandfather, Jessica had been at the ceremony but fled in terror.

Detriment: Unfortunately Hammer wanted to keep the Gothic continuity of its previous films, so kept Dracula confined to the church and graveyard. Hammer was happy to bring him to 1972 but only so far. He may as well be stuck in the 1870s for all that he interacts here with modern London. This was a fatal mistake on the part of the film makers. Producer Michael Carreras takes the blame here.

Credit: Dracula’s first victim is Laura (Caroline Munro, in her first large role) and I was sorry to see her go so soon. Like many guys my age, Caroline Munro was a particular favorite growing up. She’s quite good here, and her reactions to Dracula approaching her in the church are very effective. No bimbo acting style her, her tears and cries for help seem very real. It’s too bad she didn’t stick around longer through the movie, it would have been better for it. (If Hammer knew how popular she would become, she probably would have.)

I’ve met Caroline Munro twice at conventions and a nicer celebrity I’ve never met. She’s a welcome presence in any film and I only wish she had more scenes in “Dracula A.D. 1972.”

Detriment: Christopher Lee didn’t care for the Dracula films that Hammer forced him to make and watching them, one completely understands where he’s coming from. Here he’s given hardly anything to do, sporting little dialogue, snarling his lines and being easily dispatched. By staying confined to one set, he’s hardly the Vampire King.

Credit: Peter Cushing is, as always, remarkable. He likely knows what a piece of junk he’s in, but you’d never know it from his performance here. Never condescending to the material, he gives it all he has. It’s a pleasure to hear him detail the vampire lore he possesses. Always a very physical actor, Cushing engages in fight and chase scenes with the energy of a man several decades younger.

The film’s biggest detriment is the opening society party scene, crashed by Johnny Alucard and his friends who dance to the music of Stoneground. This party scene is interminable, and goes on for what seems like days.

One year later, Warner Bros. would release “The Exorcist” and forever change the face of horror films. Entertaining romps like “Dracula A.D. 1972” to enjoy on a Saturday night out would soon be history.

There’s a lot wrong with “Dracula A.D. 1972” but a lot to like, especially the Cushing performance and the pulp-like narrative. I’ll probably watch it again sooner than more lauded classics. It’s that kind of movie.

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