Monday, May 13, 2013

Dracula A.D. 1972

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Dir. Alan Gibson
Written by Doug Houghton
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Christopher Neame, Stephanie Beacham

After the surprisingly competent and enjoyable HORROR OF DRACULA, I thought I’d try another Cushing/Lee Hammer Dracula outing, this one set (and shot) in 1972. After the success of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, Hammer apparently wanted their own Dracula-in-modern-times gimmick movie, and used the occasion to reunite Cushing and Lee in their respective classic roles for the first time since, holy cow, the original 1958 HORROR OF DRACULA. So, this one has a lot going for it.

Alas, one person they forgot to invite back to the party is the guy who planned the party to begin with, director Terence Fisher. Instead, they got Alan Gibson (MARTIN’S DAY, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) who proves more than able to completely fumble a sure thing. OK, so the concept of inserting Bram Stoker’s iconic characters into a groovy 70’s shag-carpeted London is an inherently silly one, but you and I both know there’s a good movie to be made out of this. Heck, Antonioni could direct an ambiguous 1970s vampire flick that would really make you think. But Gibson approaches the subject with a boring, literal take which feels lifeless and burdened by commercial concerns. It’s talky, dated and artless, where Fisher’s take on the material felt breathless, timeless and atmospheric.

Fan theory: maybe Dracula just smoked so much weed he thought he was a vampire.

It starts pretty promisingly, though, with a battle between the Count and his arch nemesis “Lawrence” Van Helsing on top of a racing horse carriage in 1872. While not especially well-filmed, I’m pretty fucking sure that’s actually the real Lee and Cushing duking it out on top of an actual moving carriage, which lends it a kind of low-budget scrappiness you gotta approve of. It also inexplicably establishes a new continuity, set in 1872 instead of 1885 and with Cushing playing “Lawrence” Van Helsing instead of Abraham (why, I do not know. Did “Abraham” have copyright issues or something?). Once the Count has met his demise (via a wagon wheel through the heart-- take that, Old Crow Medicine Show!) we’re shocked to discover that Drac has an ace in the hole for exactly this kind of eventuality -- a disciple no one noticed before, who gathers up Drac’s ashes and spreads them on unholy ground (which sounds more exciting than it is; turns out any ground which is not explicitly holy will do) for reasons of resurrecting him later. For some reason he doesn’t get around to it until exactly 100 years later, when his great-great-etc-grandson decides its time to introduce the Count to the swinging 70s. And that’s where the film’s problems start.

The first problem it has is pushing Lee and Cushing into the background in favor of a cast of hip young kids who are always having wacky adventures like crashing a party of mortified upper-crusters with their free-loving and “rock” and “roll” lifestyle. This is the kind of scene that could feel energetic and fun in the hands of someone who gave a shit; as it is, it’s inert and oddly awkward. Five or six hippies have brought a band (California “blues rock” outfit Stoneground, playing their smash hit(?) “Alligator Man” as a last-minute substitute for The Faces) to a fancy party, dancing in that frantic way that white people do and making love and so on while the owners of the house cower in horror in the corner and finally call the cops, necessitating a speedy withdrawal by our merrymakers (but not the band, for some reason). Sounds fun, but it plays in that desperate way these things inevitably do when some producer is concerned they’re losing the youth demographic.

Cushing, seen here trying not to make eye contact with the cleavage.

This is the other major problem: the whole film has a very apologetic, mewling quality to it, with all the charm of a sycophantic teenage outcast making a pathetic appeal to the cool kids for acceptance. Yes, they have to get Cushing and Lee in there, but they play second fiddle to the two teenagers at the heart of the story. When Cushing cautions our youthful protagonist Jessica (the delectable Stephanie Beacham) about the dangers of meddling with the occult, he gets brushed off with a condescending “Oh, Grandpa!” lecture, and the movie seems to side with her. On the side of evil, we have Johnny Alucard (great-great-etc-grandson of Dracula’s 1972 sidekick I mentioned earlier, played by Christopher Neame) as the dashing, manipulative instigator behind Drac’s resurrection. Credit where credit is due: Neame is actually pretty good at playing the duplicitous sociopath who’s a sex machine with all the chicks. He’s a charismatic villain, but shortchanged by the story which casts him as Drac’s lacky, robbing him of his own chance to be menacing but also leaving the Count without much to do. The movie seems desperate to put the kids front and center, but of course they’re just the window dressing to get us to the eternal battle between Drac and Van Helsing, so the whole thing has a tiresome myopia to it. Jessica is clearly the main character, but she’s also a passive victim, leaving gramps to do the vampire-disposal work at the film’s end. I’m always up for watching Cushing stab things, but he seems to enter the story only by necessity at the last act. Not a lot of drama there.

Neame would go on to fight James Bond, Chuck Norris, Patrick Swayze, and Bill Murray. Not all at once, obviously. 

The whole thing is pretty weakly plotted and almost completely bereft of atmosphere (one notable exception is the initial summoning scene, which capitalizes on Neame’s sleazy creep factor and the sounds of early electronic music pioneers White Noise) and also pretty lacking in any entertaining setpieces. There’s a nice opening, a pretty good conjuring scene, and then pretty much nothing of note happens until Beacham’s cleavage enters the picture again for the finale. Too bad, because the funky blaxploitation soundtrack by Manfred Mann guitarist Mike Vickers is fun enough that the film might have conjured some campy pleasures if it were a little more eventful. I mean, the idea of having Dracula come after a bunch of hep-cat mods in 1970s England is some pretty rich cheese, and even if they didn’t care about scaring us it seems to be ripe with opportunity for some fun gimmicks and ridiculousness. Alas, no one seems to care enough about the proceedings to bother adding any fun, and most of the film passes with the labored ambivalence of a rambling Anglican sermon on a sleepy Sunday. Probably not the image they were hoping to evoke.

The count demands virginal blood. And Visine.

The final fight between Cushing and Lee (and the second to last confrontation between the two ever, leaving only the silly, anticlimactic finale of SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) does rise to the occasion, as the two old pros duke it out with aplomb in an old abandoned church. Neither can be happy to be stuck in this dreck, but they commit to the material with a consummate earnestness which does, finally, bring the thing to a sort of mild life (the aforementioned cleavage also probably helps matters). Still, the whole thing leaves some serious questions about why Hammer --let alone a bunch of 70’s British hippies-- has any interest in bringing Drac back again and again. If you're going to do this sort of thing, I'd like to ...count... on it being done with a little more enthusiasm. Still, as the picture below demonstrates, at least their heart was in the right place.

Can't touch that.


7: DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

(see also: Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN series)