Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Dracula A. D. 1972 (1972)

By the early 60s it was becoming obvious that the traditional vampire movie had been to death, so to speak. A new twist was needed to keep audiences interested, and the obvious move was to transplant the vampire into the modern world. Hence’s Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972.

In fact there had already been several vampires in the modern world movies. AIP’s Count Yorga, Vampire and Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos being the obvious examples. These movies had dealt with modern vampires, vampires who were quite comfortable in the modern world. There was another way to approach this problem, however, which was to have a traditional gothic vampire suddenly transported into a modern world that he understands nothing of. Since Hammer were unwilling to abandon their Dracula cycle and the proven box-office appeal of Christopher Lee as the Count this was the approach they were always going to take.

So we have Dracula resurrected in London in 1972 by an occult-obsessed hippie and vampire fanboy named Johnny Alucard. Johnny and his friends are looking for new thrills. So a black mass in a conveniently deconsecrated church seems like it might be groovy fun. Unfortunately Johnny’s friends don’t realise he’s serious about this stuff, and he just happens to have everything needed to bring the dreaded Count Dracula back to life (one of his ancestors was present when the Count was staked in 1872). All he needs now is some blood. And a beautiful young woman for Dracula to snack on when he’s brought back to life. Laura (Caroline Munro) is a fun-loving girl and eagerly volunteers, thinking it will be kinky fun.

Now Dracula is on the loose in London. Except he isn’t on the loose at all. He’s holed up in the abandoned church and can’t leave it. The reason he can’t leave the church is never stated but it’s obvious it’s because he knows nothing about this strange new world. He has no idea how to operate in such a world.

In fact things are even worse for the Count than he thinks. What he hasn’t yet realised is that this time he is the hunted. The grand-daughter of the famed authority on all things occult, Professor van Helsing (Peter Cushing), is one of Johnny Alucard’s little friends and now the professor knows that the ancient vampire has returned once more and being a van Helsing he knows his duty. And this time all the advantages are on van Helsing’s side. Dracula doesn’t yet know it but he’s a trapped animal, a gothic monster in a world that is much more scary than he is, a world in which he cannot hope to survive.

This is the least terrifying incarnation of Dracula ever. He is utterly ineffectual. He is in the unpleasant position of needing his disciple Johnny Alucard more than Johnny needs him. When Johnny demands to be made a vampire Dracula has little choice but to acquiesce. It would obviously be far more advantageous to keep Johnny under control by constantly promising him this gift without ever actually giving it but it’s Johnny who has the whip hand. Johnny (played with considerable elan by Christopher Neame) is the real monster here. With both vampiric powers and an understanding of how the world of 1972 works he is potentially far more formidable and far more dangerous than a Dracula cowering in his lair in the abandoned church.

I don’t know if writer Don Houghton intended Dracula to be so helpless or if he was even aware that he had made the Count into a victim. If so he may well have considered it to be a weakness in the script. And most viewers of the movie have seen the fairly minor and less than terrifying role played by Dracula to be a major weakness. I think it’s the most interesting thing about the movie. You almost feel sorry for Dracula - he never seems to have a chance.

The movie itself is in a similar situation to the Count - it’s a traditional vampire movie transplanted into a world it doesn’t comprehend. Screenwriter Don Houghton (who was in his early 40s at the time) is clearly as mystified and as horrified by 1970s youth culture as Dracula is. Director Alan Gibson was somewhat younger (he was 34) but also just a little too old to understand the hippie culture. Their attempts to give the movie a with-it contemporary feel are ludicrously wide of the mark but this is a key part of the movie’s campy charm.

Mention must be made of the music. Not the songs performed by the rock group Stoneground in the beginning, but the music composed by Michael Vickers for the movie. The music is always intrusive, almost always inappropriate, and at times it almost sees designed to actively work against the movie.

Christopher Lee has very little screen time. The film is dominated by Peter Cushing as van Helsing and Christopher Neame as Johnny Alucard and they’re both intense and charismatic and generally extremely good. Stephanie Beacham is van Helsing’s grand-daughter and shows considerable spirit in delivering some extraordinarily cringe-inducing dialogue. Caroline Munro’s role is small but memorable for her ecstatic facial expression when Dracula puts the bite on her. Munro always manages to make an impression even in a minor and fairly thankless role such as this one.

It’s very tame by early 70s standards - you can’t help feeling it might have done better with just a bit more in the sex and violence department.

I would never be rash enough to claim this is a good movie but if you’re prepared to accept it as a piece of silly high camp nonsense then it’s remarkably entertaining.

4 comments:

lenny said...

Always had a soft spot for this one. Perceptive analysis very welcome, as opposed to the usual casual beating this film tends to get!

venoms5 said...

I thought the score was actually one of the best things about the movie. Lively and much better than the next movie in the series. AD 1972 grew on me, too, over time. It is a shame, though, that Dracula essentially became a "prisoner" in his own series.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Utterly dreadful and worthless piece of cinematic garbage. The major fault is not having Dracula interact with modernity. This was the trump card that made COUNT YORGA so enjoyable. The score is very good if listened too in isolation.

dfordoom said...

Shaun, oddly enough I found that Count Yorga did nothing for me.