By the early 70s, Hammer Studios was on its last legs, struggling to stay relevant in a rapidly changing cinematic landscape. 1973's The Exorcist was a game changer, and the writing was on the wall for the sort of old-fashioned Gothic chillers which had been Hammer's stock in trade. But the little British studio went down swinging, trying all sorts of things to stay current, adding rampant nudity and lesbian themes and much bloodier violence (in films such as The Vampire Lovers, Vampire Circus, etc.), mixing vampires with kung-fu (Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires) or adding a swashbuckling spin (Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter) - even trying to jump on the then-current vogue of "demonic possession" movies of the time (with To the Devil, a Daughter). Old Hammer stalwarts Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing stuck with the studio to the bitter end (Lee grudgingly). The pair do their best to enliven yet another spin on an old franchise - in this case, taking the studio's long-running and successful Van Helsing / Count Dracula cycle out of the past and into contemporary, swinging London, in Dracula A.D. 1972.
And the results are...well, interesting.
Dracula A.D. 1972 opens with a slam-bang prologue set in 1872, as Van Helsing (Cushing) and Dracula (Lee) duke it out on the top of a runaway carriage. The carriage crashes into a tree, mortally injuring Van Helsing, who spots Dracula partially impaled on the spokes of a broken carriage wheel, and finds just enough strength remaining to polish off the Count (whose body once again molders away to dust) before expiring. One of Dracula's acolytes (Christopher Neame) scoops up some of the ashen remains of his Master and buries it just outside the churchyard where Van Helsing is laid to rest.
Flashforward a hundred years, and the acolyte's descendant, now going by the name "Johnny Alucard" (Neame again), has ingratiated himself into the inner circle of a group of hip young things on the constant lookout for kicks. One of the gang happens to be Jessica Van Helsing (Stefanie Beacham), who lives with her grandfather, the most recent Prof. Van Helsing (Cushing again, of course.) Johnny is an altogether sinister sort of chap, yet Jessica and her friends are taken in, bored and thrill-seeking enough to go along with his scheme to stage a "Black Mass" at a nearby abandoned, desecrated churchyard - the same one, natch, where Dracula's remains are buried. Johnny wants Jessica as his victim, but she has just enough sense to not go along with his plans. Instead, the more daring Laura (Caroline Munro, in her first role for Hammer) eagerly offers herself as a sacrifice, clearly not really knowing what she's let herself in for. As the others watch on in horror, creepy Johnny slashes his wrist and drains his blood into a goblet filled with Dracula's ashes, then pours the contents over Laura's throat and chest. This finally freaks the rest of the gang out and they scatter in a panic, though Jessica retains a scrap of humanity in hesitating, wanting to help Laura, who seemingly is unable to move, already under the reanimated Dracula's spell.
That's right, Drac's back, coalescing out of a thick supernatural mist. "Master, I did it. I summoned you," mewls Johnny, to which Dracula coldly replies "It was my will." Spurning the fawning Johnny, Dracula spies his yummy prepared snack, Laura, and sinks his fangs in with relish. (Munro's expression of ecstasy as her blood is drained away is a nice touch). But the Count's got bigger fish to fry...his real plan in coming back to undead life is to wreak his revenge upon the house and descendants of Van Helsing, starting with turning comely granddaughter Jessica into his bride. With the bodies piling up, and the police - led by a refreshingly open-minded inspector from New Scotland Yard (Michael Coles) - at a loss as to how to catch the killers, it's up to the elderly, but still plenty badass, Van Helsing, Jr. to save his granddaughter from a fate worse than death, and send Dracula back to the grave where he belongs.
Dracula A.D. 1972 doesn't hold a very high reputation amongst Hammer horror aficionados, but I found it a total hoot. Bringing Dracula into the 1970s is an inspired choice, and while the story doesn't take full advantage of the situation, keeping the Count rooted to the derelict church for the whole movie, the resulting culture clash is great fun to watch. While Lee is underused, and likely bored behind the scenes, when he does appear, he brings all his chilling, imperious presence to bear. Christopher Neame is just creepy enough to keep the scenes with the kooky, flower-power gang of potheads palatable. The direction by Alan Gibson is lively and the cinematography, by Dick Bush, inventive, full of clever angles, copious use of mirrors and psychedelic colors. But the real heavy lifting is done by the always reliable Peter Cushing, who practically takes over the second half of the film. With his ascetic, borderline cadaverous features and ramrod straight bearing, Cushing is every inch the old school British hero, and shows a welcome humanity in his fondness, and eventual panicked concern, for his granddaughter. Cushing and Lee's final confrontation, while not ranking with the series' best, is still the high point of the film, as Dracula slaps Van Helsing around like a rag doll, while Van Helsing skewers the Count with a silver dagger, throws holy water in his face and eventually takes him down with a tiger trap lined with sharpened punjabi-style stakes
Aside from Lee's lack of screen time, and the script peculiarly not allowing him to run rampant throughout the city, the movie also suffers from a criminal wasting of the luscious Caroline Munro (who I've waxed rhapsodic about before here, here and, ahem, here.) I think screenwriter Don Houghton really missed a trick by having her dispatched so early, when the story is crying out for her to return as one of Dracula's undead brides. I can imagine Munro's Laura fanging her way seductively through the remaining males (and females) of the gang of spaced-out dorks who earlier abandoned her to her fate. This would have then presented a perfect opportunity for Beacham's Jessica to take up the family business of vampire slaying by sending her old gal pal to stake city. But sadly, the filmmakers couldn't see the obvious possibilities in their scenario and simply leave Laura a sad, purple-faced corpse, discovered under the rubble of the church. Jessica pretty much stays an indecisive, vacuous waste of space till the end, when she's held under a zombie-like spell until good ol' Grandpa Van Helsing saves the day. Beacham's used here mostly for her spectacular cleavage and little else, though her acting is good enough to show that she was capable of a much better role. Lastly, some of the "groovy" dialogue assigned to the "kids" (Beacham was 25 at the time of filming) is pretty dopey, full of "right on, man" cliches; Cushing and Coles get all the good lines.
While the above sounds like harsh criticism, I have to say I still really enjoyed the movie. It's well-paced, colorful stuff, is exceedingly handsome to look at, and, while not exactly scary, has an enjoyable, uneasy atmosphere, some good performances, and a nice knock-down, drag-out final fight between horror legends Lee and Cushing. It's hard for me not to appreciate all the crazy 70s fashions (one of the young turks in Jessica's circle of friends goes around wearing a monk's cassock, for some odd reason), the copious amounts of "Hammer Glamour" eye candy, and the nifty time capsule exterior footage of a London that's long vanished.
Frankly, I'll take this any day of the week over more highly-regarded Hammer schlock like The Vampire Lovers. Those looking for some fun and funky shocks for holiday viewing should find it an amusing Hallowe'en treat.
DVD Note: There are several DVD options for Dracula A.D. 1972. The copy used for review here is from the 4 Film Favorites: Draculas 2-disc set from Warner Home Video (which also includes Horror of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and Taste the Blood of Dracula). Even though it shares disc space with Taste the Blood of..., the transfer is pretty great, and you can't beat the price.
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