words by Johnny Restall
Hammer’s initial run of horror films, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, have long been beloved by genre fans.
Critical acclaim was slower to arrive (as is often the way with horror cinema), but these days there are several serious academic studies of the studio available, and many of their films are at the least acknowledged as classics of their kind.
Alongside 1957’s “The Curse Of Frankenstein”, 1958’s “Dracula” is one of the cornerstones of Hammer’s reputation, and made stars of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. However, their onscreen reunion in their iconic roles as the Count and Van Helsing in “Dracula A.D. 1972” fourteen years later remains one of the least popular entries in the series, outside of a small cult following. The blurb on my copy (from the Warner Bros Premium Collection) feebly quotes John Stanley from Creature Features calling it “quite well done”. As that is presumably the nicest review that they could find, I think it is only right for me to try to champion this neglected, flawed, but lovable work.
By the end of the 1960s, Hammer’s tried-and-tested gothic formula (usually period-set and studio-bound), was growing somewhat stale. Successful recent horrors in contemporary settings, such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Night Of The Living Dead” (both 1968), seemed to be consigning the studio’s style and themes to the past. 1970 had brought forth two new Dracula efforts from Hammer. “Taste The Blood Of Dracula” was enjoyable enough, and at least tried for some contemporary relevance, with its tale of sinful fathers and rebellious children vaguely reflecting cultural clashes between the young and the old (even if the title character’s role in all this seemed a little redundant). By the following “Scars Of Dracula” however, it was clear that something new was desperately needed to revitalise the series. The clichés the studio had helped to define were now a hindrance, trodden yet again with little energy or inspiration.
Despite the title, “Dracula A.D. 1972” opens with a prologue set one hundred years earlier. Gleefully throwing continuity out of the window, it not only disregards the lightning strike ending of “Scars Of Dracula” but even the 1885 date given for the first film. Instead, Van Helsing and the Count are racing through Hyde Park in some parallel universe, grappling to the death aboard a runaway horse and carriage. Their battle sweeps aside any concerns about this unexplained new timeline, being easily the liveliest sequence in a Hammer Dracula for some years, Cushing and Lee bringing typical physicality to their combat. Eventually, they crash and a broken wheel impales Dracula. Van Helsing survives just long enough to stake his foe before succumbing to his own injuries. As he does so, a sinister young man approaches, claims the Count’s ring, and scoops up some of his ashes. He later buries these just outside a churchyard, in which Van Helsing’s body is being interred. The camera lingers on his gravestone for a moment, before climbing into the blue sky to reveal…an aeroplane!
It may be less celebrated than the bone-to-spaceship jump cut in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but this nifty edit tells the audience that times have changed. It is 1972, and images of building sites, cranes, and concrete flyovers play behind the credits, replacing the castles and forests of previous entries, and establishing contemporary London (which it must be said looks more brutalist and grey than swinging). There’s no thunderous James Bernard score to accompany all of this either; instead former Manfred Mann member Mike Vickers provides a much-maligned funky soundtrack. It is a matter of taste of course, but I am not ashamed to genuinely enjoy his very 70s saxophones and wah-wah guitars.
As all of this suggests, Don Houghton’s script runs with the idea that the solution to Hammer’s “old-fashioned” woes was to bring Dracula right up to date (relatively speaking). Unfortunately, the next scene illustrates why many people still believe that this was a terrible idea.
We meet our hip young protagonists (including Stephanie Beacham, Michael Kitchen and Caroline Munro) grooving awkwardly to the band Stoneground, while various well-to-do squares look on disapprovingly. Our heroes have crashed a party for kicks, led by Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) – in case his surname is too subtle (it isn’t), he is also a dead ringer for the mysterious man who buried Dracula’s ashes one hundred years before. The police are called, and our young rebels narrowly escape, having thoroughly socked it to the man by dancing badly and damaging some furnishings a bit.
This introductory sequence plays out like a particularly tepid middle-aged vision of youthful rebellion (Houghton was indeed in his forties at the time of writing), and I doubt it was cool even in 1972. How you respond to this opening may define how much you enjoy the rest of the film. It is excruciatingly dated and embarrassing, but I find it charmingly so – a faulty time capsule which is probably no more of an accurate reflection of the 1970s than the previous films’ representation of the 1880s.
Alucard persuades the group that for their next adventure, they should join him in a black mass at a disused church, memorably described as, “A date with the Devil…A bacchanal with Beelzebub!” The gang take some convincing, particularly Jessica (Beacham), whose Grandfather Lorrimer Van Helsing (Cushing) is an expert in the occult, and warns her not to tamper with such things. Lorrimer is a direct descendant of Lawrence Van Helsing, the man who staked Dracula in the prologue, but his commitment to continuing his own Grandfather’s work cannot persuade Jessica to take him seriously.
Director Alan Gibson stages the film’s set pieces well, and the black mass is no exception (despite Alucard exhorting us to “Dig the music, kids!”). Neame overacts wildly but enjoyably, calling upon a variety of demonic deities before naming Dracula in his dark prayers (this implied link between Dracula, the Devil, and black magic cults is made more explicit in the following year’s muddled sequel “The Satanic Rites Of Dracula”). The other hipsters are apparently “all flying high” (despite no drugs being visible onscreen), aided by the genuinely unsettling soundtrack, which includes snippets from the seminal electronic band White Noise, whose members included BBC Radiophonic Workshop legend, Delia Derbyshire. The earth in the graveyard appears to begin to breathe in response, as the events inside spiral out of control. Finally, staring impassively through clouds of smoke, Lee’s Dracula returns to claim his first victim, the unfortunate Laura (Munro), and to pursue his vendetta against the descendants of Lawrence Van Helsing.
The black mass introduces us to a key location in the film – the grounds of St Bartolph’s Church. Now deconsecrated and abandoned, it contains the graveyard in which both Lawrence Van Helsing and Dracula were buried one hundred years before. Later described by Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) as “a lonely place, right in the heart of London”, it is an intriguingly atmospheric and apt location for Dracula’s resurrection (with the blasphemy that suggests). Fenced in, forgotten, partially demolished yet defiantly still standing, it is the past refusing to stay buried, urban decay battling the gothic. St Bartolph’s corruption implies the genuinely unsettling notion of old abandoned buildings we blindly pass each day decaying morally as well as physically, like living things, right under our noses; of evil hiding in plain sight. The film only touches on this theme lightly, but the moments when it does so are effective, particularly the short, sad, haunting sequence in which a group of children innocently enter the church grounds to retrieve their football and stumble upon Laura’s mutilated body, partially buried and discarded like rubbish among the rubble.
There is also a suggestion of the dark side of the anonymities and opportunities of city life. Jessica cannot remember quite how Alucard insinuated his way into their lives, and few of the group even seem to know where he lives. Once willingly turned into a vampire by Dracula, Alucard prowls the streets, with nobody seeming to notice him dumping bodies in the park or preying on lonely laundrettes.
If St Bartolph’s Church is the dark centre of “Dracula A.D. 1972”, Cushing’s valiant Lorrimer Van Helsing is its human heart. It would not be fair to say that Cushing carries the film, but he certainly greatly ennobles it. It is rare to find a film in which the actor gave less than 100%, and “Dracula A.D. 1972” may contain my very favourite of all of his performances – certainly, it is among his most affecting. His Lorrimer Van Helsing is as determined and committed as his predecessors, but a far more kindly and gentle man, clearly deeply concerned for his Granddaughter and for the world, even as his courtliness and dignity become distinctly old-fashioned.
While Dracula finds his contemporary place in the cracks of the forgotten parts of the city, Van Helsing does not seem to fit into 1972 anywhere at all. Always possessed of a dolorous face, Cushing here conveys a deep sadness and vulnerability (quite possibly influenced by tragic events in the actor’s own life during the early 1970s). This makes his determination to fight to Dracula in the face of his own emotional and physical frailty seem all the more noble and heroic. Cushing is so persuasive in the part that it is almost possible to overlook the more reactionary messages of the plot, namely, that rebellious youths should listen to their elders and never try to have any fun. Whether battling Alucard (whose demise by running water in his bathroom shower commendably manages to look less ridiculous than it sounds), racing through the street clutching his heart for breath, or finally confronting his old nemesis, Cushing’s performance is simply faultless.
It is fair to say that Christopher Lee gets somewhat less to do, mainly getting by on his (considerable) presence alone. His Dracula remains something of a sexual predator, preying on attractive young women drawn under his spell. There is also the slightest suggestion of a homoerotic element to his Dominant/Submissive relationship with the ambiguous Alucard, though the film coyly cuts away before Dracula consummates their union with a bite. One common criticism is Dracula’s confinement to St Bartolph’s for the duration, never venturing outside to interact fully with 1972. My view is that this is probably for the best. The possibilities for embarrassment if Lee’s Count were to pop into the Cavern Club to integrate with the kids do not bear thinking about (a little like the scenes in which Jack The Ripper goes to the disco in Nicolas Meyer’s 1979 “Time After Time”, which develops the idea of Victorian figures transplanted to “now” in far greater depth).
Also, as discussed, I really like the notion of him surviving in the forgotten ruined places right next to us, and like many supernatural foes he usually loses power if over-exposed. His few lines are effective (when Alucard informs him, “I summoned you” he haughtily retorts, “It was my will!”), and his disdain for the time and the people are more than adequately expressed. (Judging by his interviews, Lee may not have needed to act much in these scenes, as he appears to have been no fan of his later Hammer Dracula films.)
Ultimately, I cannot argue that “Dracula A.D. 1972” is a forgotten masterpiece. I am not sure I can even argue that it is an objectively good film from a serious critical perspective (though it is far more competently made and performed than some of its sillier aspects would suggest). I hope I have however managed to persuade you that it a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable film, with excellent work from Cushing, intriguing themes, and a funky score, and well worth re-evaluating in the face of its poor reputation.
You may find you dig the music more than you think you will…
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