And so we enter the dire straights of Hammer Films in the final throes of a long, drawn-out death much like those experienced by Dracula himself. As has been detailed elsewhere and will be summarized here, by the 1970s, England’s Hammer Studios — the studio that pretty much defined and dominated the horror market through the 50s and 60s — had fallen on hard times. The old guard had largely retired or died, and the new blood was flailing about, desperately trying to find the direction that would right the once mighty production house. The problem was that everyone felt like they needed to update their image, but no one actually knew how. In retrospect, though they may have seemed painfully antiquated at the time of their release, many of Hammer’s releases during the 70s were quite good and often experimental (by Hammer standards, anyway). This movie isn’t really one of them, but it’s still pretty enjoyable in a completely ludicrous way.
Unfortunately, even Hammer’s good films in the 1970s simply weren’t in step with contemporary trends in horror films. No one wanted to see a gothic horror anymore, not in this new era of slasher movies and stuff where devil worshipers listlessly chant about Satan and then hassle Warren Oates and Hot Lips Houlihan. Hammer tried to launch several new properties that were variations on their old themes, and several of these showed considerable promise. Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter was a spectacular horror-adventure film that mixed classic Hammer atmosphere with a more playful, swashbuckling tone. Although Twins of Evil is best remembered for the prominent assets of its two Playboy Playmate co-stars, underneath the cheesecake nudity is another very good film. And Vampire Circus was one of Hammer’s most experimental vampire films, integrating a hallucinogenic, dreamlike state into Hammer’s formerly all-business approach. But these films either didn’t perform well at the box office, or studio executives didn’t have any faith in them. In the end, Hammer decided to return to the same-old, same-old, and audiences got new Dracula, Frankenstein, and mummy movies.
With each of these, Hammer tried something at least a little different. The mummy movie, 1971′s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, was adapted from a Bram Stoker novel and deals with a mummy’s curse but contains no actual mummies. 1974′s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was roundly lambasted for its ridiculous monster make-up (a hairy caveman design featuring a face mask where the lips don’t move when the actor talks), but if one can get past that, it’s an exceptionally well thought-out final entry for the series, completing Baron Frankenstein’s journey from slightly cold man of science on the verge of a miraculous breakthrough to completely disconnected butcher engaged in pointless, crude retreads of his old experiments.
And then there was Dracula. Hammer’s Dracula series started the new decade out with a promising entry, 1970′s Taste the Blood of Dracula. The original idea behind that movie had been to, as with Brides of Dracula so many years before, make movie in which Dracula is an ever-present force and invoked name but not an actual on-screen character. Distributors balked at the idea of a Dracula-free Dracula movie, especially when there was no name star onto which they could hook their wagon as an alternate. Brides may not have featured Christopher Lee as Dracula, but at least it had Peter Cushing reprising his role as Van Helsing. Taste the Blood, on the other hand, revolves around young Ralph Bates, an actor Hammer had hopes of turning into their next big thing, though it never really happened. And so Hammer somehow convinced Christopher Lee to sign on yet again for one absolutely final appearance as the count. The result is a great entry in the Dracula series, and sensing that there was still some gas left in the tank, Hammer decided to give it another go. Scars of Dracula is a pretty bad movie, a major step backward after a good movie, showcasing Hammer filmmaking at its most profit driven, but it also stands out as the only film where Dracula is a major character, with lots of screentime and lines. It was enough to do the trick at the box office, and so to the well once again — but this time, Dracula was gonna get funky!
In 1970, American International Pictures — a studio that built a franchise of horror films based loosely on the writing of Edgar Allen Poe by copying Hammer’s gothic horror films — released a movie called Count Yorga, Vampire. It was an attempt by AIP to transfer the feel of their gothic Poe films into a modern setting, and a vampire — given its longevity provided it can stay away from Peter Cushing — was the perfect creature for the experiment. You could still deck his pad out in all sorts of frilly Victorian hoo ha, but you had a reasonable explanation for why he was still hanging around in 1970, listening to his old Edison Cylindrical Phonograph device and complaining about how modern music was crappy and modern fashion was ridiculous. Count Yorga also had the good sense to poke subtle fun at the idea of this out-of-touch Victorian style character dropped wholesale and unchanged into what was then modern time, as if the intervening hundred years or so hadn’t caused the vampire to change in the slightest.
Yorga, no doubt with some help from Hammer’s early 70s vampire output, sparked a bit of a vampire revival that really came to a boil in 1972. Marvel Comics released their outlandishly ridiculous but imminently enjoyable Tomb of Dracula comic book, in which modern-day descendants of Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and Dracula himself team up to battle a revived Count who would explain his entire life history every time he got a word bubble to himself. Only Doctor Strange showcased the potential to ramble on and spew as much purple prose. The comic book was a whirlwind of bell bottoms, tweed blazers, and jumpers, not to mention vampire hunter Blade’s bizarre combo of lab goggles, a raincoat, and some swashbuckler boots. When they updated him for the movies, it’s a shame they didn’t keep the original outfit. And if Dracula’s flowery long-windedness, punctuated as it often was by the phrase, “Foolish humans!” and “I, Dracula…” was a little much to swallow, wait until you get a load of Blade running around calling the count a “jive turkey” and “baby.”
In the same year, AIP released Blacula, a blaxploitation twist on the Count Yorga theme which, despite the jokey title, turned out to be a very good and thoughtful film that managed to deliver vampire thrills and make comments on race relations, ghettos, and drug abuse without it coming across as overly heavy-handed. Plus the character of Mamuwalde (Blacula, to you) was an exceptionally complex villain/hero inhabited by a great actor in William Marshall. Once again, a movie got to play with the idea of a Victorian era character revived in the modern era — with plenty of light jokes about fashion. Lucky for the vampires, the early 70s were such a jumbled mish-mash of outrageous fashion trends that even a guy running around in a waistcoat and opera cape didn’t really stand out, though he could often be mistaken for a pimp.
In a classic example of “student becomes the master” flip-flopping, Hammer looked to AIP for inspiration and released their own “vampire in modern times” movie in 1972. The idea was hatched that Hammer, too, should make a modern day vampire tale, one that would easily lend itself to integrating modern settings with classic the Hammer gothic trappings. And since Hammer already had Count Dracula hanging around in the shadows, he was the most obvious choice. Of course, there remained one problem: Christopher Lee was absolutely, positively, entirely unwilling to do another Dracula movie for Hammer, not when he was having so much fun making high quality films for Jess Franco, like Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, all those Fu Manchu films, and…oh hey! What do you know! Jess Franco’s Dracula.
I doubt anyone at Hammer was actually worried that they wouldn’t be able to get Lee to reprise his role as Dracula. After all, he announced after every single Dracula movie that he’d never make another one. And a few years later, there he is again, donning the cape and red contact lenses for another go round which, upon completion of principal photography, he would run to the press and complain about. And you know what? He still complains about them, which is why I keep bringing it up. Dude, no one thinks you’re Dracula anymore. The only people who bring it up are a few cult movie fans and you. Everyone else thinks your Saruman or whatever the hell your name was in those awful Star Wars films. I’ve theorized in past reviews of Hammer Dracula films and rehashing of Lee’s complaining that the entire thing was a ruse devised by Hammer and Lee to drum up controversy and business. After all, if your star is out there bad-mouthing his own film and saying stuff like, “Well, the last one may have been gory and tasteless, but this one is so much worse that I can’t stand it!” is going to do wonders for getting folks interested in seeing the movie.
The other option is that Christopher Lee is just pompous. And I say that as a guy who enjoys Christopher Lee’s work. But while I may love many of the films in which he’s been in, there’s no denying that his filmography has considerably more “worst film ever made” candidates in it than anyone short of Michael Caine. But, like Caine, Lee gets the British Actor’s Golden Pass — that coveted ticket that allows a British actor to emerge unscathed from a career of mostly garbage and still have people think they are incredible. I mean, Tom Cruise has one flop, and his career is pronounced over. But Michael Caine? He gets to be in Jaws IV, Blame it on Rio, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and The Swarm, and he comes through like he’s coated in Teflon. Similarly, while Christopher Lee was busy talking about the lack of class in his Dracula movies, he found time to make The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, The Castle of Fu Manchu, Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, To the Devil…A Daughter, and Chuck Norris’ An Eye for an Eye, yet he remains one of the most revered actors of our time. Not even Vincent Price, who made just as many great films (and just as many crummy ones) commands the respect that Lee gets.
So whatever the case, after swearing he’d never do another one, Christopher Lee was never the less coaxed back into the series, perhaps because of the promise that, for the first time since 1958′s Horror of Dracula, he and Cushing would be teamed up as Dracula and Van Helsing. Also, I’m sure they threw some money at him, and a couple rare editions of Shakespeare books or whatever the hell Christopher Lee likes more than making Dracula movies.
The pre-credit opening sees us joining the finale of a film that was never made, but looks like it was pretty good. Dracula (Lee) and Van Helsing (Cushing) are locked in mortal combat atop a carriage that is careening out of control across London’s Hyde Park. Remember that Cushing and Lee hadn’t been paired together as Van Helsing and Dracula since the very first film back in the late 1950s, so seeing them together again should have been a big deal, at least bigger than a pre-credit sequence that feels like, “We now join our regularly scheduled vampire fight already in progress.” But we’ll let that slide, because it really is a fantastic opening, and one that can fool you into thinking Hammer’s Dracula is back with a vengeance. After both Dracula and Van Helsing keel over dead, a mysterious third man rides up and scoops some of Dracula’s ashes into a little glass vial and takes Drac’s signet ring. Then, at Van Helsing’s funeral, the guy dumps some of Dracula’s ashes into a little hole in some far-off corner of the graveyard, and plunges the stake that killed Dracula into the ground. The combination of seeing Van Helsing and Dracula together again after so many years and the high-energy action of the scene is really fun, and like I said, perhaps they should have just made that movie instead. Given that Taste the Blood of Dracula sees the Count transported for the first time to London, a movie in which Van Helsing and the ace bloodsucker tangle with one another one last time on Hammer’s home turf would have been a movie to get excited about.
And I guess technically, that is what Dracula A.D. 1972 is, in a weird, convoluted way. After Van Helsing dispatches Dracula and keels over dead himself, we get the funky Dracula A.D. 1972 theme song by Michael Vickers. And here is where Hammer lost a good many of the remaining traditionalists that were hobbling on their walkers out to the theaters to see Hammer productions. Up until this point, every Hammer Dracula theme song had been written by James Bernard, the man who defined the Hammer score the same way Hammer itself defined the gothic horror film. Bernard’s scores were bombastic and powerful. But with Dracula A.D. 1972, Hammer was trying to create an amalgamation of their past glory with something new. With Lee and Cushing serving as the links to the past, Bernard’s theme writing services were not tapped. Instead, Michael Vickers turns in an attempt to blend classic Hammer horror music with a more modern film theme sound, something more along the lines of Lalo Schifren or Roy Budd. The dramatic shift from the thoroughly old-fashioned Hammer opening to this theme song full of horns and wah-wah guitars jarred many people, though they are lucky I didn’t make the movie because I would have accompanied this completely bad-ass theme song with shots of Christopher Lee wearing a black flared-leg suit and platform shoes (and his cape, of course) high steppin’ down the street with a magic cane, using it to turn fat women thin and bring dead people back to life in front of grieving relatives. That’s right, people. You should be thankful Hammer’s movie is what it is, because if I had my way, it would have been…well, it would have been Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law, but with Dracula. Which just makes me think that we really should have had a movie where Dracula is revived, hisses out his token line, “Who dares disturb the sanctity of Castle Dracula?” only to have Rudy Ray Moore step in with a Thompson machine gun and say, “Dolemite, mother fucker!”
After our funky theme song, the action jumps a hundred years to the groovy, mod setting of London in the swingin’ sixties. Except, you know, it’s 1972 and all. A bunch of groovy young mop tops are skulking about London, holding “freak outs” and the most tame “horribly out of control” parties I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been to some really tame parties. Leading this merry band of pranksters is one Johnny Alucard, trotting out the Alucard “puzzle” for the millionth time. We get it! Who, by this time, doesn’t get the Alucard thing? Imagine if Frankenstein had tried that instead of just cleverly calling himself Dr. Frank or Dr. Stein whilst incognito. Actually, I guess Nietsneknarf isn’t any worse than many actual German words.
Johnny happens to be the owner of Dracula’s ring and some of his ashes, passed on we assume from his nefarious ancestor from the beginning of the film. And one of his friends happens to be the grand-daughter of the latest Dr. Van Helsing. And if you think they’re all going to end up in an abandoned churchyard summoning up Dracula, then you don’t really earn yourself a prize. Actually, Johnny Alucard is less a reincarnation of Dracula than he is a cheap knock-off of Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. In fact, many of the sets and situations in this movie feel cribbed from Kubrick’s film, which is only fitting I suppose, considering the outfits Malcom McDowell wore in A Clockwork Orange.
So OK, now my movie has a jive walkin’ Christopher Lee as Dracula (with a magic cane, remember) battling Dolemite and trying to possess Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Seriously, why does no one ever give me development deals? How does Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave get funding, but my Dracula/Dolemite/Malcom McDowell movie languishes in limbo, alongside my ideas for Cobra-Shark vs. Croco-lion and Great White Squid, a movie about Wings Hauser fighting a genetically engineered giant squid that has great white sharks for tentacles.
Johnny (Christopher Neame) convinces the gang that what would really be fun would be to hold a black mass. Having nothing better to do, the gang agrees, in some cases reluctantly so. It is at this point we learn that one of the groovy gang is Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), great grand-daughter of Lawrence Van Helsing, slayer of Dracula, and current grand-daughter of Professor Van Helsing — played by Peter Cushing, because in movies no one thinks it’s weird when you look 100% identical to one of your distant relatives. Genetics tells me that I should look less and less like my relatives the further removed from them I get, but in movies, people are always the spitting image of some great grandfather or third aunt or whatever, and no one ever thinks that is weird. Hell, the mummy built his entire career of resurrections on randomly stumbling across women who looked exactly like their ancestor from thousands of years ago.
No surprises here when Johnny summons up Dracula during their black mass ritual — which takes place in a desanctified church that happens to be the same place Lawrence Van Helsing and Dracula were buried. You’d think that, given that the current Professor Van Helsing has a portrait of his grandfather in his study, collected all the man’s books, and remains himself an expert on the occult, that he would know where his idol and close relative was buried. But whatever. All that’s important is Dracula is back and he’s going to…well, he’s going to hang around the church and send Johnny out to kidnap Jessica Van Helsing, because Dracula knows how to hold a grudge. Meanwhile, as members of the gang disappear — including the lovely Caroline Munro (Captain Kronos, Starcrash) and the equally lovely Marsha Hunt (you may recall her hairy werewolf boobs from Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, also starring Dracula) — the police become increasingly convinced by Van Helsing’s tendency to blame the murders on a vampire.
There are a few things people tend to harp on when criticizing this film. The first, most obvious, and dumbest argument is that the film is dated. I think I may have said before that “it looks dated” is one of my most hated complaints about any movie. It’s cheap, ignorant, and shallow, and it has no merit as an observation. That a film is a reflection of the time in which it was made hardly strikes me as anything inherently negative, and I detest whenever someone trots out that hoary old cliche and expects us to have any respect for their opinion. Oh, so Dracula A.D. 1972 contains slang and crazy fashion. Big deal. I look at those things as assets more than as detriments. So if your complaint is that the movie is dated looking, well we may still be friends, but I’m certainly going to regard your opinion on any film from here on out with a tremendous degree of suspicion.
The second most common complaint is that Dracula is hardly in the movie at all, and when he is, he does nothing. I can understand this complaint a little bit more. Bt honestly, if at this point in the series you are mad that Dracula isn’t on screen and doesn’t do very much when he is, then you haven’t watched any of the previous films in the series, except perhaps Scars of Dracula, which is the only film where he has anything approaching substantial screentime or more than two lines. Not to say that it isn’t disappointing. One can’t help but want scenes of Dracula cutting lose in modern London, even if those scenes don’t involve him dancing down the street with a magic cane. It would have been nice if he did a little something more than stand around in the desanctified church. Dracula’s confinement to the church is representative of Hammer’s difficulty with updating their image. They want to figure out a way to enter the modern era, but in the end they imprison their title character in a Victorian set and don’t ever figure out exactly how to bring him out.
Previous Dacula films have always relied on the rest of the cast, with Dracula looming in the background as everyone’s motivating factor. Unfortunately for Dracula AD 1972, it’s a pretty weak supporting cast, comprised primarily of inexperienced young actors who aren’t bad but don’t really contribute much that is memorable. They spend most of their time either sitting around being bored, or sitting around talking about how they are concerned, then most of them head off to a party and are never heard from again. Stephanie Beacham as Jessica Van Helsing obviously has a more substantial role, but only if you consider substantial to be screaming, then being put into a trance. As the menacing Johnny Alucard, Christopher Neame is all right — equal parts spooky and pathetic — but he’s basically playing Malcom McDowell, as I said. Dracula AD 1972 is more or less a remake of Taste the Blood of Dracula, complete with the bored circle dabbling in the black arts, the mysterious outsider spurring them on and summoning Dracula, the vial of Dracula remains, the kidnapped woman, and so on. But Ralph Bates was a much more charismatic actor, and Taste the Blood of Dracula had a much more compelling cast of older character actors to propel it forward in between scenes of Dracula showing that he can count to three. Dracula AD 1972 lacks that, and although the young cast is perfectly acceptable, the characters they inhabit just aren’t interesting. Plus the jackass who wears the monk’s cowl around the whole time was intensely annoying and yet escaped death. Shame on you, Dracula! Shame on you for not killing the odious comic relief.
Caroline Munro has a small but memorable part as one of the gang of youths seduced by Johnny Alucard’s ability to mimic what he’s seen in A Clockwork Orange, but she would quickly become one of the most beloved cult film actresses of all time. She got her start on the horror scene playing Vincent price’s dead wife in the Dr. Phibes films, though I’m not sure lying there dead for every one of your scenes earns you a whole lot other than other parts where you do nothing but lie there. She at least gets to talk, writhe, show off heaving breasts, and get blood dumped all over her in this film. Her career took off shortly thereafter, and she has a much more substantial role in Hammer’s superior Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, as well as major roles in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, At the Earth’s Core, the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, and of course the infamous classic Starcrash, featuring what was no doubt her most memorable outfit. A shame she doesn’t have more to do in this film, but even a little Caroline Munro is worth watching.
As the current Van Helsing, it’s great to see Peter Cushing back in action. Naturally he goes at the role with absolute conviction. Unfortunately, the character is written as Van Helsing Lite, and most of his scenes are pretty dull. He spends a lot of time tracking down clues to the one thing he already knows. Everyone knows where Dracula’s base of operation is, and yet Van Helsing spends half the movie trying to track down clues to the location of Dracula’s hide-out, which he already knows! And once again, he decides to go fight Dracula at night, instead of swinging by and staking the bloodsucker when Dracula is asleep in his coffin. Why oh why are vampire hunters always waiting until dark to go fight vampires? I guess a movie where vampire hunters swing by during the day, stake Dracula, then head down to the pub to celebrate wouldn’t be as long, but it’d be a nice change of pace. Other than that, Cushing is always Cushing. He comes in and does his job well.
The final common criticism of this movie, then, is that it’s not very good, and I guess that’s a fair assessment. The script needed more work. You can tell the hip young lingo was written by old men who didn’t really know what they were doing. The plot is a bit of a letdown, especially considering that it’s the first time Van Helsing and Dracula have been on screen together since the first movie. And despite all that, I really quite like Dracula AD 1972. I like the young cast. I like the awkward attempt at being hip. I like the outlandish counter-culture fashions. I like the attempts at freak-out cinematography. I think the movie is fun regardless of its faults, though I recognize that I may be in the minority here. By no means is this the film to save Hammer, and by no means is it as good as the film it rips off, Taste the Blood of Dracula. But it’s not an entirely bad effort and has much to recommend in it, at least for me.
Screenwriter Don Houghton didn’t have a terribly deep resume at this point in his career, his primary credit at the time of this movie being a stint as a writer for Doctor Who. And in fact, he had very little in the way of a career after Dracula AD 1972. He went on to write The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and two of Hammer’s co-productions with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio — the crummy Shatter and the pretty good if sloppily written Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, in which Peter Cushing reprised his Van Helsing character one more time, this time on a trip to China to stop Dracula from raising an undead army. Despite the appearance of Dracula in the movie, Christopher Lee did not sign on, possibly because he was too busy making the James Bond film Man with the Golden Gun. But even if he wasn’t in the Hammer-Shaw team-up, Dracula AD 1972 was still not the last time Lee would bare his fangs. Once again, the movie managed to be just profitable enough for Hammer to hazard one final stake in the count’s heart.