25 October 2008

DRACULA: MOD AND LOVING IT

The release of Hammer seventh film in their increasingly-discontinuous Dracula series was preceded by two big pieces of news, one of them exciting. That was the announcement that for the first time in fourteen years, Christopher Lee's Count Dracula would be set against his greatest opponent of all, Peter Cushing's Professor Van Helsing. The other big piece of news? Well, for starters, the film was going to be titled Dracula A.D. 1972. Which means exactly what you think it does.

By 1972, Hammer Films was in what we might ungenerously, but not without good cause, describe as a tailspin. The stately Gothic horror that had been its bread and butter for the last half of the '50s and all of the '60s had gone beyond quaint into outright mustiness, and by this point had been essentially abandoned. Its brazen attempts to court youthful viewers were doomed to failure if only because the Powers That Be had a concept of "youth culture" at least five years out of date. The Hammer films that actually tried to shake things up in a really meaningful way (and one can only imagine how frustrating this must have been) were constantly derided as being "not Hammer enough". Writing with more than three decades of subsequent history, it seems quite obvious that the studio had passed the point of no return and was just running out the clock until it finally collapsed, but certainly at the time it was all happening, the Hammer execs were trying to keep their leaky boat afloat however they could.

In 1970, American International Pictures released a certain motion picture titled Count Yorga, Vampire, in which a centuries-old bloodsucker is discovered in modern (then-modern, anyhow) Los Angeles. It wasn't the first modern-day vampire movie, but it was the first to enjoy real success, and it led, naturally, to a small explosion of rip-offs. Genre fans were and remain split on the question of whether Count Yorga is a particularly good vampire film, but to the desperate Hammer, any idea must have looked better than what they had, and if introducing Bram Stoker's famed character to the modern world was something they could turn a profit on (in point of fact, several films featuring a vampire named Dracula beat Hammer to the punch, but without exception they were low-budget misfires that nobody remembers but connoisseurs of bad movies), then by God they were going to, and were the first steps taken on a road that eventually led to that artistic black hole named Blade: Trinity.

It probably won't surprise you if I contend that the best part of Dracula A.D. 1972 is the one scene which doesn't take place in 1972 at all. The film opens in 1872, with a narrator who is somehow stern and breathless at the same time informing us that we are watching the finale of a battle between Dracula and Lawrence Van Helsing that has raged throughout London and now ends in Hyde Park. First off, Lawrence? Were there legal issues around "Abraham"? Of course, we've never heard his first name before in the Hammer movies, and given that the preceding six films took place between 1885 and 1910ish, and given also that Scars of Dracula ended with Dracula doing his best meteor impression straight into a foggy abyss, series continuity is clearly not going to be a worthwhile topic to pursue any longer. Second, how much awesome would there have been in a whole movie about Van Helsing pursuing Dracula through Victorian London? The answer is pretty obvious, given that the plot of Stoker's novel and virtually every non-Hammer adaptation thereof concerns just exactly that pursuit, but except for Taste the Blood of Dracula, every one of the studio's films took place in some Carpathian Neverland.

Anyway, grousing is fun and all, but it doesn't take away from the sequence that we get, which is really a damn great action sequence, with Dracula and Van Helsing (played by Lee and Cushing's stunt doubles) fight atop a runaway carriage that shoots off the road and into a tree, sending the de rigeur lone wheel spinning out of the wreckage. Van Helsing is pretty well messed-up, but he has just enough life in him to notice that the count has been gouged by the broken spokes of a wheel, and with the remnants of his mortal strength, the famed vampire hunter plunges the wood all the way into Dracula's black heart. Cue ash, as Van Helsing passes away, not noticing the mysterious figure who scoops up some ashes and grabs Dracula's signet ring and the piece of wood that actually staked the vampire. At Van Helsing's funeral, that same man digs a small hole just outside of the graveyard wall, pours the ashes in, and plunges the stake into their center.

Then it begins. It is the new score by Michael Vickers, replacing longtime series composer James Bernard, whose typically moody, occasionally histrionic music was a perfect backbone for the action even at its goofiest. Vickers's work, reflecting Hammer's desire to modernise the franchise, is best described as "funky". Which would have been great if this were a blaxploitation vampire flick, but Hammer was always too stodgy to carry off "funky".

Forgive me if I hurry through the rest of the plot, for it is tedious and basically just a retread of Taste the Blood with hip kids instead of pasty Edwardian businessmen. We meet those kids in what must be, no contest, the film's most ill-considered scene: a whole mess of swingin' cats have wormed their way into these posh squares' dinner party, following the groovy band Stoneground. What's that, you say? This isn't 1964, and things like "cats" and "squares" no longer existed? Don't tell me, tell Alan Gibson and Don Houghton, the director and writer. Their hugely embarassing take on what makes for a rowdy scene is plainly informed by watching the movies and TV shows that other middle-aged white men had written about '60s kids, though at least those were actually produced in the '60s.

The teens are mostly interchangeable (although one was played by minor '70s sexpot par excellence Caroline Munro), and the only two we really need to care about are Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) and Johnny (Christopher Neame). The latter of these is kind of like the group's ringleader, or at least their resident troublemaker, and it's his idea to have a bit of fun by going to this desanctified church he knows, and try to raise the devil. That church holds one initial nasty surprise for Jessica, when she spots the grave of one of her relatives in the churchyard: it turns out that she's Jessica Van Helsing, the great-great-granddaughter of the man who died in 1872 (at first she claims to be his granddaughter, in a truly outrageous continuity gaffe). But that's nothing on the nastier surprise awaiting the whole group when Johnny engages in an elaborate baptism-by-blood ceremony that leaves one girl dead (the aforementioned Ms. Munro), and the rest freaked the fuck out. It turns out that Johnny knew exactly what he was doing though, for his first response to seeing the revived Dracula is to prostrate himself before his master.

The rest of the film is little more than a bumbling cops exercise, as they figure out quickly that all the teens showing up dead were in the same social circle, that Jessica was one of them, and that her grandfather is the esteemed Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Lorrimer?!) expert in the occult. Expert or not, he's not all that useful; he figures out by the midway point that Dracula has risen in the old St. Bartholomew's Church, and then spends the second half of the movie trying to figure out which old deconsecrated church Dracula is using as his hideout. It even takes him a whole evening to decode the old "Alucard" puzzle, when he learns that to be Johnny's last name. Meanwhile, the most idiotic death in the series takes place when one of the vampirised kids is burned to death in a shower - because remember, clear running water can kill a vampire, and apparently bathtubs count.

But once we get beyond all of that, the film nearly makes up for it with a genuinely great endgame (okay, not quite as great as the Hyde Park teaser), in which Van Helsing uses all of his smarts to trap the vampire, knowing that Dracula is more than his match physically. It's not quite the epic confrontation that Cushing got to play all the way back in The Brides of Dracula, but outside of that high water mark, I'd happily argue that it's the best climax in the series.

Still, there's a lot of crap in between that great opening and great finale. At least this time there's a really fantastic adversary for the count, and Peter Cushing has always been the kind of actor who never, ever let on if he thought that what he was doing in a movie was stupid, implausible, or silly. A lot like Christopher Lee, in that respect. But since Lee is limited to his customary 10 minutes of screentime - and he does much better with these minutes than he did with a much-expanded role in Scars of Dracula, even managing to nail his unnecessarily expository dialogue this time - it's Cushing who carries the film, every bit as much as he carried the first Dracula back in 1958.

But the world surrounding Cushing this time is not at all like Terence Fisher's Gothic masterpiece. Alan Gibson was mostly a television director, and not tasked with making the same kind of Dracula movie; this time, given the contemporary setting and all, he was supposed to make a "realistic" film. Bless his soul, that's exactly what he tried to do, but it results in clashing tones all over the place, when we're expected to reconcile the dusty, Victorian interior of St. Bartholomew's with the mod pads that most of the film takes place in. He never really seems certain what to do with the material most of the time, and I guess it's hard to blame him. Dracula A.D. 1972 was plainly a film created from desperation, not inspiration, and trying to bring the Gothic mood of the previous Dracula films to a bright vision of modern London probably would have defeated a more qualified director than Gibson.

The rest of the cast, as was customary for Hammer, is made up of vanilla young men and busy young ladies who are entirely pleasant to look at, and who cares if they can act? Christopher Neame is the glaring exception: he's supposed to be threatening but seductive, I think, but the boy hasn't a lick of charisma, and it appears that he was chosen... I swore I wasn't going to bring it up, because every reviewer seems to bring it up, but it's just too accurate to ignore. Neame seems to have been cast because of his uncanny resemblance to Malcolm McDowell in full if... and A Clockwork Orange mode. Imagine McDowell with exactly zero screen presence. Not a nice thought, is it?

Really, except for the always-reliable presence of Lee and Cushing's great return to one of his better roles, there's precious damn little good in Dracula A.D. 1972. Even the title is clumsy, and this from a series that positively reveled in flowery titles. The film may be tremendously awkward rather than utterly bad, (utterly bad was just a tiny bit down the road), but either way, it's a sad way to watch a formerly great series enter its death throes.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Fisher, 1958)
The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Fisher, 1966)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Francis, 1968)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (Sasdy, 1970)
Scars of Dracula (Baker, 1970)
Dracula A.D. 1972 (Gibson, 1972)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1974)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Baker, 1974)

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