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September 9, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #88 - Dracula A.D. 1972

When you put about half of my favorite things (like Christopher Lee, Caroline Munro, Hammer Films, and horror movies) together in one place, you're probably going to get my attention.  It's kind of science.  There was a study - I think it was in Norway - that proved unequivocally that putting these things together is 100% guaranteed to get my attention.  I'm not sure if any animals were harmed during the study, but that's not the point.  The point is that Dracula A.D. 1972 is kind of a Mike taunter.
The film opens with what you'd expect from a Hammer Dracula film - Lee battling Peter Cushing in the olden England countryside.  Nevermind the fact that Cushing hadn't appeared as Van Helsing since 1960's Brides of Dracula, nevermind the fact that Lee wasn't even in that movie: that's the image of Hammer horror we all remember.  The catch is that, by 1972, ticket buyers didn't really remember it.  To them, Lee & Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing was an old thing.  Horror had changed throughout the 1960s thanks to the likes of Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, and Night of the Living Dead, and the only way Hammer could survive was to update.  It's the same thing that happened to the slasher genre in the late '90s.
The slasher genre became self aware when it needed to change, but that wouldn't really work for Dracula in the 1800s.  You can't have Van Helsing start quipping about how people need to watch more movies or how the director created Dracula because of his own nightmares.  So, Dracula A.D. 1972 does the next best thing - it kills off the characters in the opening scenes, then brings them back 100 years later in modern day.
As much as I love the old Hammer, I gotta say that this switch in time and place is probably the second most charming thing about Dracula A.D. 1972.  While I'm being honest, I can admit that some of those Gothic Dracula films run together in my head at times.  On the other hand, Dracula A.D. 1972 stands out like a shiny lighthouse, because it's the one with the '70s and a creepy relative of Drac named Johnny Alucard and that awesome band The Stoneground in an early film party scene.  Amidst all the changes, we still get a bit of the same, as Lee's Dracula is resurrected.  As the old saying goes, "You can't keep a good vampire down".
Cushing also returns to the new century as a descendant of Van Helsing, but the movie brings plenty of fresh blood to the scene too.  Stephanie Beacham (complete with an unfortunate '70s mullet and a slew of chest revealing tops) co-stars as this Van Helsing's granddaughter, who becomes the main target of Alucard and Dracula.  She's joined by a bunch of hip London friends who enjoy things like crashing old peoples' parties and sitting around and being hip.  The group includes a bunch of goofy looking guys, who must be cool to hang out with ladies like Beacham, the fetching Marsha Hunt, and the most charming thing about the film - my dearest beloved Caroline Munro.
The film doesn't capitalize on its new setting entirely, and Hammer could have taken a cue from another horror icon who was adapting to the early '70s scene at the same time.  In making films like The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood, Vincent Price and the filmmakers he was working with worked to add humor to their films to complement their horror trademarks.  Despite A.D. 1972's updated setting and the silly party scene at the beginning, the film is very direct and straight-laced throughout the rest of the film, which leaves the final product a lot closer to the outdated Hammer films it wanted to escape from.  The result is still pleasing to a fan of those films, but it's easy to see why just moving the film to modern times wasn't enough to rejuvenate Hammer Films.
There's still a lot to like about Dracula A.D. 1972, despite the missed opportunity in tone and a few lulls in the action.  The film still manages to provide a lot of fun scenes and new twists on the Dracula movie, and the mixture of veteran performers Lee and Cushing and young stars and starlets provides some unique scenes that we wouldn't expect from other Hammer films. I think 1970's Scars of Dracula did a slightly better job of integrating young characters into the Hammer world, but that's not the point.  If you've got the choice between this one or Hammer's follow up - The Satanic Rites of Dracula - which replaces the modern young folks with a modern Satanic cult - I have the feeling you're gonna pick Dracula A.D. 1972 every time.
If you blow up this picture, you'll be creeped out by the hairy nerdy glasses guy trying to sneak dance with Caroline Munro on the left side of the frame.
Maybe I like Dracula A.D. 1972 more than I should, but I dig the heck out of it's idea to merge London's wild scene of the early '70s and Hammer's classic tales of Dracula and Van Helsing.  With the likes of Munro and the music of The Stoneground helping out, Dracula A.D. 1972 continues to be an interesting statement on where Hammer was going at the end of their first reign of terror (which ended a few films later with To The Devil, A Daugher....) and a cheesy distraction for fans of its era's style.


Chris Hewson said...

Well, if that's what takes your fancy, then have you ever seen Don't Open Till Christmas? It's a santa-slasher movie with a cameo-ing Caroline Munro and starring Edmond Purdom (close enough to Chris Lee).

The Mike said...

Yes! I have seen that one, and was somewhat pleased. But it definitely needed more Caroline. :)