October Horrorshow: Dracula A.D. 1972

There aren’t very many Hammer horror flicks that take place in contemporary times. For this month, only six of the films I’ve watched up to this point take place around the time in which they were filmed. Only one film from the franchise flicks, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, breaks away from its gothic setting. Until now.

Dracula A.D. 1972, written by Don Houghton and directed by Alan Gibson, takes Hammer’s successful vampire franchise and plunks it down in modern times with little ceremony. It’s also a reboot. Gone is all the continuity from the previous Dracula flicks, replaced with an introductory scene that takes place in 1872. In it, we see the final confrontation between Dracula (Christopher Lee) and his dogged pursuer, Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). This scene depicts a frantic climax to a film that looked interesting, and that I wish had been made instead of Scars of Dracula. Either way, Dracula is vanquished back in the nineteenth century, and Van Helsing dies of injuries sustained in his fight with the undead demon. But the fight did not go unobserved. A follower (Christopher Neame) of Dracula collects Dracula’s ashes for resurrection at a later date.

Cut to the present, 1972, and the movie enters the plot proper. There, we get Hammer’s view of London counterculture of the era. It’s a funny look at the times. Just like Hammer’s vision of the 19th century was ersatz, so, bizarrely, is its vision of 1972. It’s like the folks at Hammer never took a look out a window. More accurately, I think it stems from Hammer’s working methods. Their films have always felt only one step removed from stage plays, which have never been into realism. Hammer’s sets and its costumes merely evoke the real, as does a play. That works much better in period pieces than it does in contemporary times, when an audience member can leave the theater and the resolution of real life makes what Hammer portrayed look weak by comparison.

In 1972, a descendant of Dracula’s follower, Johhny Alucard (also played by Neame) has gathered around him a group of free-loving, coffee-drinking London hippies. Alucard (really, that’s his name — like this is an Ed Wood flick or one of JD’s fantasies on Scrubs) convinces his little band to participate in a black mass. They all think it’s in good fun, although one of the group, Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), has her reservations. As she should. She is, of course, the great-granddaughter of Lawrence Van Helsing, whom we saw in the intro, and the granddaughter of Lorrimer Van Helsing (also played by Cushing), who has spent his life studying the occult, as if it were the family business. Don’t bother trying to reconcile how much time has passed with how old Cushing is in this film. Just let it ride. It’s no coincidence that Alucard sought Jessica out, for, of course, the ritual is designed to resurrect Dracula, and Dracula is going to want his revenge on the Van Helsing family.

Dracula rises from the dead, as he always does in these films. He’s also a bit more talky than had been the norm. In the first film, Lee played Dracula as an erudite charmer, but in the movies since, he has been more of a demon wearing a human’s skin. For this film, Lee strikes a balance between the two. The rest of the film follows Dracula’s battle with Lorrimer Van Helsing.

From a plot standpoint, Dracula A.D. 1972 is no different from the previous films. Dracula is fairly single-minded in that. He wakes, he targets a young lady to be his bride, in this case Jessica, and the film’s hero tries to stop him. Having the story take place in 1972 is mere window dressing. This is never more apparent after a viewer realizes that the filmmakers never take advantage of the setting. Sure, there are cars, and rock music, and electricity, but Dracula sees none of that. All of his scenes take place in an abandoned church. We never get the fish out of water story that the title promises. Where is the scene showing Dracula visit a London nightclub? Where is the scene showing Dracula at a far out party out of his mind on LSD? Where is the fricking car chase? Every one of the previous films seemed to have a carriage chase, so why can’t this one have a car chase? Failing to use the modern setting is a big problem with this flick. It feels like Hammer wanted to switch things up, but ended up just doing the same old thing all over again.

That isn’t to say there isn’t life to this movie. For one, the soundtrack is amazing. It was composed by Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann. When I write that the soundtrack is amazing, I don’t mean that I particularly liked the music. Rather, the music is a wild choice for the movie. It’s an amalgamation of the type of music one would hear in a Blaxploitation film and a James Bond film. It alternates between being perfect for the film and grossly inappropriate, making it the most interesting part of the movie.

In addition, this is a good Dracula film. Most of the previous films weren’t that good, especially in comparison with Hammer’s Frankenstein films. But this film is, at times, a rollicking blast. It’s also one of the few films to feature both Lee and Cushing, which is always a plus. Despite failing to use the setting to effect, the filmmakers crafted what I feel is the best entry in the franchise.