Monday, January 13, 2014

Hammer Rewatch: Dracula AD 1972 (... 1972)

            A look at Hammer’s Dracula series, Part 7…

            Now this is more like it. After six movies of foggy castles and horse carriages, Hammer decided to shake things up in a major way by updating the Dracula series to the present day. Long thought of as the black sheep of the Hammer series, Dracula AD 1972 is actually one of the better (if not the outright best) sequels to the original Dracula. I mean, sure - the hippie kids with their bell-bottoms and far-out dialogue make the whole affair more than a little ridiculous. But it’s that very ridiculousness that pushes the film to the enjoyable heights it often reaches… a most welcome change of pace to the standard plots and characters the series drew upon time and time again in the previous installments, and certainly one of the studios better efforts produced in their waning years.

            The film starts with one of the best scenes in the Dracula canon, as Dr. Van Helsing and the Count battle atop a speeding carriage. Van Helsing finally stakes Dracula, putting an end to his reign of terror once and for all.* Cut forward to a hundred years later (in a transition that surely rivals that one in 2001 where the monkey throws the bone and it turns into a spaceship), and we meet up with a descendent of the good doctor: Jessica Van Helsing, a freewheeling young woman whose cast her lot in with a bunch of dirty hippies who like to crash rich peoples’ parties by showing up dressed up like monks and snogging with each other. Chief amongst these hedonistic societal rebels is one Johnny Alucard, a rambunctious young man who I’m sure was not at all based on Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and who seems obsessed with black magic and Satan and puppies and stuff… Or something like that. Anyway, his friends take him up on the offer, and - wouldn’t you know it - they wind up bringing Count Dracula himself back from the grave. It’s a good thing Ms. Van Helsing’s grandfather is an expert in the occult just like their ancestor, and the spitting image of one Peter Cushing.

            And that’s really what makes the film, ultimately. The last few Dracula’s were missing Cushing, the bright spot of just about any movie he deemed to grace his presence with (Hammer or otherwise), and all were hampered by his absence in some way or another. Watching the actor work his magic against such a goofy backdrop is astonishing, and the seriousness with which he handles the material instantly brings the rest of the picture up around him every time he’s on screen. As great as Chris Lee was as the Count, it’s fairly obvious his heart wasn’t in the last few entries, but by once again acting against his old buddy Cushing, Lee’s own performance seems reinvigorated. The rest of the cast is filled with rather unexciting performers who get the job done nonetheless. As mentioned previously, Christopher Neame most certainly was inspired by Alex DeLarge for his role of Johnny Alucard, but the actor does have an undeniable electricity whenever he’s onscreen. The rest of the teens are rather a bore (except for maybe Caroline Munro, but she’s the first to go, sadly), most especially Stephanie Beacham as Jessica Van Helsing, who pretty much sticks to type and faints and swoons like the scores of Hammer actresses who came before her. You’d think that being a Van Helsing would give her a little more spunk, but the film unfortunately reverts to having her captured and hypnotized by Dracula in no time.

            Another factor the film benefits immensely from is director Alan Gibson, whose stylish framing gets the film through more than one slow spell or awkward plot point. As great as job as some of the others have done, this is easily the best direction the series saw since Terence Fisher left four films ago. The film is also aided by a funked-up soundtrack, which again helps to distinguish it from everything that came before while also providing an air of lighthearted fun to all the blood and bell-bottoms. Really… what more could you want?

            * Ha! Right.**

            ** And speaking of Dracula’s deaths-but-not-really, the film completely abandons whatever loose continuity the series had going previously.  

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