Monday, September 19, 2016

Hammer Watch: Dracula A.D. 1972

Full confession: I rented this movie entirely upon the promise of Caroline Munro who, it turned out, was a key character in the movie, but not in it nearly as much as one would hope (and I have some script notes on that which I am sure could be retro-actively applied).

Because otherwise I usually like my Dracula nice and Victorian.  Bringing Dracula into the modern age always amps the cheese factor for me (do not see Dracula 2000) and just reminds me that Dracula works best when Van Helsing and the gang don't have cell phones or modern medicine.  After all, the original novel of Dracula is sort of an exploration of the slow horror that was disease in an era when leeches and a good blood letting were about as much as your doctors were going to do for you while your body shut down on you in pretty awful ways.

In truth, I basically rented the movie for a laugh, not expecting much, and wound up genuinely enjoying the thing.  I absolutely love it when something turns out not to be the dud I thought it would be.  My exposure to Hammer Horror is limited, and while this one isn't exactly scary - it understands horror, vampires and the core of why they can be great villains when they aren't sparkling or sitting around looking like the H+M catalog exploded on a CW show.

Thus, this is a post about how I enjoyed Dracula AD 1972 (1972), a pretty-not-great movie that was sadly lacking in greater Caroline Munro screentime, but nonetheless a fun movie.

Look, I'm totally in the bag for the 1931 take on Dracula, and - to me - Bela Lugosi is Dracula.  Everyone else is just playing a character.  I have a fondness for the Frank Langella's 1979 take as well as Coppola's visual feast of a Dracula film from 1992 despite the wooden performances from everyone but Oldman.  I get the arc of history that's made Dracula into a romantic sort of character despite the character's origins as an undead monstrosity fit only for eradication.

But because we've seen so much of that romantic Dracula, I quite like (and totally buy) Hammer's "nope, this guy is a monster of the highest order" approach to our blood-sucking antagonist.  They rightfully see him as a right bastard in league with dark forces, an extension of the occult and demonism, and thus we get Christopher Lee's red-eyed, cruel take on the character.  Better yet, he's locked in eternal conflict with Peter Cushing's feverishly dedicated vampire hunter, Van Helsing.  The Hammer movies are one of the few places we don't just begrudingly admit that Van Helsing is right, Dracula may be cool, but maybe we should kill this monster before he pitches the world into a pit of horror and despair instead of letting the sexy good times roll.  We want Van Helsing to kill that infernal jerk.  Further, in the Hammer movies we're maybe a little concerned Van Helsing can't pull it off.

Dracula AD 1972 sees Dracula lose what seems to be his final battle to Van Helsing in 1872.  He turns to ash while Van Helsing himself falls dead, a victim to the shared battle.  Fast forward to London in 1972, a swinging city with a youth culture that's enjoying the last gasp of the 1969's relevancy as it bends (inevitably) toward Me Generation self-indulgence.  The hip youth are always up for whatever will provide them with "a giggle", including invading an upscale party and go-go dancing on a piano until the fuzz shows up.*

Van Helsing's grandson - also played by Peter Cushing - is grandfather to the most boring of "the group", Jessica (Stephanie Beacham).  Their default leader, Johnny Alucard, convinces "the group" to do something crazy and go into an abandoned church for a bit of a Black Mass.  Seems Johnny Alucard is a descendant of one of Dracula's prior minions, and that's a family that really wants to see the terror that creeps in the night descend upon all mankind.  He's manipulating Jessica into place to become Dracula's bride/ victim.

I don't want to give too much away, but bodies start to turn up, Van Helsing has an idea of what's going on, the cops are having a hard time buying it in an age where we're landing rockets on the moon, and Dracula is on a rampage to some funky 70's beats.

While the film starts with a bang, it slows tremendously for a bit, but when it picks back up, the story progresses at great speed, getting up where we need to go economically and with a pretty bit of great tension, mostly as brought to the screen by Cushing himself.

While, as I mentioned, I don't usually like a "Dracula in present tense", this one works for me, maybe because 1972 is pretty far in the rearview mirror, and partially because of the direct ties with the past the movie establishes instead of just having Dracula re-establish himself with the gag of "hey, I look like Patrick Bateman now" or whatever.  It's 1972, but our Drac is still wearing a silk magician's cape.

It's funny - yeah, there's a subtext here of "damn kids, only the old men know what's important", but there's also some commentary here about the pursuit of "a giggle" can make you do some pretty stupid stuff.  Which, you know, your mileage will vary on the efficacy of that message, but when your grandfather, who has spent his life thinking about killing vampires and worrying about the occult gets a bit tense - maybe pay attention, hippie.

As I say, the movie isn't exactly frightening, but it works well as a thriller and somewhat in the superhero vein.  As I mentioned during my viewing of Fu Manchu, it's interesting to see the mere mortal pitted against the criminal mastermind or supernatural horror, education, learning and passion triumphing over evil.  It may be an old fashioned approach, but it would be interesting to see this idea re-applied, rather than 2004's disastrous attempt to turn Van Helsing into a superhero.  Van Helsing is reason over superstition or doubt - he's not a "I'll solve this with violence" anti-hero.

It's a Hammer film, which means it has a certain aesthetic, to well-lit night scenes, to pink-ish blood to casting that would make Russ Meyer stand up and take notice.  Mixed with two actors who were no doubt thought of as b-list at the time, but who have risen in esteem every year since 1977 or so, it's a strange combo of elements, but it works in it's own way.

I suppose this is the unofficial kick-off of my horror movie sprint to Halloween, but there we are.  I have three more Hammer movies lined up thanks to a DVD I picked up for $9, so, Jamie - settle in.  We're doing this!  Hammer Halloween 2016!

*we can debate the failure of the hippie movement, let alone the effectiveness of freaking out the squares vis-a-vis being a complete asshole some other time.


JAL said...

At some point, Netflix had a lot of Hammer and I binged quite a bit. "Vampire Circus" was the standout. It's a film that could work today.

ncapp said...

If you enjoyed this, I look forward to you watching others. I love Hammer, but I did not like Dracula A.D. in the slightest. Twins of Evil and The Vampire Lovers are solid, but the strongest stuff is found in the Frankenstein series (maybe because Cushing is so good in the role).

The League said...

@justin - how can I not watch a movie entitled "Vampire Circus"? It sounds adorable.
@ncapp - Yeah, I've got "Frankenstein Created Woman" on deck and two Christopher Lee Draculas, but I've heard good things about "The Vampire Lovers". Honestly, never heard of "Twins of Evil". I'm a Universal Franky fan, but I've seen and generally enjoyed two of the Hammer Frank films - the names of which escape me but I know one was the first one. I'd like to revisit them and check out some more. Man cannot live by Universal Horror alone.

Jake Shore said...

I remember catching half an hour of this one time expecting a good laugh and thinking it wasn't half bad. Maybe I'll go back and check out the rest. I agree with your take on the Hammer Dracula films (Dracula is a straight up evil monster), although I've only seen this and the first one (Horror of Dracula), and I prefer it. I really liked the remake of Fright Night with Colin Farrell because the vampire is (as one character puts it) the shark from JAWS. Where does this rank compared to the other Christopher Lee Dracula films? There's at least half a dozen of them. Which ones should I see or avoid?

The League said...

I am not the one to ask re: Hammer. I'll be delving into more of that pretty quickly, if things work out. But, yeah, the vampire in Fright Night is the real deal! I've only seen parts of it, but it's nice to see a vampire who isn't an analogy for that-jerk-who-stole-your-girlfriend or the-guy-i-wish-would-steal-me.