Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dracula A.D. 1972

I realized something this month: I have never seen anything from Hammer Films.  That's not particularly shocking for most people to admit to, but that means that I have never seen Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their (arguably) most iconic film roles.  Apparently, I am only pretending to enjoy horror movies.  But which Dracula film to choose?  I went with Dracula A.D. 1972.  Cushing and Lee co-starred in so many Dracula films together, and I knew that the first five shared the same continuity.  With about twenty seconds of research on the ol' interweb, I discovered that A.D. 1972 was a fresh start, continuity-wise.  Plus, it was streaming on Netflix, which made it an easy choice.

The film opens at the climax of a battle between Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) and his nemesis, Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), atop a runaway horse carriage.  The carriage crashes and both a hurt badly; Van Helsing's last act is to impale the wounded Dracula with a wooden wheel spoke in lieu of a stake.
Well...that's humiliating
Both men die, but Dracula turns to dust.  Shortly after Dracula *sigh* bites the dust, a creepy dude with not at all fake sideburns (Christopher Neame) arrives, scoops up some Dracula dust into a vial and takes Draccy's gaudy ring.  I assume it was the Count's class ring from Transylvania High.  A short time later, the dust of Dracula is buried nearby Van Helsing's grave in Chelsea.  Fast-forward a hundred years.  As the movie poster indicates, the time is "Now," as long as "Now" is 1972.  Things are swinging in Chelsea, as this crazy party indicates:
Dancing on a table?  Now I've seen everything!
Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) is part of a groovy scene that loves to have fun and stick it to the man in ways that are largely legal.  Part of the group --- not "gang," as Jessica points out to her square granddad --- is Johnny Alucard (Neame), who looks suspiciously like Mr. Fake Sideburns from 1872, possibly because it is the same actor.  With a name like Smuckers Alucard in a Dracula movie, it's a cinch that this moderately creepy twenty-something is up to no good.  Why is that, you might ask?  I'll let a cast member from the fabulous Troll 2 give you a hint:

Yes, "Alucard" is Dracula spelled backwards.  It's kind of odd that it appears to be his family name, but whatever.  It's not like he's trying to raise Dracula from the dead and has randomly befriended a descendant of Dracula's greatest enemy, right?  Riiiiight?!?  Well, crap.  Johnny has picked Jessica and her fellow spoiled socialite youngsters because they're stupid enough to be looking for thrills; Johnny persuades them to partake in a black magic ceremony to raise Dracula from the grave.  
Alternate video for Tears for Fears' "Shout"
That's when people start popping up dead and drained of blood, which leads the police to ask occult expert Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) for help.  It doesn't take long for Van Helsing to realize that Dracula has returned and poor Jessica is at risk.

Most of the time, the first thing I notice about a movie is its acting.  With Dracula A.D. 1972, I noticed the tone.  This movie is campy as shit.  Part of it is the omnipresent soundtrack, composed by a former Manfred Mann member, and part of it is the band that plays in the first scene, but it is all wrong.  This soundtrack was dated before it even hit theaters.  The dialogue in the movie is the scariest part of the film, if only because someone was paid to write it.  The strangest thing about this movie is that it focuses on Jessica Van Helsing and Johnny Alucard, not Professor Van Helsing and Dracula.  This is a very youth-driven film, obviously aimed at a young, "hep" audience, and the way they chose to appeal to this audience was to make this into a goofy (but not comedic) Dracula movie.

The acting is hit-and-miss here.  Christopher Lee was great as Dracula, even though he has very little screen time.  He is able to seem dark and evil and majestic, even with some awful dialogue surrounding him.
You'd think Dracula would have perfect teeth, but no
Similarly, Peter Cushing was very good as Van Helsing and he was also tragically underused.  Instead, the film focuses on Stephanie Beacham.  She's not much of an actress, but she certainly is busty.  Indeed, there are several scenes where only her breasts are within the camera shot; that's especially odd, given that there is no nudity in this picture.  She's not a great actress, but she does what she is supposed to do; she has a terrible haircut and perky boobs, and sometimes she reads lines of dialogue.
I did enjoy Christopher Neame as Alucard, but it was a campy sort of like.  He was a little weird and obviously sinister, but he was a decent villain for a film with such a campy tone.  The rest of the cast was painfully bad and not worth acknowledging on an individual basis.  As for the direction, Alan Gibson managed to tell a convoluted but comprehensible story, but that doesn't save it from being sub-par.
Or occasionally very lame

So, what makes Dracula A.D. 1972 so bad?  Where to start?  I've already mentioned the comically outdated soundtrack and dialogue, but it bears repeating --- they suck.  There isn't much logic to the story, either.  Dracula's ashes were buried in (or maybe just outside of) a churchyard, but Alucard still had a vial of them left over?  Why did Dracula make such a big deal about turning Jessica into a vampire?  Wouldn't it have made more sense for him to go after the living Van Helsing with knowledge of the occult?  If those were the only problems, I would be fine with the movie, but there's plenty more.  Alucard's name is absolutely ridiculous.  It's like a Russian sleeper agent taking the last name of "Tsinummoc."  And you're telling me that the presumed third generation of Dracula loyalists doesn't recognize the name Van Helsing?  That's dumb.  Speaking of Alucard, he is beaten in a fight by Peter "I'm very old" Cushing, even though he (Alucard) resorted to fighting with a knife. 
That is unimpressive in so many ways.  I was a little confused by the idea of vampires being extra-sensitive to drowning, but that might be a Hammer Films thing, so I won't pick on it here.  The biggest sin in this movie is the relatively minor roles played by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Both were very good whenever they were on screen, but they were relegated to the wings for the majority of the film, Lee especially.  When you've got that much bad and you skimp out on what's good, you end up with a bad movie.  I will say, though, that Cushing and Lee were good enough to make me eventually look into their earlier Hammer films.

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