Saturday, 7 March 2020

Dracula AD 1972

Rising Vamp

Dracula AD 1972
UK 1972 Directed by Alan Gibson
Screening at the Regent Street Cinema
with Q&A from Caroline Munro 5th March 2020

Warning: Slight spoilers.

Okay, so when I found out that my favourite of the Hammer Dracula movies was playing in London, I couldn’t resist seeing this thing on the big screen, finally. Especially since I found out that one of my all time favourite screen personalities, the lovely Caroline Munro, would be doing a Q&A session after the main feature.

Dracula AD 1972 was Caroline’s first feature for Hammer and although she’s not in it all that much... she comes to a definitively sticky end quite early in the movie... she was the first and, as far as I know, the last actress actually put under contract by the Hammer Studios, following this film up with the equally excellent Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. Alas, she’s not in this much but she surely makes a memorable impression as one of a young group of hippie friends crashing parties and generally having a wild time in ‘swinging London’... an incarnation of the counterculture which had moved on somewhat by the time this movie was shot but, it sure seems like a nice place to be.

Another actress in this group of ‘wild young friends’ is Stephanie Beacham as Jessica, the granddaughter of the contemporary ancestor of Van Helsing... in this film he’s the ‘all new’ Lorimer Van Helsing but he’s still portrayed by Peter Cushing (in a dual role... I’ll get to that in a minute). The group also includes Marsha Hunt, Michael Kitchen and, as Dracula’s main assistant, Christopher Neame as the wonderfully monikered Johnny Alucard (I’ll leave you to ponder the permutations of that last name... I don’t think you’ll need to draw out a hilarious chart like Peter Cushing does in this movie). Neame also plays a dual role here as his own ancestor in the film’s opening sequence.

Of course, we also have the inimitable Christopher Lee back as the charismatic Count and, as far as I can see, this film also stars the only other actor besides Cushing and Lee to play a running character in more than one Hammer Dracula movie... Michael Coles as Inspector Murray, who would also turn up in the next movie in the sequence, The Satanic Rites Of Dracula. Jessica Van Helsing would also be back in the next movie but played by Joanna Lumley the second time around.

And it’s still my favourite of the Hammer Dracula movies, that’s for sure.

The film starts off a little differently than their usual fayre, with an opening reminiscent of the James Bond movies in that it shows an ‘end of mission’ action sequence as an opener. The pre-credits are all set in 1872 as we are witness to the final confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing, starting with a galloping stage coach, Dracula clinging to the sides as he attacks the latter. The coach crashes into splinters and Dracula finds himself ‘staked’ to one of the broken coach wheels but, not before he has put paid to Van Helsing. However, Christopher Neame’s pre-20th Century character gathers Dracula’s ring, some of his ashes and buries them in a grave next to his nemesis as the burial goes on. We then witness director Alan Gibson’s first flash of creative genius (in a film full of really nice stuff) where he pans up from the graveyard in the Victorian era, into the sky as we see a jumbo jet soaring above London, effectively segueing from one millennium to the next in the space of a few seconds in one shot... which is really cool. Then, more of Mike Vickers excellent and funky 'wah wah' score kicks in as the opening credits play out.

From then on, the film is one big romp of a fun movie set in early 1970s London... the kind of period and city I love to watch on film anyway because it reminds me of my early days as a child model in the city. It’s a bit of a chamber piece in that it’s not epic in scale but it works really well and there’s a lot of nice stuff. The director designs some wonderful frames and he’s one of those people who is not afraid to use just a quarter of the screen and leave the rest in darkness so he can focus you in... there’s a pretty cool shot of a car pulling into a garage/drive from within, for example, where the only area of the screen that isn’t black is the bottom right hand corner where we can see the car’s arrival.

Also, considering the phenomenally low budgets of these Hammer films, they used to look way better than their actual financial means should have allowed for... the production values are something else. One of the audience asked Caroline Munro after the film if the church was shot in a real church or if it was a set. Her initial reply of... “What do you think?” was followed up with the revelation that the interiors of the church were shot in a studio and... well, honestly, they had me fooled. It looks a lot like a real location to me.

Peter Cushing had recently lost his wife when he made this and there’s even a photo of her on Van Helsing’s desk in the film but, he turns out one of his usual, interesting performances for this and he comes across particularly well in his action scenes, which he doesn’t look like he is able to handle but does so admirably. Lee is his normal, solid self in a role which he had, by all accounts, had enough of.. he didn’t like the idea of Dracula being modernised, from what I understand... and Miss Munro indicated after the movie that his personal feelings about the role and the script were not even felt or realised on set by the other actors... which shows you what a professional he was.

Stephanie Beacham is pretty good as Van Helsing’s grand daughter but I don’t think she has the best or, at least, most credible lines in the movie, for sure. And, of course, Caroline Munroe, in the few scenes she has, is absolutely brilliant. I love her opening dance scenes where she looks like a floppy, bouncy miracle bundle of energy who could go all night. I wish her role could have been a little more expanded but I’m just grateful she got the part, which she explained came about because the producer used to ride the trains a lot and saw her in her famous Lamb’s Navy Rum girl campaign posters at the time (I used to love those when I was a toddler, the colours and poses on those posters were quite striking).

The film is a little problematic in terms of continuity in future films, especially with the death of the original Van Helsing set as 1872... but thats something I’m going to need to look into a little more when I get around to re-watching Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires at some point. But there’s honestly not much I could find at fault here, to be honest, except for maybe the silliness of the dapper Johnny Alucard (he has the best shirts) falling in the bath and accidentally turning the shower on when he grabs it to save himself... effectively killing himself because, in this version of the Dracula mythos, vampires can be killed by running water (never really understood that one myself).

Dracula AD 1972 is a fine, visually inventive entry in the series and is the main one I’ll always come back to. Especially interesting to historians as a time capsule of what the establishment who were making the picture perceived the ‘youth of today’ to be, rather than actually nailing that side of things.  I’m so glad I finally got to see this one on a big screen too... that’s another one crossed off my cinematic bucket list.

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