Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Count Is Back, With An Eye For London's Hotpants...And A Taste For Everything!

Dracula A.D. 1972
Director: Alan Gibson
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham

A missed opportunity by Hammer films that could have been truly memorable. Despite, some hilarious taglines and a great trailer, this film fails to truly excite and seems sort of sluggish. Visions of Christopher Lee stalking through seventies London and beating up policemen and hippies alike, alas, does not occur. Instead, the Count remains in a dilapidated church for the entire running time and does not see much action, outside of a final confrontation with ace-vampire slayer, Van Helsing, of course, played by Peter Cushing. The two performers are about all that can be reccomended for this production going in, them and some delectable babes, particularly Caroline Munro(in her Hammer debut) and Stephanie Beacham, mistress of the overflowing cleavage.(Thank you!)
By no means a great film, this was a clear indicator that Hammer was running out of steam and the once mighty horror makers, were now relying on cheap exploitation and recycled plots. Still, entertainment can be found here, whether you expected it or not.

In 1872, Dracula(Christopher Lee) and Van Helsing(Peter Cushing) are engaged in their final battle, in London, atop a runaway carriage. The vehicle crashes and both are thrown. Van Helsing is mortally wounded and the Count is impaled on a wagon wheel(!), which the vampire hunter helps puncture his heart, before expiring. A disciple of Dracula rides up on horseback and collects the dust and ring from Dracula and places it by a churchyard, where the venerable Van Helsing is buried. While it plays fast and loose with the series timeline, the beginning is actually quite exciting and hopes are way up, until an airplane announces by it's appearance in the sky that now we are in 1972, and it's all downhill from there.
We are introduced to a group of swinging hippies, who crash a fancy soiree and play loud rock music, courtesy of a band called, "Stoneground"(they should have called Black Sabbath), who are pretty lousy. The police are called up and the kids scatter. One of them suggests that they go to an old church and practice a satantic ritual. His name is "Johnny Alucard"(Christopher Neame) and besides being a creep, anyone who has seen Son of Dracula(1942) or is dyslexic, could figure out who he's in cahoots with. Well, he invites all his friends, including Jessica Van Helsing(Stephanie Beacham, long before Dallas) who is living with her grandfather(Peter Cushing) who is not up with all this hip stuff. It's pretty silly watching her act like Peter Cushing is all lame, considering he's the grandson of the world's greatest vampire hunter and knows everything about the supernatural and is pretty cool, but Jessica is kind of lame, so what can you do?
She does seem to have some respect for the family's heritage and her grandfather's belief, though, when they stumble across the grave of the deceased Van Helsing near the churchyard. The mass is held and Jessica is asked to be the sacrifice, but declines, so happy and chipper, Caroline Munro volunteers, and gets blood poured all over her breasts. Must have been cold, because she screams like hell and everyone freaks out and leaves, and no one even bothers to take Caroline with her, probably thinking she'd be a mess. This stretched credibility to the breaking point for me. It's one thing that Caroline is unattached, but that not one of the guys would offer to take her home and clean her up? Come on! She's left behind, and guess who shows up? Dracula, of course, and boy is he pissed. There's a great moment here, when Johnny tells Dracula that he summoned him, and Dracula remarks, "It was my will!" and shows the lad his way cool ring. Dracula gets a load of Caroline and immediately puts the bite on her(which reportedly, really did scare the actress a bit!) and dosen't even bother to vampirize her. Talk about a missed opportunity, because just one look at the stills, should tell you that she was the best Bride of Dracula that never was.(As well as Vampirella, which she was supposed to play in the 70s, until it was cancelled. Doh!)

Some kids discover Caroline dead, the following day, and the police are on the hunt for the killer, so naturally, they ask Van Helsing for help. Van Helsing thinks it's a vampire and the police are puzzled, as if asking an expert on the supernatural was going to bring out any other answer. Van Helsing is worried when he hears that his granddaughter may be connected and when she arrives, she is shocked and surprised.  Meanwhile, Alucard has brought Dracula another victim, but Dracula wants Jessica to enact revenge on Van Helsing. Alucard is turned and goes forth killing other girls and even turning Jessica's boyfriend(Philip Miller) into a vampire, and they proceed to take her to the church. Van Helsing goes on the hunt and fights Alucard, eventually killing him by having him fall into a shower!(i'm not kidding) Running water kills vampires, but this is just not as effective as Dracula-Prince of Darkness(1965), folks. The police arrive and Cushing tells them to lay off, while he takes out Dracula himself. All day, Van Helsing works on a trap to kill Dracula, which is a hole with a ton of wooden stakes. He also packs a silver dagger and places a crucifix on Jessica. Dracula awakes and goes for his new bride, and is repelled by the cross(it takes a great actor to be repelled by Stephanie Beacham's cleavage) and Vna Helsing shouts out, "Count Dracula!", offering him a showdown, which the Count obliges. Lee gets to say some great stuff, including a line from Stoker("You would play your brains against mine, againstme who has commanded nations?!") and while they sound great, it just dosen't fit in this movie, sadly. Was it too hard for the writers to create an epic film about the clash between these two icons? He dosen't even get to say the ultra-menacing line from the trailer, "I have returned to destroy-YOU!"
Van Helsing eventually stabs the Count, but Jessica is a dummy and pulls it out, causing Van Helsing to play a game of ring around the rosey, before he is able to toss some holy water at the Count and make him fall into the bed of stakes. Alls well that ends well, I guess.

While this is certainly an entertaining film, that does not neccesarily equate that it's actually a good movie. Terence Fisher is sorely missed on this production, as the intelligence and coherence of past triumphs is not much in evidence. The 70s backdrop is scarecely used to any effect and that's s shame, because it would have been alot of fun to see Dracula and Van Helsing duke it out in the busy streets of modern day London. It was all exploitation, of course, attempting to appeal to the then-current and trendy, hippie movement and is woefully dated as a result. The acting isn't bad really, and sometimes the direction can be rather atmospheric, but it needed more Dracula and a slightly larger scope to really work. For example, look how exciting other contemporary based vampire filsm were at the time like Blacula(1972) and Count Yorga-Vampire(1970), and certainly, The Night Stalker(1971). This film would have benefitted greatly from just a smidgen of the engery apparent in those films.

Cushing steals the acting honors, like he usually does and brings the much needed conviction to make his part work and helps carry the film. His beginning and end clash with Dracula are the highlights and prove that you can't keep a good monster hunter down! Lee has little to do, but does speak a few good lines and looks really intense, too bad he's stuck in that damn church the whole time! Neame reminds me of Ralph Bates in Taste the Blood of Dracula(1969) and is a good enough weirdo for the part, though not overly memorable. Michael Coles has a thankless role as an inspector, who believes Van Helsing, but doesen't even get involved with the last reel action! He plays a larger role in the follow-up, The Satantic Rites of Dracula(1973). The babes are lovely and as always, provide ample entertainment, acting ability aside. Though, to be fair, the ladies in this perform quite well, and it's obvious why Beacham went on to bigger things, and why Munro was a much sought after genre star(eventually becoming a Bond Girl as well).

Hammer fans are likely to be kinder to this film, than the mainstream horror buffs, but if anything, all flaws aside, this is a pleasant enough diversion. It's nothing great, but it's unpretentious and entertaining enough to satisfy the b-horror fan. Besides, if Lee and Cushing perform well, and they usually do, than any true blue Monster Mania fan, must at least give this consideration.

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