Posts Tagged ‘Stephanie Beacham’

It’s usually the case in cinema that the success of a good film results in the appearance of a host of imitators, most of which are horrible. However, every once in a while a bad film does good business, which can occasionally lead to the production of knock-offs better than the original. I’d certainly argue that while the Heisei Godzilla movies made by Toho in the 90s are by no means bad, they can’t hold a radioactive candle to the Gamera trilogy released by Daiei in the wake of their success. (Still can’t make my mind up about the original versions of Rollerball and Death Race 2000.)

Well, anyway, in 1970 a movie called Count Yorga, Vampire, did very good business. This movie is a loose updating of the original Dracula, in which the undead gentleman of the title buys property in a modern city (in this case, Los Angeles) and starts about his business in the usual fashion. It is also a lousy piece of schlock (possibly because it started off as a soft-core porno-horror). But, anyway, it did do good business, which prompted Warner Brothers to get on the phone to Hammer and suggest they do something in the way of vampires-in-the-present-day themselves, too.

Hammer’s trademark Gothic mittel-European fairy tales were starting to look a little bit tired by this point, so they jumped on the idea and the result was Alan Gibson’s Dracula AD 1972. This movie kicks off with a distinct set of mixed signals. On the one hand, it opens with a gruelling and protracted death-struggle between Dracula (Christopher Lee) and Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), and as always the presence of the two stars together is a guarantee the movie will at least stay watchable.

On the other hand, this sequence does a good job of looking like a reprise of the climax to the previous movie (as had previously been done at the opening of Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula), which it isn’t: this is the end of a previously untold tale of the two characters (and one which looks like being a lot more interesting than the actual preceding film, Scars of Dracula). And it jettisons the continuity of the previous six movies in this series entirely, which is understandable, but still a shame.

Anyway, Dracula and the Professor are duking it out in Hyde Park in 1872, when they’re involved in a coach smash. Van Helsing is killed and Dracula gets a spoke through the heart. But as he crumbles, a mysterious man appears on the scene, takes his ring and starts collecting up the debris. This is never a good sign in a Dracula movie.

The story leaps forward a century and we find ourselves in the company of a gang of rather polite hippies, notable for their ridiculous dialogue (you don’t need a biographical dictionary to work out that screenwriter Don Houghton was in his forties) and glittering future prospects (group members include Michael Kitchen, fantasy icon Caroline Munro, Stephanie Beacham and Christopher Neame). Their freak-outs and grooves are getting, like, totally dullsville, man, and one of their number (Neame) suggests something a little more extreme: a Black Mass in a deconsecrated church!

This is obviously inadvisable, but just to drive the fact home, Neame was also playing the guy collecting up Dracula’s ashes at the start, and his character’s name is Johnny Alucard (it’s a little unclear if Houghton’s inclusion of this weary old anagram is a wink to the audience or just the sign of someone unfamiliar with previous Dracula movies). Beacham’s character has slight misgivings about the Black Mass, but then her family has a tradition of occult study. This is because she is the great-great-grand-daughter of the Van Helsing who died back in 1872. Her grandfather (Cushing again) tries to warn her off but to no avail.

Soon enough the hippies are enjoying a new kind of freak-out, as Neame chews the scenery, large quantities of blood splash engagingly across Caroline Munro’s heaving bosom, and Dracula himself materialises out of a cloud of smoke. He has vengeance against the Van Helsing dynasty on his mind, starting with the grand-daughter…

The contemporary setting aside, the first act of Dracula AD 1972 bears a startling resemblance to that of Taste the Blood of Dracula: there’s a coach accident, Dracula’s apparent demise, jaded-thrillseekers led astray by a disciple of evil, and Dracula’s return following a dark ritual in a ruined church. Having said all that, the present-day setting does work, up to a point, breathing new life into the series. (One of the regrettable consequences of this, however, is that Gibson opts for a funky-groovy contemporary score rather than one of James Bernard’s wonderfully atmospheric compositions.) 

It’s just a shame that the film doesn’t explore this angle more fully. We never get to see Dracula hitting the nightclubs or even walking contemporary streets; all he does is hide in the church waiting for victims to be brought to him. This may have been due to Christopher Lee’s distaste for the film – certainly he has very little screen-time, considering he’s playing the title character: less than fifteen minutes, I’m sure. This is a shame, as Houghton writes him some half-decent dialogue when he does show up. 

‘Bow ties are cool.’

With Lee absent for much of the movie it falls to Peter Cushing to pick up the slack. I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘a bad Peter Cushing performance’ but here he’s simply exceptional, completely selling a rather dubious story. He’s not winking or even suggesting camp or archness – he’s playing it as straight as a laser beam and it somehow works.

Elsewhere in the cast, Michael Coles is rather effective as a police detective baffled by a string of murders, while Christopher Neame has fun as Dracula’s proxy. There’s a sequence in which he learns that the old rule about vampires being vulnerable to running water even extends to his shower, which is unintentionally funny, but that’s not his fault. (We don’t get to see the moment when Lee bites Neame, presumably as it might generate entirely the wrong kind of erotic charge – impalements, Black Masses, and slaughter are all very well, but one man appearing to kiss another? Clearly there were limits to what an audience would stand for.) We do get to see Lee get his teeth into Caroline Munro, of course: but she’s in the film less than you might expect.  

‘Hey! My neck’s up here!’

There are gaping holes in the plot and the climax leaves a little to be desired, but this is still a much classier film than you’d expect and a distinct improvement on the previous Hammer Dracula (not to mention Count Yorga, Vampire). It doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the premise, but Cushing and Lee (when he shows up) redeem whatever flaws it has. The next film in the series would go on to do new and interesting things with the idea of a present-day Dracula, but that’ll have to wait for another time. Dracula AD 1972 is not nearly as bad as you might think it would be – which sounds like the faintest of praise. It’s not intended to be. Daft, but fun.

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