Sunday, October 02, 2005

Dracula A.D. 1972

This movie didn't really live up to my expectations. But then again, I'm not certain any film could live up to my expectations for a movie from Britain's masters of horror, Hammer Studios, called Dracula A.D. 1972, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The very idea of Lee's Count Dracula, reborn in the midst of Swinging London, sounds a bit too delicious to be believed.

And, in truth, it's not really all that it could have been. After an early scene at a "happening," where rock group Stoneground provides surprisingly listenable background music, the movie doesn't really make a lot of usage of its 70's London setting. Soon enough, it settles into a pretty familiar routine, with Cushing playing the grandson of the original vampire hunter, Van Helsing (played by Cushing in earlier films), on the trail of the reborn Count.

In fact, the plot is almost identical to Hammer's earlier (and better) Dracula film, Taste the Blood of Dracula. In that film, Dracula is reincarnated by a perverse group of old aristocratic gentlemen looking for kicks by practicing black magic. In Dracula 1972, it's a gang of teen rebels seeking thrills by trying out a Black Mass.

"Why don't they just get some pot?," you may be thinking. Well, then it wouldn't be a vampire movie, okay? It would be Dazed and Confused.

As you can see, it is, in point of fact, a vampire movie. One of the teenage no-good-nicks is the not so cleverly named Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). Alucard! GET IT? Har!

Anyway, Alucard is a disciple of The Count, and once he's tricked all his goofy cohorts, including a comely young descendant of Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham, whose breasts really should be credited as supporting actresses) into performing a gruesome ritual with him in a church set for demolition, Dracula is reborn.

And he gets right about the business of killing, which for Christopher Lee vampires means walking very slowly up to potential victims while bugging his eyes out and opening his mouth real wide to reveal fangs.

It sounds like I'm being sarcastic, but Lee's is probably my personal favorite on-screen Dracula. Don't get me wrong...Bela Lugosi is a freaking legend, and I'm not trying to fade him at all. Lugosi's performance in Browning's old Universal Dracula, that's the definitive screen version. But Lee's Dracula is so confident and haughty, and yet so vulnerable. It struck me while watching this film that Dracula is something of a Wile E. Coyote family in the Hammer Films, while Cushing's Van Helsing family is the Roadrunner.

Think about it. Dracula is always being born and reborn, comes up with brilliant plans to kill lots of attractive, busty women and then a Van Helsing descendant, only to continually be foiled rather easily and destroyed once more. Then, another sequel, and the whole system starts anew. The movies don't ever get boring, for me anyway, because the performers are so fun to watch, the sets and costumes and production design is always so spot-on, and there's a sufficient amount of blood and gore.

But you kind of start to feel bad for Dracula. Each time, he's resurrected and starts making speeches about how he's going to take over the world and kill him some Van Helsings, but as soon as Van Helsing finds his lair, it's just another stake through the heart again. In this outing, Dracula puts up a more pathetic show than usual. Van Helsing manages to take out Alucard with somewhat insane ease, then just saunters down to the dilapadated church where Dracula's hanging out and dispatches him. It's vampire hunting as routine pest extermination.

I think it's because the Lee films follow all of the available vampire mythology. It makes them vulnerable to sunlight, garlic, Bibles, crosses, holy water, stakes to the heart. You name it, it messes with Count Dracula's mojo. So, I mean, individually that might not be a big deal, but put together it's a lot of Achilles' Heels. It's an entire Achilles Foot.

Compound that with the fact that Lee's Dracula doesn't really get all the nifty powers of other movie vampires. He can't really transform into anything, particularly not fog or vapor like in the original Bram Stoker book. And he's not super strong. He kind of seems like he has the power to mesmerize potential victims. But still, that's only young women. He has no such power over the guy who keeps shoving stakes into his sternum.

It's not really a fair fight. Dracula should get a bazooka or something to even it out.

The movie's still a Hammer film, so it's still a ridiculous amount of fun. The opening action sequence, set in the 19th Century and pitting the initial Abraham Van Helsing against Count Dracula, is one of the best in any of these movies, with the two duking it out on a runaway carriage. And though the young cast can be kind of shrill and obnoxious, they're really only the focus for the first 20 minutes or so, until Cushing enters the story and takes over. I'm just a bit disappointed that director Alan Gibson (who made the superior and more exploitation-minded Satanic Rites of Dracula) made better use of the setting and incredible premise.

Instead, he delivered a solid but only about average Hammer vampire entry.

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