A Movie A Day: Quint visits DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) I have returned to destroy the house of Van Helsing forever.
Published at: Aug. 20, 2008, 5:17 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Ah, more Christopher Lee Dracula goodness, this time in an actual Hammer film once again alongside Peter Cushing and under the watchful eye of a director who isn’t doing 14 more movies at the same time.
Today we have DRACULA A.D. 1972, an attempt by Hammer to move the Count to a modern setting. Of course modern now meaning early ‘70s London, which is just as foreign to me as a viewer as 1800s Romania.
I think that’s why the movie worked so well for me, actually. Sure, it’s cheesy. The dying hippie age is presented full force with an opening party sequence with folk rock band Stoneground, giant afros and massive joints.
But it’s not played for laughs. If someone remade this movie today, it’d be a horror comedy set in the cah-ray-zee ‘70s, tongue-in-cheek like DICK or AUSTIN POWERS. But you really can tell that the filmmakers were just capturing that particular time and place when updating the tale, so it’s easier to jump into the story.
Of course all that is helped by wonderfully note-perfect performances from Christopher Lee as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing’s grandson who has kept up his family’s research into the occult.
Cushing isn’t showy, which is why I think he’s criminally overlooked as an actor. There’s a scene in this film which isn’t really a blip on the radar, but is a perfect example of how great Cushing is.
Van Helsing is speaking with an open-minded Scotland Yard detective investigating the bodies that pop up after Dracula is resurrected. He’s convinced this detective that it is the work of vampirism, not a cult murder “like in America,” but obviously this guy can’t really take that story to his bosses, so they’re at an impasse.
We get the typical “I hope you’re wrong,” scene and Cushing’s dialogue is the cliché “I wish I was, inspector. I wish to God I was.” A thousand different actors could read that line and come up as cliché as the writing, but not Cushing.
When he delivers this line he sells it. Part of it is his inflection, a subtle pause. When he says it he’s nakedly sincere. Part of it is his body language, the look in his eyes. He looks tired. It’s mini-masterpiece of a performance, but in a small scene in a Hammer exploitation picture.
The point is that Hammer represented a certain level of quality. No matter how outrageous or low budget the picture, their regulars were real actors who always treated their work with the utmost professionalism, not treating it as a “horror picture.” We don’t have that today. People in exploitation know they’re in an exploitation picture and act accordingly, which almost keeps the audience at arm’s length.
I think that’s why I liked DEATH PROOF over PLANET TERROR. Both were good fun, but Kurt Russell didn’t know he was in an exploitation film and the entire cast of Planet Terror definitely did, know what I mean?
Anyway, there’s no escaping a certain kitsch factor, but the way it’s presented allowed me to buy into the world and very much enjoy the movie as a movie, not as a joke.
Outside of the two lead performances, director Alan Gibson cast some really interesting people. The two stand-outs are Christopher Neame as Dracula disciple Johnny Alucard and the screen-meltingly hot Caroline Munro. You’ll probably remember Neame from LICENSE TO KILL or as the Commander from SUBURBAN COMMANDO (video game nerds might remember him from the cutscenes of JEDI KNIGHT – DARK FORCES II) and Munro from MANIAC, STARCRASH, DR. PHIBES or THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD.
Munro is just a goddess and has a relatively small part in the film, but smokes up the screen every second she’s on. Neame is a larger role, taking the Dracula apprentice role that would become a staple in ‘80s films like FRIGHT NIGHT. He’s so desperate for the power… no longer can henchmen be silent simple-minded hulks, but charming and/or insane power-hungry men.
Neame plays the role with that charm and inanity combination and really is freaky. He leads a Black Mass that resurrects the Count and it is very effective. It really is a creepy scene thanks largely to Neame’s barely checked lunacy.
The finale is also a great one. Christopher Lee attacks in all his red-eyed wonder while Peter Cushing does his best. Remember this isn’t the Van Helsing we know, but his grandson who has never seen evil firsthand. It’s an interesting dynamic and it makes for a thrilling and intense final fight.
Final Thoughts: I was really drawn into this movie. The direction is alive, but not showy. The camera moves constantly, so it’s not a stagey picture. Combine that with great performances again by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, smoking hot leading ladies Munro and Stephanie Beacham and genuine suspense and you have a movie that should have been a joke, but is actually a very successful attempt to shake up the genre.