Saturday, November 3, 2007

Look On Me and Remember

The concept of the guilty pleasure is always one that I have a problem with. Why should I feel guilty, after all, for liking something? I’m not looking to like something because it’s bad. That’s not my style. The things I like are, generally, things that I like. But every now and then a film comes up which defies this way of thinking. One such film is DRACULA A.D. 1972.Seriously, there’s no reason I should enjoy this film as much as I do. It’s got a ridiculous plot. It’s not as good as certain Hammer films that were made several years before, let alone those that were made during the studio’s classic age. And I certainly wouldn’t show it to somebody as an example of what Hammer had to offer. And yet, I sit down to watch five minutes and an hour later I realize I’m still sitting there. I can’t help myself.

In the year 1872 (way too early, but never mind) Count Dracula and Van Helsing(Christopher Lee and Peter Cusing) destroy each other in their final battle. While Van Helsing dies, a man who is presumably one of Dracula’s minions (Christopher Neame) comes to collect the vampire’s ashes. One hundred years later in London, we join a group of hippies that are in the midst of terrorizing a party populated by stuffy British upper-crust types. As the group Stoneground plays two songs in full in a party scene which goes on forever (it wishes it were a party in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) we meet some of the group, including a girl named Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham). She is the granddaughter of Professor Van Helsing (Cushing again, of course) whose own grandfather is the one who died fighting Dracula exactly a century before (Grandfather? Really? Shouldn’t that be great-grandfather? How old were these people when they had their kids?). Another member of the group is a kid named Johnny Alucard (ha ha, also played by Neame) a descendant of the disciple who collected Dracula’s ashes. He makes a plan with his friends to meet in the remains of an old church where, he says, they will summon up the devil himself. Except they don’t know how serious he is as it turns out the ceremony will revive the one and only Count Dracula.

The plot doesn’t make much sense and certain elements are just frustrating. Dracula doesn’t appear deep into the narrative—this was totally par for the course with the Hammer Dracula films by now but it’s more surprising that the film keeps him on the grounds of this church the whole time, never once wandering off to explore London in the year A.D. 1972. Maybe Hammer wanted to keep the character consistent with the tone that had been established in previous films or maybe it was an attempt to keep the budget down. Still, films made around this time such as BLACULA and COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE at least took advantage of the idea of a vampire in modern times. Surely he could have gone out to explore the world without unnecessarily camping things up. Christopher Lee was notoriously grumpy about making these films, so maybe there was just no possibility of doing much new with the character.

The kids all look too old for their parts (they wish they were the gang members in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) and several of them wind up disappearing around the halfway mark anyway. Stephanie Beacham is very cute, yes, but even better is the amazing Caroline Munro who, dressed all in black, never looked more beautiful—she screams great, too. Unfortunately, she gets dispatched fairly early and it seems a waste that someone so striking wasn’t made a vampire to work alongside Dracula. She certainly looks the part, so it’s a missed opportunity.

Peter Cushing as the descendant of Van Helsing (as a character, no different from the earlier Van Helsing) is a huge asset to the film, as he was to most of the Hammer films anyway. While Lee may rather have done without Hammer by this point, Cushing clearly is invested in his character every step of the way. He very clearly believes what he is saying and you believe him, even as the plot requires him to do some ridiculous things, like figuring out the “Alucard” thing. He makes the back half of the film a blast to watch and even the long exposition scenes he has with the Police Inspector (Michael Coles) investigating the case are made riveting. You just want to hear everything he has to say about fighting vampires. And by the time of the climax, he’s the one element of the film that you can really depend on. It’s a reminder of how much he was missed in the Hammer Dracula films that he didn’t appear in.

Even though a bit of James Bernard’s famous Dracula theme is heard at the very beginning, the score for this film is composed by Mike Vickers. Done in a very seventies style, it’s another part of this film that I guess I like better than I should. Hey, you try not dancing during the main title theme.

Something like 1969’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED represents Hammer at its very best. But as the 70s kicked in the studio found itself flailing to keep up with the times. They tried to reinvigorate several of their franchises with unfortunate results and other films featured elements like nudity, lesbian vampires and youth oriented contemporary plots. A number of these films didn’t work at all (LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING) but DRACULA A.D. 1972 manages to be a fun movie in spite of its misguided existence. I should stop feeling so guilty about how much I enjoy it.

No comments: