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Cinema/TV, Dracula

Your Daily Dracula – Dracula AD 1972 (1972)

Dracula AD 1972 (1972) Christopher Lee

This piece was originally published as a liner note for the Death Waltz Records vinyl release of the Mike Vickers score.  Here’s the title track … and here’s the party scene featuring Stoneground’s song ‘Alligator Man’.

‘Hey, they were all zonked when they recorded this.’ ‘Aren’t they always?’

In 1958, Hammer Films followed up their breakthrough hit The Curse of Frankenstein with Dracula, casting Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, formerly Baron Frankenstein and his creation, as Van Helsing and Count Dracula.  They also retained the creative team of writer Jimmy Sangster and director Terence Fisher to reimagine Bram Stoker’s novel for a new, highly-coloured era.  Blood trickled or spurted, vampire hoydens hissed and the antagonists gave up the drawing room politeness of the old Universal version in favour of swashbuckling action, with an explicit disintegration at dawn.

Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) was such a hit that direct sequels were required.  Cushing’s Van Helsing returned in The Brides of Dracula (1960), though Dracula stayed dead.  In 1966, the demand for the Count’s reappearance was satisfied by Dracula – Prince of Darkness, in which a gush of blood on the ashes brought Lee’s Dracula back, without Cushing to oppose him.  Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and The Scars of Dracula (1970) play the sequel game fairly, each beginning with the Count in the sorry state (frozen, impaled, red dust) he wound up in at the end of the previous instalment and explaining how he returns to undeath to terrorise again, until yet another final despatch.  Scars ends with an angry Lee struck by lightning, but also with a sense that what was once vital, exciting and new was in danger of becoming old hat.  At first a monster of stature, opposed by a monster-fighter with equal screen weight, Lee’s Dracula now seemed like a nasty grumpy old git bested by a bunch of students.

Hammer must have noticed that the surprise horror hit of 1970 was AIP’s Count Yorga – Vampire, in which a Dracula knock-off (Robert Quarry) showed up in contemporary California and preyed on hippie chicks and paisley-shirted counterculture dudes.  At that time, the studio were trying to find new variations on the gothic formulae to stay in the horror game – starting with the added sex of The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971).  Night of the Living Dead (1968) had already changed the form of the horror film.  Cushing and Lee were starting to look like your Dad’s horror stars – but Ralph Bates and Shane Briant weren’t quite up to taking over.  So screenwriter Don Houghton (fresh from ‘Inferno’, one of the nastiest Doctor Who serials) and director Alan Gibson (of the hippie-dippie psycho movie Goodbye Gemini) were hired to come up with a mix of old and new, in a very early example of what is now known as a reboot.

Dracula AD 1972 brings back Lee, who had muttered darkly through the previous sequels and continues to do so here, but also Cushing, who always brings his A game even to the strangest stuff.  It opens in the spirit of Terence Fisher – but also of the movie serials which would inspire Raiders of the Lost Ark – with the old enemies having a final battle on top of a speeding coach in a London park in 1872, a different account of the Van Helsing-Dracula battle than the one seen in 1958.  Both die and the camera pans up from Van Helsing’s neglected grave – in which a disciple of Dracula has hidden a vial of the Count’s blood – to a Concorde soaring overhead as gothic orchestral blaring gives way to Mike Vickers’ funkier theme music.  Then, in what is admittedly a rerun of the ritual resurrection of Taste the Blood of Dracula, a bunch of Chelsea coffee bar cool kids (well, they think they’re cool – even in 1972, they looked much like plonkers) led by the sinister Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) revive the Count and his evil influence seeps along the King’s Road.  Luckily, Scotland Yard has a lookalike Van Helsing descendant on retainer and the battle is on again.

Traditionalist horror fans of 1972 were shocked by the update – and this Dracula still spends most of his time in a derelict, deconsecrated church, not moving into the modern world until the even-wilder sequel The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), in which he becomes a property developer, mingles with cabinet ministers and biker gangs and plots like a Bond villain to unleash an armageddon virus on humanity.  However, over the years, aspects of the film which seemed embarrassing – the weird depiction of crazy kids crashing parties where the Stoneground are performing for toffs, desperate to score tickets to a jazz festival and playing with black magic for kicks – have become endearing.  There is even something horribly credible in the snapshot of a shaggy-coated post-love generation moment of twentysomething naffness.  Neame’s louche Alucard (‘dig the crazy scene, kids’), Stephanie Beacham’s dressed-for-sacrifice Van Helsing babe and Caroline Munro (who seems to invent pogoing because she frankly can’t dance) in boots and see-through poncho are icons of cool from a happier alternate world that fashion forgot.

I saw and loved Dracula AD 1972 on its original release (in 1973, of course – it was already a back number) with Freddie Francis’s Trog as a support feature.  Over the years, I got a sense of how little it was liked by critics and fans who felt it fell between the stools of classic gothic and cutting edge contemporary horror.  Gradually, the film has risen again and audiences have begun to appreciate that even its idiocies (the world’s greatest vampire expert needs pen and paper and brows-knit close-ups to work out that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards) have a charm.  I ended up writing a novel called Johnny Alucard – though I drew more on AD 1972 in the related novella ‘Aquarius: Anno Dracula 1968’ – and still feel no shame in enjoying a film which manages to be exciting, creepy, daffy, ingenious, hip, square, stylish and garish all at once.

A thought about the kids:

It’s been a critical commonplace since Dracula AD 1972 opened that its depiction of the kids was dated … but I remember people dressing and talking like that. Are the contemporary characters in the Count Yorga or Blacula films any more credible? Let alone The Deathmaster, Simon King of the Witches, Werewolves on Wheels or any of the other hippie era horror movies? Come to that, are the DAD72 kids less a caricature than the Victorian decadents of Taste the Blood of Dracula (to which the script owes a big debt)? They are certainly more interesting company than the thin, dull characters of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave or Scars of Dracula, who were 19th century versions of long-haired layabout students chasing birds and getting pissed. I remember thinking in the 1970s that the vaguely drop-out characters of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death were much more like real people – even the fact that they were 60s kids ageing into 70s adults – than most horror movies of the era with a counterculture backdrop (another favourite – The Haunted House of Horror). Are any of the modern characters in Dracula 2000 – which is an unacknowledged remake of AD 1972 – memorable at all?

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