Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: D is for Dracula A.D. 1972

I don’t generally watch reality TV (he said, failing to sound at all highbrow), but I did tune in to the first instalment of this year’s Celebrity Big Brother, mildly curious to see which limpet-like hangers-on to an already overextended fifteen minutes of fame would turn up. Imagine my joy at seeing the wonderful Stephanie Beacham, star of such lovable trash as And Now the Screaming Starts! and Schizo taking part. Even more wonderfully, the introductory montage preceding her entrance featured a brief glimpse of the poster for Dracula A.D. 1972. Unfortunately there was no clip of the lovely Steph being strangled with a rosary in House of Mortal Sin, but maybe they were saving this idea for a future task. Still, it was great to have this nod to Ms Beacham’s Britsploitation past – if it had been Joan Collins taking part it’s doubtful that a poster for I Don’t Want to Be Born would have flashed up on screen.

Anyway, after that rather pointless preamble, on to the film itself. In some ways Alan Gibson’s Dracula A.D. 1972 is a towering classic of Britsploitation, though perhaps not for reasons its makers would have liked. Obviously searching for new variations on their well-worn Gothic template by the 70s, Hammer had already livened things up a bit with lesbian vampires and bare breasts all over the place and now decided to drag their most popular character into the present day. As you can tell from the use of the year in the film’s title, it very much wants you to know it’s set in THE PRESENT DAY. Of course the big problem with deliberately making something up-to the-minute is that once that minute’s over it looks distinctly old hat (there are, by the way, quite a few old hats in the film, most of them floppy). By the time it made it into the nation’s cinemas it  already looked past its best. The ludicrously dated feel of the film is nowadays its biggest attraction – any time I watch it I find myself gaping open-mouthed at the would-be ‘with it’ dialogue and the clothes sported by the film’s trendy youths – one of them, particularly annoying comic relief character Joe (William Ellis), spends the whole film in a monk’s habit, which I can only imagine must have seemed like a good idea at the time. I quite like the outfits sported by villainous, backward-surnamed Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) though, which may just point to a form of mental illness on my part.

The film begins with a prologue set in 1872 which almost seems like a parody of the Hammer style, with its blood red gothic titles and portentous narrator. Old Hammer faves Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in their old familiar roles of Van Helsing and Dracula do battle once again, Dracula eventually being dispatched when he rather clumsily manages to impale himself right through the heart on the spoke of a broken carriage wheel. Van Helsing manages to hammer it home and then expires himself (he’s been thrown from his horse). Dracula crumbles to dust as usual, and a shady onlooker (Neame) gathers up his ashes and later buries them just outside the churchyard where his nemesis has been interred.

We now fast forward a hundred years, when the carriages are horseless and other prominent modes of transport include jet planes and that ultimate cliché of Swinging London movies, the red double decker bus, accompanied by the wonderfully funky (and definitely not Victorian) theme by Mike Vickers (formerly of Manfred Mann). Beacham is Van Helsing’s most recent descendant, Jessica, first seen at a posh party frequented by men in monocles and women in pearls. She’s not really part of such a square scene though, she and her goofy friends (including future Foyle’s War star Michael Kitchen and Mick Jagger’s ex Marsha Hunt) have gatecrashed in order to bop along to the music of their favourite band, Stoneground. Stoneground look absolutely horrible (my favourite member is a slightly mature lady dressed in purple, who bangs a tambourine, wails a few backing vocals, looks a bit like Penelope Wilton and can’t keep her eyes off the camera) but their music actually sounds quite good in a kitschy kind of way, especially the memorable ‘Alligator Man’. But uh-oh, one of Jessica’s crowd looks quite familiar. It’s Neame again, as a descendant of the Dracula-burier we saw a few minutes earlier, pledged to bring his master back to life. Without a huge amount of persuasion he manages to talk the motley gang into holding a black mass at the church we saw earlier on, now deconsecrated and about to be demolished. The plan is to resurrect the count and for Jess to be his first victim, but it goes a bit wrong when busty Laura (Caroline Munro) insists on being the sacrifice instead, ending up with a goblet of blood down her cleavage and her own swiftly drained.

From now on Drac’s on a mission to make Jessica his bride, although his attempt to hunt her down is hampered by the fact that for some reason we’re never told he doesn’t seem able to leave the church (he makes himself at home there though, with some lovely curtains over his coffin embroidered with a glitzy gold ‘D’). Instead he has to rely on smarmy Johnny to help him, and to this end turns him into a vampire too. Oddly enough it’s only men who turn into vampires when they’re bitten in this film – the women just die. With typical reticence over anything vaguely homoerotic all the man-on-man biting happens discreetly off-screen though. Johnny proves to be pretty useless though, managing to dispatch himself by accidentally opening the blind in his bathroom and letting the sunlight in, then falling into the bath and accidentally turning on the shower (vampires don’t like running water). But can Jessica’s granddad Lorrimer Van Helsing (Cushing again) save her from the foul (although not very mobile) fiend in time?

Despite playing the title character, getting top billing and presumably being paid more than any other cast member, Lee’s barely in Dracula A.D. 1972. When he does turn up he looks more grumpy than menacing. Cushing’s as great as always, though – he’s particularly good at communicating lonely old Lorrimer’s sadness at not being able to connect with his granddaughter. Jessica’s a thin character with some appalling dialogue ('Weird man, way out - I mean spooks, hobgoblins, all that jazz') and could easily have been very annoying, but Beacham manages to work wonders with the character, playing against the nature of some of her more ridiculous lines to make the character seem less like an airheaded thrillseeker and more like a mature, thoughtful young woman who just likes to have a good time.

After A.D. 1972 Hammer had one last go at the count, keeping the 20th century setting but not going quite as over the top with it for The Satanic Rites of Dracula – still with Cushing and Lee but with Jessica now played by Joanna Lumley! In a lot of ways it’s a much better film, but it’s not quite as daffily entertaining as 72. It’s a shame that Hammer weren’t a bit more imaginative with the idea – maybe they would have kept going a bit longer if they’d thought to combine the vampire film with one of their other popular genres – how could the punters have resisted Dracula One Million Years B.C.?

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