Groovy Stake is in the Heart: “Dracula A.D. 1972” | Review

Hammer Films tried to court the swinging London demographic with this campy outing in which Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), after being killed by Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in a prologue set in 1872, is rebirthed a century later by one of his acolytes (whose highly suspicious name is Johnny Alucard, played with zealous abandon by Christopher Neame). A mod assembly of free-spirited swingers soon becomes targeted by the Count; naturally, one of the women in the groovy gang is Van Helsing’s great-granddaughter, Jessica (Stephanie Beacham). 

Dracula A.D. 1972

Director: Alan Gibson
Producers: Michael Carreras, Josephine Douglas
Writer: Don Houghton
Cinematography: Dick Bush
Editor: James Needs
Music: Mike Vickers
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame, Marsha Hunt, Caroline Munro, Janet Key, Michael Kitchen
Runtime: 96 minutes
Country of Origin: UK
Release Date: September 28, 1972

This is one of the more reviled entries in Hammer Films’ post-1970 output. As superfans of the studio have complained, it completely ignores the timeline established by the previous Hammer film Scars of Dracula (1970), which is set in 1885 – 13 years after Van Helsing kills Dracula in this film’s prologue. While consistency with the canon probably doesn’t seem very crucial in movies like this, such gaps in logic do suggest how little thought Hammer Films (and writer Don Houghton) put into this production, which tried to update the studio’s historical Dracula films to a rapidly changing modern setting.

By most objective criteria this is not a good movie: the storyline is absurd, the tongue-in-cheek dialogue insipid, and the indulgences in early-’70s hippiedom were probably out of touch even in 1972. Don Houghton was in his 40s when he wrote the script, and the version of freewheeling hedonism we see here feels like it was created by someone several decades too old to really understand the experience of younger generations. There’s a paranoid moral conservatism to go along with that: Dracula may be the villain on the surface, but the film reserves a lot of mockery for the self-obsessed, highly sexual hippies who are too dumb to realize when they’re becoming a vampire’s prey. A relatively early scene in Dracula A.D. 1972 conveys its loose grasp on the style and culture of the times: as a cringey psych-rock band named Stoneground plays dreadful music in a posh living room, the camera drunkenly lurches from one hip young libertine to another, all of whom are crashing a party hosted by stiff-upper-lip old geezers. With characters and modern trappings like these, you can’t blame Count Dracula for wanting to eviscerate all of these groovy hippies as soon as he’s rudely awakened on the grounds of St. Bartolph’s church.

German promotional poster for Dracula A.D. 1972

But those things also make this a fascinating reflection of its time and place; while certainly not a nuanced depiction of London in the flower power era, it is a unique example of how movie studios courted a seemingly fleeting audience. Johnny Restall’s review for Horrified magazine says it well: “[The film] is excruciatingly dated and embarrassing, but I find it charmingly so – a faulty time capsule which is probably no more of an accurate reflection of the 1970s than the previous films’ representation of the 1880s.” As such, Dracula A.D. 1972 is a revealing reflection of how filmmakers viewed their own culture at the tail end of the swinging era, if not an accurate reflection of the era itself. Restall is more forgiving of the film’s other ample flaws than I am, but I agree that there’s something charming about its anachronisms (both now and, presumably, when it was first released).

There are flashes of inspired visual style here and there, particularly with sets that combine on-location shooting with Hammer’s usual backlot artifice. Cushing and Lee, reuniting here 14 years after their first Hammer appearance in 1958’s Dracula, look somewhat tired with their roles and dialogue, but it is amusing to see them in this new setting – particularly Cushing, who has more to do as his character tries to convince narrow-minded cops that vampires and the occult are real. (Lee has less to do since Dracula stays confined to his abandoned church throughout the entire film, but the presence of Lee as Dracula is never something to complain about.) Among the cast of young hippies, Stephanie Beacham fares the best as Van Helsing’s granddaughter, though Roger Ebert is not wrong when he says that her heaving bosom has a co-starring role.

Ultimately, Dracula A.D. 1972 is far from Hammer’s best production (my votes for that achievement would be The Curse of the Werewolf [1961] or The Gorgon [1964]). The plot becomes tedious, there’s never a remotely scary moment, and the dialogue feels both witless and painfully self-aware. But, fifty years after its release, the film’s status as a historical curio is more fascinating than ever. It’s like an infinitely cheaper, lowbrow version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966): silly, overindulgent attempts to capture the zeitgeist of an era that passed almost before those living in it could fully comprehend it.

written by Matthew Cole Levine

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