A group of swinging kids in contemporary London holds a black mass in an abandoned church and awakens Dracula. One of the hip youngsters is Jessica Van Helsing, great, great granddaughter of the bloodthirsty Count’s arch nemesis, Lawrence Van Helsing. The vampire sets his sights on this comely lass, intent on avenging his defeat at Van Helsing’s hands a century earlier.
In a noble effort to reduce costs and stay current, Britain’s Hammer Films attempted to bring the gory, gothic horror of their lucrative Dracula franchise to a modern setting. Television director Alan Gibson (who would also helm the subsequent entry, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) and screenwriter Don Houghton (scribe of two classic DOCTOR WHO stories and both subsequent Dracula films) did their best to retain the basic structure of the earlier films while still injecting this entry with plenty of early 70s mod flavor. The result is flawed and uneven, but not entirely without merit.
Things get off to a rocky start with the final battle between the original Van Helsing and his undead foe in Hyde Park in 1872. The scene is staged well enough, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing grappling on a coach that’s hurtling down a dirt road, out of control. The problem is that the sequence is meant to occur at night but is quite clearly happening in broad daylight. When both vampire and slayer are dead, an observer scoops up the Count’s ashes and oversized ring, setting the stage for his inevitable return. Flash forward to London, 1972, where a group of wild teens have apparently crashed the private concert being held for a stuffy twit and his even stuffier parents by the rock band Stoneground. These hipsters shake and gyrate and fornicate under the dining room table while the pompous old folks look on in horror and the band cranks out two generic, full-length songs. This scene is humorless and seemingly interminable, until the police finally arrive to chase the boorish kids off.
From this point, the movie picks up considerably as our “heroes” make plans to dabble in the black arts (manipulated by charismatic newcomer Johnny Alucard!) and we eventually meet Van Helsing’s dead ringer descendant, Larimer. Before long, the séance gets underway and Dracula makes his debut in the modern world, sending minion Alucard out to gather ladies to feed his thirst and restore his strength. Bodies begin showing up, leading Scotland Yard to question Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) and consult her stoic grandfather, who has apparently helped them with tough cases in the past.
On first consideration of this premise, it might seem that the gothic elements would appear anachronistic and silly in today’s world. Surprisingly, the sight of Lee in full cape and bloodshot contacts battling Cushing’s stakes and holy water in the ruins of a cathedral works just as well here as it did in Hammer’s period horror outings, due in large part to the actors themselves. The problem comes with the contemporary trimmings themselves, which are at best ineffective, and at worst grating. The kids here are the “free love” era equivalent of the slasher movie teens of generations to come – self-absorbed, obnoxious and hollow. The actors try to breathe life into their performances, but there just aren’t any emotional depths to plumb in these stereotypical roles. Michael Vickers’ groovy rock-jazz score would fit like a glove if this were a cop movie of the period, but it is completely out of place in a horror film and does irreparable damage to every scene intended to frighten the viewer. The ladies in the cast, led by Beacham and sultry sex kitten Caroline Munro (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, MANIAC), are certainly sculpted in the curvaceous mold of previous Hammer starlets, but the mod fashions and dull grey atmosphere of 70s England don’t add up to the typical busty, lusty flavor one expects in a film from this studio. Only in the final sequence are Miss Beacham’s ample physical charms exploited in old-fashioned Hammer style, and that scene, as noted, is set entirely in the crumbling church. Too often the film starts to build a little momentum and then self-consciously jerks us from the action to remind us that this is not lavish, Victorian England, but rather the dingy, neon-lined streets of post-Beatles London.
Cushing is always a treat, but here he is saddled with a script not equal to his talents. He and Scotland Yard detective Michael Coles (billed only as “Inspector”) make clunky references to “cult murders a few years back in the States”, obvious and somewhat crass nods to the Manson family killings. While the audience makes the Alucard-Dracula connection the moment we hear the character’s surname, the great vampire expert Van Helsing has to sit down and physically draw it out on paper in the movie’s most laughable scene. Knowing how much danger his granddaughter is in, the Professor still opts to race across London on foot rather than driving or catching a cab. For some reason never quite made clear, he tells his Scotland Yard buddies to give him one hour alone in the church after sundown, rather than bringing in an army of coppers and setting up a great big ambush for the Prince of Darkness. Considering how easily he eventually dispatches the vampire, one has to wonder if he opts to go it alone just to ensure the film doesn’t end ten minutes too soon.
Lee is also typically good here, though he never leaves the church and is reduced to sending Alucard out to collect Jessica, making him decidedly less menacing than in his earlier turns as the king of the living dead. Coles is quite good, while Christopher Neame strains credibility to its limits but has an absolute ball as Alucard. The rest of the cast is largely unremarkable, save the voluptuous Munro, who proves here that as an actress, she’s really, really pretty.
On its own, this movie is a forgettable but not entirely unpleasant diversion. Only its setting distinguishes it from earlier entries in the series, but that setting is a big part of what keeps it from realizing its potential. In its defense, the film does handle the notion of Dracula menacing the modern world more respectfully and responsibly than many vampire films and television shows of the early 21st century, because it does not try to re-imagine the Crown Prince of Evil as a modern figure replete with tattoos, steroid-pumped muscles, or hidden socio-political agendas. Still, the pseudo-psychedelic guitar riffs and spaced-out “kicks”-seekers of the early 70s are incongruous with the satanic savagery of Hammer’s Dracula, making this film a mixed bag of nostalgic fun and awkward drug culture drudgery. DRACULA A.D. 1972 is best viewed as an offbeat installment in the series that gave Cushing (who had been absent from the series since 1960’s BRIDES OF DRACULA, which did not feature Lee) and Lee one more chance to do battle as righteous defender of good and soulless doer of evil, respectively. In that context, it’s agreeable and enjoyable, though never quite the film it could have been. It’s a pity that the filmmakers put so much effort into pointing out how thoroughly modern the story is that they failed to ensure that it was worthy of its two legendary stars.