Monday, January 25, 2016

Dracula A.D. 1972

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Dracula A.D. 1972 (Hammer/WB, 1972) – Director: Alan Gibson. Screenplay: Don Houghton. Stars: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame, Michael Coles, Marsha A. Hunt, Caroline Munro, Janet Key, William Ellis, Philip Miller, Michael Kitchen, David Andrews, Lolly Bowers, Constance Luttrell, & Michael Daly. Color, Rated PG, 96 minutes.

What are we to make of a film whose best part is the prologue? It’s a sign that Hammer’s Dracula series, which began in 1958 with Lee and Cushing in Horror of Dracula was almost out of steam. This was the next to last of the series. The Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1973, starring Lee and Cushing once again, was the end of the line. That was to the great relief of both stars, who had tired over the years of weaker and weaker scripts. In fact, the only reason Lee agreed to be in this film was that a couple of proposed film projects had fallen through and he needed a quick paycheck.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is a radical updating of the Dracula story. Hammer Studios was suffering financially, as the Gothic horrors that had served as its stock-in-trade for years no longer appealed to the contemporary audience. Hammer tried a number of things to keep the audiences, such as expanded bloodletting, violence, nudity, and lesbian themes, but nothing was working. In an effort to update their product while keeping costs down, Hammer decided to transfer the Gothic horror of the Dracula series to a contemporary setting. Screenwriter Don Houghton (Doctor Who) was brought in with instructions to retain the basic structure of the earlier entries while fast-forwarding it to the present. Alan Gibson, a television director who knew how to keeps costs under control and who two years earlier had directed Crescendo for the studio, was assigned the script. The results, to put it mildly, are unsatisfying. The movie becomes a promise unfulfilled, brought down by stereotyped characters, inane dialogue, all too predictable plot points, and worst of all, a noticeable lack of nudity and violence, as if Gibson were directing a television show for the BBC.

The film opens in September 1872, where we see vampire hunter Lawrence Van Helsing (Cushing) doing battle with Count Dracula (Lee) atop a runaway coach hurtling through London’s Hyde Park. The coach hits a tree, mortally injuring Van Helsing while Dracula becomes partially impaled on the spokes of a broken carriage wheel. With his last remaining strength, Van Helsing pushes the wheel’s spokes deep into Dracula’s chest, killing the vampire and reducing him to dust before Van Helsing himself succumbs to his injuries. At Van Helsing’s funeral in the grounds of nearby St. Bartolph’s Church, one of Dracula’s minions (Neame) buries his ashes just outside the hallowed grounds while marking the spot with a stake for future discovery. He also copped Drac’s signet ring for later – much later – use.

Cut to the present. A group of out-of-control teenagers has crashed a private concert by the rock band Stoneground for a rich twit and his stuffy out-of-it parents. The teens cavort, gyrate and vandalize while the older folks look on in horror and the band manages to play two full-length songs, which makes the scene seem as if it was much longer. Finally, the police arrive to chase the kids off, much to the relief of us in the audience who are waiting for something to happen.

A quick cut and we see the gang in their favorite hangout, the cavern coffee bar, where they hang out, doing Coke (the drink), smoking cigarettes, and spouting inane dialog, made even more ridiculous by the fact that these are 30-somethings trying to pass themselves off as teenagers. The leader of the group, Johnny Alucard (Neame again), tells them that if they really want some wild kicks they should join him in a black mass at this old church slated for demolition, which just happens to be St. Bartolph’s. The group reacts with a mixture of fear and sarcasm, but what the hell? Why not? So they agree to meet him at midnight at the church.

One member of the group is Jessica Van Helsing (Beacham), who lives with her grandfather, Lorrimer Van Helsing (Cushing again), himself the grandson of Lawrence Van Helsing. Jessica is not so sure about this black mass business, as she’s not too crazy about Johnny. When she arrives home she searchers granddaddy’s library, grabbing a book on the black mass to read. Van Helsing enters and asks what this is all about. Jess replies she’s just curious and goes on to tell granddad what a good girl she is. She doesn’t even do LSD. She’s pure as the driven snow, a requirement to be a Hammer heroine. And she’s debating to herself if it’s worth it to even go to this black mass. Unfortunately for her, boyfriend Bob (Miller) tells her it will be a kick, and they show up at the church, where Jess is distressed to find her great-great-grandfather’s tomb. Inside the church, the ceremony begins. Johnny wants Jess to be the centerpiece, but Jess declines and Laura (Munro) volunteers. While the others sit in a satanic circle, Johnny, wearing Drac’s signet ring, dumps some of the ashes into a goblet, slits his wrist, mixes the blood with the ashes, and dumps it onto Laura. 

Meanwhile, the dry ice machine is going full blast at the site where Dracula’s ashes are buried. The gang flees in a combination of terror and disgust. Jess wants to go back for Laura, who is transfixed, but Bob pushes her out. Johnny removes the stake from Drac’s grave, and voila, instant vampire. The first thing Drac does is reclaim his ring. The second thing he does is head into the church for a meal with Laura, who is the meal, as he drains her of blood.

The next day, Jessica is worried because Laura does not show up at the Cavern the next day and she’s not buying Johnny’s explanation that Laura has gone home to visit her parents. Soon afterward, Laura’s body is discovered. The police, mystified about the mutilation of her neck, decide to consult Van Helsing, who helped with a case involving a cult and blackmail some time before. While Johnny is entertaining Gaynor (Hunt), another member of the gang, at his apartment, Van Helsing is conferring with Inspector Murray (Coles) and Sgt. Pearson (Andrews) of New Scotland Yard, convincing them that vampires are real. Despite their skepticism, they believe him. He gives them two bits of advice: vampires fear silver and can be killed by running water. Right away we assume these two plot points will soon come into play.

When Jessica arrives home that evening, the police tell her about Laura’s murder. Distraught, Jess spills all about the black mass and about Johnny. Van Helsing is surprised to find out that Johnny’s surname is Alucard and puzzles out that it is really Dracula spelled backward. Hell, we knew that; we saw Son of Dracula (1943) on Chiller Theater years ago. Where was the professor when all this was going on? Meanwhile, Johnny takes the drugged Gaynor to the church, where Drac is waiting for dinner. After Drac has feasted, Johnny begs him for immortality, to be a vampire. Drac responds that Johnny has not yet brought that which he needs to avenge himself on the Van Helsing family – Jessica. Johnny, however, argues that if he was given the power, it would be a lot easier to get her here. Drac, seeing the logic of Johnny’s argument, admits him to the club, and Johnny gets his vampire membership card, personally autographed photo, and badge.

The next morning, after arming himself with a vial of holy water, Van Helsing learns about the latest murders. Theorizing that the killings are not random, and that Jessica is the ultimate target, Van Helsing convinces Scotland Yard to remove the guards from St. Bartolph's so that Drac can hide there comfortably and thus be more susceptible to Van Helsing's plans. We also learn that the Cavern, the group’s hangout, has been closed in a drug raid. That night, Bob sneaks into the locked Cavern (so much for being closed) to meet Johnny, who reciprocates by turning him into a vampire. The thus transformed Bob goes to the Van Helsing home and persuades Jessica, who does not noticed that he’s not the same Bob, to accompany him to the Cavern. Once there, Bob attacks her and Jessica faints. Before Bob can take a bite, Johnny tells him that she is "for the master."

When Van Helsing arrives home and learns that Jessica is gone, he races to the Cavern, but it is empty by the time he arrives. (We thought it was boarded up.) As he is running through the streets, he is almost run over by Anna Bryant, another friend of Jessica, who dimes out Johnny and drives him to Johnny's flat. There, Van Helsing and Johnny have a confrontation, with Van Helsing, noting that dawn is breaking, throwing a Bible and silver crucifix into Johnny’s coffin, denying him the pleasure of sleep. Van Helsing wants to know where Jessica is while Johnny is only interested in getting his coffin cleared out. Van Helsing then uses a mirror as a weapon by reflecting sunlight off it onto Johnny. He drives Johnny into the bathroom, where he falls into the tub as – you guessed it – Van Helsing turns on the shower, drowning Johnny in the running water.

Unable to do anything else because the vampires are inactive during the day, Van Helsing waits until late afternoon. He goes to St. Bartolph's, where he finds Bob's dead body and digs a pit that he fills with sharpened stakes. Equipped with a silver-bladed knife and the holy water, Van Helsing enters the church, where he finds Jessica lying on the altar in a trance induced by Dracula. When night falls, Dracula enters and the men begin a fierce battle, which seems ended when Van Helsing stabs the vampire, knocking him from the balcony to the floor below. But Jessica, still hypnotized, removes the knife, and Dracula chases Van Helsing outside. Van Helsing falls to the ground, but before Drac can kill him, he throws holy water in the vampire’s face. Blinded by smoke and screaming in pain, Dracula falls backward into the pit of spikes, and Van Helsing finishes him off by pushing him through the stakes. Now finally released from her trance, Jessica runs to granddad, who comforts her as the words “Rest in final peace” appear on the screen.

One of the many problems with the film is that, after the prologue, we don’t see Dracula again until nearly an hour had passed. And even then he has little to do. (To make sure the audience realizes the film is indeed in Swinging London, we are treated to the obligatory shot of a double-decker bus.) Instead it seems like an endless set-up of the return of Dracula with little action afterwards. To say that Lee is underused is putting it mildly. It’s Cushing who dominates the second half of the film. Not that we’re complaining about that, but it’s Cushing versus Lee that we came to see and all we get is a little tussle at the end.

Speaking of being underused, the producers go to the trouble of surrounding Ms. Van Helsing with a good-sized group of friends that, we would expect, will meet their end in various grisly ways at the hands and fangs of Dracula. But it seems that the filmmakers are in a rush or simply ran out of money. For instance, the beautiful Caroline Munro has a paltry death scene and ends up as a lifeless corpse. I was looking forward to Drac making her one of his brides and seeing her parade around in a skimpy negligee. Instead I get nada. It’s so lame and tame that one of the gang, Greg (Kitchen) doesn’t meet an end, instead simply fading out of the movie, doing the equivalent of a 0.1 on the movie’s Richter scale. What seems like a disappointment to the viewer was probably a saving grace to the actor playing Greg, Michael Kitchen, who went on to great popularity as Inspector Foyle. Imagine in interviews being asked about appearing in this turkey. 

As for the others, the only one that stands out is Christopher Neame, who is just enough over-the-top to sustain our interest. The real “hero” of the film is Cushing, who all but takes over the second half and manages to keep it interesting, playing Van Helsing as the occult version of Sherlock Holmes. As his granddaughter Jessica, Beacham’s main function seems to be to show how spectacular her cleavage is, and that’s only in the final sequence. When actually called upon to act, she does a credible job, even though she and her friends recite some of the dopiest dialogue I’ve ever heard. If anything, this shows how clueless the writers were if they thought young folks actually spoke that way.

The problem with Dracula A.D. 1972 is that it doesn’t know which century it wants to be in. The idea of the prologue is good in order to bring the audience up to speed, but once we’re in London, the film goes out of its way not to exploit that fact. I was expecting Dracula to traipse around London in his inimitable vampiric style, adding disciples and discarding victims as he goes. Instead, he seems to have developed a case of agoraphobia, as he never leaves the churchyard, hardly appearing until the showdown at the end.

As mentioned prior, Cushing has a lot more screen time, but he’s saddled with a script that woefully misuses his talents. When he’s not lecturing his granddaughter on how to properly behave, he’s locked into dumb discussions with the Scotland Yard Inspector (Coles, who is billed only as “Inspector.”) over the rash of murders, making silly references to “cult murders a few years back in the States,” i.e., the Manson Family, as if we didn’t know. And while we in the audience get the Alucard-Dracula connection right off the bat, we’re treated to the sight of the great vampire authority sitting in a chair and clumsily diagramming the connection on paper as if he was a freshman doing homework in an “Introduction to Linguistics” course. Add to this, the scene where, realizing what danger his beloved granddaughter is in, he still chooses to run across London on foot rather than using sense and driving or catching a cab.

Speaking of Alucard, was there ever a more incompetent vampire than Johnny Alucard? His death scene, in which he exposes himself multiple times to sunlight, switches on the shower and falls into the bath at the same time, is more worthy of a scene in Top Secret or The Naked Gun than a horror film.

The final battle between Van Helsing and Dracula is so short it almost seems like an afterthought on the part of the writers. To begin, Van Helsing convinces the Inspector to give him one hour alone in the church after sundown. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to call in the Flying Squad and ambush Dracula? Even in their battle at the end, Dracula is doing more to destroy himself than Van Helsing is doing to do him in. The cheesy score by Michael Vickers actually works against the film, ruining scenes intended to provoke fright.

At the end the words “Rest in Final Peace” are posted on the screen. Yeah, right. After each time we were led to believe Drac was no more he somehow managed to revive himself to the next film. All that needed to be done in order to revive the vampire was to splash blood on his ashes, as if he came in a jar labeled “Instant Vampire: Just Add Blood.” What finally did kill off Dracula was the bad box office of the next, and final, film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula.


During shooting, Christopher Lee brought a box of earth he had acquired from Transylvania to the set, hoping it would help him get into character. Given his lack of screen time, he needn’t have bothered.

Stephanie Beacham later became a regular on the soap opera Dynasty and it’s sibling, The Colbys (1985-89) playing Sable Colby. In 2009, she became a regular on Coronation Street, England’s longest running soap opera.

Memorable Dialogue

Inspector: “Sergeant, I’ll bet you a pound to a piece of shit there’s hash at that party.”


  1. I dunno, the lesbian stuff was working just fine for me. After this movie, they even tried getting in on the martial arts action with "The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires" which was actually the final nail in the coffin (pun not intended!) for the Dracula franchise. It came after "The Satanic Rites", but did not star Lee as he had finally escaped the franchise and instead that year (1974) starred in Bond movie "The Man with the Golden Gun" (I think everything was golden that year).

  2. You're right, but "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" was the end of the road for the classic Hammer matchup. "The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires" was an attempt to begin a new direction by combining the classic Hammer gothic horror with the martial arts films of Hong Kong, and the movie was made in partner ship with the Shaw Brothers. Unfortunately, the production was terrible. Lee refused to be in it after he saw the script and Cushing, who was in it, was saving for his retirement. The Chinese made much better films on this theme before Hammer decided to get involved; all this film did was to cost the Shaw Brothers money, which effectively ended their partnership with Hammer. With nowhere to go, Hammer finally decided to pull the plug. Had the picture done well, there would have been a new direction with there classic monsters spin off to fight martial artists. Can't quite see the Mummy fighting kung fu style.