Saturday, 20 December 2014

Count Down Part 7: The Ghost of Chelsea Present

The Prince of Darkness finds himself in an alternative swinging London of the early 70s; mis-imagined by a venerable studio trying to connect with a world which was leaving it behind.

Dracula AD 1972 only proves that the more things change, the more the stay the same.  Despite the frenetic attempt to dowse every thing in technicolour fashion, misconceived lingo and equally dated music, it's really only the scenes involving Cushing and Lee,  (particularly their confrontations book-ending the film) which bring this instalment to life.  The final showdown, beautifully lit and shot in the decaying remains of a de-sanctified church, betrays none of the film's strained contemporary setting and could as easily be set in this series' glory days of centuries past.  Indeed, each antagonist makes his home in a determinedly unmodern setting: Dracula naturally favours a crypt, while Jessica Van Helsing  decries her grandfather's Victorian home as "a mausoleum".

But there's some work to done before we skip ahead to the best bits.  Let's begin with the positives.  By this stage praising our two leads should be a moot point.  Despite grief having visibly aged Cushing so much that Stephanie Beacham's role had to hastily revised to Van Helsing's granddaughter rather than direct offspring, he still owns every single scene he's in. Gentle and compassionate with Beacham, yet still a steely force to be reckoned with when facing down the undead. Honorable mention must go to Cushing's impromptu pull-up when trying to gain access to the fenced-off Cavern - indeed, in interviews Christopher Neame recalls the bruising he received during his tussle with the veteran actor.

Peter Cushing plays (a) Van Helsing for the first time in 12 years.
Lee actually gives voice to some of Bram Stokers original dialogue (probably at the actor's own insistence) and despite giving yet another faultlessly convincing performance as Hammer's greatest anti-hero, publicity stills and behind the scenes footage suggest that he was not having the time of his life.

Come on Chris, if this doesn't make you happy, what will?
Having been vocal about his desire to leave the role behind since the early 60s, why did Lee keep returning again and again to Hammer's Dracula films? This excerpt from an interview with Director John Landis reveals the answer:
"I would say, "Forget it, I don't want to do another one." (Then) I'd get a call from Jimmy Carreras (President of Hammer films) in a state of hysteria and he'd say: "No, you have to do it... because I've already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part.  Think of all the people you know so well, that you will put out of work!" Emotional blackmail.  That's the only reason I did them."
So we can now add 'martyr' to Sir Christopher Lee's many achievements.

It's the festive season, and I find myself unwilling to dwell uncharitably on this film's less successful elements. Actually, in all honesty, element is more accurate.  I have no problem with Hammer taking 'Drac to the future', especially as it reunites its two stars in their legendary roles for the first time since 1959.  But I just wish the production team didn't feel they had labour the setting so much.  The interminable performance by short-lived band Stoneground at the beginning is an embarrassing toe-curler of the first order, while the dialogue spoken by the younger stars sounds like a middle-aged screen writer's lazy sketch of Hippy-speak, with few lines left unappended by the word 'man'. The soundtrack is similarly unsubtle, but probably dates better than the other '70s trappings spray-coating this otherwise worthy addition to the Dracu-Lee saga.

Caroline Munro just about redeems the cringe-some musical interlude
The performances are all typically of a standard exceeding Hammer script requirements, with Christopher Neame bringing just enough gravitas to disciple Johnny Alucard and Stephanie Beacham showing all the promise which her long career has delivered on. It's always a pleasure to see Caroline Munro, and the tall actress recalls in interviews how she was genuinely afraid of the towering Christopher Lee in their scene together.
But the film's crowning glories are the confrontations between the Count and two different generations of Van Helsings.  The frantic night-time grapple on the runaway coach at the film's start is pure gold - as exciting and well-realised as the climax of any of the previous films - and this is just this beginning.

That wheely hurts: the Count is spoke to
The climactic resolution of this film is beautifully shot, the surreal lighting giving the impression that stills from this sequence have been somehow hand-tinted.  Hammer films are modern morality plays and naturally good triumphs, the battered but determined Van Helsing using a shovel to force the struggling King vampire onto a concealed bed of stakes in surprisingly gritty, but satisfying conclusion.

Not painted from 'life'
History seems to remember this film as an unsuccessful experiment, which is certainly odd as it had a direct sequel the following year, so faithful to AD 1972 that together they make a splendid two-part adventure.  But more about Lee's final bow as Hammer's Dracula next time.

It's only five more sleeps to Christmas, and this blog is about to turn very tinselly in the next few days.  I was even hoping to somehow tie Dracula AD 1972 to the festive season, and unsurprisingly failed miserably until it finally occured to me why I like it so much:
"In the seventh part of 'Count Down' Hammer gave to me: 
Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro and Christopher Lee"

And if that isn't a Christmas present worth opening I don't know what is.

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