Saturday, 3 September 2011

Dracula AD1972

Hammer tended to locate Christopher Lee’s Dracula in some vaguely defined nineteenth century mittel-Europe, which road signs or directions given to harried coach drivers would place as being near a Germanic sounding town called Karlstadt. Truth to tell, the fearful peasantry tended to sound more West Country than Westphalia, and the heathland and beech woods were hardly the Black Forest, but the notion was there. The Count did make it to Victorian England in Taste the Blood of Dracula, carried in dessicated form by Roy Kinnear’s unwitting salesman and unleashed by Ralph Bates’ fin de siecle seeker after new and undreamed of heights of decadent sensation. But he immediately retreated to the ancestral castle for the woeful Scars of Dracula, a low point in the studio’s output which makes such derided efforts as Prehistoric Women and The Viking Queen seem like minor masterpieces in comparison (they’re certainly a great deal more entertaining). The general weariness displayed by all involved, and the desperate resort to liberal lashings of tawdry gore must have occasioned a rethink, and the obvious way to refresh the Count was to introduce him into a contemporary setting. In the aftermath of the social upheavals of the 60s, the implications of which were working themselves out as the new decade progressed, a rural European setting in thrall to the feudal class divisions of a previous century no longer had much resonance for a popular audience. Michael Reeves’ 1968 film Witchfinder General had set a new standard for the representation of a particularised English past of squalid rural brutality which made Hammer’s fairy tale locales seem even further removed from the times. It was time for Dracula to come down from his castle. This was, after all, what he had done in Bram Stoker’s novel, making arrangements to move to London in order to take full advantage of the steam-driven technologies and gas-lit rookeries of the modern late-Victorian metropolis.

Gothic standoff - Van Helsing and the Count meet again
The title Dracula AD 1972 foregrounds this move to the modern era, but the opening of the film eases us towards such jarring modernity with a fatal struggle to the death between the Count and his arch-nemesis Van Helsing atop a careening carriage a hundred years earlier. This nod towards an Anglicised version of the Western convention of the assault on a speeding stagecoach, an extended version of which was played out towards the climax of Tim Burton’s Hammer homage Sleepy Hollow, is an indication of the generic elements which will be added to the usual gothic mix in this film and its follow up, The Satanic Rites of Dracula. The writer of both, Don Houghton, had already displayed his propensity for such miscegenation with his two Jon Pertwee Doctor Who scripts, Inferno and The Mind of Evil, which used plot structures borrowed from the disaster movie and the Cold War thriller, and he was later to create a self-reflexive country house murder mystery within which to house the strange metaphysics and surreal internal logic of the Sapphire and Steel universe. The Count’s meagre remains, which we have seen in previous films are more than enough to effect a resurrection, are buried beyond the pale of the graveyard where Van Helsing is interred. There is a definite sense that these adversaries need each other. They are the twin poles of a Manichean worldview, each defined by the other’s opposition. The resumption of this eternal struggle will almost be a relief to them as they find themselves adrift in the rapidly shifting social milieu of the 70s.

Gothic script on modern skies
The shock of the new is rather neatly conveyed by a camera pan away from a close-up on Van Helsing’s tombstone, which reveals that it is now surrounded by the encroaching rubble of demolition in preparation for subsequent redevelopment in the 70s style. And that means concrete. From the bird song in the rural Victorian graveyard where we have just witnessed the dual interment, the camera pans upwards to witness a jet plane roar overhead. It is a century-bridging cut which directly echoes a similar effect in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, where the hawk sent gyring into the air by one of Chaucer’s pilgrims is transformed into a spitfire as we are shifted into the modern Kentish countryside of the Second World War. Director Alan Gibson gives us some sweeping wide-angle lens panoramas, a technique of which he seems quite keen, to give an impression of this disorienting new world. Concrete overpasses spanning busy roads (the Westway), the dizzying heights of steel and glass office blocks, and traffic choked London streets. It is little wonder that Dracula, once reincarnated, opts to stay in his small oasis of Victorian gothic revival. Remember, this was the era in which British Rail wanted to demolish the Gothic railway temple of St Pancras, presumably to make way for something along the lines of the brutalist civic centre now facing it in an architectural version of a Sergio Leone standoff. The seeming irony of the Count taking refuge in a church, albeit a deconsecrated one, perhaps taps into a deeper sense that such figures of darkness can only have a meaningful existence in a world in which faith is still central. Van Helsing similarly takes refuge amongst the Victorian furnishings of his book-lined study, a scholar’s retreat which his granddaughter Jessica likens to a mausoleum. So is this really an analysis of the soul’s desolation, the isolation of the individual in the shadow of God’s absence from the world, in the manner of Bergman’s Winter Light? Er, not really, no. But it does reflect the wilful demolition of the past and the values which it embodied which was being carried out at the time. Many have seen the confinement of Dracula within St Botolph’s church as a failure of nerve, but I find it entirely appropriate for the period. A crisis of faith, be it cultural or religious, is a threat to sacred monsters and sacred architecture alike.

Bad boy Johnny
The Count’s servant seems to have changed little over the century, save in his foppish fashions and modish hairstyle, but we must assume that he is a direct descendant in the same way that Peter Cushing’s strangely named Lorrimer Van Helsing is the grandson of the original vampire hunter. The book ‘The House of Horror’, an official version of the Hammer story, was to be issued the following year by Lorrimer Publishing, which explains such peculiar nomenclature. Is there a genetically inherited component to evil henchmanhood being hinted at here? The name Johnny Alucard is a bit of a giveway, and it doesn’t fill us with confidence in his mental acuity that Van Helsing needs to painstakingly doodle an acrostic in order to figure it out. It also reminds us of other ‘hipster’ characters such as John Cassavetes’ jazz playing Private Eye of the nightclub world, Johnny Stacatto. Indeed, the name would seem to be more suggestive of a beatnik milieu, and it seems at times as if Houghton is drawing more on memories of this era (or the films which embodied it) for his view of youth cool. This would explain the inexplicable enthusiasm which Marsha Hunt evinces for a ‘jazz spectacular’ at the Royal Albert Hall. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, maybe? Johnny is at the centre of a ‘hip’ Chelsea set which is first seen ‘freaking out’ the squares in a posh Kensington pad. These unfortunates have their house invaded by the happening sounds of Stoneground, who churn out uninspired grooves of lumpen heaviosity in the backgound. It was to have been The Faces, but alas, the ‘Ground had a pre-existing contract with the distributors, Warner Bros., so the services of Rod and the boys were not called upon.

Johnny with Caroline Munro
The opening party scene demonstrates the level of authenticity we can expect in the depiction of contemporary youth culture; it is more convincing than the hippy festival at the end of Carry on Camping, but only marginally so. The dialogue is the big let down of the film. Its risibility obscures the fact that there are some interesting ideas at play elsewhere. It’s perfectly possible that the whole thing is intended to be satirical, in which case we are laughing along with the script rather than at it. The babbling inanities of the supremely irritating ‘comical’ member of the cool inner circle would certainly mark him out for imminent death in any horror film made ten years on, particularly given his penchant for practical jokes of the leaping out from behind a gravestone variety. Why he chooses to dress in a monk’s robe is anyone’s guess. Caroline Munro’s pogoing dance moves exude an infectious enthusiasm, however. Munro, whose first significant film role this was (playing the exquisite corpse of Vincent Price’s wife in The Abominable Dr Phibes wasn’t much of a stretch) went on to become something of a fantasy film favourite in the 70s, appearing in such timelessly entertaining fare as Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, At the Earth’s Core and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, becoming a Bond villainess in The Spy Who Loved Me before disappearing along with the rest of the British film industry. It was great to see her lending her support to the Classic Horror Campaign recently. She was always very courteous and considerate to her fans, and is clearly a good egg of the first order. Adam Ant payed tribute to her iconic status (as he had already done with Diana Dors) by casting her in his video for Goody Two Shoes. Stephanie Beacham, as Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica, diplays a splendid example of a feathercut hairstyle, bested in 70s film only by Jane Fonda in Klute, and sports a variety of purple clothing on her way to 80s Dynasic soap queendom. She also starred in Hammer rivals Amicus’ period gothic And Now the Screaming Starts, in which she was menaced by an ambulatory disembodied hand which, given its extremely sluggish nature (the mechanics were a bit ropey, apparently) tended to rely on the element of surprise. Marsha Hunt arrives fresh from inspiring The Rolling Stones hit Brown Sugar, having had a daughter with Mick Jagger in 1970. She went on to have a small part in the little-loved (I like it) concluding film of Lindsay Anderson’s Travis trilogy, Britannia Hospital, by which time the planet-sized afro is long gone.

Caroline freaks out to the White Noise
If the execrable dialogue can be enjoyed in its own right, the same can probably not be said for Michael Vickers’ intrusive, heavy-handed score, with its endlessly repeated horn riff and flailing guitar mangling. For this they ditched the reliable services of long-running Hammer composer James Bernard? Much more impressive is the electronic music used to accompany the black mass scene, played by Johnny on his ‘portable’ reel to reel recorder. Appropriately enough it’s a track called Black Mass (subtitled An Electric Storm in Hell) from the 1969 Electric Storm LP by White Noise, which was a rather atypical release for Island Records. White Noise were a temporary studio union of young technical wizard David Vorhaus and Unit Delta Plus, better known as BBC Radiophonic workshop legends Delia Derbyshire, who also provided electronic sounds for the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, and Brian Hodgson. The music is a genuinely disturbing blend of distorted vocals, musique concrete screams and electronically processed drum sounds, and it builds the ritual to a pitch of hysteria climaxing in Dracula’s resurrection. It demonstrates what a vital role a good soundtrack can be in helping to create an evocative atmosphere. Not even Johnny’s lame invitation to ‘dig the music, kids’ can entirely dispel its power.

Peter and Stephanie - the Van Helsings
Whilst no classic, Dracula AD72 is really much better than its lowly reputation would give it credit for. Peter Cushing gives his usual sterling and committed performance, and displays a touching tenderness in his scenes with Beacham. Their relationship, with its inter-generational conflict giving way to genuine affection, feels far more authentic than anything within the groovy swinging set, and the scenes in which the two are together begin to give us the sense that these are real people. Van Helsing doesn’t play the disapproving elder, either, at no point expressing prim disapproval of Jessica’s lifestyle. The contemporary setting allows Cushing to indulge in his chain-smoking habit, and he is able to bring an absolute conviction to such exchanges as: ‘let’s just hope you’re wrong about this whole business’…‘I wish I was, Inspector. I wish to God I was’. Christopher Lee lends his usual looming presence, and although he doesn’t have a lot to do other than smoulder and glower and sweep his cloak (he doesn’t even turn up until about half way through) he does all of these things splendidly. When he does get to engage in a bit of action in the duels with Van Helsing(s) which bracket the film, the scenes have a real, thrilling physicality which harks back to the climax of the original 1958 Hammer Dracula. There is an intriguing homoerotic undertow to the film, as Alucard pleads with his anagrammatic master to be bitten and exposes himself with a look of expectant ecstasy. Lee approaches with a grimace of distaste, and the camera shies away from the actual bite (the vampire’s kiss) but Alucard attains the ‘power’ he craves and proceeds to pass it on to Jessica’s boyfriend, whilst the women are simply led to Dracula to be drained and discarded. The film dwells on the banality of everyday, kitchen sink environs, such as the car wash in which Jessica and her boyfriend talk, and the night-time launderette outside of which Johnny trawls for victims. New gothic locations are also put forward, such as the Cavern, a subterranean club space in which the usual elements connoting neglected antiquity such as cobwebs and cracked stonework are now self-conscious props. This being a late period entry in the Hammer Dracula cycle, the methods of despatching vampires are becoming correspondingly baroque, and there is a nice bit of business in which the elements of a morning wake-up routine, the shaving mirror and the shower, are used to deadly effect. But of course, a film which proudly displays the year of its making in the title will always offer the pleasures of period detail. Look, there’s the number 19 to Finsbury Park, a Routemaster yet! And there’s Battersea Power Station, still belching out smoke and yet to be a Pink Floyd cover! And there’s some vintage Chelsea and West Ham graffiti, although the fact that they are placed neatly one above the other with no sign of erasure, and are daubed in a similar hand suggests that the art department was at work in this case (I hope they had permission). Really, this is just a film to sit back and unashamedly enjoy. So, take Jessica Van Helsing’s advice, relax and indulge in ‘a quiet bit of mindblowing’.

Christopher commands

Reposted from From Out of the Shadows

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