Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review: Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula


Two latter-day Dracula movies from the legendary Hammer Films Productions are now on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive!

By 1972, Hammer's Dracula franchise had grown a bit long in the tooth, pardon the pun. The Gothic English setting that had been the hallmark of the studio had become familiar to audiences, and Dracula had risen from his grave perhaps a few times too many. In an attempt to inject some new life into the series, Hammer did something very unconventional: they transported the age-old struggle between good and evil to then-modern-day swinging London! By bringing Dracula to the shadows of seventies Soho, Hammer was able to juxtapose the classic Gothic horror of their past with modern sights and sounds like double-decker buses, high fashion, and rock music.


For me, the combo works like a charm. In Dracula A.D. 1972, we're introduced to a group of kids that would be at home in a slasher film from the of the late seventies and eighties, and many of the same slasher rules seem to apply here. These kids are careless, only living to drink to excess, take mind-altering substances, and thumb their nose at authority. Their hedonism would make Lord Byron proud. But when their cool, mod leader Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) conducts a bloody ritual involving cult film favorite Caroline Munro right before the stoned eyes of his friends, he unleashes an evil that has slept for over a century. Dracula now walks again, and so do his loyal servants. For these young people who live only for pleasure, survival becomes the first priority.


Hope is not yet lost, however: as it happens, one of the party kids is named Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), and yes, she comes from that Van Helsing lineage. Her grandfather is Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing, played--of course--by Peter Cushing, occult expert from a long line of other occult experts. Cushing's Lorrimer has been preparing his entire life for the struggle he now finds in his own home, as he must not only defeat the unspeakable evil of Dracula, but also save his granddaughter in the process.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is breezy and fun, never getting too bogged down in the chamber drama that had served as the foundation of the series some 14 years earlier. Because this movie was so focused on capturing the feeling of early seventies London, the city itself becomes a character in the movie. I often mention that films can serve as time capsules, taking us to a time and place that has long-since ceased to exist, but that will forever live on film. Such is the case for this movie, which offers us an immersive experience in an exciting time that vanished after this film was released. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing aren't actually in the movie all that much, with the focus instead being placed on the young cast and on Jessica Van Helsing, and that's probably for the best. But I must also mention that any time Cushing or Lee is on screen, they command our focus like the icons they are.


1973's The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a direct sequel to Dracula A.D. 1972. We are once again following the adventures of Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing and his granddaughter Jessica (this time played by the Absolutely Fabulous Joanna Lumley) as they fight to destroy Dracula. The tone of this movie is darker than the first, with more focus placed on occult rituals and human sacrifice, and with a substantial increase of blood and flesh. There's something more sinister going on here, with the city's most influential leaders involved in a plot that involves kidnapping and torture.


Still, a lot of what makes Dracula A.D. 1972 so unique among Hammer's Dracula lore is still present in this film. Scotland Yard is involved in the investigation to uncover the occult activities, bringing a police procedural element to the film that feels welcome. There's also a real estate subplot that seems bizarre for a Hammer film, but that feels very much of its time. We're even treated to a confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula that takes place in a corporate executive office. Welcome to the modern age, Mr. Dracula.


Both films are written by Don Houghton, who had come from television (his immediate prior screenwriting work had been serialized scripts for Doctor Who during Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor era) and would return to television after his Hammer Dracula work. The two movies are directed by Alan Gibson, who himself came from television and seemed to peak with these Hammer horror films. The movies are directed with tons of seventies flash (exhibit A: the camera pans from Dracula's resting place in the past to an airplane flying over London while funky guitar music plays) and a lot of quirk. While it's not hard to see that Hammer's sun was setting (the studio would shutter a few years after these films), there's still a lot of fun to be had.


Each film is presented in HD by Warner Archive and look quite good, all things considered. They both contain English subtitles and feature the theatrical trailer as their lone special feature. A quick autobiographical aside: in my time as a cult movie fan over the last few decades, I've witnessed these movies go from the black sheep of Hammer's catalog to being embraced as cult favorites, and it's been a real pleasure to see the horror community embrace them as fun and unique entries that capture a really wonderful time, place, and spirit.

Be sure to check out our review of Horror of Dracula, also on Blu-ray from Warner Archive!

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