All Hallow’s Lee – DRACULA A.D. 1972
The Timeless Indifference of Christopher Lee
By Peter Schilling Jr
If you’re going to spend an evening watching a classic Christopher Lee flick, Dracula A.D. 1972 is probably not the first title you’ll pick. It probably won’t be numbers 2-10, either. But it’s where I went after I heard he died, in part because I’d dug the crazy poster (seen on Wikipedia), which involves sexy 1970s women, a hot car, an orange-faced Christopher Lee, and this tagline:
The Time: Now
The Place: Kings Road, Chelsea
The Killer: Count Dracula
Well, what’s not to like about that? Well, actually, but there’s a lot to dislike in this cheap horror movie, which Lee dismisses in all of eight words in his autobiography (the title alone takes up three of those.) But in A.D. 1972 you get a great glimpse of why it was so important for a grubby little studio like Hammer to hold on to the likes of Christopher Lee. No matter how ridiculous the premise, how tossed off the whole thing looks, when you’ve got Lee with sharp teeth and bright red blood on his chin—not to mention duking it out with the ever righteous Peter Cushing as the Count’s nemesis Van Helsing—you’ve got some real scares coming at you. That’s fun. And that’s box office.
What I’ve always enjoyed about Christopher Lee was this gravitas. Watching The Wicker Man the other day, I was struck by how the specter of Lee, with his wild hair, cunning looks, and rich voice, dominate that movie even if he’s only in it for a short while. So it is with Dracula A.D. 1972.
The picture opens with a prologue in the deep past, the 18th or 19th century, revealing a battle royale, with Dracula killed by Van Helsing on the broken spoke of a wheel, and then the Prince of Darkness’ ashes hidden by an accomplice. Cut to the present: a swinging party, looking a lot like a Hammer knock-off of Antonioni’s Blow Up. A group of very British hippies (less the American leather, nudity, and long hair and more velvet, lace, and floppy hats) are partying down, and bored. One of them, the very blond and cool Johnny Alucard (yes, Alucard), played by Christopher Neame, a Hammer stalwart, wants to do something really crazy, involving black magic at the deconsecrated church, St. Bartolph’s. There, and with his hippie pals, he draws blood from a comely young maiden, raises Lee’s vampire, and all hell breaks loose.
The plot is pretty hidebound, a lot of disbelieving cops and modern youth who get killed for their disbelief, genuinely touching scenes between Cushing’s Van Helsing and his adult age granddaughter, and a really cool dispatching of the hip new vampire, Alucard (it involves light and a bathtub.)
But best of all is Lee. Lee is the only reason we can even see Dracula A.D. 1972 today, because he brings a timelessness to his role, the same rich performance, in a small part, that makes Wicker Man a classic, as opposed to just a good movie. We believe a kid like Alucard would destroy his pals to follow Christopher Lee, and when the latter’s in the film, it feels like the fluff of early 70s London is being blown away by the hot breath of a genuine Count Dracula. Christopher Lee’s Dracula doesn’t care about the present, and all its changes (this is thankfully not a film about a clash of time periods), he cares about power and blood. So, too, did the actor Lee clearly not care about the bullshit he was in, and this indifference gives his performance a weight that steadies this ridiculous picture. Set aside the silliness of Dracula A.D. 1972—as with every one of his movies, Christopher Lee makes it worth watching.