The reason I agreed to do this cinematic trek in the first place is because I love Peter Cushing and by extension pretty much every film I've seen him in, speaking as they often do about his choice of roles. That said, I knew there'd be rough going along the way and no more so than with this trio of terrible terrors. Talent and taste are rarely exclusive and despite Cushing's calibre his filmography is not without its flaws, as I learned this past week.
DRACULA AD 1972 (1972)
Also known as Dracula A.D. '73 and Dracula Chases The Mini-Girls (yes really), it's one of Hammer's last to feature Sir Christopher Lee as the titular tall one, and not really one of the best but it's worth a watch for a giggle as it's actually quite unbelievable that it exists. Remarkably, by setting the film in the then-present, Hammer dated it more than their older Victorian efforts. Sample dialogue: "You can buy that sort of stuff in almost any shady bookshop in Soho, I think it's all kinky, weird, man, way out...", says Stephanie Beacham to grandaddy Peter Cushing (this time playing Lorrimer Van Helsing, descendant of Lawrence). Also, she's informed by a vampire boyfriend who sneaks her into the backdoor of a closed-anyway club that the front entrance is "full of geeks and newspaper men".
There's a pointlessly drawn-out scene at the beginning of the movie where 'rockgroup' Stoneground plays two FULL songs while some hip teens (played by 20 and 30-somethings) dance around. The highlight of such fun is William Ellis as Joe, an Eric Idlealike vagabond in a monk's tunic. He steals any scenes he's in ("if we do get to summon up the big daddy with the horns and the tail, he gets to bring his own liquor, his own bird and his own pot") and then appears in no other films ever. Christopher Lee doesn't show up for ages and we're forced to make to with Christopher 'Mrs Frisby and the rats of ' Neame in poncy idiot worshipper mode as 'Johnny Alucard'. Feel free to reverse his surname, puzzle fans: Cushing does. When he does appear, he has very few scenes but makes a great impression, because he's Christopher Lee, and he eats about ten women and has a kip in his grave. Also, for a while I think he owns a nightclub.
The best two bits in the film I've screencapped below:
Are you serious? "The Legend Of Dracula The Vampire"?! "DRACULA THE VAMPIRE"??? Apparently Lawrence Van Helsing wrote the yellow-bound tome when he was six years old. Also, remember earlier when I mentioned Cushing's figuring out of Alucard's surname? See below just how he did it:
Come on! No-one's that stupid, especially someone played by Peter Cushing! Look at how bad his writing is! Notice also the copy of "The Legend Of Dracula The Vampire" in the top right hand corner of the frame. Indispensable.
The movie also has an inordinate amount of cleavage and a trippy score with that fuzzy guitar distortion like at the start of John Barry's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". I really like it at times and I'm finding it hard not to recommend, but it's best to watch it a good distance from the other Hammer Draculas, because they're worlds apart in context and quality.
Its immediate sequel, on the other hand, is not worthy of any such half-hearted pseudo-praise and is arguably the barometer by which all future Cushenings shall be judged.
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)
Dear God. Please gang, never, as part of any course on Sir Pete, horror movies, films of the 1970s or in celebrance (don’t you think that should be a word?) of actual knight Sir Christopher Lee, watch The Satanic Rites Of Dracula. I’m going to keep it brief because THINKING about it numbs me, but you can easily get away with watching ALL other Hammer Drac films (even Scars Of Dracula, in which Dracula stabs people to death and is revived by a giant blood-chundering rubber bat, fergoodnessakes!) and ignoring this one without ever feeling guilty. It is truly one of the worst things ever to have happened to me.
In fact, ‘twixt that last paragraph and this, I made a list of the worst things ever to happen to me, and it ranks just above standing on a rusted nail and letting my Tamagotchi die, and only just under breaking my arm and accidentally drinking a bee. Have you ever drunk a bee? It sucks, sucks worse than The Satanic Rites Of Dracula. But only just...
Within seconds, we’re hit with what sounds a LOT like the theme from Bride Of Frankenstein, and you’ll notice that there’s a sort of silhouette of Dracula in the corner that gets progressively bigger as the credits advance. It’s really, really funny, but it’s certainly not supposed to be and effectively undermines the entire film and just about the entire Hammer catalogue.
The opening shots of London remind us that the film was penned under the working title Dracula Is Alive And Well And Living In London (famously described by Lee as “fatuous”), and they look all the sillier in light of the new title (which is barely relevant) and the setting of a good deal of the action in a rural setting. John Cacavas did great work on the Lee/ Cushing vehicle Horror Express (recently released on Blu-Ray, shopaholics...), and his rock-orchestra score fits this film insomuch as NOTHING fits this film, and everything comes together in a bilious, recursive mess of poor filmmaking.
The costumes are pretty neat (really, whatever happened to the ubiquity of sleeveless sheepskin vests?) and there’s a really neat stunt on a bike, but ultimately the impression I got from this film was that Hammer was producing a totally unrelated spy "thriller” and shoehorned one last Dracula picture onto it in the ugliest manner possible. Kudos to its stars who cooperated no doubt out of loyalty and so as not to cost so many prospective jobs, but there’s really nothing more to say about this wretched bad thing of a thing, so I’ll move on sharpish.
A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940)
What better way to top off a mini-marathon of 70s Dracula films than with a Laurel and Hardy movie from the 1940s? Well, in hindsight, there are a great number of better ways among which watching another 70s Dracula film ranks high, but to be honest I wanted to go for something I thought I wouldn’t enjoy (let’s make it three for three, I masochistically figured) and so A Chump At Oxford was shortly ticked off the bucket list.
The first thing that hit me about this (horribly colorized version) film is Stan Laurel’s face. He has a great face, easily in the top two faces seen in the opening shot of him and Oliver Hardy sitting in a car. The colorization process (as you may have noticed in Marcus’ lobby cards for most of the films I’ve reviewed) creates a bizarre sort of pastel look in a lot of films and A Chump At Oxford looks like no reality I’ve ever recognized. There’s a shot about five minutes in where the pair leave an employment agency and walk into a completely monochrome exterior that’s really quite nightmarish in a way. Looks we have a horror after all. There’s even a chap dressed as a ghost...
There’s no energy to the film. From what I’ve seen from films from this era their success relies on careful choreography and the ability to knock a gag out before you’ve come to terms with the one before it. A Chump At Oxford seems to delight in giving you enough time not only to appreciate a joke, but to see it coming a mile off, too.
As for Sir Pete, when he does show up, he’s pretty much the only one who genuinely sounds English, whereas the others all sound like that sort of bizarre Colin Clive English that only exists in Hollywood films from 70 years ago. He also plays the sort of snooty college brat you’d more readily expect to see in a frat house in the 1980s. He’s not given a lot to do really and it’s really quite strange seeing his talents put to such waste.
So, is it a Peter Cushing film? No. Absolutely not. He has a total of 66 audible words of dialogue, one indecipherable noise and a few instances of participation in general rabble rousing. I’d not recommend it to my trusty Cushettes, no sooner than I’d recommend it to a person seeking a reasonable way to kill an hour of their life that they’ll never ever get back. Worth seeing as confirmation that even our greatest export was once a jobbing thesp, but an exercise in redundancy through and through.
Next week: GOOD films! I promise...
Reviews: Paul McNamee
Images: Marcus Brooks