1972 is perhaps the most prolific year in the most prolific decade of horror and exploitation films. It’s also the year for what may be the quintessential midnight cult move: John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, now enshrined as one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. Blood Freak, which is the first and only “Christian” movie to date about a turkey serial killer, is another Certified Weird 1972 exploitation picture. Competing with Freak fro sheer awfulness was Don Barton’s Zaat(AKA Blood Waters of Dr. Z), which went onto “MST3K” infamy.
In its Blu-ray presentation, Mario Bava’s maligned Baron Blood has proven better than its reputation, despite a miscast Joseph Cotten in the title role. Like most of Bava, it’s stylishly irresistible. The 1972 Amicus omnibuses Asylum and Tales From The Crypt both starred Peter Cushing, and were critical and box office successes. Ben, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and Beware The Blob were all inferior sequels—which is saying a lot in the case of an original monster who was just moving silly putty. Jess Franco tackled the two big undead kahunas (with plenty of added sex) in The Erotic Experiences of Frankenstein and Daughter of Dracula. The Count rose yet again in Count Dracula’s Great Love, starring Paul Naschy. Future King of Cartoons (William Marshall) and director William Crain fused horror with blacksploitation for the first time in Blacula. It was a enough of a box office success to warrant (superior) sequel in 1973. Unfathomably busy, Cushing and Christopher Lee teamed up for Freddie Francis’ underrated Creeping Flesh, Gene Martin’s cult favorite Horror Express, Peter Sasdy’s misfire Nothing but the Night, and the Hammer opus Dracula AD 1972 (directed by Alan Gibson).
Widely scorned, Dracula A.D. 1972 reunited Cushing’s Van Helsing with Lee’s bloodsucker in a modern setting, even though Dracula himself is confined to a Gothic church. It’s one of Tim Burton’s favorite movies. The contemporaneous critical backlash was mostly justified. Lee, probably the best cinematic Count, is reduced to second vampire-in-waiting. But as an artifact of its time, Dracula A.D. 1972 is not entirely without virtue, enough to explain Burton’s affection.
It opens in the previous century with Dracula and Van Helsing locked in mortal combat aboard a stagecoach, which crashes, causing the vampire to be impaled on the spokes of the coach’s wheel. As Dracula attempts to free himself, a battered and bleeding Van Helsing interferes, driving the spokes in deep enough to snuff out the life of his nemesis before dying himself. Witnessing the scene is a Dracula disciple who, of course, leaves with the vampire’s relics (handy for later resurrection). Despite the preposterous accidental impalement, it’s a red-blooded, Gothic prologue that is followed by 1972’s swinging hippies.
Initially sounding more like old fuddy-duddy Edward Van Sloan than Peter Cushing, Lorimer Van Helsing, grandson of Abraham, lectures his granddaughter Jessica (Hammer babe Stephanie Beacham) all about the wrong crowd and premarital sex. Pooh-poohing gramps, Jessica heads straight for the wrong crowd, which includes bad seed Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). His name, of course is a leftover gag from the 1943 Universal bomb Son of Dracula (starring a woefully miscast Lon Chaney, Jr.) Silly character name aside, Neame, once past the groovy scene (and pointless rock numbers) is creepily charismatic as the actual antagonist performing a Satanic ritual, during which he sacrifices Laura (Hammer babe #2 Caroline Munro) to resurrect the Prince Of Darkness. Throwing in a dash of pseudo-Satanism was no doubt influenced by the flood brought on by 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and seems an odd fit. Regardless, the ceremony is stylishly fleshed out in a ruined abbey.
The film then takes a sharp turn when focusing on the modern ruffian Alucard, who now takes over lead cruising-vampire role to exact revenge on the Van Helsing bloodline, while Dracula hangs out in the church, a symbol with little to do. It’s an old dilemma when a major character has so much baggage attached to him (or her) that filmmakers are afraid to take risks and have to create a second, more elastic character to have fun with (e.g., “naughty” Donald Duck being created to contrast with the stiff Mickey Mouse). Scotland Yard calls in expert Van Helsing for help, after bodies start piling up (imagine that). Cushing’s energizer bunny finally kicks in for a duel to the death with a turtlenecked bloodsucker and a bathtub, although the second accidental dispatch might tempt one to dismiss the film as Gothic slapstick or, perhaps, a precursor to Fright Night (1985).
Confined to his safe Gothic setting, Lee’s Dracula disappointingly never actually sees 1972, but he does get to engage in a spirited showdown with Cushing’s Van Helsing fourteen years after their last go at it.
The mod dialogue and slang in the early party scene is unbearable, embarrassingly dating the film. Curiously, much criticism was also leveled against Michael Vicker’s horn score, which is so idiosyncratic that it aids the film. An attempt is made to offset the flaws with three stylish action sequences, an older but still-animated Cushing and Lee, newcomer Neame as a coffee-house vampire, and of course, dual Hammer sex symbols Beacham and Munro. It all adds up to the most bipolar of the Hammer Dracula series, at least until the same team returned for the even queerer 1973 followup The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
Better received was the Hammer oddity Vampire Circus, directed by Robert Young, which was still criticized for having the usual sex and horror quota. Bookended with a traditional prologue and finale, it’s an imaginative effort and became a much sought after cult favorite, more talked about than seen (at least for a decade or so). Once the vampire circus comes to town, we’re introduced to a bevy of colorful characters, including Darth Vader himself (David Prowse) in the role of the strong man.
Again, Hammer lets loose with a new character in Count Mitterhouse (Robert Tayman), who exudes the dangerous sex appeal that Dracula initially possessed in the original Horror of Dracula (1958). He’s been mating with a villager’s wife, and she’s been supplying him with a steady supply of pubescent blood. An angry-villager scene follows with the impaled, dying count placing a curse on the town of Schtetel. Fifteen years later, Schtetel is quarantined due to a mysterious plague. A visiting circus is in fact Mitterhouse’s vampire brood, intent on resurrecting him and fulfilling his vow of revenge. While it ends predictably, there’s plush eroticism aplenty; both male and female (including Prowse engaging in an erotic dance with a body painted nude tigress, a stop-motion black panther, bats transforming into twin siblings, etc). The contrast between the puritan hayseeds of Schtetel and the necromantic performers could not be more pronounced, and only dullards will find themselves rooting for the rustic denizens. It’s equally silly, predictable, and refreshingly offbeat.
William Girdler’s basement version of Psycho, Three on a Meat Hook doesn’t live up to its title. Better is Jimmy Sangster’s admirably compact psycho thriller, Fear in the Night, which finds Cushing taking a break from Lee to co-star opposite Ralph Bates and Joan Collins (in superb bitch mode).
In addition to baring fangs in Count Dracula’s Great Love, Paul Naschy sprouted fur in Fury of the Wolfman, and Dr. Jekyll and the Wolfman, and got resurrected as a warlock in Horror Rises from the Tomb, all of which further cemented his status as the reigning Spanish horror icon.
Before his premature death in 1980, all-but-forgotten “Fugitive” star David Janssen was one of the busiest and most recognizable television personalities (he literally overworked himself into a fatal heart attack). Unfortunately, Moon of the Wolf amounts to a mediocre made-for-TV mystery thriller, but he and co-star Barbra Rush have old-school chemistry, and it does feature a cool werewolf in a burning barn finale.
Gallo filmmaker Lucio Fulci produced one of his best works with Don’t Torture a Duckling. Having had a big success with The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave, Emilio Miraglia produced the The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. Despite being aesthetically superior to its predecessor, it was not a box office success and nearly ended Miraglia’s career. Herschell Gordon Lewis also produced another cult item in Gore Gore Girls, but for pure schlock value he was surpassed by William Claxton’s Night of the Lepus, which had TV’s Dr. McCoy fighting off giant, rabid Easter bunnies; and Bert I. Gordon’s Necromancy, starring Orson Welles!
Little seen, Peter Sykes’ Demons of the Mind was an interesting period Hammer misfire. Ray Milland starred in George McCowan’s Frogs,which is about…. rampaging killer frogs (’nuff said).
Wes Craven made a name for himself with the nasty cult movie The Last House on the Left. One of the most eclectic of filmmakers, Bob Clark, who later made Black Christmas (1974), Porky’s (1981), A Christmas Story (1983), and Rhinestone (1984), also emerged in 1972 with the brilliantly-titled Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things.
Ending our year is the howler The Thing with Two Heads (directed by Lee Frost) starring Rosie Greer and Ray Milland, who was probably even more embarrassed here than he was in Frogs. The major difference is The Thing with Two Heads is intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Evil, racist scientist Dr Maxwell Kirshner (Milland) is dying of cancer. Fortunately, he has perfected his experiments involving head transplanting. Jack Moss (Greer) is a black man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to the electric chair. He volunteers for a medical experiment and… poof… the head of the racist Kirshner is now attached to the big black football player. Man, is the doc mad. However, he hops on a motorcycle with Moss, forced to cooperate with his new appendage, and finds out what its like being a black man with an extra head in America in 1972. No, it’s not Curt Siodmak with a sense of humor, it’s a thing with two heads on a chopper. What more could you ask for in entertainment?
- A certified fan of Hammer horror, George Lucas used studio regulars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee,and David Prowse in various films in the Star Wars franchise.