Hammer’s Dracula goes out with a whimper in this final Chris Lee-Peter Cushing vampire opus, which posits the Prince of Darkness as a super-mogul super-villain (with insufficient infrastructure). He’s battling Scotland Yard, MI5 and his old nemesis Van Helsing, while still arranging ritual sacrifices. And don’t forget the quartet of vampire babes he keeps in the cellar.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula
Warner Archive Collection
1973 / Color / 1:75 widescreen / 88 min. / Street Date November 13, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Coles, William Franklyn, Freddie Jones, Joanna Lumley.
Cinematography: Brian Probyn
Film Editor: Chris Barnes
Original Music: John Cacavas
Written by Don Houghton
Produced by Roy Skeggs
Directed by Alan Gibson
The final Hammer horror Dracula opus with Christopher Lee is The Satanic Rites of Dracula, a direct sequel to Dracula A.D. 1972, which is frequently named as the worst film of the series. A.D. reunited Lee’s Dracula with Peter Cushing’s Professor Van Helsing, or actually a descendant of Van Helsing, to repeat the formula established in 1965’s Dracula Prince of Darkness: a servant, acolyte or ambitious evildoer revives Drac for the umpteenth time in some kind of ceremony involving blood. The King of the Vampires is usually reconstituted whole, including his immaculate clothing and shoes. But his nefarious plans never seem to get very far. Hammer vampire pictures after their original Dracula tended to start at square one with each outing, re-establishing the basic formula, vampire characteristics, etc., to ever-so slowly convince a new set of characters that, yes indeedy, bloodsucking fiends from Hell are doing their nasty business amongst us. Just as the setup is completed, the film suddenly skips Acts 2 and 3 and abruptly ends.
There’s also the problem of sidebar irrelevancies. In the later Hammer Dracula pictures Lee’s character is little more than a guest star, making a dramatic entrance or two, giving orders, and seducing a couple of female victims before again finding himself trapped and reduced to dust. The one time he was frozen in a castle moat would be fairly original, had it not happened to Frankenstein’s monster in one of Universal’s sequels thirty years before. When not taking their sweet time to establish that Dracula has risen, has scars or tasty blood, the screenplays dote on clueless investigators, confused lovers and corrupt disciples.
Still, The Satanic Rites of Dracula puts Chris Lee and Peter Cushing into the same movie together, making it a must-see proposition. Neither were particularly thrilled by the assignment but their professionalism has not dimmed; each escapes with their reputation intact. Hammer experts tend to defend the picture, but most of their arguments involve comparing Satanic Rites to its dismal predecessor and other worse titles from 1973. But why split hairs? In just a few months, the entire traditional gothic horror movie would be all but steamrolled by the release of William Friedkin’s game-changing The Exorcist.
Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 revived Dracula in Mod London. The story twist for Satanic Rites sounds ambitious: instead of haunting an abbey, Dracula sets himself up as a Mabuse-like power-mad industrialist. When discovered, he has already suborned four powerful government and business Londoners into doing his bidding. They’ve sold their souls and abetted in Dracula’s Satanic sacrifices, etc., with the promise of being granted powerful positions in Dracula’s forthcoming New World Order.
A British Secret Service agent infiltrating a country mansion reports Satanic rituals taking place, attended by important Englishmen in branches of the government and military. Before dying, the agent reports that he saw a sacrificial victim apparently killed, and then brought back to life again. Given the go-ahead by his boss Col. Mathews (Richard Vernon), agent Torrence (William Franklyn of Quatermass 2) brings in an expert in the occult: Scotland Yard Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) dealt with a series of devil-murders a couple of years before. Murray in turn brings Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) into the loop, and Lorrimer enlists his daughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley). [Coles and Cushing reprise their roles from A.D.; Lumley takes over the part played earlier by Stephanie Beacham.] Torrence’s secretary Jane (Valerie Van Ost) is kidnapped, delivered to the country manse and vampirized by Dracula, to become the fourth of his vampire brides housed in the cellar. Van Helsing confronts the biologist Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), only to discover that the Nobel Prize-winner has developed a hyper-virulent strain of Bubonic Plague. Dracula’s foolish human cohorts don’t realize why their master calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: he expects them to help him depopulate the Earth with biological warfare. Like Fritz Lang’s Mabuse, Dracula’s aim is pure nihilism.
Back in 1960 the Dracula-challenged The Brides of Dracula had so many interesting characters and exciting scenes that we didn’t mind that it ended just as all the characters finally met each other in a barn. But the later Dracs don’t seem to think that the formula can be made fresh again. Confronted with the mind-bending notion that undead vampires have overrun a country mansion, the intelligence agents of Satanic Rites barely bat their eyes. Every woman on view is a potential vampire victim, or already one of Dracula’s vampire brides. When the fangs come out, the surprise factor is nil.
Hammer’s fantastic battle between Good and Evil involves fewer than 12 people. The mansion is run by a single woman, Chin Yang (Barbara Yu Ling) and three or four thugs that ride motorcycles. The vampire brides remain chained downstairs. Back in London, Dracula has apparently remade himself as a Howard Hughes millionaire and real estate baron under the name D.D. Denham. He runs his financial empire from a new office building built on the site of the church where he last expired. The place has one receptionist/guard; that’s all we see. There is no hint of the corporate structure over which Dracula/Denham would have to officiate. We don’t even know how Dracula gets to and from his home. A couple of Bobbies with a silver crucifix could walk into either address and make short work of our villain. Satanic Rites posits a potential takeover of Great Britain by a Satanic conspiracy, but there’s no network of conspirators, just four old men and a mastermind who can’t show his face in the daylight. Somehow I can’t picture Lee’s Dracula putting together the initial financing, filing papers of incorporation, working to get listed on the stock exchange, hiring people, negotiating union contracts, putting out annual reports, etc..
If that aspect of the story feels undeveloped, MI5’s campaign to stop Dracula is skipped entirely. We hear that the corrupted ministers have somehow made Torrance’s entire department into public enemies subject to arrest, but nothing of that is even depicted. Torrance, Murray and Jessica Van Helsing instead stake out the country mansion, with no particular plan in mind. Independently, Van Helsing interviews the unseeable D.D. Denham; Dracula disguises his voice with a European accent before allowing Van Helsing to get the drop on him with a pistol loaded with a silver bullet. Instead of just shooting the Prince of Darkness, Lorrimer decides to chat with him. Lee claimed that his D.D. Denham accent was an homage to Bela Lugosi, but it doesn’t sound especially Lugosi-ish, more like that of Ferdy Mayne.
The finale gives us the weakest dust-to-dust dead end for Dracula yet seen; the mythical duel to the death has been reduced to a scene in which, oops! Dracula made a boo-boo again. This finish is so un-dramatic that it barely merits mentioning; the most brilliant mastermind Satan ever commissioned is now an accident prone Bad Example for industrial safety films, who needs a refresher course on Bram Stoker’s two-dozen ways that Dracula can find himself inconveniently liquidated. Actually, Stoker’s novel makes no mention of the powers of a Hawthorn bush. It also never says that a vampire can be killed by a shower or a sprinkler system, merely that Dracula cannot cross running water except at ‘the slack or flood of the tide.’
The Satanic Rites of Dracula doesn’t develop any characters. The women look beautiful but spend their time screaming or baring their shiny new fangs. The great Freddie Jones gets just one overwritten lab scene in which to elaborate his tortured biologist. He succeeds admirably, but nothing surprising or suspenseful results. Cushing compliments Freddie Jones on his magnificently equipped laboratory, but the random collection of Petri dishes and microscopes we see looks more like a high school science classroom than a state-of-the-art lab for cooking up The Satan Bug.
At one point the always-polite good guys confab to debate a few points and then listen for minutes while Professor Van Helsing paces the floor and rambles on with vague statements about occult power. Some motorcycle and car stunts take us farther afield from horror, and the spy caper angle goes nowhere. Intrepid Inspector Murray isn’t surprised when Satanic snipers murder his superiors — If Murray knew they’d be in danger, why did all of them drive out and present themselves on Denham’s property, as ready targets?
Director Alan Gibson puts most of his energies into fistfights and motorcycle stunts suitable for a TV show. The actual rites involve non-sexual nudity. Gibson also directed Dracula A.D. 1972; and this follow-up in the series was originally given the even tackier title Dracula is Dead… But Alive and Well and Living in London. It was the last Hammer Film made under the supervision of Sir James Carreras. Screenwriter Don Houghton likely never had cause to regret his work here — as the creator of High Road, a Brit TV show that ran for a full 23 years, he likely had no reason to remember his Hammer scripts.
Back in the 1970s the American releases for Hammer Films seemed very spotty, even in Los Angeles. In the U.S. Warners licensed Satanic Rites to the sub-distributor Dynamite Entertainment, which was Max Rosenberg’s company, post-Amicus. Rosenberg cheerfully introduced a stack of censor cuts and re-titled it Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride. While other horror films of ’73 reveled in transgressive content, Hammer’s mild excesses rarely made it to the screen. The only place to see really gory or sexy Hammer content was in their over-hyped promotional material. Most Hammer fans had to wait for restored DVDs to see the original cuts.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Satanic Rites of Dracula will do well, mainly because the fan base for Hammer is so dependably enthusiastic. The splendid HD transfer presents Chris Lee’s final outing as Dracula in tip-top condition; in this same year cameraman Brian Probyn contributed to Terrence Malick’s Badlands. The fine encoding flatters the vampire brides Maggie Fitzgerald, Pauline Peart and Finnuala O’Shannon, who are obliged to writhe and snarl like snakes in a pit. Did audiences laugh when they’re apparently ‘liquidated’ by fire sprinklers? The transfer correctly registers the ‘posterized’ optical effect used in that scene. This is the first time I’ve been able to see Lee’s final disintegration scene — to me it looks like the actor was replaced with someone else in some of the intermediate stages. Les Bowie once again performed the special effects, likely on a tight budget.
John Cacavas’ music is not bad, especially in the travelogue-y title sequence. The disc’s one extra is a trailer. Warners still has some Hammer greats that could use remastering — I’m thinking here of the Ursula Andress spectacle She — and there’s still the issue of how to remaster the original Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (Horror of Dracula), and hopefully straighten out the strange color revisions done in England several years ago. I have a feeling that the roadblock on those titles goes deeper than simple technical issues. Warners certainly knows that the fans are hungry for them.
Suggestions and corrections contributed by Gary Teetzel and Wayne Schmidt.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Satanic Rites of Dracula
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 28, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Joe Dante on The Satanic Rites of Dracula