Continuing our Hammer retrospective with a look at what might be the studio’s most underrated film, one hamstrung by tradition and expectation.
“By the Seven Lords of Darkness are you damned…”
There are few people willing to defend Hammer’s final Dracula film; yet I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that it is the best film in the series since the 1958 original. Maybe the best of them all. I realise that some of you are probably having an attack of the vapours right now, but bear with me. I don’t think it’s Hammer’s best Dracula movie, but I do think it might be the best movie that Hammer made with Dracula in it. There’s a difference.
The primary problem that dogs the film, now as much as in 1973, is that it is a Dracula movie. That might seem a strange criticism so let me develop it a little. For me, all the problems with The Satanic Rites of Dracula stem from the fact that it is a Hammer Dracula movie and so comes with all the baggage connected with the studio’s output and fan expectation. It suffers because it has to make room for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, neither of whom really belong here. Without them – and without their characters – this would be a much more interesting story. As it is, almost every time they appear on the screen the film grinds to a halt to accommodate what the filmmakers presumably thought the audience had paid to see. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning.
In 1972, Warner Brothers insisted that Hammer modernise their Dracula films, something that they were very much against doing but, given the diminishing financing options open to them, they agreed to anyway. It’s a decision that has been widely condemned but in all honesty, it made a lot of sense at the time. Hammer had run their original Dracula series into the ground and the last film, Scars of Dracula, had already dropped all attempts at continuity – the series, as it existed, was already over. Meanwhile, the success of Count Yorga, Vampire had not only shown that a traditional vampire could work in a modern setting but also hinted that audiences were perhaps tiring of the Hammer gothics. Hammer movies no longer seemed revolutionary; rather, their cosy mid-Europe period settings felt dated and bland at a time when the horror movie was undergoing dramatic changes, becoming much more contemporary in both setting and concerns. When you’d seen The Exorcist, scantily-clad girls wandering around ancient castles being assailed by undead aristocrats must’ve seemed a lot less shocking.
The problem for Hammer was that they didn’t really know how to modernise. Dracula A.D. 1972 – the film to which The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a direct sequel – was a misguided attempt to appeal to swinging youth, as conceived by middle-aged men whose fingers were nowhere near the pulse of teen culture. Dracula A.D. 1972 has its fans and is old enough now to have some camp appeal, but it’s as painfully out-of-touch a bit of yoof cinema as any of those awful rock ‘n’ roll movies that presented Cliff Richard as a teen idol in a post-Beatles world. Crowbarred awkwardly into that story were Cushing and Lee, the former making his first appearance as (a) Van Helsing since 1960. Neither the character nor the actor were exactly an integral part of the Hammer Dracula films, and just why it was thought that he was suddenly going to be box office gold in a film aimed at young hipsters is anyone’s guess. Lee, too, was probably past his prime at this stage and to their credit, Hammer had been looking to replace him with someone younger and possibly less belligerent – Ralph Bates was in the frame for a while. Perhaps as evidence of how Hammer just couldn’t win at this point, Warner Brothers insisted that Lee had to play the part – clearly, they didn’t want to modernise the story that much.
To the surprise of no one, Dracula A.D. 1972 was a box office failure and effectively ended Warner Brothers’ interest in Hammer Horror. Unfortunately, by the time the film was released, Hammer was already making the sequel, perhaps figuring that they had to strike while the iron was hot and Lee’s bank account was empty. Famously, he was badmouthing The Satanic Rites of Dracula even while it was being made, though much of his annoyance seemed to be with the production title of Dracula Is Dead… And Well and Living in London, which is admittedly the sort of gimmicky title (inspired by the then-popular musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, the sort of cultural reference that was never going to age grcefully) that surely no one ever really thought was a good idea.
Anyway, The Satanic Rites of Dracula came and went in 1974 without anyone really caring; Lee finally washed his hands of the character; and Warner Brothers, the company that forced the modernisation in the first place, refused to even release the film in the United States. It didn’t see an American release until 1979 when indie distributor Dynamite Entertainment retitled it Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride, forgetting to copyright the new version in the process and so giving it a very dubious ‘public domain’ status in America. Christopher Lee’s thoughts on that retitle have not been recorded. Hammer managed one more Dracula film, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires – which Warner Brothers also refused to release in the US – before the Count was finally put to bed.
So you probably have a good reason for believing that this film is terrible. Perhaps you’ve watched it and thought it was terrible. I’m here to argue that you’ve probably been (understandably) looking for the wrong thing in the movie. As a Hammer Dracula movie, this is certainly a failure. As a supernatural espionage thriller, I would say that it’s pretty damn good and absolutely of its time.
Even though the film was made immediately after its predecessor, the pathetically limp swinging London of Dracula A.D. 1972 is long gone in this story, the film making no attempt to be remotely ‘groovy’. Instead, we have a bleak, grey concrete metropolis, a London more akin to the gritty crime films of the times and certainly a more authentic representation of early 1970s Britain. It’s a city that seems to be rotting from the inside – an apt image given the apocalyptic nature of the story. While the dark days of the three day week, power cuts, mainland IRA bombing campaigns and social unrest were still a year or two away when this film was shot, it nevertheless perfectly captures a Britain in decline – less swinging, more slumming. The stark contrast with the previous film is fascinating because they share the same writer-director team of Don Houghton and Alan Gibson and they were made less than a year apart. Perhaps even the filmmakers realised, too late, that the whole ‘swinging London’ idea just didn’t work.
In fact, much of the action takes place outside London, in an autumnal countryside where a black magic cult is carrying out Satanic rituals. These occult meetings are attended by the rich and the powerful and so come to the attention of MI7, who find to their surprise that the MP who oversees their operations is among the guests. When one of their agents is killed during an undercover investigation – living long enough to pass incriminating information and photographs to his colleagues – Inspector Murray of Scotland Yard and Professor Van Helsing are both called in to help as outside experts – Murray as a cop free from the political restrictions dogging MI7 and Van Helsing as an authority on the occult. As they investigate, Van Helsing discovers that one of his scientist colleagues is also involved in the cult and that he is working on a new, highly infectious strain of bubonic plague. Everything seems to centre around the reclusive businessman D.D. Denham, who lives on the top floor of a newly-built tower block that just happens to be sited in the former location of the deconsecrated church where Dracula had been revived in the previous film. Van Helsing unmasks Denham as Dracula and uncovers a bizarre, apocalyptic plot to unleash the plague, destroying humanity.
The idea of Dracula as a supervillain masquerading as a Howard Hughes-style recluse and pulling the strings of power across the world of politics, the military and science is a fascinating one, and while his motives for destroying the world remain a little vague, it makes the character much more interesting and dangerous than the man who simply stood around in a church, almost as though he was scared to venture out into the modern world, in the previous movie. The time frame of the movie is interesting – while it appears to be set just a couple of years after Dracula A.D. 1972, everything seems to suggest a much bigger gap. Believe me, giant tower blocks do not go up that quickly. Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica – a flighty young sexpot played by Stephanie Beacham in the previous film – has now transformed into the studious Joanna Lumley and the whole world seems so different that you could easily have said that this was set in 1983 and no one would’ve batted an eyelid.
Lumley makes a much more convincing and capable (not to mention fully dressed) female lead than you’d usually find in a Hammer Dracula, even though she still has to be menaced and rescued by Michael Coles, returning as Inspector Murray and the man who gets all the film’s action scenes. Coles makes a solid, convincing hero in the movie and with William Franklyn as the MI7 boss trying to run an undercover investigation against his own boss, the film has a strong cast of heroic characters. The whole cast is actually really good – Valerie Van Ost’s transformation from frumpish secretary to seductive vampire remains one of the great moments of the genre and the scene where she is attacked in her car by chain-wielding bikers remains impressively brutal even now. Ching Yang as the female leader of the black magic cult, carrying out titillating rituals involving naked girls to excite the ageing businessmen drawn into her power is suitably wicked and it’s impressive that the supporting players – Richard Vernon, Freddie Jones – are respected performers who bring the film a certain seriousness and grounded realism. The action scenes involving the biker guards and the cellar full of female vampires are handled with real style and the film has an impressively nihilistic streak running throughout. John Cacavas provides a pumping score that mixes the modern funk of the previous film with a smoother, almost Bondian feel and the film at least seems to be trying to do something new with the genre. Even the gratuitous nudity feels a bit less gratuitous than usual – it actually is vital to the story for once.
If The Satanic Rites of Dracula fails, it does so because of the elements that most Hammer fans want to see – namely, Cushing and Lee. Cushing is simply too old and feeble to take seriously as the hero and often seems either reduced to standing around looking indignant or being crowbarred into scenes that might be better suited to Coles. The film does its best to make Van Helsing a relevant part of the narrative, but the scenes with Cushing feel old fashioned, and his final defeat of Dracula is highly unconvincing… not least because the idea of the lord of the undead being scuppered by a mere bush that apparently he couldn’t see before blundering into it seems risible. But then, even more so than Van Helsing, Dracula himself is the fly in the ointment here and almost certainly the reason why the film remains so despised. Let’s just repeat it again: this is not a Dracula film. In fact, it’s barely a horror film at all, and one can’t help but wonder how much better it might have been if the main villain was rather more human, or any other vampire besides Dracula, or just not Christopher Lee. As it stands, the film grinds painfully to a halt every so often to allow Lee some screen time, doing what he does best – seducing and vampirising young ladies. These are pointless moments that don’t really carry the story forward and seem grafted onto the film in order to justify the title. It is only the initial encounter between the two protagonists where Dracula is in his D.D. Denham guise that really works, though the final confrontation is also impressive, primarily because Dracula’s insane and suicidal plan is reminiscent of a Bond villain revelling in his plans for world domination. As much as Lee sneered at this film, his character actually has more to do here than in most of the other movies and you wonder how much better it might have been if the film wasn’t weighed down with the baggage of having to deliver what it thought were the classic Dracula moments.
For too long, The Satanic Rites of Dracula has been dismissed as an embarrassment by Hammer fans – and I suppose from their point of view, it is. But if this is the black sheep of the Dracula franchise, then it is also a movie that feels as though it was pointing the way forward for Hammer, albeit too late to make any sort of difference to the company’s ultimate fate. In the end, it doesn’t quite reach its full potential because it loses its nerve (and because of the conflicting demands of outside influences) but I’d love to see someone tackling a reinvention of this, free from the shackles of an existing franchise. The idea of a megalomaniac Dracula wanting to destroy the entire world frankly feels a lot more exciting than him pouting over lost loves or focusing all his undead power on a single family.
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