What a long, strange trip it’s been for Hammer Studio’s lord of the undead, the prince of darkness, the king of vampires, Count Dracula. When first we met him back in 1958, he was a snarling beast, a barely contained force of nature that ripped into his prey with lusty abandon and was explained by his arch-nemesis Dr. Van Helsing in purely rational, scientific terms. Dracula, and vampirism in general (as expounded upon by Van Helsing in Brides of Dracula), was nothing more than a disease, like any other disease, and what we regarded as “supernatural” was really nothing more than an explainable part of the rational world that humanity had simply not yet learned how to explain. As Hammer’s Dracula series progressed, however, Van Helsing faded from the picture and was replaced by a procession of forgettable guys named Paul, usually in league with some sort of religious authority figure. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, we have a monsignor who seems to have some degree of faith in faith’s ability to defeat Dracula, but he’s far more reliant on his trusty bolt-action rifle than he is on the Lord Almighty. With the next film after that, however, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Van Helsing’s assertion that Dracula could be defeated by reason and science was fading rapidly. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a transitional film, one in which an atheist who would seem to share Van Helsing’s belief that vampirism is a virus and not a function of the supernatural, begins to doubt his faith in science just as he begins to doubt his doubt of Christianity. When Dracula is felled by a bolt of lightning, we are left to wonder: is this science — a metal lightning rod, an explainable weather phenomenon — or an act of God — lightning strikes being the most common weather-related act of God, after the rain of frogs.
After that film, however, there is no doubt as to Dracula’s nature. In Taste the Blood of Dracula, he is recast as a satanic demon, summoned by black mass rituals. This trend of “religionizing” Dracula continued in Dracula AD 1972 despite the return of a Van Helsing to the scene. Where as the Lawrence Van Helsing of Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula regarded vampirism as a scientific issue, his descendant Lorimar Van Helsing sees it as a mystical issue of the occult, like witchcraft or devil worship. Dracula is once again summoned by occult rituals (not to mention Caroline Munro’s half-clothed writhing), and where you might think that placing the Victorian vampire in a modern setting alongside a modern Van Helsing, would prove an opportunity to revive the concept of Dracula as scientific problem and biological oddity, it never really happens. I think there is one token utterance of, “Vampires? But surely you must be joking, man! This is the 20th century!” but that is quickly dismissed as everyone from Van Helsing to the police are quick to accept the supernatural and rattle on endlessly about the occult. At this point, Dracula is less a vampire and more a full-fledged demon, perhaps even the embodiment of Satan himself.
One would assume, then, that with a title like The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the sequel would follow in the footsteps of turning Dracula into a religious anti-icon. But then, honestly, what more can be done to make him Lucifer incarnate than having him summoned by rituals and pentagrams and strange runes? Are they going to make him don a silky red Danskin and gad about with a pitchfork? Dracula AD 1972 was already a rehash of Taste the Blood of Dracula, and while Hammer’s Dracula films have never shied away from rehash, it seemed like the evolution of the count was complete. What was left to do? The correct answer is, “Nothing.” Just don’t make another Dracula film. Make Christopher Lee happy, and just lower the curtain on the series. It had a good run. A few missteps here and there, sure, but all in all, Hammer’s Dracula films were a pretty solid lot, even at their worst. Dracula AD 1972 had been a somewhat desperate attempt to modernize the franchise, and it was met with mixed reactions, at best. So just let the sleeping corpse lie, this time. Christopher Lee was already printing up his leaflets to be dropped from a plane over London, explaining to any who found them that he was never going to play Dracula again. Save the guy some effort, people said, and maybe he’ll start talking about something else besides how everyone just talks to him about Dracula, instead of mentioning some of his other classic work, like Circus of Fear. Come on — Chris Lee and Klaus Kinski? That’s a power duo, my friends.
But Hammer had nowhere else to go. They couldn’t get new stars or new franchises launched. The entire British film industry was in a tailspin, and Hammer was worse off than most. Not knowing what else to do, they commissioned Dracula AD 1972 writer Don Houghton and director Alan Gibson to make yet another Dracula movie, causing Christopher Lee’s eyes to turn blood red as he launched into a furious string of interviews about how awful the Dracula movies were and he sure as hell wouldn’t…look, seriously. By this point, you know how this ends, right?
So with “nowhere” no longer being a viable answer to the question of where Dracula goes from AD 1972, what would Houghton do? Could they serve up the same old, same old one more time and get away with it? Unlikely. In fact, it was unlikely they could get away with anything they served up. Dracula was DOA at the box office no matter what they did. This last movie was just going to be a post-mortem nervous twitch. So what the hell? Why not bring the whole thing to its oddly logical extreme, the only place left for Dracula to go? And so, despite the occult title meant no doubt to cash in on the sudden popularity of devil worshiper films (working titles for the film included Dracula and his Vampire Brides and Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London), Satanic Rites of Dracula takes the persistently undead vampire from satanic bogeyman and propels him into the realm of the James Bond villain or, perhaps more appropriately given the quality of the final film and the return of Christopher Lee to the role of Dracula, Fu Manchu. No longer is Dracula a savage beast. No longer is he a biological mutation. No longer is he a ghoul lurking in the overgrown corners of shadowy Gothic buildings. No longer is he a demon. With Satanic Rites of Dracula, he becomes a super-villain, complete with a secret lair, henchmen, kidnapped scientists, and dreams of global conquest.
This film begins with a satanic rite, thus earning its title, some gratuitous nudity to let us know this is the 1970s, and then an action sequence in which some guy who looks like a cross between Burt Reynolds and Saddam Hussein escapes from a building guarded by bikers with droopy Louis Tiant mustaches and sheepskin vests. They totally look like something out of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic book, and in fact much of what happens in this movie seems far more at home in the pages of Tomb of Dracula than it does in a Hammer Dracula movie — which I guess is the trick. When you keep making Hammer vampire movies, everyone complains about it being just another stodgy old Hammer vampire film. When you switch it up and do something new, everyone complains that it’s not enough like a stodgy old Hammer vampire film.
Although my initial assumption was that this escaping guy was some horrific experiment concocted by Dracula (possibly with the help of Frankenstein) to combine the iron will and ruthlessness of Saddam with the down home sex appeal and amusing laugh of Burt Reynolds, thus creating the ultimate world conqueror (sort of like Serpentor, but with a big mustache). It turns out that this guy is actually an undercover agent sent in to investigate the mysterious Pelham House rituals. The problem is that the head of the group investigating Pelham House also happens to be one of the guys attending the Pelham House rites, thus making an official investigation impossible. So they call in Inspector Murray from the last film, reprised by Michael Coles. Coles, in turn, hears the agent’s crazy ranting about rituals and blood sacrifice and devil cloaks and immediately places a call to Van Helsing, played once again by Peter Cushing, who smokes his cigarettes with more intensity than ever. Cushing sure knew how to smoke a cigarette on screen. He didn’t just smoke a cigarette; he smoked the hell out of a cigarette, with lots of clenching and staring at it in quiet contemplation. I think the biggest problem with Star Wars is that they didn’t let Peter Cushing smoke on the Death Star. Honestly, you could make a whole movie of nothing but Peter Cushing smoking cigarettes and flipping through books and peering through a magnifying glass, and I’d probably think it was pretty good . He did those things with such conviction and more gusto than most actors would put into an action scene.
While Van Helsing investigates an old colleague who is among the Pelham House acolytes, Murray and Jessica Van Helsing (being played this movie by Joanna Lumley of New Avengers and Absolutely Fabulous fame) go to investigate Pelham House itself. Van Helsing discovers that his old friend has created a super-plague for someone at Pelham House. Murray discovers that the basement of Pelham House is full of half-naked vampire chicks. Jessica screams. And of course, we eventually discover that the shadowy billionaire recluse behind the Pelham House plot is Dracula! It seems that even Dracula is getting tired of being revived and has decided that the only way he can end his existence is to end all life on earth. That way he will have no one feed on, and he won’t have to worry about cocky mods or Chinese women summoning him back up through goofy rituals. Dracula has used his powers of persuasion to control the aforementioned most powerful men in England, and he intends to use them to spread the plague throughout the world and finally put an end to everything. But despite his Fu Manchu aspirations and new corporate benevolent society, Dracula can’t entirely let go of the past. Pelham House is an uncomfortable mix of 70s sci-fi stuff and Victorian frilliness, and he still wants to piss off Van Helsing by turning Jessica into Dracula’s vampire bride.
At least Dracula’s final solution is a super-virulent strain of bubonic plague. As far as super-villain super-weapons go, that’s a pretty good one. Plus, it’s a vampire distributing the plague, and not just some bald guy in a fancy jacket, as is usually the case. It’s much better than if Dracula had scheduled a meeting with Van Helsing at the office (which does happen, by the way) and unveiled a new super laser that can blow airliners out of the sky! But still, all this plague talk is far, far away from the expected Dracula territory. He surrounds himself with the trappings of previous Dracula hobbies: the vampire brides in the basement, for example, and floral print wallpaper of questionable tastefulness, but his heart hardly seems in it this time. And yeah, he throws the cape on and appears in backlit mist to scare someone, but he doesn’t stick with it throughout the movie. Even his plan to irk Van Helsing by marrying Jessica seems more like something he feels like he has to do than something he wants to do. Just another item on his corporate CEO to-do list.
In a way, I suppose this plays in with the plot of the movie, that Dracula is sick of it all, maybe even sicker of it all than audiences watching his movies, and despite Van Helsing’s best efforts, people just keep bringing Dracula back. His resurrection in Satanic Rites of Dracula takes place well before the film begins, but one can almost assume that when it happened, Dracula looked at himself and just thought, “Seriously? I mean, seriously?” There are almost as many ways to bring this guy back as there are to kill him in the first place, and Dracula seems positively suicidal this time around, scattering his house with bits of old wood and such. But ultimately, he knows a stake in the heart will probably just kill him for a little while, so all of mankind must be destroyed so the lord of the dead can get some fucking sleep.
Even the final showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula seems suicidal. Dracula is lured into some Hawthorne bushes, which being the thorns that were used to make Christ’s crown of thorns, are deadly to a vampire. And Dracula gets caught in the bush basically because Van Helsing stands on the other side and yells, “Hey, come get me!” Surely Dracula knows about the bush. I mean, Van Helsing knows all sorts of ways to kill Dracula, so you’d think that Dracula himself would have researched the subject, although I will admit that every time he dies in a new way, he seems surprised, sort of like, “Are you kidding me? This, too? I can be killed by this, too?” Whatever the case, Dracula plunged headlong into the thorns, which is something most people wouldn’t do even if they weren’t’ prone to turning into a time-lapsed decaying corpse as a result.
Despite the fact that Satanic Rites of Dracula was written and directed by the same crew and has largely the same cast of adults, it bears little resemblance to AD 1972 or any of the previous Dracula films. Not just because of the Fu Manchu plot, but also because it entirely eschews the colorful nature of past films and opts instead for an oppressively bleak atmosphere populated by washed out skies, overcast days, and tired looking men in drab flared suits. Like Dracula, like the audience, everyone just seems worn out. Not that they aren’t game for another go-round, mind you. This is a solid British cast, after all, and no one is going to do anything but their best. Cushing is as he always is; Lee is the same; Michael Coles is a welcome familiar face from the last film, someone to whom we can relate, and while Joanna Lumley is fine as Jessica, she really has little to do beyond scream and warn people about vampires too late. So I guess it’s not so much a tiredness as it is a…let’s say world-weariness. I don’t want to read more into the film than there is, but it really does give off a sense of the meta, that the threadbare worn-out nature of the series is reflected in the characters.
As a Dracula film, I can’t call it a success. Dracula has always been a supporting player his own movies, but here he’s less like Dracula than ever before, taking on instead the role of Howard Hughes meets Blofeld (or, alternately, Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever). As a whacked out sort of spy film, it almost works. It’s a bit too boring and far too serious to really capture the spirit of that genre, though. Instead, we have a beast that is neither fish nor foul, and not very good at doing much of anything. There are embers of a good movie here, meaning that I can’t entirely dismiss it, but you have to blow on those embers pretty furiously to generate any sort of warmth. The initial idea, that of turning Dracula into a tired man whose sole final option is to destroy everything in order to destroy himself, is worth exploring, but where Don Houghton comes up with a great premise, he can’t really deliver a great script. I feel like, had this movie been written by someone like Brian Clemens (who wrote Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, and because of his experience working on The Avengers, would have been more at home with the loopier aspect of Dracula-as-Blofeld), it would have had a much better chance for success. At the very least, had it been a bit less heavy-handed and plodding, it could have gotten by on the quirkiness of the premise, maybe even been something like Scream and Scream Again, a film (featuring Lee and Cushing, no less) that mixes espionage thrills, science fiction, horror, and general weirdness far better than Satanic Rites of Dracula. Instead, Houghton’s no-nonsense but not well-written script doesn’t do the high concept justice.
If there is a highlight to the film, other than Peter Cushing’s emphatic smoking of cigarettes, it’s the theme song and ensuing score, which have far more life in them than the movie itself. Following the lead of Dracula AD 1972, John Cacavas contributes a theme song that is even cooler and funkier than the last one. It deserves to be played over a scene where Dracula — still in his cape and black suit, of course — fights a gang of drug dealers in slow motion. The rest of the score is variations on this theme, and it’s pretty good stuff. Cacavas also wrote the score for Horror Express, one of my very favorite horror-meets-scifi films, also starring Cushing and Lee and released around the same time as Satanic Rites of Dracula, which could have really used Telly Savalas in a big Cossack coat swaggering onscreen and punching out those dudes in the sheepskin vests.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Satanic Rites of Dracula is that it lacks a sense of finality. Given the plot, given Dracula’s admittedly effective monologue about wanting to die and watch the whole world burn with him, the final act is sorely lacking. When the end comes, it’s pretty much a blase, “Oh, so it’s a Hawthorne bush this time then, is it?” It’s no different than any of Dracula’s other many deaths. I don’t expect that Dracula would be allowed to succeed in some way with his mad scheme — though that sort of cynical conclusion wouldn’t have been out of step at all with the current trend in horror films, where the bad guys very often won — but after all the apocalyptic talk, after the world-weary feeling permeating the film, at the very least what I wanted from the end was something that said, once and for all, it really was over this time. As it stands, Satanic Rites of Dracula ends in a way where Dracula could be getting resurrected yet again a week later, same as always.
For Lee, this really was the end, but it’s hard to claim he finally made good on his boasts. More than likely, had Hammer made another Dracula film, he would have shown up, under protest no doubt but present never the less. Instead, Hammer went out of business after allowing Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1974 and To the Devil…A Daughter in 1976 to effectively kill the company off. Like Dracula, they deserved better at the end, but if they’d had better, it probably wouldn’t have been the end, so what can you do? Cushing reprised the role of Van Helsing one more time, returning to the Victorian era but this time to China for the completely nonsensical but still fun Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. That film does feature Dracula, but since he transforms into a Chinese guy at the beginning of the film, and since the film itself doesn’t really jibe with the continuity of the previous film, it’s not really part of the Dracula series and instead plays out like an alternate universe take, similar to The Evil of Frankenstein.
With the relatively poor performance of Dracula AD 1972 at the box office, distributors suddenly weren’t interested in Satanic Rites of Dracula. It took years before it found its way to American screens. Where as a Dracula film starring Cushing and Lee would have been a simple sell even a few years earlier, by 1974 it was all over, and the quality of Satanic Rites of Dracula is a perfect example of why. It’s too bad the series couldn’t muster a better send-off, because while the concept isn’t bad and the idea was good, the final execution simply lacked the sophistication, energy, and magic that the film deserved.