This instalment finally saw Christopher Lee out for the Count.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula is not a bad film. It is probably the most exploitative of the Dracula cycle so far, and certainly contains an odd mash-up of plot devices and themes. Motor cycle gangs, espionage, black magic, nudity and an insane plan to end the world all collide in a film which is possibly most kindly described as James Bond meets Dracula.
|Oi - pack that right in! Christopher Lee reaches the end of his patience |
with his most famous role.
Cushing and Lee together, in their two most famous Hammer roles was always going to be a draw card. Incredible to think that they first played Van Helsing and the Count Dracula in the last years of the 1950s, and now the mid-1970s were fast approaching. All trappings of a central European, nineteenth Century setting were now completely gone and instead the same delirium which possesses filmmakers into thinking that updating remakes to present day is a good idea held sway. Tomorrow may never come, but the ‘present’ is even more ephemeral, and what once was contemporary can instantly date and end up looking far more ancient than a Transylvanian castle.
|Insert your own 'Ab Fab' gag here.|
To look at the positives first; we have a very young Joanna Lumley, replacing Stephanie Beacham from the previous film, as Van Helsing’s granddaughter, Jessica. Soon to be the intrepid side-kick to another excellent British actor of the old School, Patrick MacNee, Lumley throws herself into the increasingly outlandish proceedings with convincing sincerity.
|Insert your own New Avengers gag here.|
Van Helsing himself has become the Grand Moff Exposition, laying down supernatural lore for Scotland Yard. But yet again, Cushing’s full commitment to every role he played elevates the character above this rather gauche attempt to write him as a mere cypher. A sequence where he skilfully fashions a silver bullet illustrates Cushing’s attention to detail: it was always part of his belief that becoming completely familiar with any procedure he had to perform on screen would better convince the audience of the reality of a scene. Lorimer Van Helsing is once more a fascinating mixture of steely determination and courage, blended with compassion and ageing vulnerability.
|Nothing up his sleeve: Peter Cushing is making |
doubly sure with silver bullet and crucifix.
On the opposing side, Christopher Lee isn’t given much more to work with either. But having said that, there is a scene where he gets to play a Bond villain, DD Denham, sporting an odd Slavic (Lugosi?) accent while his true identity is hidden by, umm, a drawn curtain. Although this is a direct sequel to the previous film, for once there is no resurrection scene, the Count simply appears half way through the proceedings to carry off another victim. Seeming a little out of place in this casually violent and sometimes misogynistic ‘contemporary thriller’; in all honesty it isn’t difficult to see why this film was the final straw for Lee. Ironically, ‘Satanic Rites’ was intended to be the final straw for Dracula as well, his diabolical master plan being essentially an elaborate suicide attempt – by wiping out humanity he will also destroy his own means of survival.
A shrub-based ‘death scene’ at the hands of his perennial nemesis at least sees the Count, and Christopher Lee's definitive portrayal of him, out in some style. Hammer could have conceivably brought this once-great film series to a close here - leaving Bram Stoker’s creation with some dignity still intact.
|Crowned by thorns: The Count runs foul of another religious icon, |
and his final disintegration courtesy of Hammer effects wizard Les Bowie.
Alas Hammer Head Michael Carreras’s well-intentioned drive to inject new blood into the by-now failing Hammer studios had one final insult in store for the Prince of Darkness.