The decline of Hammer Studios and their famous series of horror films in the early ‘70s is a cautionary tale for all film industries. The incapacity of the studio to move beyond its depleted and over-exploited brand of horror, wringing every last drop from their famous Dracula and Frankenstein series and purveying rather tawdry stabs at sexing up their wares, is a study in what happens when reliable formulas and brand recognition are pedalled too hard at the expense of taking real, imaginative risks. The classic emotional intensity and atmospheric pungency of the gothic horror film had been to a great extent decimated by the opportunism of many later Hammer efforts, just as the more contemporary, scurrilous brand of horror just beginning to emerge in the early ‘70s made the awkwardness all the more apparent in age. Names like Dario Argento, George Romero, Wes Craven, William Friedkin, and Tobe Hooper were becoming synonymous with a new phase in the genre's history just as Hammer was running out of puff. The Satanic Rites of Dracula was the final time Christopher Lee played his most famous horror character, opposite Peter Cushing, as Abraham Van Helsing’s descendent Lorrimer for one last bout, in a direct follow-up to the previous instalment, Dracula AD 1972.
Satanic Rites proves however a minor surprise, in that, whilst certainly not in a league with the great early films in the series by Terence Fisher, it’s an interesting grasp for relevance. Like the final Hammer horror film, Peter Sykes’ To the Devil a Daughter (1976), Satanic Rites attempts, with a certain amount of ambition, to more effectively fuse the traditional genre motifs with a realistic, contemporary setting and a style more redolent of spy and action movies. In this regard it’s definitely superior to Dracula AD 1979 and the episode before that, the shoddy The Scars of Dracula (1970). Satanic Rites’ relative strength is all the more surprising because director Alan Gibson had likewise helmed Dracula AD 1979: that film’s unbearably modish reconstituting of the vampire overlord amidst some dreary hippie lowlifes has been swapped for a far more ambitious and potential-laden notion, with Dracula now having reincarnated himself as the head of a multinational corporation under the pseudonym D. D. Denham, living as a secretive recluse in an office block a la Howard Hughes. As part of his programme of world domination, he has set up a secret cult that has ensnared several major figures of the British government including a member of the cabinet, Porter (Richard Matthews).
Porter's MI5 underlings discover this when one of their agents, having infiltrated the country mansion that is the cult’s base, is caught and brutally tortured, but then manages to escape by the skin of his teeth from the cult’s mob of motorcycle-riding, sheepskin vest-wearing goons. The agent dies soon after, but not before tipping off his superior,
(William Franklyn) and secret service head Col. Mathews (Richard Vernon), as to their precarious position. Scared to trust any others in their department apart from their immediate circle, they instead contact Scotland Yard detective Murray (Michael Coles, repeating his role from AD 1972), who in turn decides to bring in Van Helsing and his granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley, replacing Stephanie Beacham) as experts in the kinds of cabalistic rituals the cult purveys. The cult kidnaps Torrance ’s assistant Jane (Valerie Van Ost), and she is vampirised by Dracula, whose entrance, presaged by fog sliding under the door of Jane’s cell, is fairly eye-catching, and seems to have inspired Marston’s first appearance in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979). Torrance
When Murray and Torrance search the mansion, Jessica, like foolish women all through the ages according to horror movies, decides to investigate, locating a spooky door around the back of the building, and entering the lair where all of Dracula’s recent female converts, including Jane, have been chained up. Jessica’s screams bring
Murray and Torrance to the rescue, with forced to stake his formerly loyal dogsbody. Simultaneously, Van Helsing tracks down another of the cult’s seduced savants, Nobel Prize-winning Professor Keeley (Freddie Jones), who has developed a deadly mutation of the Bubonic plague at Dracula’s behest, with the vampire possibly intending to execute a global apocalypse as his last, nihilistic gesture of hatred. This last idea is the film’s best, bringing the association of Dracula and the Black Death, inherent in the mythology since Bram Stoker presented the equivalent of a plague ship in his novel, and explored most forcefully by Werner Herzog in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht several years later, into a squarely modern, potentially gripping context, along with the rather too obvious but equally amusing conflation of vampirism and corporate capitalism. Torrance
The notion of Dracula’s rage having reached a nexus point of unconsciously all-consuming, self-defeating totality, is fascinating, and it neatly dovetails with the film’s air of winding down the saga (it wouldn’t entirely end the series – The Legend of Seven Golden Vampires would follow a year later, although without Lee and returned to an historical setting). To say that the film fails to realise the potency of its ideas is almost superfluous, but at least ideas are present.
Unfortunately, although the film’s physical production is strong and the visuals slick – there’s some particularly good stunt work – the still fairly low budget means that the infrastructure of Dracula’s supposedly super-rich organisation is distressingly lacking in convincing density of detail, such as effective security. Jessica’s plucky penetration of the cellar full of unspeakable monstrosities merely requires hopping an electric eye beam. Lumley, who is here obviously, even when she was still a relative spring chicken, a disconcertingly mature kind of screen siren with her air of no-nonsense poise, groovy sense of style, and huskily sexy voice, is obviously made for better things than being felt up by vampire chicks in a basement. Jones’ presence in the cast lends the film his customary air of seedy fanaticism, although his contribution, a lengthy scene of plot explanation with Cushing, is minor overall.
Some touches here, like those motorcyclist minions, seem possibly inspired by Death’s agents in Cocteau’s Orphee (1949), and Gibson tries to keep the hyper-modern and the atavistic in a similarly fruitful balance, if without anything like Cocteau’s artistry. But whilst Don Houghton’s screenplay is sufficiently busy and inventive to keep the film buoyed, it leans on some lengthy expository dialogue sequences, whilst giving the good cast, especially Lumley, little body of characterisation to work with, subordinate to a merely functional drama that’s usually the fatal trait of an exhausted series. Gibson’s vision of modern London as a backdrop is full of grossly commercial-like shots of the Albert Hall, the South Bank, the Houses of Parliament and Piccadilly Circus, an unfortunate reminder of state of British cinema in the mid-‘70s, reduced to being a wing of tourist boards. Likewise Gibson’s fondness for trying to use the more obscure methods of killing vampires, such as running water, results in the distinctly undramatic dispatch of said vampire chicks by turning on the sprinkler system. Rule of thumb: I don't care if it seems like a clever twist on an obscure piece of vampire lore, no vampire should ever die by sprinkler. In spite of all his efforts, Gibson never really solves the problem of transferring the age-old vampire theme into a modern context, seeming only to drain them of erotic and physical threat.
The one-dimensional character that Lee’s Dracula had been gradually reduced to in the run of the series sees him, in spite of all Van Helsing’s theorising about his death wish, still tiredly going through the motions of trying to make Jessica his undead bride, at a final ritual where he unleashes the virus by hypnotically forcing Porter to crush the vial within which it is contained, resulting in Porter’s gruesome expiring by the disease and then catching fire. The rest of mansion goes up in flames, too, thanks to Murray’s adventurous efforts, fortunately before the bug can then spread. Lee’s best moment in the film is the one in which Dracula allows Van Helsing to penetrate his penthouse, and, seated in shadow, tries to put off his relentless foe by remaining in character in Denham in speaking in a plummy Hungarian accent, quite possibly the most dialogue he’d had to recite in a Dracula film since Fisher’s first entry. Satanic Rites came out in the same year that Lee had given one of his best performances in a film that was notoriously butchered and mistreated, The Wicker Man (Satanic Rites, ironically, had like that film only a limited, disrespectful release) and Lee’s frustrated boredom is readily apparent. Interestingly, however, Satanic Rites seems to have looked to the James Bond films for inspiration, looking forward to Lee’s finally playing a Bond villain the following year, and also, in a way, closing a circle – the Bond films, with their brutally libidinous hero and pop-art dazzle, always seemed to owe a little initial impetus to Hammer’s example, and some genre critics have noted the Bond and Dracula have similar roots in similar Byronic figures like Heathcliff in English literature.
Cushing works up a bit more zealousness in his scene with Jones, and then his first confrontation of his great nemesis. But both Lee and Cushing’s boredom becomes all too apparent in the zestless finale, in which Dracula pursues Van Helsing through nocturnal parkland, only to be fooled into the clutches of a hawthorn bush, paralysing him with their totemic power, giving Van Helsing time to listlessly pluck a stake from a picket fence and kill the vampire. The decline from the swashbuckling flourish at the end of Fisher’s Dracula to this plodding dispatch is sorry indeed, even if the novelty of the use of the hawthorn bush does offer piquancy and a certain visual drama. The closing moments of the last Hammer Dracula film don’t inspire relief, exactly, for the instalment’s better notions and relatively strong first two-thirds linger pleasantly. Those better notions were later to be recycled in the likes of Damien: Omen 2 (1978) and The Devil’s Advocate (1997) in suggesting Satan’s agents love shiny skyscrapers. Nonetheless this Dracula would not be rising from the grave again, and he didn't look like he wanted to, either.