|Satanic Rites of Dracula, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 17 November 1998|
With Dracula A.D. 1972, Hammer Films brought Count Dracula into the 1970s, but severed the links with their earlier Dracula series -- A.D. 1972 played as though none of the earlier films even existed, although Christopher Lee again played Dracula, and Peter Cushing his nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing. The Satanic Rites of Dracula was the only real sequel to A.D. 72, but it's considerably better.
At least, it is in this cut. The movie was originally released in the United States in an altered and shortened version under the title Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride. Anchor Bay is to be thanked for bringing the film to the States for the first time in its original form.
The idea of Dracula in modern times offended some purists, and A.D. 72 indicated how hard it was to make him fit in -- but Satanic Rites is another matter altogether. Granted, it paints the vampire count into a corner -- where would they have gone from here? -- but despite some serious weaknesses, overall the movie is interesting, intelligent and entertaining. This is typified by the opening credits, fish-eye-lens scenes of London with a shadowy silhouette of Dracula gradually growing until it dominates the screen.
Don Houghton's script begins without a trace of Dracula: we see hooded cultists attending a bloody rite, witnessed by a wounded agent for the government, who escapes and later dies. He photographed the principal attendees, however, and his pictures reveal four major figures in British society, including scientist Dr. Keeley (Freddie Jones). Because of the occult elements, Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) and his assistant Torrence (William Franklyn) consult Dr. Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). And because of the emphasis on blood, and because the sacrificial victim seemed to revive from the dead (as reported in the tape the agent made before dying), Van Helsing suspects that Count Dracula may live again.
When Van Helsing meets with his old friend Keeley, he's shocked to learn that the scientist has, apparently under outside compulsion, created a new strain of bubonic plague bacillus, one so virulent that it could wipe out humanity. Behind it all, looms the shadowy, Howard Hughes-like figure of reclusive billionaire D.D. Denham.
The plot is developed smoothly, at least until the third act, which is relatively weak. It's more of a mysterious-intrigue story than a horror film, although director Alan Gibson does include occasional horror scenes, such as a basement full of vampires that menace Van Helsing's niece (Joanna Lumley), just to remind us of what we're really watching. And Dracula unexpectedly turns up at one point, attacking a female captive (who is later seen among those basement vampires).
It's not giving much away to reveal that Denham is Dracula, who, Van Helsing surmises, is weary of centuries of life, and just longs for death -- but he's such a colossal egoist that he wants to bring the world down around him, to end up striding through the dead like a conquering demon. This motivation for Dracula is unique in horror movies, and gives Satanic Rites an unexpectedly mordant and thoughtful edge.
Furthermore, it's the only one of all the Hammer Dracula movies that allows Cushing and Lee to have an actual dialog as Van Helsing and Dracula. The climax itself is somewhat unsatisfying, involving a hawthorne bush (to which, we now learn, vampires are vulnerable), and simply going on too long. But the confrontation scenes are well-staged, beginning with Dracula's intention of claiming Van Helsing's niece as his final "bride," continuing through the plague breaking loose, explosions and fire. The scene of Dracula following Van Helsing through the woods is well-shot by Brian Probyn, although it goes on too long.
Lee and Cushing always made a splendid team, and costarred in more horror movies than any other actors. They made a good contrast, the tall, lean, somewhat "foreign"-looking Lee, vs. the shorter, definitely British Cushing. While Cushing was the better actor of the two, Lee had the more commanding screen presence, and made a splendid Dracula -- whom he played here for the last time.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula isn't as good as the best of the previous Hammer Draculas, but it's well-made, with an unusual plot, and unlike most of the others, provides plenty for Christopher Lee to do, even if he isn't in the film much until the very end.
This is another in Anchor Bay's excellent "Hammer Collection," and like the others, is from a pristine transfer. The only extras are the British and American trailers -- identified incorrectly on the review disc -- and another unsatisfactory segment of a British TV series about Hammer Films, narrated by Oliver Reed.