For Hammer Studios, Dracula would remain a lucrative cash cow throughout the 1960s. Despite ongoing protestations by star Christopher Lee, who argued that the studio cared more about shoehorning him into increasingly desperate storylines than they did about properly exploiting Bram Stoker’s famed literary icon, the character would be killed off and resurrected time and time again. For a period of time, continuity was maintained. In 1970, Scars of Dracula broke from this tradition by essentially rebooting the franchise. It also introduced a nasty, bloodthirsty streak that made earlier entries look tame - much to the consternation of Lee, who worried - quite rightly, as history would have it - that the series was on the verge of self parody. Hammer’s next step would prove even more irksome to their outspoken star - they elected to bring Dracula in to the modern day (or rather, their rather middle aged notion of youth culture) in Dracula AD 1972. The film had its share of problems, but it offered good production values and the long awaited return of Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing - albeit a modern day descendant. These factors alone were enough to put the film several pegs above its tacky predecessor, and they also ensured proper theatrical exposure courtesy of Warner Brothers.
The film was reasonably successful at the box office, but not exactly the bonanza Warners were hoping for - thus, their contracted follow up, initially titled Dracula Is Dead… And Well And Living In London, was already in production by the time the distributor lost interest in the project. And so it would come to be that the final Hammer Film Production to costar Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would fall into the hands of Dynamite Entertainment, who would grant the film a perfunctory release in the United States in 1978, shorn of four minutes of footage and under the generic title Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride - a full five years after failing to set the box office on fire for Warners in the UK, under its best known moniker, The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
The screenplay by Don Houghton has genuine promise - so much so that one frankly regrets the decision to make it another Dracula sequel. Without the frankly gratuitous presence of the old Count, it might have emerged as an engaging occult thriller, perhaps with Van Helsing on board as a sort of expert in the field. Much of the narrative is actually carried by Inspector Murray (Michael Coles, reprising his role from Dracula AD 1972 with an incongruous “modish” haircut) and MI5 agent Torrence (William Franklyn) as they investigate the kidnapping and murder of a government agent. The killing is linked with a top secret occult society, whose members are comprised of some of the top ranking members of the British government. This modern day Hellfire Club has the makings of a truly interesting plot point, but Houghton loses sight of it because he’s obliged to bring Dracula into the fold. Even Van Helsing seems a trifle underused here, with Cushing sitting rather wistfully on the sidelines for a good chunk of the film. It takes forever for Dracula to make his appearance, and when he finally does, Lee seems as disenchanted with the role as he did in Scars of Dracula. Things liven up towards the end, however, when Cushing and Lee get to play off of each other - a game of cat and mouse commences with Van Helsing visiting the offices of a shadowy businessman known as DD Denham, whom he knows to be Dracula in disguise.
The notion of Dracula as a symbol of a corporate bloodsucking is an irresistible one, but it, too, gets the short shrift in favor of trotting out the usual fiery conflagration. Even so, Lee has fun with the role during this scene, adopting a mock Bela Lugosi accent as he lingers in the shadows, just waiting for Van Helsing to blow his cover. This inevitably occurs, and the gloves are off for the final showdown. Hammer’s screenwriters typically found outre manners in which to dispose of the Count, but here Houghton falls back on an idea that sounded better on paper than it plays out on screen - Van Helsing lures Dracula into the woods and uses himself as bait, thus prompting the Count to tear himself to shreds in a Hawthorne bush - the very plant which provided Christ with his crown of thorns, and thus quite deadly to a vampire.
Hammer’s King of the Undead is thus reduced to an ill tempered klutz, tripping about and getting more and more battered, before Van Helsing drives the point home with one last stake to the heart. As demises go, this was probably Lee’s most ignominious prior to Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005). It would probably sting a little less (pun intended) were it not for the fact that this film marked the end of an era. Lee would go on to costar with Cushing in a few more films - notably the all-star horror spoof The House of the Long Shadows (1983) - but this would be their final confrontation at Hammer. It would also mark Lee’s final appearance as Count Dracula, though the French farce Dracula and Son (1976) - a charming and stylish venture, far superior to most of the Hammer sequels, for what it’s worth - saw him donning cloak and fangs in the context of a gentle parody. Cushing would reprise his role as Van Helsing one last time, appearing in Hammer’s bizarre horror/kung fu mishmash The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).
For fans of the franchise, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is neither fish nor fowl - it doesn’t come close to matching the magic of Horror of Dracula (1958) or Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1965), nor does it scrape the bottom of the barrel like Scars of Dracula. The script flirts with interesting concepts but fails to elaborate on them. Cushing and Lee give solid, professional performances, but neither can be said to be truly at their very best. Production values are solid, but unremarkable. Director Alan Gibson approaches the action briskly but without much style - he arguably brought far more pizzazz to Dracula AD 1972, despite some painful padding - and John Cacavas’ funky soundtrack couldn’t be further removed from the grand tradition of Hammer scoring, as exemplified by the work of James Bernard. It’s not a bad film, but it seems a weak, half-hearted way of ending a once-imposing series of horror films.
REVIEW: Troy Howarth
Images: Marcus Brooks