Monday, September 6, 2010

5th September 2010: The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1973)

The Satanic Rites Of Dracula

UK 1973 colour

aka Count Dracula And His Vampire Bride, Dracula Is Dead... And Well And Living In London

Director Alan Gibson Writer Don Houghton

Cast Christopher Lee (Count Dracula), Peter Cushing (Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing), Michael Coles (Inspector Murray), William Franklyn (Torrence), Freddie Jones (Professor Julian Keeley), Joanna Lumley (Jessica Van Helsing)

Tonight is the first in a four week season of British genre chillers, starting with Christopher Lee sucking his way through the Swinging Seventies in The Satanic Rites Of Dracula.

The name Hammer Films is virtually synonymous with British horror: a production house dating back to the Thirties who changed the face of horror cinema in the late Fifties with a pair of gory, colour-soaked reworkings of Frankenstein and Dracula. They were stylish and straight-faced, unlike the gleefully dumb horror pictures of the American drive-ins, with equal amounts of ghoulishness and restraint. The next Golden Age of Gothic Horror was about to begin, and Hammer led the pack for the next fifteen years, its Frankenstein series starring Peter Cushing as the Baron, and its Dracula films starring Christopher Lee with an occasional visit by Cushing as Van Helsing, book-ending its tenure.

Cushing and Lee WERE British horror until Hammer's gradual decline in the mid Seventies, and Christopher Lee was easily the most recognizable Dracula of his generation. Still, Hammer were forced to swing with the times, and dragged the Count kicking and screaming into the Seventies with an ill-advised Carnaby Street makeover. The result, Dracula AD 1972 (1972), brought Dracula to hipsters grooving on the occult, the Psychedelic Generation and the Permissive Society, but was neither hip nor horrific, and even the venerable presence of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as the descendant of Dracula's arch-nemesis Professor Van Helsing could save it.

It seems bizarre that Hammer would give director Alan Gibson and writer Don Houghton a second shot at a contemporary Dracula sequel, and yet here it is: The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, set two years later, opens with an undercover agent infiltrating an updated version of the Hellfire Club. With his dying breaths he tells his aghast superiors tales of occult rituals and human sacrifice in the presence of government officials, the military and the country's top biochemist. Is it just harmless kicks for jaded power junkies, they ask Professor Van Helsing? Is it the Red Chinese, or something much darker? The trail of Hellfire leads Van Helsing to reclusive industrialist DD Denham, his multi-story mausoleum build on the final resting place of Dracula two years earlier, and to reveal his true identity and his diabolical Final Solution.

The Satanic Rites Of Dracula would be the swan song in Hammer's fifteen-year series, and some would call it a sad coda for a once-great franchise. I for one find it a fascinating latter-day Hammer horror, a melding of familiar gothic motifs with a conspiracy thriller, its cold modernism captured in unnerving wide lenses and overcast with a real apocalyptic menace and Christopher Lee's shadow of timeless evil. Its flaws are many and glaring: there are simply too many protagonists vying for screen time, some welcome – the lovely Joanna Lumley as Van Helsing's granddaughter Jessica has perhaps the film's finest moment amongst a basement of amorous female vampires – some less welcome, and some, like the commanding presence of Christopher Lee in the title role, criminally underused.

In the same year British horror was under attack on multiple fronts – from the European sex-and-blood shockers to the spiraling gore of American drive-ins, to Warners releasing The Exorcist, the most expensive B film ever – the comparatively anaemic Satanic Rites... could never compete, lacking many of the essential Bs: blood, breasts, and budget. Let's hope the colder, infinitely more evil 21st Century will be kinder to it. Time to go into the basement and unleash the vampire brides for The Satanic Rites Of Dracula.

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