A look at Hammer’s Dracula series, Part 8…
Much like the film before it, The Satanic Rites of Dracula has long been held in rather low esteem by most Hammer aficionados. But the movie succeeds by the sheer virtue of its own originality - good or bad, it at least breaks with the well-worn formula the series had followed up to that point. Essentially picking up where Dracula AD 1972 left off, Satanic Rites brings back most everyone involved with the previous film, making for a nice continuation of that film’s fun atmosphere, although with the goofiness turned way down. With its story combining espionage, satanic cults and apocalyptic stakes, there’s very little room to laugh at the bell-bottoms and the “far out’s,” but fortunately the film comes together for a pretty satisfying whole, even though it moves a bit too slowly at times.
Christopher Lee returns for his final outing as Dracula, who somehow is back from the dead after being staked in the last movie. The film never provides an explanation, but if you’ve been watching along with the series, then you should know by now all it takes to revive the Count is a ritual with varied amounts of candles and blood staged by a bunch of dunderheads. This time out Dracula seems to have grander aspirations other than murdering villagers and taking the prettiest girl for his bride - here, the Count lures a bunch of wealthy and powerful conspirators to develop and release a new strain of the Bubonic plague, which he plans on unleashing upon the world for revenge against humanity (they have killed him about six or seven times by now, after all). With such deadly consequences, MI6 gets involved, but soon finds out they're woefully out of their depth. So they call upon the only man they can, the only man to have killed the Count: Dr. Lorrimar Van Helsing.
The concept alone would have been a fresh of breath air to the series, but fortunately director Alan Gibson and screenwriter Don Houghton deliver on the premise and make a pretty compelling film. The opening scene is worth the price of admission alone, as an undercover agent makes a daring escape from Dracula’s cult whilst they're performing some ritual or other. It’s an engaging film overall, although the plot moves perhaps a bit too slowly at times - feeling like the filmmakers were stretching their story out so that it could take up the space for a feature. The film also hits something of a dud with the return of Van Helsing’s granddaughter, Jessica, here recast as Joanna Lumley. Lumley brings a maturity to the character, which the film tries to make interesting by having her want to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and become an expert on the occult, but then essentially wastes her by having her reduced to the damsel in distress and fetching coffee for the menfolk as they discuss how best to foil Dracula’s schemes. Also, the way in which the Count is dispatched this outing is especially lame, as Drac is done in not by sunlight or a stake to the heart, but rather… a thorn bush (drawing some pretty reaching parallels to Christ’s crown of thorns). I guess we can’t be too harsh on Hammer - they had already killed the Count over a dozen times by now.
Still, despite its faults, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is fun and original enough to be one of the better entries of the series.