Thursday, June 13, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Following Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) brought Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing together for one more modern day conflict as the undead count and his perpetual nemesis. Hammer Studios also relied again on the directorial services of Alan Gibson, with Joanna Lumley replacing Stephanie Beacham as Van Helsing’s vampire bait granddaughter, Jessica. This would be the last pairing of the two iconic horror actors in a Hammer film, and it’s a shame they couldn’t go out from their signature roles with more aplomb, since The Satanic Rites of Dracula recycles one too many elements from previous installments and suffers from some serious third act fatigue.

Cushing plays Lorrimer Van Helsing, the latest in a long line of vampire hunters to oppose the immortal Dracula (Lee). Not long after their previous encounter, which supposedly disposed of the count, Van Helsing discovers that the vampire is back and up to new mischief with a small band of powerful men as his servants. Assisted by Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) and Agent Torrence (William Franklyn), Van Helsing penetrates the lair of Dracula’s blood cult to stop him from unleashing a deadly plague that will destroy all life on Earth. Dracula, however, has many lackeys and thralls at his command, and his plot also includes revenge against Van Helsing by making his granddaughter (Joanna Lumley) an undead bride.

Problems with the picture are not the fault of Cushing and Lee, who always bring a certain gravitas to their characters even in the most ludicrous situations. Lee actually talks more this time out, endowing his “D.D. Denham” cover persona with modern sophistication and a Lugosi-tinged Eastern European accent. Cushing looks much too frail to endure the hazards of combating such a coterie of opponents, but his face is still filled with intelligence and determination, and we believe in him the way that he believes in his silver crosses. The supporting players are generally solid, too, with Lumley and Coles leading the set and bringing a hint of romance to the tale.

The narrative, however, tries too hard to bring in modern elements and genres. It begins as a spy thriller, segues into pornographic occult horror, and then adds an unnecessary twist of science fiction with a super plague that will annihilate the world’s population. Dracula, who doesn’t even appear in much of the movie, ultimately comes off more as a Bond style megalomaniac than a lord of the undead. There’s actually a lot of Bond floating around, from sniper assassinations and staged suicides to hidden cameras and top secret cover-ups. Hammer must have hoped that these additions to their traditional formula would make the film more hip, but they merely detract from the archetypal conflict of good and evil that the essential story tells. It borrows its "secret pact of powerful men" plot from the earlier Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), and like that picture it collapses at the end, with the inevitable defeat of the count something of a letdown and the resolution of the romantic angle left hanging.

Serious Hammer fans will want to see The Satanic Rites of Dracula for Cushing and Lee’s final bows as their famous alter egos, but newcomers to the Hammer canon should start with better examples like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). Catch House of the Long Shadows (1983) for Cushing and Lee’s final screen collaboration. Joanna Lumley, best known today for her role on the British television series, Absolutely Fabulous, also made early career appearances in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968), The Devil’s Widow (1970), and Lady Chatterly Versus Fanny Hill (1971).