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The Satanic Rites of Dracula
1974, Dir. Alan Gibson
The Satanic Rites of Dracula ... the title just screams “schlock”. It’s not really that schlocky though. It’s an apocalyptic thriller crossed with a ‘70s British police action film that just happens to have Dracula as the lead villain. Wait, that still sounds pretty schlocky. Oh well, you’re just gonna have to take my word for it.
This Hammer production updates the classic battle between Dracula and generations of Van Helsings into 1970s London. This sure ain't Bram Stoker's Dracula, it's closer to those "Tomb of Dracula" comic books. Christopher Lee is of course Dracula, therefore Van Helsing (in this instance Prof. Larimer Van Helsing) is Peter Cushing. The cast is rounded out by several British character actors and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Despite the lack of the usual Hammer gothic settings, the strong feeling of gothic horror remains in Mod era London. This is reflected well in the score, a combination of “wicka-wocka” porn guitar and swelling horns and strings. What’s also notable about this flick is how suprisingly well it’s filmed. The move into regular rooms as opposed to high-ceilinged castle vaults eliminates the trademark Hammer overhead angle, but at several points I found myself commenting on the shots.
As for the apocalyptic angle, the makers of Satanic Rites did that rarest of things; it appears that they actually put some thought into the ramifications of telling a story about the final conflict between good and evil. Granted, not too much thought, but enough given the circumstances and restrictions. There are color cues of blue (good guys) and red (bad guys) throughout, and the good guys repeatedly invoke the name of God, even when evil is not imminent. Most importantly, Dracula’s death invokes some heavy symbolism.
The film opens with a Chinese woman leading a Satanic ritual. This scene cuts back and forth with two guys in goofy fur-lined vests keeping watch over a swarthy prisoner who looks like he’s been on the wrong end of the whuppin’ stick lately. He manages to free himself and escapes, staggering into a waiting car. The prisoner was apparently an undercover investigator, and is brought back to headquarters to report his findings. He’s in pretty rough shape, but he tells them as much as he can before he drops dead. If I ever find myself in this situation I ain’t saying shit, because every time someone gives this kind of report they die.
Sorry. Anyway, what he has found is that four of the most important men in England are meeting at this house called Pelham House for satanic rituals, and he has photographic proof. He speaks of five men, but his fifth picture is of the front door, nothing else. As the inspectors (Inspectors Murray and Torrence and “The Colonel”, why is there always a Colonel with no name?) examine the slides, the camera repeatedly captures the smoke swirling around the projector’s lens, looking as if it is disappearing into the projector. These shots don’t necessarily have to have any deep symbolism, but it shows that someone on set actually gave a damn about shot composition, noticed it, and decided to capture it.
These scenes cut back and forth with the unfolding ritual as seen by the investigator. The Chinese woman presides over the naked body of a young blonde, and the men anoint themselves with a rooster’s blood that has been dripped onto the blonde’s stomach. The Chinese woman then sacrifices the blonde, only for her to return to life, her wound healed. The men are rapt and appear to be aroused ... by the power of evil, of course. Not the naked attractive blonde woman. No no no, just evil going on here folks.
Murray suggests that they discuss the matter with Prof. Larimer Van Helsing, noted expert on the occult, thus bringing him and his granddaughter Jessica into the investigation. Van Helsing’s suspicions are aroused, and are solidified when Murray, Torrence, and Jessica discover a basement full of Vampire babes (one of which is Penny Marshall, I swear to God) in Pelham House. Van Helsing goes to visit his friend Dr. Julian Keeley, one of the men implicated in the ritual. Keeley is clearly agitated, and when pressured by Van Helsing admits to him what he’s been working on: a super version of the Black Plague which is spread by touch. Before he can tell Van Helsing who he’s working for, a goofy vest guy breaks in and shoots, grazing the Prof. in the temple. When he wakes up, Keeley has hung himself and the plague bacteria is gone.
While conferring with the investigators, the cult is linked to D.D. Denham, a mysterious reclusive tycoon who is never seen during the day and has never been photographed. It doesn’t take much for Van Helsing to jump to the conclusion that Denham is in fact Dracula, a theory that is proven by a visit to Denham himself. From that point on it’s race to the finish as Van Helsing and company try to stop Drac and his followers (I’ll call them Dracolytes) from unleashing the apocalypse. In the next few paragraphs I’ll have totally spoiled the ending for you, so at this point I’ll just say go rent it, it’s worth it. But after you do so, come back!
OK, I mentioned before that this was reasonably well thought out and surprisingly well filmed. The color cues aren’t really terribly deep (as far as symbolism goes we’re not talking about The Seventh Seal here) but, like many aspects of this film, it shows that they were thinking about what they were doing. As the good guys and girl discuss plans in Van Helsing’s office, the room is bathed in a blue light from a desk lamp. During the scene in Keeley’s laboratory, in two shots Van Helsing’s head is surrounded by round lights against a blue background, intimating his savior status. Conversely, the ritual room is furnished almost entirely in red, and the rug in Denham’s office is bright red. While the light in Van Helsing’s room is soft, Denham hides his visage behind a sharp glare. And there are moments that imply a situation of immense importance without symbolism, such as Van Helsing staring off into space and smoking a cigarette while waiting for a silver cross to melt in order to be made into a bullet.
The heaviest scene is the final scene which is, of course, Dracula’s death. Van Helsing had noted to the investigators that one of the effective weapons against Dracula is the wood of the Hawthorne tree, which “provided Christ his crown of thorns”. When running through the forest from Dracula, what should Van Helsing come across but a huge bramble of thorns. He lures Drac towards it, and the Count tries to plow through it to attack Van Helsing. He manages to get through but is covered in thorn branches and gets his foot caught in a tangle. Van Helsing uses this opportunity to stake the defenseless vampire. A “crown of thorns” is wrapped around Dracula’s head, the camera emphasizes wounds through Drac’s hands, and the stake symbolizes the wound in Christ’s side. The typical extermination of a vampire here becomes a perverse version of the crucifixion.
As usual in a Hammer film, the casting and acting is right on. Lee receives top billing but is used sparingly, not appearing until a half hour into the film and immediately disappearing for another half hour. As opposed to his first Dracula performances he is given lines which he speaks in a deep European accent as an acknowledged tribute to Bela Lugosi. Despite his limited screen time he, as always, manages to make his presence felt. Cushing appears to be getting older but still makes a more than capable adversary, full of both expertise and determination.
IN CLOSING: While being, in most respects, a satisfying movie, there are little nit picky elements. For example, when Drac infects one of his Dracolytes with the plague, the man burns to death as Pelham House goes up in flames. Wouldn’t the germs become airborne, thereby royally screwing everyone? The nature of the plague is a suspension of disbelief in the first place, this kinda pushes it over the edge. And in the final scene, why would Drac try to tear his way through the thorns as opposed to just going around the bramble as Van Helsing must have done? But little problems here and there aren’t enough to hamper this flick. As far as apocalyptic thrillers go it’s certainly better than End of Days, Bless the Child, or any other of the last few years; and as far as vampire movies go, it has more entertainment value than anything made in the last 20 years except From Dusk Till Dawn. Hammer Films just have a certain something that makes them more than a sum of their parts, which include great acting, great sets, and a low budget. They pay attention to detail, and that sets them apart. May they enjoy their cult status long after contemporary horror flicks are relegated to the “previously viewed” bin.