Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Hammer Dracula: The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1973)

The Satanic Rites Of Dracula aka Count Dracula And His Vampire Bride
Director:  Alan Gibson
Starring:  Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joanna Lumley, Michael Coles, Valerie Van Ost
Rated: R

My revenge has spread over centuries and has just begun!
            ~Count Dracula

Dracula AD 1972, for all intents and purposes was a pretty bad movie at the borderline unwatchable stage.  I'd actually never seen The Satanic Rites Of Dracula before doing this retrospective.  I was assured from a few sources that I was in for possibly the worst Dracula ride of all.  Up until AD 1972, the films had been enjoyable, or had some pretty good takeaways.  They were at least watchable even if they were one that was disappointing.  Seeing as this one seemed to bring back most of the production team from the previous film, my fear began to rise much more than Dracula had ever done in these movies.
Let's get this out of the way right now; this isn't the world's greatest movie by far.  In fact, its a bit of a bad one with some mighty big plot holes.  The film is easily one of the weaker in entries in the series without question.  And as this is Christopher Lee's final outing as the dark prince, yes its a disappointment.  Where I'm going to probably get some flack here, is that I found it to be a step up and much better than Dracula AD 1972.  
While Alan Gibson returns to direct, he's got a better sense of style than the last film.  There's a sort of darkness vibe to the movie that lacked in the previous film.  There are instances however, that seem to grasp at the same aesthetic as an old Doctor Who episode from the Pertwee era.  This is funny, as the writer of the film definitely wrote a few episodes for Doctor Who prior to doing this film.  Gibson also infuses the film with a sort of sense of "weirdness" that sort of gives this one its own sense of character and style.
Satanic Rites is a pretty sizable departure from what has come before.  The last film was pretty much any of the original ones just now set in the "modern day".  That's sort of a big factor in what makes this one more interesting to me than its predecessor.  With Rites, we get one that mish mashes an espionage spy film, sci fi film and fear of the occult type film with Dracula.  The film also has a sense of style akin to a lot of the lower budgeted sci fi of the time.  It may be weird to compliment, but I really enjoy the set where all the detective work and slide projector stuff is going on.  Also, the costumes and biker guys in general may seem a little strange but that's the sort of thing that keeps my interest.
One could argue that Satanic Rites is also the one time a Hammer Dracula film truly carried over from the previous one.  Yes, we don't see Dracula resurrected, but c'mon, you can assume one of the rituals (which we get to see the same one flashed to numerous times) brought him back.  Plus, his headquarters is on the ground the old church from the last movie was on.  Most importantly though, we get returning characters and not just a Van Helsing.  Inspector Murray comes back as well as Jessica Van Helsing.
One improvement from the previous film is the recasting of Jessica Van Helsing.  Joanna Lumsley portrays a much more mature and interesting version of the granddaughter.  She's much smarter and isn't there just to show her cleavage.  In fact, she's well dressed and taken much more seriously than that of a wank object like much of the women in these films can tend to be.  She's much more of looker than Stephanie Beachem too at this time.  Jessica gets to be involved with the case work and take to the field for some action before succumbing to being the granddamsel in distress for the film's third act.
I must say, I love Peter Cushing.  No matter the film, this guy ALWAYS gives a terrific performance.  And here, I'd say is one of the best.  There are A LOT of exposition and discussion scenes in this film, which is why I think impatient blood wanting fanboys despise the film.  But for me, it was Cushing that was making those moments exciting through his words and delivery.  Yeah, its stuff we'd heard all throughout the series, almost as if he was rolling of a compilation list.  For me, watching him perform and excel in this one (One of his best portrayals) was working for me on so much more a level than anything in the previous film.
Christopher Lee also seems interested in this film as opposed to sleepwalking through the last one.  Like usual, he was unhappy to come back, but I think he channeled that anger into final and ticked off performance.  Dracula has one last moment of glory when he stands at the altar at the end and reveals his evil plan to set in motion.  There are also some lines from Stoker's book he recites.  Lee also get to show a different side when pretending to be the secluded business man he's fronting for himself.  Dracula kinda goes out like an idiot, catching himself in the "newly listed device to kill him" hawthorn bush.  But in the end, his death truly comes one final time at the hands of Van Helsing, making it personal and sort of seem final.  I have NO IDEA why the ending freezes on Van Helsing studying the ring, but that's it.
There are plenty of story problems with this movie.  And some character decisions can make you question it all.  But, I'm forgiving as some of it was due to this film having an extremely low budget.  Unlike the last one, this film can actually work for itself in the sort of "turn your brain off" fashion.  There is some good horror scenes, especially with all the wives in the basement, and a lot of the action/suspense scenes with the motorcycle sniper game are shot pretty well.  It works on much more of a cheap spy movie level than it does a Hammer Dracula film, but the fact that it can work on any level is a triumph.
Before striking me down for writing a sorta positive spin on The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, please realize that I still find it to be toward the bottom of the Hammer Dracula barrel.  But, I do find it to be a step up from the last one and not as heinously bad as I was led to believe it was going to be.  Maybe I had the perfectly lowered expectation going into it.  Yes, the film has a slower pace, but as a fan of 70s films I'm attuned to that and it doesn't really bother, especially if Peter Cushing is leading the charge in many of the scenes.  This movie deserves another look, not because its some hidden gem or a surprisingly good film after all these years.  Mainly because I think its been judged too harshly, and isn't the worst.  AD 1972 and Satanic Rites is a rough combo, but I'll take the Satanic Rites side of the coin if I had to choose.

NEXT TIME:  Run Run Dracula

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