Dracula’s not-so Satanic Rites

satanic1From the promising, heady early days of Hammer and its Quatermass, etc, we jump to its The Satanic Rites of Dracula, from 1973, when Hammer was well into its downward slide into oblivion. Well, to be fair it was hardly all Hammer’s fault- anyone who was around in the 1970s will testify to the gradual implosion of the British film industry during that decade, and all those old cinemas falling into ruin. We had two such cinemas in town- the Odeon and the ABC Cinema: not the prettiest places to visit and see a film in, most of the time it was a mission to pick the seat with the least holes in.

(It was the Odeon -the poshier, more architecturally resplendent one, with a lobby upstairs before entering the main screen garnished with theatrical posters and photographs- where I saw Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Empire Strikes Back and the ABC where I saw Star Trek: TMP, and Blade Runner).

But anyway, back to The Satanic Rites of Dracula. A horror film set in the then-present day, the film was greenlit alongside Dracula AD 1972, which came out, as that films title suggests, the year prior. Curiously, this enabled both films to have a shared narrative, if only thanks to some recurring characters. Peter Cushing returned as Occult expert  Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing having dispatched the vampire Dracula (Christopher Lee) at the end of the last film, but, er, clearly not dispatching the bugger as well as he should have done. Also returning is Van Helsing’s  grand daughter, Jessica – unfortunately Stephanie Beacham, who played her in Dracula AD 1972, was replaced by Joanna Lumley this time around. These days Lumley is something of a national institution and I’m loath to speak ill of her, but, well, she’s pretty lousy in this and a poor replacement for Beacham. Also returning is Inspector Murray (Michael Coles), who now fancies himself as something of a Kolchak: the Night Stalker and in line for his own series of movies.

satanic3Troublesomely, this film has a totally different style and sensibility to the previous film, which is rather disorientating considering we’ve so many familiar characters. Dracula AD 1972 was a very funky, painfully ‘cool’ take on bringing the vampire films to the modern era (such as it was in 1972/1973) by way of the blaxpoitation films that were so ‘hip’ back then, but Satanic Rites has a totally different feel. Obviously this was all part of a concerted effort to modernise the tired film series of Hammer Draculas and attempt to make them fresh and relevant again, but it mostly fails dismally. So distant is it, tonally, from the original Hammer Dracula films that it feels like something else entirely and hardly a Hammer film at all.

Indeed, the nearest analogue to this film is the Halloween series and the third film in that franchise, Halloween III: Season of the Witch which deliberately tried to buck the tropes of those films and while it actually worked as a horror film it failed utterly to serve as a Halloween flick, confusing and alienating fans in similar fashion to Alien 3 (what is it with third entries?).

Satanic Rites dials back on Christopher Lee terrorising modern London and concerns itself with a bizarre cult that is working with an industrialist to wipe out the human race with a modern-day plague. It suggests that Dracula is so tired of the routine of eternal life and repeatedly getting impaled by these Van Helsing dudes that he’s ready to wipe out his food supply and perhaps get himself a rest via starvation. Ironically this darker, self-destructive Dracula might have offered something new for Christopher Lee to get his, ahem, teeth into but any such possibilities are largely wasted- Lee is given hardly anything to do, his Dracula mostly relegated to supporting actor in his own picture. Perhaps that was a result of Lee limiting his involvement and availability for filming, I don’t know.

All that remains is a rather cold film that doesn’t really have a sense of what it is doing or where it is going, other than being one film too many, and the end of what started as a great series of horror flicks: to offer another analogue, its the Superman IV: The Quest For Peace of Hammer horrors. Dracula AD 1972 didn’t really work either, but at least its funky sensibilities offered a little bit of fun. There’s no fun here at all in a frankly turgid offering.  Peter Cushing, mind, is still emoting like he’s delivering Shakespeare, and further proof that any film blessed with his name in the credits is a film worth seeing, even one as poor as this.

Fortunately for those interested, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is streaming ‘free’ on Amazon Prime here in the UK

 

The Funky Horror of Dracula A.D.1972

drac72aWell this was a strange one. Beyond strange, really. Apparently Hammer’s Gothic horrors, so timeless and captivating today, were considered quaintly old-fashioned and rather unpopular by the time the 1970s came around, and Hammer panicked. How else to explain the curious mash-up of this curio, a film that paradoxically seems more dated than those older-fashioned films that preceded it? Its such a shame, how hard this film is clearly trying to be ‘cool’ and yet falls so short. Mind, although time has not been kind to the fashions of 1972, the delights of watching Peter Cushing delivering Hammer roles as fervently as he might Macbeth, or Christopher Lee reluctantly hamming it up as the snarling Count yet again (clearly a role beneath him, and likely as personally disparaged as Sean Connery and his Bond), or the beautiful appeal of both Caroline Munro and Stephanie Beacham in their youthful prime, will never get old. Or the sight of those old London Red buses or those cars. Films such as this accidentally become time capsules and with that an intrinsic appeal unintended: what was supposed to be new and cutting-edge become old and antique.

It sounds and looks like an episode of The Sweeney. Possibly the nearest thing to its funky-as-cardboard soundtrack by Mike Vickers is Ron Grainer’s brilliant score for The Omega Man from the year prior, although there are moments where the music sounds very Gerry Anderson (UFO and Space 1999-era Barry Gray). How much any of these similarities were intended, or just simply accidental as reflecting the zeitgeist of the time, I cannot say. Likely it was very ‘modern’ at the time (it does sound very ‘blaxpoitation’) but the passing decades have been rather cruel to stuff like this, while Isaac Hayes’ seminal Shaft score maintains its classic status. As usual for Hammer, the film-scale sensibilities of the production are suspect- most of the time it looks nothing more than a television episode of the period; from, say, a series like UFO or The Persuaders, which for someone who grew up a young lad watching those shows back then, gifts this film with a certain 1970s-television nostalgia.

drac72bNostalgia, of course, is a double-edged sword and while it affords the inevitable perspective of rose-tinted specs this can inevitably excuse what is clearly bad writing, lazy direction and poor performances. The latter is likely unfair for this film- the actors are clearly limited by the script and that’s a pity: while Cushing and Lee are obviously actors with a screen mythology entwined in the horror genre, both Munro and Beacham could have done much more than simply push their bosoms at the camera and tease their cleavages, but they aren’t required to do so by that almost lazy script. Its a script that plays fast and loose with Vampire mythology often at odds with the (albeit dubious, I’ll admit) continuity of previous Hammer horror films. The central truth of this film is that Dracula is a Gothic creature, and unique to his period era: its something that was true of the BBC’s 2020 Dracula adaptation that started so well but became utterly derailed upon bringing its Dracula to our modern day. On the whole (and while I’m confident some comment will cite one that works well), it just never seems to work, to me, trying to modernise a character like Dracula, just like modern-day settings for Lovecraft adaptations or, say, War of the Worlds.

The weird irony of course is that for however ‘modern’ Dracula A.D.1972 was trying so sincerely to be, now, nearly five decades later the film seems to be exactly what it didn’t want to be- a period-set film, something from history. In 1972 it likely seemed forced, tired and broken, but now its really quite pleasantly fun. And yeah, kinda funky.

Dracula A.D.1972 has just been released on Blu-ray in the UK