Thursday, October 16, 2008
The Decadence of the Present Day
The main title theme from THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA by John Cacavas is kind of cool in a seventies-wacka chicka sort of way but if you really start to listen to it by a certain point the piece just feels like it’s noodling around, waiting for the moments where the music might actually have a little kick to it. That kind of sums up the movie, the eighth in the Hammer Dracula cycle as well as the seventh and final time Christopher Lee would play the role. It’s a direct sequel to DRACULA A.D. 1972, the film which brought Hammer’s version of Dracula into the then-present day and even if I shouldn’t enjoy that one like I do, I’ll sit down and watch the whole thing at the drop of a hat. SATANIC RITES feels a little like more of a sludge without much energy and while there’s an O.K. idea in there it never feels like it does much with it. So why have I seen it multiple times by now? Beats me. Maybe I’m trying to will it to be better.
When Scotland Yard is called in to investigate mysterious cult activities, Inspector Murray (Michael Coles, returning from A.D. 1972) brings in Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing again) as a consultant. As Murray and Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley, taking over for Stephanie Beacham) investigate the country house where they think events have been occuring, Van Helsing visits the home of fellow scientist Dr. Keeley (Freddie Jones of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and THE ELEPHANT MAN) who is suspected of being involved. The crazed Keeley tells Van Helsing that he has been enlisted to create a new type of plague and the investigation soon takes him to the mysterious headquarters of powerful recluse D.D. Denham in a building built on top of the abandoned church where much of the previous film took place. Once inside, Van Helsing is allowed to meet with Denham, when he discovers…well, it shouldn’t be given away but since you’ve probably noticed the title of the film, I think you can figure it out.
One thing that should be noted is how SATANIC RITES feels considerably different from other Hammer films, even the ones made around this period as the company was coming to its end. A.D. 1972, as spectacularly goofy as it is, at least feels like a Hammer film (no real point in comparing this to one of the entries from the classic era of the studio) but this one seems like a different animal. Not just in structure and plot but even the way shots are framed and lit. Even the general feel of the pacing isn’t what would be expected, especially as it cuts back to the same satanic ritual over the first twenty minutes, maybe to make it seem like something is happening. At least it knows to bring Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing descendant into the story sooner than was the case in the previous film. Unlike the previous film where being set in the seventies was the whole point, the impression SATANIC RITES gives is that it wants to make that setting as matter-of-fact as possible. There’s not much of a feel of an outside world away from the plot and even when we’re out on the street it seems sparsely populated, giving it the feel of a very odd episode of THE AVENGERS, something the country house much of it is set in adds to that feel, but since director Alan Gibson directed episodes of that show that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. But part of the problem is considering it’s a film that contains world-threatening viruses, mysterious business consortiums as well as vampires, it winds up sounding more interesting than it is. Even a few of the somewhat sleazier aspects feel somewhat un-Hammer—over the past few years some of their titles like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS had featured nudity but the use of the scrawny, unclothed blonde sacrificed in that early sequence just feels kind of skeevy.
Joanna Lumley also seems different from the usual Hammer girl, even down to the conservative way she’s dressed, and this would provide an added point of interest if there were anything done with the character. In the previous film her character, played by Beacham, was running with a bad crowd that got mixed up with Dracula and she had to learn just how valuable her grandfather was. In this film Lumley, with bright red hair that seems to be screaming for this film to be processed in old school technicolor, doesn’t do much more than assist her grandfather in the office and get captured so she can be rescued again.
The plot is structured as if to keep it a mystery that Dracula is behind everything but since we know what the film is called it’s not much of a mystery. The film tries to backtrack on this point by giving us an appearance by Lee when he places the bite on a captured government secretary played by Valerie Van Ost even before his presence is explained but they probably didn’t care that it would be giving the game away so the secretary character just seems inserted to allow for this. Dracula being the figure behind D.D. Denham with a world destruction plan makes him out to be more of a Bond villain-type than he ever was before and the identity secret actually resembles Blofeld being in place of Willard Whyte in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. That film had the same problem this one has—we don’t really believe that Blofeld is dead for the first hour any more than we would expect anybody but Dracula to be revealed. When it happens, it’s in a fairly clever scene as Dracula is hidden in darkness, speaking in a Bela Lugosi accent. It’s a cute idea, not the sort of humor usually found in Hammer and gives Christopher Lee more dialogue to do something with than he normally gets the chance with in these films. Even allowing for Van Helsing not questioning why there’s a bright light shining it his face, it still feels like the staging causes it to not make sense on about five different levels and there’s no reason to believe it would fool Van Helsing for an instant (“You ARE Dracula!”). But I’ll give the film the benefit of the doubt that the DVD transfer makes Christopher Lee’s face here a little too visible. Lee isn’t given either the most or least amount of screen time of his films in the series but it’s still easy to wish that the studio took advantage of him a little more. Did they give him so little to do in these films because he was unhappy about making them or was he unhappy about making them because he had so little to do?
At the very least there’s Peter Cushing who remains as committed to the role of Van Helsing, whichever incarnation of the character he’s playing, as ever. He has a few interesting dialogue scenes to play, particularly one where he tries to get information out of his scientist friend played by Freddie Jones, a Renfield type presumably driven mad as he realizes what he’s done. The dynamic between the two actors should be fascinating and Jones is very good here but the scene seems to drag on longer than necessary, diluting some of its impact. As it is, Cushing’s best moments in the film are his quiet gestures, as he smokes, as he melts a cross down into a silver bullet and of course his final piece of business just before the credits roll. Joanna Lumley gets one of the most effective scenes of the film where she is attacked by a number of female vampires rising from their coffins in a basement. It’s another one of those scenes that don’t feel much like Hammer for a number of reasons, but it’s still very nicely done.
Lee, as usual, doesn’t get to do much although he does scream out, “My revenge has spread over centuries and has just begun!” which is sort of lifted from Stoker and it’s a good line but the fact that he declares it ten minutes before the end of the sixth and final time he would play the character makes it seem a little ironic. And there’s little point in getting into the climax which, as everyone seems to agree, is the absolute weakest of the entire series though I still kind of like that final moment with Cushing. Though A.D. 1972 got a full release from Warner Bros. in the States it took THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA five years until it came out here in a version I’ve never seen that was fifteen minutes shorter and given the nonsensical title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE. I’m not saying that the film deserves grand reappraisal but the weirdness that sets it apart from the series makes me want to see it again every once in a while and at the very least it’s a film with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing. There can never be enough movies where that is the case and, unfortunately, there never will be.