Five of the most powerful and influential men in England have joined a satanic cult. One is a Nobel Prize winning bacteriologist who is developing a deadly new strain of the bubonic plague. Another is a mysterious billionaire industrialist whose corporate headquarters are located on the site of Dracula’s grave. Could the unseen financier of this diabolical coven be the bloodsucking Prince of Darkness himself?
Writer Don Houghton and Director Alan Gibson reteam for Hammer’s penultimate Dracula film, a direct sequel to DRACULA A.D. 1972. This time around, the infamous Count has set his sights higher than simply exacting revenge on those pesky Van Helsings. This time, he is preparing to use a virulent germ to bring about Biblical Armageddon.
Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Michael Coles (this time given the surname “Murray”, rather than simply being billed as “Inspector”) return from the previous entry, and all are very good here. Cushing is given more to do and the script is more consistent with Van Helsing’s characterization than in the last film. Lee is as striking and menacing as ever, though he has far too little screen time. It’s also apparent that Dracula has gone more than a little mad since last we saw him, as his newest evil scheme will ultimately leave him the lord and master of a world with no one left to feed on. Coles is steady as the action-oriented leading man here, charged primarily with looking after the Professor’s granddaughter, Jessica.
While continuity is maintained fairly well in this second modern Dracula tale, there are a few glaring inconsistencies, most involving Jessica. In DRACULA A.D. 1972, the young Miss Van Helsing was a voluptuous blonde hipster who thought of her grandfather’s work as quaint and antiquated. This time around, she is described by her grandfather as his “right hand” and “an expert” on his area of scientific research. Further sharpening the contrast is the fact that the character (played before by Stephanie Beacham) is essayed here by tall, thin, leggy redhead Joanna Lumley, who would go on to greater fame in THE NEW AVENGERS and ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. Miss Lumley is a fine actress and delivers a decent performance, but the stark differences between her and her predecessor are hard to ignore. It doesn’t help that this Jess Van Helsing, having encountered Dracula once before and now purportedly an occult scholar, apparently doesn’t recognize the vampiric threat present when exploring a wine cellar full of coffins, and instantaneously deteriorates into a hysterical damsel in distress when attacked by a group of female bloodsuckers.
This film was retitled COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDES and given an R rating for US release, moves which seem to promise a bevy of the usual busty Hammer starlets in tight corsets. While there is substantially more flesh shown here than in previous Hammer Dracula outings, the female cast members are a far cry from the Veronica Carlsons and Ingrid Pitts of years past. Instead of relying on bursting bodices, the producers opt to meet the gratuitous sex quotient here with some heavy lesbian undertones during the aforementioned wine cellar attack and multiple scenes of one fully nude girl being sacrificed on an altar. Though the ladies here are certainly not unattractive, only Lumley can be called “glamorous”, and her physique is more fashion model than scream queen.
The film itself is really a bizarre amalgamation of two very popular subgenres of the period, the satanic horror film and the spy thriller. There are gunfights and car chases and assassinations at every turn, and the John Cacavas score is more reminiscent of the incidental themes from the early Roger Moore Bond films than the operatic symphonies of a gothic fright flick. There is also more emphasis on the black mass-style rituals of the cult members than on the Count and his brides, making the vampire elements almost superfluous. Recast Lee and Cushing and it would be almost impossible to recognize this as a Dracula film. What saves this odd concoction from being an incomprehensible mess is Houghton’s tight script and good performances all around. The story is well-paced and stays interesting during Lee’s lengthy absences, creating a greater sense of urgency and danger than in the previous entry. On the acting front, Cushing and the other principals are nearly upstaged by Freddie Jones as the ill-fated bacteriologist Julian Keeley, an old friend of Van Helsing’s who has quite literally sold his soul to the Devil. Though nowhere near as colorful or atmospheric as Hammer’s early horrors, SATANIC RITES is well-photographed and features a few simple but quite memorable make-up effects.
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA was a further attempt to modernize gothic horror and make it both more affordable for the studio and more accessible to contemporary viewers. While it thankfully abandons the mod trappings which bogged down the previous film, it also shifts a bit too far away from the obligatory “Hammer-isms” to be completely satisfactory. Cushing and Lee still have the chemistry that made them the biggest horror tandem of the 1960s, but they are both starting to show their age in a film that bears little resemblance to their glory years. SATANIC RITES isn’t bad. It just doesn’t quite feel right, the kind of film that holds your attention while it’s running but prompts you to seek out better movies from brighter days the moment it ends. Despite the great title and interesting premise, it’s never quite the film you want it to be, making it a somewhat bittersweet finale to Cushing-Lee era of Hammer mayhem.