By the time Hammer’s Dracula series made it to its eighth and final installment, you could that the lifeblood of the continuing misadventures of Christopher Lee’s noticably more crustier Count had all but leaked away. The studio’s previous entry, the dopey but insane Dracula A.D. 1972, had attempted to stir interest by transplanting the calculating cloak wearer to modern times to surround himself with hippies and peaceniks to feed off and so Rites found itself having to carry the bag. However, few could have expected the sheer randomness that was about to be unleashed, as The Satanic Rites Of Dracula – love that fucking title, by the way – may well be one of the low-key craziest ventures of the vampire’s long and bloody career.
Alas, it was all for naught as understandably stuffy reviews and the fact that, after around fifteen years, Lee had come to detest popping in those fangs for yet another round.
A battered and bloodied undercover agent working for Scotland Yard frees himself from the mansion where he’s being held hostage and staggers back to the relative safety of his employers to tell them of the horrors he’s seen. It seems that within this house of horrors, Satanic rites are being performed that sees a robed and sweating group of geezers witness the willing sacrifice of a young woman in order to obtain the eternal life promised to them by their master. As alarming as this is, matters reveal themselves to be exponentially worse when spy photos taken at the site reveal the satanists to be upstanding members of society that include a scientist, a general and a government minister. Now, while people would barely bat an eye at this kind of behavior these days (I kind of think we’d be stunned if members of our government wasn’t up to weird devil shit at this point), the boys at the Yard realises this could be a recipe for disaster and so enlist officer Murray to work on the case independently while consulting boffins of the occult, Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing.
While Murray and Van Helsing’s granddaughter, Jessica, scope out the mansion and come across a smattering of vampiric brides chained up in the basement, Lorrimer recognizes the photos of the professor spotted at the sacrifice as Julien Keeley, an expert in bacteria and viruses and desides to confront him.
Its here that a fiendish master plan unspools as Keeley, crazier than a sack full of undiluted mental, reveals that his master has commanded him to create a new, deadlier strain of the bubonic plague in order to destroy the human race and the shadowy figure at the top of this conspiracy is non other than Count Dracula, back from the dead! Again!
You must imagine that the writer of The Satanic Rites Of Dracula must have had quite the sizable case of writers block if the best breakthrough he could come up with is “Vampire spy movie”. And yet, to give the concept its due, if could have been something quite original if everyone on board wasn’t obviously fed up with having to bash out yet another Dracula movie. After six stints in the cape (he sat out The Brides Of Dracula), Lee was all but done with his signature role while sweet old Peter Cushing was about to launch into his fourth outing as a Van Helsing and so everyone was unsurprisingly was feeling a little long in the tooth (pun intended).
So as it stands, the plot of Satanic Rites plays more like someone dropped acid in the writers room of The Professionals and couldn’t understand why the producers wouldn’t sign off of Bodie and Doyle squaring up to the undead, outcast truly awesome as that sounds, the reality is strangely dull. Taking pop culture’s most famous, urbane blood sucker and turning him into a diabolist who has aspirations to destroying the entire world ends up making him feel like either like a supernatural Bond villain or a low rent Fu Manchu (a character Lee has also played in less enlightened times) and matters aren’t helped by Dracula only showing up in only a handful of scenes.
Still, there’s some untapped gold floating around in the sluggish flow of the plot; Cushing, as ever, is a joy and the casting of a red headed Joanna Lumley as his spunky granddaughter brings in a nice hint of the camp action of The New Avengers. Plus we also get a typically sweat drenched performance from a gibbering Freddie Jones (always good for a sweaty gibber was our Freddie) as the unhinged professor behind the plague bacillus – but despite the odd haunting image, the horror stuff just feels like everyone is going through the motions. The vampire brides chained in the basement raise a chill and the image of Dracula, fangs bared, as he reaches out from the thorns of a hawthorn bush is quite possibly the most terrifying image of Lee’s count that exists, but in motion it’s all rather awkward as it’s just two middle aged men wrestling in the bushes.
Also, I have to say, for a legendary emissary of evil, Dracula isn’t half a shitty plotter of world destruction. Easily bamboozled by Helsing’s basic level bait and switches and surrounded by sheepskin jacket wearing henchmen who miss a head shot at close range and don’t think to finish off an unconscious victim, Drac proves to be as adept at ending the world as he would be getting an all over tan and while the theory that he’s up to all this bollocks because he subconsciously wants to die once and for all is vaguely intriguing, but it also makes no sense as the fucker dies at the end of every film.
It’s a shame that Christopher Lee’s reign as one of the greatest Counts that ever slinked around on screen should have ended with a slurred murmur instead of the blood curdling scream it so rightly deserved. However, oddly enough, Peter Cushing had one last ride as a member of thr Van Helsing family tree in Hammer’s utterly bonkers team up with Shaw Brothers Studio in order to break into the Kung Fu market with The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires which ended up being a damn sight more memorable than this.
So as the sun rose on a final, fanged, ashy skeleton with a stake in its ribcage, it was time to wave farewell to an era, although I don’t think Lee was overly bothered as he neatly moved on from one iconic horror character right into another thanks to The Wicker Man being released the same year.
The scripts may have dropped in quality and the fangs may have blunted, but that will never take away from the grandeur, the threat and the smoldering sexuality that came with the sight of a cloaked Lee’s 6 foot 4 inch frame looming over a panting victim.
A Drac, we’ll never get back.