Saturday, June 03, 2006

Satanic Rites of Dracula - review


Director: Alan Gibson

Release Date: 1974

Contains spoilers

This is a direct sequel to Dracula AD 1972 and if the previous film had a touch of the exploitation flick about it then this certainly is a spy flick, from the much darker music to the whole feel – indeed there is more than a touch of “The Avengers” to it. To a degree this could have been a flick without Dracula, he can feel kind of tagged on, but that said there are some interesting Dracula ideas that emerge from the movie. Again we find that Lee and Cushing are pitted against each other as Dracula and Van Helsing.

The movie begins in a building we later discover is called Pelham House. In one room a satanic ritual is taking place, in another it is being observed through monitoring equipment and in a third a guard sits watch over a beaten prisoner, Hanson (Maurice O’Connell).

There are a couple of things to note. Firstly that the photography of the satanic ritual seems somewhat overexposed, though to be fair that could just be the print of the film on my DVD – given that this is the one film in the cycle that seems to be public domain. The ritual itself is interesting in content, though we actually see it in snippets through the beginning of the film. It calls on the devil and has a few middle age men as supplicants. There is a naked girl on an altar and this is the first Hammer in the Dracula cycle to show naked breasts. A cockerel is sacrificed and the blood poured first into a chalice and then onto the girl, the supplicants are then anointed by the blood. The girl is then sacrificed but the high priestess, Chin Yang (Barbara Yu Ling), then says that death is no prisoner to those who have given their soul and the sacrifice sits up and the wound heals.

The next thing to note are the awful uniforms the guards are forced to wear, I mean, come on, sleeveless afghan coats! To a degree I guess this “fits” with the almost “Avengers” feel that the film carries.

Finally, and very unusually, this is the first of the cycle when a film has been shot in sequel to a predecessor and Dracula’s resurrection is not shown.

Hanson manages to slip his bonds and strangle his guard. He then escapes the house but trips an alarm by breaking a beam of light at the front door. He is stumbling through the grounds and has almost reached the gate when a bike comes after him. A gun is fired from a nearby car, killing the biker and then shooting a second – with a fairly impressive ‘through visor with blood splatter on the Perspex’ shot - who turns up a few moments later. Hanson is bundled into a car and driven away.

Back at an MI5 type headquarter he is questioned, he tells them that their Minister, John Porter MP (Richard Mathews), was involved and although obviously in agony, says that he has photographs (in his watch) and tells his superiors about the ritual, the debrief is all taped and, as Col. Mathews (Richard Vernon) and Peter Torrence (William Franklyn) discuss the situation, Hanson dies. Jane (Valerie Van Ost), the secretary, is told to have the tape of the debrief transcribed and filed. Torrence is told that the issue is to be buried officially, due to Porter’s involvement, but he is being given an outside man unofficially, Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) - the policeman from the previous film.

When Murray is there the men look at the photographs, according to Hanson there were four men besides Porter involved. General Sir Arthur Freeborne (Lockwood West), landowner Lord Carradine (Patrick Barr) and biochemist Professor Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones) are all recognized but the last photograph has no-one in it. Murray suggests getting Van Helsing involved, given the obvious occult connection.

In the meantime we see Jane being chased by the afghan wearing henchmen and kidnapped.

Torrence and Murray go to see the Professor and Van Helsing, whilst not yet suggesting that vampires are involved, gives us more on the cult of vampirism – mentioned directly again for the first time in a while. He tells us that the pagan religions tending to worship the natural world, valuing such things as fire or water. But some worshiped blood and these were the strongest of the cults. He recognizes the ritual as a blood cult ritual.

Jessica comes into the room, played in this movie by Joanna Lumley rather than Stephanie Beacham. It has to be pointed out that this “new” Jessica is now Van Helsing’s assistant as well as Granddaughter and all the bad slang used by her in the previous film has gone (thank the Gods). She recognizes Keeley as he is an old friend of Van Helsing. He confesses that this is true and he was going to tell them but he wanted to see Keeley first as he can’t believe that he is involved. Murray and Torrence are to check Pelham house, but first Van Helsing will visit Keeley. Van Helsing does go to Keeley, having to enter around the back as there is no answer at the front door; his visit is reported by a henchman. Keeley is visibly upset and worried and very irritable – something he puts down to overwork due to a deadline of the 23rd.

In a bizarre cut scene we see Dracula go to Jane, who is at Pelham House. I say it is bizarre as, not only does it feel very much tagged on (in fact one wonders whether it was just an excuse to have shots of a ‘Christopher Lee bite’ and ‘Christopher Lee carrying the victim moment’), his visit is clearly at night and yet, once he has fed upon her we cut back to Van Helsing with Keeley and it is still daytime. Julian is ranting about evil as Van Helsing is nosing through his research. He realises that Julian has developed a virulent strain of bubonic plague. Keeley confirms this, it causes the flesh of the infected to rot from the bone and spreads, by touch, like wildfire, the strain is in nearby petri dishes. Van Helsing demands to know who commissioned the research when a henchman comes in and shoots Van Helsing. Luckily the bullet has only grazed his forehead and when he comes round the dishes are gone and Keeley is dead, having been hung by the neck.

Murray and Torrence go to Pelham house that night. Jessica is in the car with them and they tell her to remain with it (which begs the question, why did they bring her in the first place). As they are let through the gate, Jessica sneaks in, and whilst they go through the front and question Chin Yang she sneaks in the back – neatly stepping over a light beam alarm. Jessica ends up in a cellar with crates and, having switched a light on, sees Jane chained to a wall. She goes to help her but Jane vamps out. Stumbling away she is accosted by several brides who are chained to their crates, with enough slack to allow a little movement. Eventually Jessica screams and is heard by the men upstairs. They run to her rescue. Jane calls to Torrence for help and he goes to her, Jessica’s warning of what Jane has become being too late. He is saved as Murray stakes Jane. The three run from the house and, after an altercation with a motorbike riding guard, escape over the wall.

The next day they know they are dealing with vampires, that the vampires have the new plague and Van Helsing suspects that Dracula has returned. The others cannot see what he would want with a virulent plague, if everyone is dying so will he as his foodstuff dies out, but Van Helsing is most illuminating. Firstly he points out that Dracula has previously acted out of personal vendetta and this, virtually, is true. Unlike in Stoker’s book, the Dracula from the Hammer cycle has done two things – he’s either gone about in his normal way chowing down on busty maidens and unfortunate visitors to his castle, or he has done whatever he has done to exact revenge on a person or group of persons. An act of destruction as described in this film, a literal Armageddon, raises the stakes (pun intended) to the ultimate vendetta against the whole world. Van Helsing also wonders if, deep down, Dracula wants to die, to truly die and not be raised from the dead again.

In the discourse Van Helsing also tells us that the 23rd (two days away) is the sabbath of the undead, though it is midnight of the night before that is the important time. They have also discovered a link to D D Denham, a recluse and industrialist. Van Helsing suspects he was in the last picture but is a vampire and so was not captured on film. Denham’s main building is on the site of the church from the last film. He also outlines the way to kill a vampire, it is mainly a rehash of the same rules from the last film with the addition that they are deterred and injured by hawthorn, as it is the tree used to make Christ’s crown of thorns.

The next day, as Van Helsing prepares (by making a silver bullet from a cross), the Colonel, Jessica, Murray and Torrence stake out Pelham house. The Colonel and Torrence are killed by a sniper who then turns his attention to the other two. He seems to play with them, as Murray points out he could have hit them any time, and in truth herds them into a trap.

Van Helsing goes to see Denham, who sits with his face hidden behind a light and talks in a badly affected German accent. During the discourse, in which Denham suggests that they are bringing order to the world and that the plague is a deterrent, Van Helsing knocks books from the desk, picks them up and slips a bible amongst them. Denham touches it and his fingers sizzle – proof he is a vampire. A little crucifix jiggery pokery and Van Helsing reveals Denham as Dracula (in quite a natty suit, one might add). He is going to shoot him but, having delayed himself by pointing out that the gun is loaded with has a silver bullet, is stopped by one of the supplicants.

Murray wakes up in the cellar and is approached by Chin Yang. She does a little hocus pocus on him, but he comes to his senses just before she bites him, catches her in a net and hammers a stake into her. Its actually quite a good staking, no real gore but the stake actually looks like it is firmly in her. Suddenly the other brides are on him, but a crossed pair off sticks holds them at bay. He manages to get up the stairs and switches on the sprinkler system, dousing them in clear running water and killing them. I like this way of killing vampires no better than I did in the last film.

He gets out of the cellar and finds Jessica in a trance on the altar (what is it about Jessica and being on altars in a trance, this is the second film in which she has done this). He heads up the stairs as people enter the building. It is Dracula, Van Helsing and the three remaining supplicants. It is here that the Count’s plans are fully revealed. Jessica is to be his bride and the others are to be his four messengers of death, plague carriers. The supplicants do not like this; they actually believed that they were to use the plague as a threatened means to seize power. Dracula uses his mind control to make one of them crush a vial of plague in his hand. He screams as the virus begins to work, his flesh falling apart whilst the others scuttle out of reach so he can’t touch them.

Meanwhile Murray has been found by a guard and their fight causes an electrical short, a fire starts and quickly takes hold. Murray races downstairs gets Jessica from the altar and escapes with her while Van Helsing smashes through a window, the Count in pursuit. The plague carrier is engulfed in flames.

Outside the house Van Helsing stumbles into hawthorn, well he mentioned it (indeed we hear his very words again, just in case old Van Helsing had forgotten himself) and so it had to be used. He tricks Dracula into it. The hawthorn both slows him and injures him. He manages to break free, swathes of the stuff still on him, but Van Helsing has found a fence post and stakes the Count. Many complain about the ending, ‘a tree stopping Dracula,’ they say, ‘ridiculous.’ I think it is actually a great ending, despite itself. The hawthorn tree is, traditionally, an apotropaic (an object intended to ward off evil, in this case vampires). Also, given the story of the film and the fact that Dracula tried to bring about the Armageddon, you need to look at him as he is swathed in hawthorn. It looks as though he is wearing a crown of thorns and I don’t believe this was by accident. Dracula here is being raised to the level of antichrist, the filmmakers intimating that he is finally given recognition for being the ultimate evil.

The film does not look like a Hammer film and Dracula does feel tacked on to the story. That said his presence elevates what would otherwise have been a below average espionage film and it is a brave mixing of genres. This does mean that Lee was under used again in this film and is never really given room to shine, though Cushing, as always, is great. This was to prove to be Lee’s last outing as Dracula (in a Hammer production).

This is an interesting film, for all its faults, and one that dispensed with all the corny youth language of its predecessor for a darker and much more sinister atmosphere. It can look exceedingly cheap at times, but its contents try to rise above that concern and yet it doesn’t have that Hammer feel, because of the look and the setting. All in all I think I’ll give this 4.5 out of 10, slightly better than the previous but Hammer had definitely lost touch with the thing that made us fall in love with Hammer, the gothic feel and a certain look that can’t be seen anywhere in this effort.

The imdb page is here. The film itself featured on Frightmares season 2 and can still be watched in streaming realplayer format

Just a quick final point, my dvd of this is a DVD called “Great Bloodsucking Vampire Movies”. It contains this film, “The last Man on Earth” and “The Devil Bat”. I have to make the point that just because “The Devil Bat” features a bat and Bela Lugosi it is not, in any sense of the word, a vampire film!

6 comments:

Mark said...

Though much of this movie struck me as silly, I too liked the ending.

Being an English Major, I've been Pavlov-ed to search for Christ symbolism (if it's there or not)in almost all works of literature and film. Only here, as you've said, it's an "antichrist" symbol. In this case, it was most certainly done on purpose.

Funny that The Devil Bat should be included in a vampire compilation. I suppose there is a little bloodsucking going on, but obviously no vampires. I did a very brief review of The Devil Bat here.

Thanks for another astute review!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers Mark

Given Dracula does feel tagged on perhaps I should have added in that this film came out in the same year as Lee did "The Man With the Golden Gun" - a real spy film! That would be too cruel!

I don't know why Devil Bat was included other than the fact that it is a cheap, public domain DVD set and so I can imagine someone, who has never seen the film, saying Lugosi, bat... must be vampires and its free!

Anonymous said...

if thats a public domain version its proberly the heavely cut british print this ios the cuts from the british copy
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA was classified 'X' for theatrical release in 1973 with the following cuts
- Reels 1-2 - Shot of actual incision in cockerel's neck was removed.The ritual stabbing of woman, and her screams was considerably reduced.The shots of the woman's body smeared with blood was considerably reduced.
Reel 5 - The scene in which Murray plunges a stake repeatedly into Jane's body, and her accompanying screams, was considerably reduced.
Reel 8 - The scene in which Murray drives the stake four times into the body of the Chinese woman was considerably reduced, with one plunge of the stake sufficing.
Reel 9 - The electrocution of a man, and the accompanying screams was reduced.
The work was classified for video in 1988 in the above pre-cut state. However, one further cut was required as follows
- At 43.5 mins - Shot in which stake is seen plunged beneath naked breast of chained female vampire was removed.
themaki19@hotmail.com

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks for the info Themaki19

Unknown said...

This is my favorite Lee Dracula movie. I disagree about him feeling Underused or Tacked on, his not showing up till the end is a common way of setting up a Behind the scenes villain (Like The Emperor) once he shows up he takes over the film, I like the idea of a modern Dracula being a Lex Luthor like CEO.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Its rare to hear someone call this their favourite Lee/Hamer Dracula, but I can respect that unknown.

I see where you are coming from in the 'behind the scene villain' stake but it is difficult for me to except that from the filmmakers when the villain's name is in the title. I would expect to see his guiding hand that little bit more, but that's just me.

However, many thanks for the comment - it is appreciated :)