The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

1 star out of 4. Beyond godawful.

Somehow this garbage is simultaneously better and worse than AD 1972. If that makes any sense at all.

After the runaway success of the previous film, (I’m kidding, even then people knew it was awful.) Hammer decided to make a direct sequel to cash in on its in-no-way-under-any-circumstances-could-ever-be-possibly-considered-a-sucess hit idea of resurrecting the Count in the present day.

The film opens with an unexplained Satanic ritual being performed in some English country house. A man escapes from being held captive and makes a dash for freedom. He manages to elude his captors and jump into a waiting car outside. These turn out to be his superiors, and the injured man is an undercover secret service officer. He attempts to tell the others of the house being a front for a Satanic cult including several notable members of the British government. After recounting this he dies and the officials are left scratching their heads. They call in the Scotland Yard Inspector from the previous film and he in turn recommends they talk to Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

The secretary who has been taking notes all this time is suddenly attacked by the two sheepskin vest wearing cult henchmen on motorcycles. She is later shown tied up at the manor house and Dracula randomly appears to give her a bite to eat…

The officers travel to tell Van Helsing of these strange events and he recognizes one of the men as an old acquaintance (Well, he actually doesn’t say anything at first, but his granddaughter says that he knows one of them, so he then admits he was holding back for some unknown reason…maybe time padding perhaps?) and agrees that he should go and visit his old friend Doctor Keeley and pump him for information.

The officers and Jessica Van Helsing travel out to the manor house where they are greeted by the supposed leader of the cult, Chin Yang (yes, this movie even has a random Chinese lady.) They find themselves in the cellar, which is filled with vampire girls chained to the floor and the coffins in some sort of vampiric dungeon. The head officer stakes the secretary from earlier and the three then flee from the grounds.

Vna Helsing confronts Doctor Keeley, who is nearly insane at this time. Keeley has been commissioned to create a new strain of the bubonic plague by some mysterious benefactor. Another of the sheepskin wearing henchmen shoots Van Helsing, who crumples to the floor. He awakens later (Yes, Van Helsing was shot at point blank range in the head and was merely knocked unconscious.) to see the Doctor’s body hung from the ceiling. The bacteria that was on a table earlier has vanished.

Kelley spoke of the 23rd of October, which Van Helsing knows to be the “Sabbath of the Undead”. The Doctor’s writings reveal a certain mysterious businessman named D.D. Denham to be behind the funding of this new project. Van Helsing deduces that this is none other than Dracula himself, who wants to wipe out all humanity with the plague in order to die taking everyone with him in the ultimate revenge. Van Helsing then travels to the headquarters of Denham, armed with a gun loaded with silver bullets. He arrives at the building which was built on top of the church ruins from the previous film. He meets with Denham in one of the oddest scenes in the entire series.

Of course this is actually Dracula. It’s really rather obvious. So why the filmmakers decided to make Cushing and Christopher Lee carry on this charade any longer than necessary is inexcusable. Lee speaks in a almost imitation of a Middle European accent (possibly Hungarian…?) and is seated behind a desk with the light turned towards Van Helsing to keep his face in darkness. (yeah, right.) Van Helsing cleverly slips a Bible into some papers on the desk and thus reveals Denham to be Dracula. (Yes, we knew that already thank you very much.) He then repels Dracula with a crucifix and takes a good several minutes too long to shoot the silver bullet. He is captured by Dracula’s minions and taken to the manor house to be killed slowly.

The two inspectors and Jessica lie in wait outside the house keeping watch. They are attacked by a sniper and the elder agent is killed. The Yard detective and Jessica are captured, with the detective awaking in the cellar. He is approached by the Chinese lady from earlier who is also a vampire. He manages to stake her and escape all the others, making it to the door of the cellar. In just about the only clever moment of this entire film, he notices his arm is next to the old sprinkler lever. He snatches at it and activates the water flow. The cellar full of vampiresses are destroyed.

Dracula then begins his own ceremony to inaugurate his plans of apocalypse. Lee is on top form here as he speaks of the men being his four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The three remaining government officials begin to react in dismay as they believed the plague to be a biological deterrent and never expected the Prince of Darkness to actually use it. This causes one of the men to tremble and accidentally break the vial of plague. He staggers about in agony as a fight between the detective and a guard results in a fire breaking out. Everyone flees leaving the flailing plague man, Dracula and Van Helsing as the only ones left in the burning house.

Van Helsing escapes into the woods and lures Dracula into a hawthorn tree. (Earlier, Van Helsing mentioned that this tree could harm vampires because it was used to make Christ’s crown of thorns.) His method is brilliant; simply shouting at Dracula. The idiot Count does not realize what tree this is, so he blunders through the branches and finally makes it through the other side mortally wounded. Van Helsing makes an improvised wooden stake from a nearby fence and kills Dracula again. The end titles immediately appear.

Let me reiterate: Dracula is essentially killed by a tree. That should tell you everything in a nutshell. The film looks incredibly cheap and badly shot. The script is incomprehensible at times and with all of the espionage and sci-fi elements it becomes quite obvious that it was written by a former Doctor Who scribe.

This one is so bad that American distributors initially refused to distribute it in the US. It was only in 1976 that the film was released, greatly cut down and under the inane title of Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride.

But the idea of the plot is genius. For once there is actually a good idea behind Dracula’s actions.  The idea that Dracula actually wants to die is a thought that gives intense personal drama to the character and actually gives him a motivation. But Dracula cannot simply commit suicide. No, no no. He decides the best way to die is to kill the entire population of all living things on the Earth and perish due to lack of food supply. Thus he would achieve his revenge for all eternity and finally be free from his eternal damnation. To achieve this he lures politically powerful men into a Satanic cult and hides everything behind a rich corporate front, pretending to be a reclusive millionaire à la Howard Hughes. Ironic? Chilling? Cold? Metaphoric? Societal criticism? In a 70’s Hammer film?

Cushing once again proves that he is life force of these films. The dialogue could be nonsense (which occurs often) and his energy is so focused that we believe anything the man says. One could only wish that a better film could surround these few good qualities because they are so promising that you have to wonder what the film could have been like if everything was excised and someone had done a second draft.

The film has lapsed into the public domain. I wonder why…

 

Due to the film being in the public domain, there are indefinite versions floating about all in terrible quality. Anchor Bay released the only watchable transfer years back under their Hammer Collection banner. It is a terribly outdated non-anamorphhic 1.85:1 transfer with muddy Dolby 2.0 mono audio. The same disc was repackaged with Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Both editions are now out of print. Several public domain DVDs are said to use the Anchor Bay transfer.

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Filed under 1 star, Film, Hammer Films

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