I have always regarded The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) as a kind of James Bond Dracula movie. After all, it does have some of the familiar elements of an 007 yarn: action-packed car and motorbike chases, corrupt government officials, secret service drama, gorgeous women, and an abominable plan hatched by the villain of the piece – Count Dracula, of course – for world destruction.
Originally entitled Dracula is Dead and Well and Living In London, directed by Alan Gibson and based on a screenplay by Don Houghton, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a direct sequel to Dracula AD 1972, taking place two years after the previous movie. Together with the return of Christopher Lee as Count Dracula, Peter Cushing also reprises his role as Lorrimer Van Helsing. This time, however, Joanna Lumley replaces Stephanie Beacham as Van Helsing’s granddaughter. Alongside Lee and Cushing, Michael Coles also returns as Inspector Murray.
The plot in this movie is, in many ways, quite different to the ones in all the previous Hammer Dracula films. This time, Dracula has far more reaching ambitions than just lurking around in his Gothic castle, in between biting the odd neck or two. His menace is on a much wider scale in this movie. A global scale. He intends to destroy not only the whole world, but also to take himself down with it in the bargain. To this end, he resorts to using the dreaded bubonic plague – otherwise known as The Black Death – to achieve his final triumph over mankind.
There are certainly shades of Stoker’s novel here in regard to the Count’s avowed intent. Rather than just remain in his Transylvanian castle, he comes to London, just as he did in the novel. Blending in with the general populace under the guise of a mysterious, shady businessman by the name of D. D. Denham, he sets up his “business” in a large office block in the capital. Working from a platform involving both MI5 and a satanic cult, the Count proceeds to put his diabolical plan into action. This is definitely Christopher Lee’s Dracula as you have never seen him before.
When Scotland Yard detectives call in Lorrimer Van Helsing to aid them in the investigation of this satanic cult and its links to corruption in high places, the vampire expert visits Denham one night in his towering, mist-shrouded office block. This really is one of my favourite scenes in the movie. Van Helsing, less swashbucklingly active than he was in his first two Dracula films, but more careful and calculating in this movie, is obviously not fooled by that shadowy, suited figure sitting opposite him across the desk. Despite the bright glare of a desk lamp positoned to that it shines directly into his eyes, our determined vampire hunter still manages to surreptitiously slip a holy Bible under some spilled papers from his sinister host’s desk. Consequently, Van Helsing ultimately exposes D. D. Denham as none other than Count Dracula himself, as the vampire burns his hand when he touches the sacred book and emits an incriminating shriek. Classic Hammer stuff here.
Now I know that some Hammer fans and critics alike have sniggered at Lee’s rather Lugosi-like accent in this scene, but personally I was quite entertained by it, as I thought it added yet another interesting aspect to this rather unconventional Hammer Dracula movie. And when you think about it, maybe it was Lee’s intention to faithfully adhere to Bram Stoker’s original conception of the character for which he was always lobbying. But that Lugosi-like accent is soon dropped the instant Van Helsing discovers his true identity, and he reverts to the imperiously aloof and coldly authoritative tones which he had exhibited in his first outing as Dracula (1958).
Despite his bravery at facing the Count in his beaureaucratic lair, things don’t go very well for Van Helsing, as Dracula and his cronies take him prisoner with the evil purpose of keeping him alive for whatever horrible fate they have in store for him. As it turns out, that fate involves the sacrifice of his granddaughter, who has also been taken prisoner by the vampire lord. And not only that, but the real intention behind Dracula’s nefarious activities in the big city is fully and horribly revealed. Again, with his usual jaw-dropping brilliance, Christopher Lee delivers Dracula’s lines in such an exceptionally sepulchral, demonically disquieting tone that you really get the feeling that the Prince of Darkness really means business here. But certainly not the beauracratic kind of business with which he first entered the big city, but business of a much darker nature. The Devil’s business.
I won’t give away any more of the epic climax of this movie, in case any of you have not seen it. But what I will say is that as Dracula yet again confronts his arch enemy Van Helsing, some of you will probably roll your eyes and shake your heads at the rather questionable way in which Dracula is dispatched (just as you probably did at the end of Scars of Dracula), and for the last time ever too. Sadly, this would be the last time we would ever see Christopher Lee appear in another Hammer Dracula film.
As well as the ending, I also absolutely love the opening sequence of The Satanic Rites of Dracula, which really emphasises how Dracula has now extended his Gothic Transylvanian reach to stretch all over modern-day London. We are presented with a slowly growing shadow of a cloaked form, clawlike hands extended in a predatory grasp. The ominous shadow of a true monster. The expansion of his malevolent shadow over London hammers (no pun intended) home the point that Dracula will no longer be confined to his Transylvanian homeland. And, wow, how that wonderful musical score from John Cacavas enhances the scene!
Although something of a slow burner, and at times seeming more like a Sweeney (minus Reagan and Carter) movie than a Dracula one, I still think that The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a very enjoyable Hammer film. All the members of the cast are excellent in their roles, especially Lee and Cushing. As I have said, love the musical score too. And I thought that the conspiracy element in which important figures – from the military, the government, big business and science – were involved in Dracula’s evil plan was quite clever and entertaining. It made this quite an original Dracula movie that stood out from all the rest.
All in all, The Satanic Rites of Dracula provided a truly memorable end to Christopher Lee’s long, awesome reign as Hammer’s vampire supreme. I enjoyed it immensely. My enjoyment, though, is still always tinged with a bit of sadness whenever I rewatch the movie, knowing that this is the very last time that Lee would don the Dracula cape. A great pity that he chose to call it a day after this one, as to be honest I could have gone on watching the great man play Dracula again in sequel after sequel, as I’m sure many thousands of other Hammer fans could have too. But then again, I suppose we should all be thankful that he went on playing the Count for as long as he did, given the times he’d displayed initial reservations about reprising the role if it failed to fully match Bram Stoker’s original conception of the character.
God bless you, Sir Christopher Lee. You have left us all with a truly remarkable legacy.
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