25 October 2008

THE END TIMES

Oh yes; Hammer Film Productions was dead, it was just a matter of everybody finally agreeing to stop humping the corpse (after 1974, a grand total of two films were released by the company: To the Devil a Daughter in 1976, and a remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979). I can think of no other possible explanation for the raw desperation in which the disappointing response to Dracula A.D. 1972 was followed by the decision to go ahead and do exactly the same thing a second time: giving the reigns once again to director Alan Gibson and writer Don Houghton, to set another film in the modern day and to make it a direct sequel to their misbegotten previous effort.

With a portentous title like The Satanic Rites of Dracula, you could be forgiven for assuming that the eighth film in the series - the seventh and final entry to star Christopher Lee - would be the culmination of the theme being drawn out through Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Dracula A.D. 1972, by which the vampire lord was transformed from a biological curse, in Dr. Van Helsing's original view, to an embodiment of Satan himself. And that's almost the film that was made. For one thing, it involves Dracula's plot to instigate Armageddon. But that's not the half of it, because in this entry, not only is he an avatar of demonic power, he's also revealed to be the next-best thing to a James Bond supervillain. Hell, given that Christopher Lee's turn as a legitimate James Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun was just months away (as the Bond series surely enjoyed a longer post-production schedule than Hammer could afford, it's even plausible that Lee's work in the Bond film preceded his last turn as Dracula), and that the evil plot his Francisco Scaramanga concocted in that movie was easily less ambitious and destructive than Dracula's in Satanic Rites, we could just go ahead and say that Dracula has turned into a more-than-Bondian supervillain!

(Taking the Lee connection even further, Dracula has basically turned into Fu Manchu, but as I've never seen any of his several performances in that role - shameful, I know - I don't feel right pursuing that line of thought).

One thing is certain, with this film Lee's incredibly persistent complaints that the Hammer films were increasingly bald-faced in their lack of respect towards anything like the characters Bram Stoker created are proven entirely true. Well, the good news for Lee was that after this time, he never had to play a vampire ever again. From here, it was on to the honeysuckle fields of Howling II: ...Your Sister Is a Werewolf, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. Never look back, Chris!

I tease Christopher Lee, but about this at least, he was completely right: The Satanic Rites of Dracula is an awful film. The acting amongst the supporting cast is probably a notch above A.D. 1972, but outside of that there's not really a single dimension of the film that doesn't leave it the worst of the series: the direction, the cinematography, the set design, the script... oh, dear lord, the script...

About two years after the last film ended with Dracula's ashes buried in the abandoned churchyard at St. Bartholomew's, the London police have been running an investigation into Pelham House, a paranormal exploration group that has been tied to the disappearance of busty young women of late. As the film opens, an undercover agent has just managed to escape from Pelham with his life, though his sanity is certainly in question: he can only burble about watching a young woman get baptised with the blood of a slain rooster (or "cockrel", as the film insists in its quaint British way), while suggesting that his secret spy film has the identities of the men involved. This bit of info ultimately makes its way to Inspector Murray (Michael Coles), who is reminded of a certain case involving witchcraft and blood sacrifice from a couple of years ago, where he worked with Professor Lorrimer (*snort*) Van Helsing (of course, Peter Cushing) to stop the return of the world's greatest vampire. And indeed, Coles was the first actor besides Lee or Cushing to appear in two Dracula films as the same character, unless we're going to count Michael Ripper's many turns as one suspicious innkeeper or another. By the time that Van Helsing actually shows up to render his considered opinion on the matter, Murray and his team have found that the secret spy film proves that four of the men involved in the satanic rites of Pelham are significant leaders of business and government: General Sir Arthur Freebourne (Lockwood West), military leader, Lord Carridine (Patrick Barr), the owner of the most land in England "besides the Church and the Crown", Dr. John Porter (Richard Mathews), whose particular claim to fame I have forgotten, and Professor Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), a Nobel-winning scientist. When Van Helsing hears these names, he recognises Keeley as a friend and colleague, although for no real reason at all, he doesn't tell the cops, who find out during the same scene anyway. This never results in any kind of suspicion falling on Van Helsing. Basically, it was written to provide about 30 seconds of padding.

Van Helsing's meeting with Keeley ends badly - Van Helsing shot, Keeley hung in a faked suicide - but only after the occultist learns that Keeley has just perfect an extremely virulent new form of bubonic plague. That's the first step towards tying a whole lot of things together: the cops have found out that Pelham is operated by the Denham Corporation, a giant business concern founded not even two years ago by the mysterious D.D. Denham, who has never been seen or photographed. Couple that with the location of the Denham headquarters - right over the former site of St. Bartholomew's - and the quartet of chained-up vampire brides that Jessica Van Helsing (now played by Joanna Lumley, who actually had a career afterward - she was Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous) discovered in the basement of Pelham, and Van Helsing starts to be pretty damn sure of who this D.D. Denham really is.

When Van Helsing makes his way to the top floor of the Denham building to confront Dracula, he learns just how terrifying the count's plans are: first, he will make Jessica his queen (especially necessary since the cops killed his other brides by turning on the sprinkler system; I remain uncertain if that's brilliant or terrible screenwriting), then he will loose his plague on the world, killing every human, and eventually starving himself to death. When Van Helsing points out that flaw in the plan, Dracula doesn't even seem terribly upset; it could be, as the doctor suggests, that he just wants to finally be at rest.

He'll get his chance pretty soon: Murray saves Van Helsing and his daughter, and in the fire that just kind of happens, the vampire and the vampire hunter escape into the night, where Dracula gets to suffer the worst death of his career. Earlier in the film, Van Helsing noted that hawthorne bushes - the plant that provided Christ's crown of thorns - were harmful to vampires. It just so happens that there's a big ol' hawthorne bush right outside the Denham building, and Van Helsing captures the count in this bush by means of a tremendously clever trick: he stands behind it and yells, "I'm over here!" Clearly, Dracula really is suicidal; that, or he's quite possibly the stupidest villain in the history of the cinema. Anyway, as he writes in pain, Van Helsing grabs a picket from the nearest fence and drives it into the vampire's heart. Thus ends the centuries-long reign of the Prince of Darkness.

I totally wasn't kidding - this is an espionage thriller that just happens to have a vampire as its main villain. There's the plot to use some high-falutin' superweapon developed by a secret cabal of geniuses to take over the world (and I'd be a lot more impressed with the whole "vampire bringing the plague" notion if some German hadn't already thought it up); the villain's legitimate business facade that takes the heroes too much time to crack, given that they already suspect it from the get-go (and the only way this could have been easier for Van Helsing was to have a hand-painted sign reading "DRAKYULA IS HEER" on the front door of the Denham building); his exotic handmaiden, in this case satanic ritual specialist Chin Yang (Barbara Yu Lang); garish henchmen (men in puffy sheepskin coats on motorbikes); and even a goddamnable "Let me explain my fiendish plot, Mr. Bond, since you are soon going to die" scene. I guess that's an original direction to take a tremendously played-out franchise, but I think I'd have been happier with no eighth Dracula film at all, rather than this particular eighth Dracula film.

Certainly, there's almost nothing else about the film to give it even a whisper of vitality or interest. It's terribly shot - easily the ugliest film in the series and the ugliest Hammer film I've ever seen (which isn't honestly all that much), except for the bold reds in the opening satanic ritual sequence. It suffers from remarkably poor direction - the moment that springs to mind is a lovely little two-step, in which Van Helsing says something or other and punctuates it by gesturing towards the camera dramatically with a piece of paper, and Gibson helpfully underscores the moment by zooming in on Van Helsing's face; then we cut to a side view of the man holding a paper out dramatically. The zoom in particular was where I heaved the biggest "oh, it was the '70s" sigh that I heaved all film, although it was hardly the only such moment.

And the acting! ...well, like I said, the supporting cast is better than in the last film. But Lee no longer put even the remotest effort to hide his contempt for the part. It almost suits Dracula's world-weariness, but there's no hiding bad acting. The only person who really comes out well, surprise, is Peter Cushing, who once again betrays no hint that the words he is saying are anything less than Shakespearean, even when he's giving a two minute spiel about the history of the occult including the bon mot, "witches are real, but 90% of them are charlatans". Among other essentially meaningless dialogue. He commits everything he has, so that Lorrimer Van Helsing never twitches or looks askance or steps forward without it being exactly the thing that is right for the character to do at the moment. It's films like this that make me feel impossibly sorry for actors like Peter Cushing.

Frankly, I'd like to put this one behind me. It wasn't a very happy experience to watch, any more than it was happy to make (and by God, I've hardly ever seen a movie that was more obviously an unhappy experience for the cast and crew). There was one more death rattle in the franchise released later that year, and though it's still pretty bad and almost obscenely goofy, at least it's not so contemptibly stupid as The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Fisher, 1958)
The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Fisher, 1966)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Francis, 1968)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (Sasdy, 1970)
Scars of Dracula (Baker, 1970)
Dracula A.D. 1972 (Gibson, 1972)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1974)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Baker, 1974)

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