Before I’m inundated with anguished howls from those who think I’m barmy, let’s get one thing straight here – I KNOW The Satanic Rites of Dracula isn’t a great movie. And I KNOW there are plot holes in it you could drive a hearse and four horses through. But it’s high time we took another look at this unloved, underrated classic, and asked ourselves if we’re really being fair to it – because I believe our judgement has been coloured over the years by the views of critics and so-called expert commentators.
It was released in 1974 – incidentally the year of my birth – when Hammer was pretty much going through its final throws. Budgets had not just been cut, they’d been almost annihilated, and a new breed of film-makers had arrived in an attempt to recapture the studio’s gory glory days.
Director Alan Gibson and screenwriter Don Houghton had already made the truly appalling Dracula AD1972, but Houghton had also penned a couple of very strong Jon Pertwee Doctor Who adventures – Inferno and The Mind of Evil. It seems he fused the two together and came up with The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
If you need evidence of this, imagine Van Helsing is The Doctor, a man oddly out of time in present-day London; Dracula is The Master, his long-standing arch enemy (at one point, the Count even declares “I am The Master“!); Jessica Van Helsing is the sexy assistant, and there’s even a UNIT-style presence in the form of Inspector Murray and the secret service led by Torrance. In fact, if Peter Cushing had played The Doctor as he plays Van Helsing here – quiet, steely, determined but with vulnerability – rather than as the bumbling eccentric he adopted for his two cinematic outings, then his portrayal may have been regarded as one of the strongest ever seen.
Cushing is at his best, giving an understated yet believable performance. His gaunt features indicate a tired man giving his all in dire consequences; he’s also incredibly moving when he realises his beloved granddaughter is about to become his nemesis’s bride. Plus, there are some wonderful bits of trademark Cushing ‘business’, such as melting down the silver crucifix to make a bullet, and the most extraordinary serving of tea I’ve ever seen on film!
Any self-respecting Hammer fan knows that Christopher Lee was a reluctant participant, even refusing to say some lines because they were “not true to Stoker” – which is not exactly a great argument from him, seeing as setting the entire story in present-day London wasn’t exactly true to the author either… It’s been rumoured that Dracula had originally also been given lines from The Book of Revelation – imagine the amazing power Lee’s voice would have given to a speech including:
“The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars.. they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
“…there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
Lee nevertheless gives arguably his strongest performance as the Count since his original outing 16 years earlier; he‘s quietly sinister, somehow managing to dominate proceedings even when he‘s not on screen. You can feel Dracula‘s sinister presence throughout, pulling the strings of those in his power. It’s been well documented that Vincent Price gave an uncharacteristically grumpy, menacing portrayal of Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General due to his arguments with director Michael Reeves; could Lee be doing a similar thing? ie channelling his anger and disappointment at being involved in a project he regarded below his talents into giving a particularly chilling portrayal?
For me, one of the most pleasing aspects of Satanic Rites is its strong supporting cast. Michael Coles reprises his role as Murray from AD1972, while Joanna Lumley replaces Stephanie Beacham as Jessica, the always wonderful Freddie Jones is Van Helsing’s doomed friend Keeley, and William Franklyn plays Torrance.
A few years before he died, I had the good fortune to speak to Franklyn about the film. He wouldn’t have a bad word said about Cushing, but hinted that Lee wasn’t an easy man to get along with. Interestingly, Franklyn’s daughters hated the film – they were terrified because for the first time they were forced to witness their father’s death onscreen!
I also contacted Jones, who replied in a charming letter, saying, “time has erased my memory of the entire experience.” Can’t you just imagine him saying that, in that slightly quavering delivery of his? He also claimed the only thing he could remember about his Hammer experiences was that they didn’t pay much!
But I digress…
Although this article is relatively short, I’m hoping it will inspire horror fans to give The Satanic Rites of Dracula a second chance. The law of diminishing returns may suggest that it’s the worst of Lee’s outings in the big, black cloak, but I argue it’s far from that. Yes, there are certain issues with aspects of the plot (why don’t they just raid Pelham House as soon as they see it’s full of vamps? Why doesn’t Keeley’s assassin make sure Van Helsing is dead, thus allowing him to save the day?) but if you can put these to the back of your mind, there’s the making of a strong horror thriller featuring a series of excellent performances.
As for me, I’m hoping a certain Steven Moffat realises the story’s potential and turns it into the basis for a Doctor Who adventure. Over to you, Steven…
Review by Sarah Morgan
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