As part of an ongoing effort to drive subscribers back to rabbit ears and tin foil, the Scribe’s local Cablevision hub has been providing erroneous programming information for several of its HD channels for some time. Only a fool plans his MonstersHD broadcast recordings based on the CV-provided schedule, and a fools reward is exactly what I received. Seeing nothing but the unwanted Hellraiser and Dollman sequels that frequent my otherwise beloved MonstersHD channel, I scheduled no recordings. After being alerted by a sick friend who had initially attributed the confusion to fever-related dementia, I consulted the MonstersHD website and found that I had been missing several Hammer favorites, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Dracula has Risen from the Grave, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and Dracula A.D. 72.
Though the repetitive programming and questionable choices can be a prime source of agita, MonstersHD has a good track record in showing excellent prints of some pretty wonderful films – many of which, like Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, contain restored footage - something that the network would do better to advertise. Most of the Hammers on display are available from Warner Bros on beautiful (and anamorphically enhanced) DVDs, and, with a decent up-converting DVD player, one can achieve an image of near HD quality. But Satanic Rites had only been available from Anchor Bay many years ago in an overly dark, non-anamorphic transfer. The MonstersHD version is a revelation, featuring much brighter, stable colors on a clean unmarked print. Though no new footage is present, the MonstersHD broadcast runs noticeably longer, as it doesn’t suffer the frame drop-outs that the previous DVD did. One of the final films produced during Hammer’s death rattle, 1973’s Satanic Rites of Dracula continues the ‘Mod’ setting of the previous year’s Dracula A.D. 72, but dispenses with Johnny Alucard (get it?) and his Carnaby Street irregulars in favor of a more mature cast and a less derivative story (Dracula A.D. 72 carries many of the same themes and plot stylings of Taste the Blood of Dracula). The logic-defying storyline, however, is another matter. Despite being staked into oblivion by Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) at the conclusion of the previous film, Dracula returns, without explanation, as the head of a multinational corporation. DracCorp, you see, is actually a front for a group of Satanists composed of a collection of Britain’s power elite, who obey the will of the Count without question. Their somewhat bizarre mission (again, at Dracula’s behest) would constitute a plot spoiler, but a comparison to someone sprinkling poison on their own vegetable garden might be apt. The police (Michael Coles looking more David Warner than David Warner returns as Inspector Murray) get wind of the nefarious goings on through an informant and call in Van Helsing as a kind of consulting detective.
Part horror, part police procedural, part spy movie and God-knows-what-else, Satanic's more riotous elements are more or less held together by Alan Gibson’s steady direction. Somewhat ironically, Gibson was only 33 when he helmed Dracula A.D. 72, yet seemed ill at ease with the “groovy, baby” antics of the younger characters. Satanic Rites, on the other hand, exhibits the both spirit and breezy fun of a more-macabre-than-average episode of The Avengers. Now in the interest of fairness, the film is far from perfect. The vampire’s demise tops even the lame purity-of-running-water routine from Dracula: Prince of Darkness, as Van Helsing lures the count into a patch of lethal Hawthorne (the aversion to thorns has something to do with Christ’s crown of same), and certainly more fun could have been had by transposing Dracula to a modern-day corporate setting than the rather drab, post-modernist grotto-office that we’re supposed to believe Christopher Lee’s haughty Count would feel the slightest bit comfortable with. Like the set, Lee also seems a bit drab here; he had made his displeasure with Hammer’s more extreme diversions from Stoker’s source book known to anyone that would sit still long enough to listen, and still insists today that he was emotionally blackmailed by Hammer into participating by telling him about all the personnel that would lose their jobs because the film couldn’t be sold without him. We love Chris, but along with Freddie Francis’ frequent griping about being pigeonholed as a horror director, it ranks among our least favorite negative remembrances of Hammer Studios personnel.
But as always, Lee perks right up when playing against Cushing – who may have had the same reservations with the increasingly daffy turns that the series was taking, but never felt the need to discuss it publicly. Their scenes together make watching Satanic Rites a more melancholy experience, as it would be the last time they would appear together onscreen together in a film. Though Cushing would reprise his role as a Van Helsing one last time for the studio in the genre-bending The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, a co-production between Hammer and Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios, Lee would never again don the black cape for the studio.
If I had a Hammer…