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Right then - it's time for some more Draculising! I watched this one a week ago with the ever-patient and accommodating ms_siobhan and planet_andy, after an absolutely delicious dinner of corned beef hash made by the former, and 'poshed up' via the use of sweet potatoes, mustard and sun-dried tomatoes. Yum! We had to watch it on one of my old-school video tapes, because it sadly isn't available at the moment on a region 2 DVD, which is frankly criminal if you ask me. I'm not saying it's the best Dracula film ever made, but if the whole series could be made available on matching video-cassettes in the 1980s, surely it isn't asking too much to expect the same on DVD now? I demand a boxed set, dammit!

Anyway. The series had made the leap to the 1970s with the previous instalment, Dracula AD 1972, which is one of my absolute favourites, and which for that reason I am saving until last in this run of re-watches. This film stays in the same era and indeed carries over not only Dracula himself but three other characters from the previous film (Lorrimer Van Helsing, Jessica Van Helsing and Inspector Murray) in what must be the most concerted attempt at continuity the series had ever made. But at the same time the secondary genre (as in the one being paired with Gothic horror to lend the franchise a fresh edge and appeal to new audiences) has completely changed. Where AD 1972 was a youth-focused comedy with a dark edge, Satanic Rites is a Srs Bsns Crime Thriller involving men with sniper rifles, political corruption, secret government organisations, chase scenes, conversations in darkened rooms and people standing on hill-tops with binoculars. It's actually probably not a bad Srs Bsns Crime Thriller if you like that sort of thing, and I certainly noticed some very competent camera-work - nice framing devices, angles, compositions, etc. But personally I prefer the spirited tongue-in-cheek feel of the previous film to the unrelenting seriousness of this one.

The appearance of Lorrimer Van Helsing here for the second film in a row isn't very surprising. If you're setting your Dracula films in the present day, and can persuade Peter Cushing to be in them, obviously it only makes sense to cast him as the same character from the previous instalment, who remains in London fighting the forces of darkness. The decision to include Jessica Van Helsing and Inspector Murray again, even at the cost of having to re-cast Jessica (formerly Stephanie Beacham, now Joanna Lumley), is a less obvious one, and thus more deserving of comment. As ms_siobhan pointed out, there is a (fairly minor) degree of romance between them, which isn't otherwise supplied elsewhere in the plot - itself surprising, because romance has been pretty central to every single other Dracula sequel. But I wonder if it was also done with an eye to their future potential in other (unmade) sequels? One thing it means in particular is that they both already know all about vampires and how to defeat them from the previous film (and, in Jessica's case, from being a member of the Van Helsing family). The result is that already, Lorrimer isn't really needed to perform his traditional role of explaining how vampires can be defeated and then leading the charge against Dracula. If this film had been a success, I can see how an ongoing series charting the exploits of Jessica Van Helsing and Inspector Murray, vampire hunters, could well have followed.

For now, Jessica herself comes across as one of those half-cocked Seventies attempts at writing an empowered female character which I recognise (to my sorrow) from contemporary episodes of Doctor Who. On the one hand, Lorrimer Van Helsing tells the (all-male) team of spies and police inspectors he is working with that he sometimes thinks Jessica knows more about his work than he does, and indeed we see her making intelligent and articulate contributions to their conversations - even as she also serves them cups of coffee (because we wouldn't want these women getting too carried away and losing their feminine charms now, would we?). On the other hand, she also falls victim to the oldest woman-in-an-action-movie trope in the book. When she is told by Inspector Murray to wait in the car for her own safety while he and his colleague investigate an isolated stately home, she first protests, but then sneaks off on her own anyway, which inevitably leads to her getting attacked by a cellar full of vampires. Later on, of course, she also ends up on Dracula's satanic altar, under his thrall and about to be turned into his latest consort - not for any reason to do with her, but as Dracula's vengeance by proxy on Lorrimer Van Helsing. No doubt the production team clapped one another on the back for writing an intelligent modern woman into their story, but in fact she is utterly undermined by becoming an object lesson in a) how women should sit back and let men handle the heavy action because they'll only mess things up, and b) how women are mere pawns in the really important business of men's battles against one another.

Dracula, meanwhile, has plans which extend well beyond merely getting revenge on the Van Helsing dynasty this time. In fact, his evil schemes in this film are easily the most epic of the entire series - not merely biting a few girls or even destroying one or more men who have wronged him, but setting up a vast global conglomerate, drawing the most powerful men of the day into his web of intrigue, and then wiping out the entire population of the Earth with a new and virulent strain of the Black Death. It gives him a new edge that we haven't seen before, rather like a Bond villain, and which I rather like. After all, he is often referred to in these films as the King of the Vampires, Prince of Darkness etc., and plans on this scale make him seem worthy of this terrbile reputation in a way that biting a few ladies in nightdresses doesn't really. It certainly gives him plenty of scope to be icily aristocratic while he develops his plans, and violently monsterish when they begin to go wrong. But the Srs Bsns Crime Thriller genre, and especially the very minimal presence of any romance plot, rather rob him of the chance to hit the third note in what I believe to be his ideal chord - viz., darkly sexual. Much of the erotic charge of his blood-sucking scenes in the previous films lies in the fact that the ladies concerned already have dull-but-worthy boyfriends, but fall for Dracula's dark charms all the same once they see the sexy alternative. Here, though, his only actual victim for the entire film is in no such position. Instead, she is held captive in a room with peeling wall-paper, and the whole 'seduction' scene comes across as exactly as seedy as that makes it sound.

His death scene in this film also makes him look particularly stupid, in that it only really happens because he attempts to walk directly through a hawthorn bush (which we have been told earlier in the film will kill him) in order to attack Van Helsing, rather than - oh, I don't know - walking round it perhaps? Maybe it is meant to signify how utterly vengeance-crazed he is, or (in keeping with ideas from earlier in the film) how he subconsciously longs for death anyway. But seeing him die in such a particularly silly and needless fashion does rather undo the whole King of the Vampires, Prince of Darkness thing yet again, just when he was starting to get good at it! To be fair, Dracula more or less has to do something a bit ill-judged in every one of these films in order for the human characters to stand any chance of defeating him at all. He could very easily have escaped his death scenes in Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood as well, for instance, just by being a bit quicker on the uptake and knowing when to let his immediate quarry go in order to save himself. But this one easily tops any of its predecessors for shouting-at-the-telly levels of frustration.

Finally, I noticed that in his assumed role as the property magnate 'D. D. Denham', Dracula has a piece of Greek sculpture prominently on display in the foyer of his London office block. I thought it looked familiar on first sight, and it didn't take much Googling to pin it down as this piece - the reclining river-god Ilissos from one corner of the west pediment of the Parthenon. I assume this particular piece of set dressing was done largely in order to characterise the mysterious (at this point in the film) D. D. Denham as both wealthy and cultured, but even that is interesting. It goes alongside the bookishness implied by Dracula's decision to hire a librarian in the first film, and to hire a bookbinder even earlier than that, which I have previously noted.

Meanwhile, shifting into the realms of rampant over-interpretation, the decayed, twisted and yet partially-draped body of the statue could be read as foreshadowing Dracula's own twisted body and torn cloak at the end of the film. Or we could say that Dracula chose the statue because he has found himself in that equivalent situation so often before the film even begins that it spoke to him irresistibly of the darker aspects of his own experience. It might in particular remind him of plunging to his death in the water of his castle moat in Prince of Darkness, since the statue is that of a river god. Or maybe his death at the end of the first film, in which he lost first a leg, then an arm and finally his head to the devastating shafts of sunlight, just like the limbless and decapitated statue? Are the memories of these experiences perhaps like a rotten tooth for him - horrible as they are, he can't quite let go of them and keeps finding himself drawn to artistic representations which recall their grislier aspects? Or is the important thing here not so much the Ilissos figure itself, but the central scene which the river god is witnessing in the middle of the pediment - the contest between Athena and Poseidon, which both foreshadows (for the audience) Dracula's climactic stand-off with Van Helsing, and reminds him (within the story) of their centuries-old vendetta?

As I say, I am vastly over-interpreting and I know I am, but that is half the fun of these films for me - the space which they leave for embroidering the stories to suit my own personal taste. I swear that wouldn't be as much fun if the original fabric wasn't so shot full of holes and rife with embarrassing thread-bare patches that simply cry out for my attentions.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
vin_petrol
Dec. 23rd, 2013 12:09 am (UTC)
I'll have to rewatch this myself. I'm pretty sure I first saw it when I was a hormone-fizzing teenage boy, as I have *extremely* vivid memories of the naked woman writhing about on the alter during the satanic rites, and almost no memories of anything else! :-)
strange_complex
Dec. 23rd, 2013 10:17 am (UTC)
Haha, yes - those scenes do have something very memorable about them. We were quite surprised, though, that a scene featuring three vampire ladies in shrouds dying under a sprinkler system was positively restrained, and did almost nothing to capitalise on the wet T-shirt potential of the situation.

I'm finding that all of these films are worth a re-watch, though. Some I haven't seen for about ten years, and I've obviously downgraded them in my memory during that time, but in fact they are still great fun and surprisingly captivating. Even so, I wouldn't honestly recommend starting a re-watch with this one in particular. There are definitely more worthy entries in the series!
jholloway
Dec. 23rd, 2013 08:55 am (UTC)
I think my favourite thing about this film is that you get a couple of murders, a satanic rite, a chase and some bosoms in the first scene. This is known as "beginning as you mean to go on."
strange_complex
Dec. 23rd, 2013 10:19 am (UTC)
Yep, good point! And similar to Risen from the Grave in fact, which also gives us dripping blood, a horror-stuck altar boy and a drained corpse in the first five minutes.
ms_siobhan
Dec. 23rd, 2013 02:35 pm (UTC)
I think my favourite bit is when the delectable Mr Cushing confronts Dracula and appears in a doorway surrounded by a halo of light.

I also enjoyed Christopher Lee's comedy accent...
strange_complex
Dec. 23rd, 2013 02:46 pm (UTC)
I was just waiting for him to announce "I vant to bite your finger."
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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