Last of Hammer’s seven-film series starring Christopher Lee, which began with Dracula in 1958, this effort is best-remembered for the especially absurd way it kills off its villain. Dracula, thwarted in his plan to unleash a new strain of bubonic plague on the world and thus commit an elaborate suicide by destroying the human race upon which he feeds, is lured into the woods by arch-enemy Van Helsing (Cushing) and gets stuck in a bush, which apparently has anti-vampire potency because Jesus’s crown of thorns was manufactured from hawthorn. Van Helsing plucks a handy length of wood from a nearby picket-fence and impales the dastard for the last of many times, and the Count shrivels away via patented crumbling effects into a skeleton and then an inverted cruciform scatter of white ash. That’s right: Dracula is finally destroyed by a common shrub.
A direct sequel to Dracula AD 1972, scripted by Don Houghton (then dividing his time between Hammer and Doctor Who) and directed by the desperately trendy Alan Gibson, The Satanic Rites of Dracula was filmed under the title Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London. Lee, who finally refused to do any more Hammer Draculas after this (he was replaced by John Forbes Robertson for the kung fu horror Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), gets all of fourteen lines and delivers most of them with ill-concealed distaste, even adopting a cod- Lugosi accent when the Count is disguising himself (appropriately) as a reclusive London property developer. Cushing, ever professional, has the bulk of the script’s silly explanations but delivers them as if he really means them, making a meal of his manufacture of vampire-killing devices (we get the full infomercial on how to convert your used crucifix into a silver bullet) and nodding sagely as he puzzles out the Count’s colossal scheme.
Despite shortcomings, this is a wholly cherishable film, and looks a lot more striking now than it did in 1973. After six films in which Dracula confines himself to petty squabbles with unworthy opponents, it’s refreshing that Houghton finally comes up with a monumental, evil plan worthy of a villain of his stature. The movie gets away from Hammer’s usual Berkshire Transylvania to cop elements from sources as varied as Dennis Wheatley (robed Establishment figures taking part in black magic rites with nubile lovelies) and TV spy/adventure shows (Dracula’s coven includes a gang of sheepskin-waistcoated biker boys and Van Helsing’s allies are a Professionals-style intelligence organisation and a Sweeney-type hardman copper). In fact, the plot is so busy that it’s a wonder room was found for Dracula, and Lee (who, in one scene, sits down for the first time in fifteen years) goes through the cloak-swirling, fang-baring, eye-rolling motions without much passion.
Usually, this would mean that Cushing would have to shoulder the acting weight on his own, but here he gets sterling support from familiar British faces like Jones (relishing one great mad scientist speech), Franklyn and Vernon. The Chinese actress Barbara Yu Ling is unusual and effective casting as the vampire’s chief disciple, while a red-haired Lumley, replacing Stephanie Beacham as Van Helsing’s plucky granddaughter, shrinks becomingly in a succession of eye-abusing 1973 fashions: she is even saved from a fanging when her mammoth floppy collar gets in the way of a vampire’s mouth. With its cellarful of chained-up vampire women and eerily empty Avengers-look locations, it feels like no other Hammer film and is all the better for it. If, rather than try various anthology formats, Hammer had wanted to do a TV series with their greatest characters, this would have been a great template for a Van Helsing show, with its mix of horror, science fiction, espionage, car chase action, dolly-bird glamour and guest star emoting – though it kills off supporting spy characters who might have been useful.