Christopher Lee's last Hammer Dracula
- The Satanic Rites of Dracula review by NP
At the time of writing, Sir Christopher Lee has recently passed away at the age of 93.
This is the final film he made for Hammer as Dracula, the role that brought him to the attention of so many. Derided by many over the years, not least by its leading actor, and released at a time when interest in Hammer productions had waned considerably, this once more reunited Lee with Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.
This was one of the films horror films I ever saw, and I am happy to say I loved it then (when it was shown on television in the late 70s) and I love it now. This is the second time Hammer made a picture featuring Dracula in the modern day, and this time they got it absolutely right. The Count had been secretly recruiting people to his cult for a while by the time the story starts, so he is already in a position of power. Living as the reclusive DD Denham, he is very rarely known to leave his tower-block office empire. What better place for a modern day vampire to exist, hiding in plain sight?
Van Helsing (and daughter Jessica, now played by Joanna Lumley) is brought in by the police when it appears that Denham doesn’t show up in photographs, suggesting something sinister. At first Van Helsing is treated with scepticism, but this changes when it appears The Count, sick of his undead unlife, is planning to sweep a plague across all of the Earth.
I love that anyone who comes in to contact with Count’s plan dies (Freddie Jones’ Professor Keeley is the most memorable); I love that he doesn’t dirty his hands with the mundanities of his mission, rather leaving all that to the various political members of his cult. I love that an effort has actually been made to integrate Dracula into society – even when he is not in the story, he directly influences everything that happens. Equally, his victims are confined to Pelham House, which is not a shambling church or sprawling castle. His seduction/attack on Valerie Van Ost’s Jane takes place in a seedy backroom prison, lit only by a swinging bulb. Into that scene Dracula enters, backlit and surrounded by mist, and his impressive frame lights up the dilapidated chamber and Alan Gibson’s fine direction encourages the allurement to be an almost hallucinatory experience.
The ending, and Dracula’s final despatch, has also been slated by ‘fans’, but again, I like it. No elaborate theatrics (that is left to Michael Cole’s Inspector Murray’s spectacular rescue of Jessica), just two deadly, veteran rivals, slugging it out alone. The hawthorn bush is added to the list of ‘all things deadly to a vampire’ (it provided Christ with His crown of thorns after all), and that together with a stake through the heart and Hammer’s Dracula is gone for good. This final, and significant film, is the only one of the series – and possibly Lee’s only picture – that doesn’t currently enjoy an official DVD release. There are low quality efforts available, but this surely deserves a release more worthy, allowing more people to re-value it.
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