Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Hammer Goes Sweeney: The Satanic Rites of Dracula

Here are some notes for a film which will not now be shown in the upcoming Gothic cinema season in Bath (stay tuned for further news). But rest assured, you will still be able to see the Count struggling to adjust to a life in London in Dracula AD1972. Meanwhile, I present, for your edification and entertainment:


The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a sequel of sorts to Dracula AD72, reprising the contemporary London setting and reintroducing a number of the characters who managed to survive the previous film. There is a feel that this could have been developed into an ongoing series, a supernatural Sweeney. Inspector Murray is back on the case, called in by MI5 and soon turning to his old cohort in occult crimebusting, Lorrimer Van Helsing, when its diabolical nature is revealed. Van Helsing is once more portrayed by Peter Cushing with absolute authority and immaculate articulation. Granddaughter Jessica soon enters the scene, tray of tea in hand, and is greeted with a ‘nice to see you again’ by Murray, who discreetly refrains from noticing her metamorphosis from Stepahanie Beacham into Joanna Lumley. William Franklyn, who persuaded millions that Schweppes was the acme of urbane sophistication in the 70s, plays secret service man Torrence, and gets to air his sardonic tones and arch glances with customary flair. Freddie Jones, playing Van Helsing’s old college friend Professor Keeley (‘not the Nobel Prize winner?’, Murray conveniently asks) exudes his usual aura of sweaty intensity and twitchy paranoia in his role as the bio-chemist who is seduced by ‘the thrill of disgust, the beauty of obscenity’. Most importantly, of course, this is Christopher Lee’s last appearance as Dracula, the role which he definitively made his own, and whose darkly seductive presence is the default image of the Count in the minds of many.

Joanna joins the team

Director Alan Gibson once more indulges his penchant for wide-angle pans of London scenes, and in the title sequence, these are overlaid with the slowly growing shadow of a caped form, clawlike hands extended in a predatory grasp. The figure of Hammer’s Dracula has at this point become such a readily recognisable icon that it can be reduced to its charicature elements in a simplified silhouette. Therein lies the problem in doing anything new with the character. The expansion of his dread shadow over London lets us know that the Count will no longer be confined to islands of Victorian gothic revival. He’s now as modern as a neon Cinzano ad over Picadilly Circus. Writer Don Houghton continues to mix generic elements in order to create a fresh context within which Christopher Lee’s Dracula can operate. The film opens with a modish Satanic ritual, that titillating mainstay of 70s horror on film and tv, and on the the taste-free covers of paperbacks by Dennis Wheatley and his emulators which stuffed the revolving wire bookracks found in chemists and railway newspaper booths. Representing the fag end of the sixties counter-culture, this was the inverse side of the hippies’ woolly-minded engagement with eastern philosophies. The sexual revolution had filtered through into the mainstream, and immediately adopted the old poses of devilish libertinism, taking its cue from arch-suburbanite Mick Jagger’s performance of Sympathy for the Devil. The flipside of such lubricious Satanist shenanigans were the slew of ‘comedies’ partaking of the supposed permissive society with leering and beady-eyed desperation. Hammer’s biggest moneyspinner of the 70s was, after all, its big screen adaptation of On the Buses. And if you want a film emblematic of the tenor of the times, look no further.

Wide-angle pan and 'don't mention S%!%n' US title

The henchmen in Satanic Rites are like the Hell’s Angels hired for security at the relentlessly grim Altamont festival, where an uneasy Jagger had sung his devil’s music in front of a crowd seething with violence. Having been momentarily seduced by the utopian anarchism of the Summer of Love, the glamour has now worn off, and they’ve gone back to cracking heads, whilst retaining the kaftans as a relic of their brief dalliance with notions of peace and love. Van Helsing alludes to the twilight following the brief dawn of this era of creativity and optimism when he refers to the ‘cult of blood’ being ‘more potent and addictive than heroin’. It would be left to New York directors Paul Morrissey and Abel Ferrara to draw out the metaphoric link between the blood addictions of vampirism and hard drugs in Blood for Dracula and The Addiction. Dracula himself provides the voice of the Establishment crackdown when he declares that the foundation which his Corporation backs is formed of ‘a group of us that is determined that the decadence of the present day can and will be halted’. He’s lying, of course, but the promise of a new fascistic order is an irresistible lure to those for whom such a world is a secret ideal. The Georgian country house in which this rite takes place looks not dissimilar to the one to which John and Yoko retreated in the latter days of the Beatles (it is in fact High Canons at Well End in Hertfordshire), but its period façade hides the very latest in surveillance equipment and the general banks of technology with blinking lights and flickering dials essential for any supervillain’s lair. We are soon plunged into the world of the espionage thriller, replete with silencers, stake-outs and stunt motorcycle crashes. Dracula almost comes to be identified with the Cold War threat of Eastern Europe, which provides the fearful subterfuge fuelling such spy movie fare.

Christopher's magic act

Dracula has clearly learned his lessons from his experiences in AD1972, and has made his fortune in property. The mist-enshrouded steel and glass skyscraper at whose summit he is discovered is the new gothic edifice from which he exerts his influence, its domineering tower emerging from the site of the demolished church of St Bartolphs, within whose stone walls he had seemed confined. This is now commemorated with a blue plaque, a symbol of the continuity with a landscape of the past which has been transformed into a new anti-sanctuary, sympathetic to the tenor of the times. This modern capitalist fortress represents an adaptation to new models of power far more dynamic and far-reaching than the feudal patterns of old. Having had to make do in the past with lording it over the local village peasantry, Dracula is now able to take advantage of modern technologies and business practices to expand into a globalised world. With holdings in chemicals, oil and banks, he has created a corporation around himself, adapting swiftly to a new business class system which credits a CEO with far greater authority than a Count. A suitably anonymous name, DD Denham, acts as a front, as well as a nod to the Denham Studios where many of Powell and Pressburger’s wartime films were made. The triple D displays a hint of a towering ego, as well as providing a justification for the prominent signet ring, which is always ferreted away along with his ashes or a sample of dried blood subsequent to a climactic disintegration. Using a combination of his wordly and supernatural power, he recruits four pillars of the establishment, including a Lord Carradine, presumably a nod to horror legend John, who had taken over Lugosi’s cape in the later Universal Dracula films. These will be his four portly horsemen of the apocalypse, who will spread disease and famine across the world. The Count’s goals are apocalyptic, and place him once more in the position of a very biblical Satanic figure.

When Van Helsing and Dracula finally come face to face, it is as two archetypal adversaries who recognise that they are locked in an eternal struggle. ‘Denham’ awaits expectantly, sat behind a large executive desk, an interrogatory lamp blinding Van Helsing’s vision. In this new castle of gothic modernity, Dracula hides in a dazzling blaze of electric light, the white circle of the desk lamp the misplaced halo of a fallen angel. Christopher Lee gets to try on an East European accent, perhaps in an attempt at achieving the faithful adherence to Bram Stoker’s original conception of the character for which he was always lobbying. Thankfully, he soon reverts to the imperiously aloof and coldly authoritative tones which he had first displayed in Terence Fisher’s 1958 film. It always seemed a shame that Lee was subsequently denied all but the most simplistic dialogue and the occasional evil declamation, since the aristocratic hauteur of his delivery perfectly offset the hissing bestiality which he also conveyed so well. Here, his demonic nature by now taken as read, urbanity is cast aside and he gets to spit lines such as ‘my revenge has spread over centuries and has just begun’ with undeniable relish.

Hey! Leave Joanna alone

In the manner of a Bond villain, a role which Lee was to adopt two years later in The Man With the Golden Gun, Dracula eschews the opportunity to swiftly and efficiently dispose of his nemesis. He needs him to witness his ultimate triumph in this battle between dark and light. As an embodiment of evil, or as the central figure in a successful series of movies if you want to be more prosaic, Dracula can never die. He has by this stage been through many a definitive death and perfunctory resurrection and on this occasion an explanation for his return is considered redundant. It can really just be taken for granted now. The headquarters of DD Denham is a forbiddingly spartan place, a 70s corporate wasteland which seems to actively repel the idle passerby, rather like Canary Wharf. Its eerily depopulated air of desolation is a preview of the world which Dracula aims to create. The lonely nightwatchman is like a guardian at the gates of an underworld which has gone overground, a ferry replaced by an express lift in this architecture of modernised myth. The building is a giant tombstone, a monumental mausoleum in which Dracula stokes the Armageddon which will represent his ultimate triumph and also serve to end his cursed existence.

The final Passion

Christopher Lee’s final bow takes the form of an inverted Passion, once more reflecting the Manichean nature of the struggle in which good and evil, darkness and light, need each other’s existence against which to define themselves. Van Helsing has earlier given a quick run through of the traditional methods of vampire despatch, a list into which the debilitating effects of hawthorn has been casually inserted, in the hope that we might not note its swift addition to the standard repertoire. Inevitably this comes into play, and the Count ends with his crown of thorns, Van Helsing driving a spike into his side like the soldier at the foot of the cross. The Count will rise once more, Don Houghton pushing generic hybridity to new heights of absurdity in the martial arts co-production The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. Peter Cushing will gamely reprise the role of Van Helsing, this time the original Victorian model, relocated to a nineteenth century China of dubious historicity. But the Count is not Christopher Lee, it is an absurd imposter and not the real Dracula at all. So as he once more frame-dissolves into a pile of quivering jelly and windblown ashes, this really is The End.

No comments: