The legendary Mr. Lee’s last outing for dear old Hammer Studios in his red contact lenses and silk-lined cape. And what a sorry end to what was once one of the real jewels of British cinema, the Hammer horror franchise.
While there are one or two glimmers of the style and talent that put Hammer at the top of the tree in the 50s and 60s, this awkward hybrid of espionage thriller and supernatural horror never really gets off the ground. Lee has so little screen time he could probably sue the filmmakers under the Trade’s Descriptions Act – “The Satanic Rites of a Bunch of Other People You Don’t Give a Stuff About, not the Famous Vampire Count You Were Hoping For” might be a more accurate title.
What irks me about this film is not just that it represents a cheap, slipshod ending to the Hammer Dracula cycle, but that it’s not even true to the spirit of those wonderful originals. What few thrills there are derive mostly from some motorcycle stunts and a bit of fashionable nudity. Lee might as well have phoned in his part, and poor old Peter Cushing, still reeling from the death of his beloved wife Helen, walks through what little action he’s given like a refugee from Plague of the Zombies.
And as for the ending, well, there used to be a well-defined mythology in these movies, a vampiric rulebook that everybody abided by. Bram Stoker made most of it up in the first place, but once they’d put their spin on it, the Hammer boys generally stuck to it: garlic, stakes, holy water, silver bullets, running water, all that stuff we’d all rely on to dispatch the bloodsucking nobleman if he ever started licking his lips in our bedrooms. But suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s this new lethal substance, something else that can do for a vampire – the King of the Vampires even. And what is it? A hawthorn tree. Yes, you heard right; Dracula, immortal, super-powerful, supreme monster that he is, curls up his pointy toe-nailed tootsies and shuffles off this mortal coil because he gets his cape caught in a bloody hawthorn tree. Ho hum. (Mind you, they can give you a nasty scratch can those hawthorn trees.)
Clearly Hammer had seen the writing on the wall splattered there by Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist, but although it tried, it simply couldn’t adapt. The truth is that the classical Hammer ethos doesn’t really translate to the modern idiom. The films were very much of their time, and the times, as Mr. Dylan so helpfully reminds us, they are a changin’.
So charge your glasses with the best of British blood, leave this one in the rental store and check out something from the golden era of Hammer. Contrary to one of the film’s many misleading alternative titles, Dracula is not alive and well and living in London. He’s dead. And Hammer buried him.