There is a beauty, style, and look to classic Hammer horror films that only that studio contains. There are only a handful of times in the history of cinema that a studio has defined themselves so steadfast, even when they experiment, one can immediately tell who made it by the style and tone. Hammer is one of those. For this latest franchise article, we were asked to cover some of the major Hammer studio releases and it seemed only fitting to start with the one that most people recognize: Dracula. Spanning multiple decades, the Dracula series is often times as iconic as the original Universal series and it certainly helped solidify both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as genre cornerstones. Truthfully, it was a pleasure to be asked to go back and watch this franchise once again and write this series of articles. Not that my words do it much justice, but even if I can inspire one to revisit the films, then I will have done my duty.
Due to the length of this franchise, it only made sense to split it up into multiple articles to prevent having one massive piece that people will tire of reading by the time they reach the third or fourth film. Since there are nine entries, it made sense to evenly split the articles into three films each. For this third and final part of the article, we will be covering the seventh, eighth, and ninth entries into the series.
DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)
Director: Alan Gibson
Notable Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame, Marsha Hunt, Caroline Munro, Janet Key, Michael Kitchen, Lally Bowers, Michael Coles
When it comes to Dracula A.D. 1972 and heading into the final third of the franchise, one could reasonably consider this portion the “gimmick” era. Considering how the quality of the films and the repetition had started to wear thin by the previous entry, Scars of Dracula, it’s almost shocking that it took seven entries for this series to finally say ‘fuck it, let’s embrace the gimmick.’ However, that’s almost exactly what this film makes as a statement right away.
After introducing the film by showcasing the final battle between Dracula, once again played by Christopher Lee, and Van Helsing, which sees Peter Cushing return to the series for the first time since the second film, it quickly abandons the now stale look and tone of the franchise to embrace it’s “modern” London setting. Between the bombastic 70s rock score, the use of the urban settings, and the youthful lingo that the main youth characters use, this film is hitting its audience over the head with its interpretation of hip 70s culture. Fortunately, this comes a relatively relieving breath of fresh air after the last handful of Dracula films. Sometimes it can be annoying, particularly with how many of the young characters are introduced through a party crash which runs on far too long, but the use of some great sets and a theme about a youthful culture that seems disconnected from their own history makes the film feel different and, quite frankly, rejuvenated.
It helps that director Alan Gibson really brings an eye for visuals to help out Dracula A.D. 1972. He finds a fun and stimulating balance between the use of the urban settings and the Gothic tones that seep in, particularly in the Dracula resurrection sequence, and continually gives the film a very cinematic feeling which is great for when the pacing picks up. By the time that Cushing, playing Van Helsing’s descendant jumps into the narrative, the director and plot has laid enough groundwork to keep the action pulsating and the visuals stimulating even when the film itself starts to meander into the formulaic territory.
Considering that Dracula A.D. 1972 is essentially a reboot, which actively changes the chronology and continuity of the series for its own benefit, it’s a fairly impressive one that does re-energize the entire series. It has great visuals, some fun performances, a new spin on the usual plot, and finds a sweet balance between modernity and classic Gothic tones. The leap to 1972 London might seem like a gimmick, but it works impressively. What makes this film stand out so much is just how different the follow-up film is…
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)
Director: Alan Gibson
Notable Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Coles, William Franklyn, Joanna Lumley, Richard Vernon, Barbara Yu Ling, Freddie Jones
Although Dracula A.D. 1972 was heavily critiqued as a low point for the franchise by critics when it came out (I’m sure it’s obvious with how much I disagree on that point,) it’s the sequel that might end up being one of the worst of the series in my opinion. The Satanic Rites of Dracula, which features a handful of returning characters from 1972, is a film with such a unique and interesting concept that it almost had to fail. On paper, this film is a bold change of direction for the series – far more than even its predecessor, but the execution of its idea is so muddled, weak, and miscalculated that it ends up being a chore to work through. It’s a shame really because the core idea is so interesting.
Mainly, The Satanic Rites of Dracula feels like a script that was converted into a Dracula film. From some of the research I’ve done on the film, this doesn’t seem to be the case necessarily as truth. It certainly feels that way though. Inherently that’s not a bad thing. Van Helsing, played once again by the always reliable Peter Cushing, is called in to help investigate a new “blood cult” that seemingly has ties related to a variety of very influential men in business, politics, and the military. He returns to help his friend Inspector Murray, also returning from the previous film, and they end up stumbling into this wild conspiracy with tendrils into various parts of government and commerce.
Doesn’t sound like a Dracula film? It doesn’t really feel like one either. The tone is far more leaning into espionage thriller territory instead of the Gothic horror, which isn’t so concerning considering that the film starts to incorporate vampires and Dracula in the second half when it’s revealed that Count Dracula, once again powered by Christopher Lee, is behind it all. What is concerning is that the film completely mishandles the tone. Where the shift should have been a refreshing and thoughtful gimmick, it comes off as confused and problematic issues arise both in the narrative and the execution. The film spends entire acts and sequences trying to desperately explain the plot to the audience through soul-crushingly boring exposition and it plays out its twists in confusing ways. Dracula is revealed to the audience at about the half-hour mark with no explanation to how he survived or was resurrected from the last film and then at the end of the second act there is a sequence meant to keep audiences in suspense as Van Helsing discovers Dracula is behind it all. It actively ruined its own narrative spin. This happens again and again. The film either overexplains things to death or leaves them as massively confusing plot holes.
To make matters even worse, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is, quite frankly, really poorly handled in terms of performance on almost all fronts. Outside of the usual screen devouring performances from Cushing and Lee, most of the rest of the cast feel like they are simply going through motions. It doesn’t help that the script under develops most of them, but there really isn’t any memorable performances here to help push the film up. Also, director Alan Gibson, who struck a fantastic sense of balance with fantastic visuals in the previous film, seems on autopilot here. Outside of a few key moments, this film is shot like it has no voice and personality. The sets, lacking the urban meets Gothic touch that worked so well in 1972, feel like mock up sets that aren’t finished and there is a sense that this film was made on the cheap and with no time.
After such a strong statement to “reboot” the series, The Satanic Rites of Dracula comes out tripping on its own feet and landing squarely on its face. It hits the perplexing combination of being boring, confusing, disappointing, and actively rage inducing all at the same time. Considering this would be the final Hammer film that would see Lee as the iconic villain, one would hope that he would go out in a blaze. Turns out, like the character, this film just kind of gets stuck in its own bramble and lays down to die without much of a fight.
On the plus side, there is still one film left in the franchise and it might be the wildest one yet as Hammer studios partners with the Shaw Brothers to produce the wackiest Dracula film yet…
THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)
Director: Roy Ward Baker (Chang Cheh – uncredited)
Notable Cast: Peter Cushing, David Chiang, Robin Stewart, Julie Ege, Shih Szu, Chan Shen, Lau Kar-Wing, Huang Pei-Chih, Wang Chiang, Feng Ko-an, Hsu Hsia, John Forbes-Robertson
As you have probably gathered by now in this article, Hammer was trying everything and anything with their Dracula series to sell tickets. New settings, tones, and style were all game as the end drew near and it’s this last entry that might be the strangest one yet. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is absolutely gimmicky as the legendary British studio teamed up with the legendary Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers to deliver this action-packed flick, but it’s so outrageous that it almost works. The film is a weird mixture of styles, but it makes it a fascinating watch even if the film itself is seriously flawed.
Jumping back down the timeline again from the 1970s, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires has Professor Van Helsing, reprised again by Peter Cushing, heading over to China to investigate a local legend of seven vampires that live outside of a small village in a giant towering structure that’s filled with semi-naked women writhing over a cauldron of boiling blood. Naturally, no one believes him and the scholars and powerful individuals refuse to finance his expedition. No worries because he has seven brothers, trained in martial arts and lead by David Chiang, to lead him to the village and a wealthy European financier looking to spark up her life with some adventure. Combine all of this in a brisk film and you get some genre delight.
Continuing in the same vein as Brides of Dracula, it was nice to see Van Helsing presented as a “vampire hunter” who wanders the world in search of different vampires from different cultures. Truthfully, this idea could have made a fantastic series of films of itself, if they had run with it, but alas this is the last of the series and it ends on an entertaining note at least. There was a planned entry after this film about a vampire in India, but poor box office killed that one. Shame. That could have been awesome.
The pre-occupation of the series with Dracula is almost its downfall at times and even in this film, Dracula seems forced into the plot. Appearing at the opening where he assumes the guise of a Chinese vampire, it’s Dracula that heads over to the East and kick starts these 7 Golden Vampires (complete with gaudy gold vampire bat necklaces that must have weighed 20 pounds if they were made of real gold) that gets everyone in a tizzy. One has to wonder if these scenes weren’t late additions as Dracula, not played by Christopher Lee but by John Forbes-Robertson in Joker-esque caked on make-up, only shows up at the very beginning and very end in what could be considered a glorified cameo. Both sequences feel rather tacked on, but I guess Dracula needed to be there to help sell tickets. Even if it didn’t work on a creative or ticket-selling front.
The rest of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a fun flick. Combining the stylistic tons of Hammer and Shaw Brothers is a strange mixture, but it comes together in some fun ways. The film careens from gabby characters chatting about history, complete with an extended flashback to David Chiang’s grandfather trying to fight off the vampires in a legend, to Shaw Brothers style martial art fight sequences with weapons, fire, and Chiang punching out vampire-slave hearts. Although Roy Ward Baker gets sole credit for directing the film, which is apparent in many of the slower and horror-tinged moments of the film, the fabled Chang Cheh also worked on the film and that influence is felt through many of the action sequences. Most of the issues that arise in the film come from too many characters in a script that’s just a bit too thin for its own good, particularly when it comes to the dual romantic subplots that hardly sizzle only to fizzle out at the end. Still, there is fun to be had and the combination of Cushing and Chiang as leaders from each world (and each studio) is fun to watch as silly as the film starts to become.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a film that can be seen as both disappointing to Hammer and Shaw Brothers fans as it has to compromise the style of both to get them to mesh together, but ultimately this film is hardly the train wreck it might have been. It’s silly and entertaining with just enough exploitation and a ton of action to keep the brisk pace up for its rather hollow plotting.
Written By Matt Reifschneider