FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*
The last Chris Lee "Dracula" film from Hammer-- a fairly direct sequel to the studio's first modern-day opus with the Count, DRACULA A.D. 1972-- is far from perfect, but it's not the worst way to wind up the series. I give thanks to the late Mr. Lee for having refused the offer to portray the vampire-lord in LEGEND OF SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, for his non-appearance allows me to pigeonhole that film as outside the bounds of the series proper, despite the presence of "a" Dracula and Peter Cushing once more portraying Van Helsing.
Just as LEGEND would attempt to meld vampire-thrills with kung fu action, SATANIC seeks to fuse vampires and spy-drama-- but fortunately, the espionage stuff is fairly low-key, more in line with John Buchan than Ian Fleming. Alan Gibson, also the director on A.D. 1972, uses a couple of characters from the earlier film, notably Cushing's modern-day vampire-hunter, but one need not have seen A.D. 1972 to follow what happens here. Gibson's direction is fluid and efficient, allowing for a modicum of suspense even though the viewer should be able to figure out the true master of the Satanic cult threatening not only English society, but the fate of the entire world.
Scripter Don Houghton, given the only credit on A.D. 1972, shares billing with Roy Skeggs for SATANIC. It's possible to see the team utilizing some of the religious imagery found in that film, and expanding on it so that Dracula is not just a perversion of the Christian religion but a would-be Antichrist, trying to bring about a secular version of the "end of days." In short, Dracula has decided to wipe out humanity rather than seeking to rule over it, and does so by having an enthralled scientist develop a strain of bubonic plague capable of doing the job.
I enjoyed some of the more mundane shootout scenes, and found that the writers created better secondary villains in comparison to the previous outing, with Barbara Yu Ling a standout amidst Drac's menacing minions. However, I still found that the spy-stuff tended to undermine the film's potential for horror, even though Gibson and Co. are careful to interject enough fang-scenes that no viewer is likely to forget that this is a vampire film.
Lee's screen-time in all the Hammer Draculas is of limited duration, possibly for reasons related to his asking-price. Thus the script's solution to this difficulty-- keeping Dracula off screen most of the time until the end-- was probably unavoidable. The greatest consequence of this, though, is that the script cannot explore in depth the villain's reason for embracing Armageddon. A few possible motivations are tossed out by Van Helsing, but Lee doesn't have enough time on-screen to put across the film's most interesting idea: why would the Lord of the Undead finally choose to embrace Death? In fact, a movie focusing on such a Dracula, from start to finish, would probably have been much more memorable than this simple espionage plot-line.
That said, though the climactic confrontation of Dracula and Van Helsing falls far short of the first Cushing-Lee battle in HORROR OF DRACULA, it's at least a lively encounter. Though the familiar stake comes into play once again, I give the writers points for trying to give the Count a new nemesis: the thorns of the hawthorn tree, of which Christ's crown was supposedly composed. It's a minor addition to the Hammer vampire mythology, but at least it "keeps faith" with Hammer's principal conception of Dracula as a blasphemous reversal of all things Christian.