The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)
The horror movie genre was changing rapidly in the late sixties and seventies, with films such as the Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby moving away from traditional gothic settings and proving to be box office successes. After the success of Count Yorga, Vampire, a movie set in 1970s Los Angeles, Warner Bros commissioned Hammer Films to make two contemporary set Dracula films. The first of these was Dracula A.D. 1972. The film was loosely inspired by the Highgate Vampire case and proved to be moderately successful at the box office. The second being The Satanic Rites of Dracula; a curious hybrid vampire movie that mixes elements of the espionage genre along with traditional Hammer horror content. Sadly, this final outing for both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Van Helsing and Dracula, was not well received by the public and has subsequently been written off in the annals of Hammer Films. Yet despite it’s flaws it does have a few points of interest to the more rigorous horror fan. The recent Blu-ray release via the Warner Archive Collection presented such an opportunity for reappraisal.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a direct sequel to Dracula A.D. 1972. There is a degree of continuity with both characters and cast. Peter Cushing returns as Lorrimer Van Helsing, as does Michael Coles as Inspector Coles. Joanna Lumley replaces Stephanie Beecham as Jessica Van Helsing. Furthermore, the two movies are directed by Alan Gibson and written by Don Houghton. In an unusual twist the film starts very much as a spy drama, with a secret service agent escaping from the country mansion Pelham House, where cabinet ministers, industrialists and military chiefs indulge in satanic rites. Department head, Colonel Mathews (Richard Vernon) and Secret Service agent Torrence (William Franklyn) fear a major political scandal as well as foreign espionage. Due to the sensitivity of the situation they seek outside help from Special Branch Inspector Coles, who urges them to consult with occult expert Lorrimer Van Helsing. Investigations reveal that a leading scientist Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones) is also involved in the cult and that he is developing a deadly plague virus for the recluse business moghul, D. D. Denham.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula struggles to find its niche as the story veers between genres. Count Dracula doesn’t appear until thirty minutes into the movie and the screenplay is somewhat at a loss as to what to do with him, once he does. The story hinges upon the count having a curious existential crisis and tiring of his undead existence, hence the creation of a plague that will kill all life on earth, leaving him without any prey. It’s an interesting idea but one that is left underdeveloped. As for the horror elements of the film they’re somewhat modest. There are two staking scenes involving female vampires; one of which is now fully restored in the new Blu-ray copy. The remainder of the action is mainly shootouts with the curiously dressed security guards of Pelham house. They sport Afghan Waistcoats and Mauser pistols. Like most Hammer films from this period there’s a lot of cleavage and nudity to bolster the horror elements. Dracula’s demise at the end is suitably creative involving a Hawthorn bush and a picket fence. Les Bowie’s special effects are still enjoyable although far from sophisticated.
However, despite the vagueness of the script and the rather limited scope of action, there are still aspects to enjoy in The Satanic Rites of Dracula. The scenes between Peter Cushing and Freddie Jones are great, demonstrating that even with material as thin as this, both actors can hold the audience’s attention. The chemistry between Cushing and Lee is also present in the film denouement. The contemporary location scenes showing London in 1973 are also a source of interest. The car chase provides glimpses of The Strand and parts of Kensington, all of which have now been heavily redeveloped. But where this movie may appeal to the horror aficionado who has an abiding love with Hammer Films, you can objectively see why it failed at the box office. The studios attempt to move with the time are mainly superficial and beyond this, the film is just doing the same things as its predecessors. Furthermore, Christopher Lee had tired of the role of Dracula and so this was his final appearance as the iconic count for Hammer Films. Later in 1973, The Exorcist would change the horror genre completely, consigning the studio to further decline and inevitable closure. Hence, The Satanic Rites of Dracula was another nail in the coffin for Hammer’s Dracula franchise and a text book example of failing to move with the times.