As huge fans of England’s famous Hammer Film Productions, we are especially tickled to bring you this gem of a film from the 70’s. It features Christopher Lee, possibly the second most famous man to play the role. Much maligned and often dismissed, The Satanic Rites of Dracula often fails to receive the high praise that it should. Sure, it’s corny. But The Satanic Rites of Dracula also shines in a few places. Furthermore, it serves as a 1970’s period piece. No other film could represent the 70’s more than one that integrates both 70’s Hammer Horror and 007 style secret service.
Christopher Lee’s Legacy as Dracula
This amounts to heresy for some, but if we are being totally honest, Christopher Lee’s run of Dracula films holds lot of chaff and just a little bit of wheat. Truth be told, the Dracula character as depicted in much of traditional horror cinema pretty much sucks. It’s a cheesy character. Sorry. We aren’t letting Bela Lugosi off the hook either. The whole “I vant to suck your blood” cliché has more corn than a Nebraska football game. Still, we respect Christopher Lee as a true horror legend and refuse to knock him for trying.
Still, the Christopher Lee version of Dracula may be the one most indelibly imprinted in our brains. Dozens of repeats on local KPLR-11 Saturday afternoons and late night Saturday Night Shockers ensured that Christopher Lee’s legacy would always hold a special place in our hearts. And, the 10 year old kids that stayed up late to watch each re-run accepted what ever Hammer Film Productions was pushing that night, no questions asked.
The Perceived Weakness is Really a Strength
Much of the criticism of The Satanic Rites of Dracula centers around the fact that it tells a tale in the modern world, ditching the gothic trapping of previous films. It’s the second on to do so, following Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). The second criticism often involves the writers and Director Alan Gibson willingness to color outside the lines of traditional Dracula tropes. Gibson boldly folds the contemporary hotness of secret agents, government conspiracies and Satanism into the mix.
It all works better than given credit. From a pure plot perspective The Satanic Rites of Dracula offers a fantastic tale.
The film begins with a Satanic ritual designed to raise Dracula from the dead. While this is the very same mechanism used in Dracula A.D. 1972, its a way more interesting way to raise the Prince of Darkness than a errant drop of blood on the ground (see just about any other Hammer Dracula sequel). Even better, the group of individuals responsible for the ceremony consists of the London elite. The Dracula Illuminati, if you will.
A Secret Agent lies in the clutches of the Satanic cult, captured while gathering reconnaissance. He narrowly escapes and set the plot in motion when just before dying, he informs the agency of what he witnessed.
What unfolds is an elite conspiracy to establish Count Dracula as ruler of the world. In parallel, they aspire to releasing a supercharged variant of the Bubonic plague upon the world, ushering in Armageddon on the Sabbath of the Undead. While the world toils in pain and suffering, Count Dracula will reinvent the world in his Satanic image.
A Fantastic Plot, A Fantastic Cast, Lackluster Execution
International conspiracies, Satanism, secret agents, microfilm wristwatches, vampires… what more could one want in a Hammer production? Unfortunately, we should add solid execution to that list. Visually, the film offers many fantastic moments. In fact, in our opinion this film contains some iconic Hammer imagery. However, the pace of the narrative drags the film down at every opportunity. Additionally, scenes that should be harrowing and exciting seem to languish. In fact, Alan Gibson struggled to capitalize on the famous Hammer lady vampires.
In reality, Gibson’s film struggles despite a fantastic cast. Freddie Jones, formerly of Hammer classic Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1983) and future classic Krull (1983), plays the role of the diabolical Professor Keeley, purveyor of a newly weaponized strain of the Black Death. The beautiful Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous fame takes the role of Hammer girl Jessica Van Helsing. Peter Cushing once again crushes the role of a vampire slaying Van Helsing. This time he plays Lorrimer Van Helsing, grandfather to Jessica and descendant to the great vampire hunter.
Summing all things, in the end the naysayers have some merit in their criticism. Yet, we believe that The Satanic Rites of Dracula holds more than just the grainy Hammer patina on screen. Think back to the days of sinking into the couch on rainy day. You checked every channel twice before happening upon a Satanic ritual in a crimson room. With no delay, it takes you on a far-flung journey through espionage, vampirism and the cataclysmic end of all mankind. You’re not leaving that couch. You’re not changing that channel.
While The Satanic Rites of Dracula will not win any awards from the Academy, it possesses something fantastic and pure from a horror movie perspective. Battling through brushes with incompetence, Alan Gibson managed to create a really fun horror movie that’s both worth watching and deserving of the Hammer name.
For whatever reason, several images from this film stuck with me for decades. First, the crimson room with the pentagram on the floor. Robbed acolytes await Chin Yang (Barbara Yu Ling), leader of the Dracula death cult. The presentation is no less tacky than the real-deal doings at LaVey’s Church of Satan. In the basement of the enclave, lady vampires struggle against chains in the basement. One gets impaled on a wooden stake while writhing with her bare breast exposed. Should that have been edited out for afternoon public TV?
Another fantastic shot includes one of the occultist withering from an advanced case of the black death, just before burning alive as their Satanic plot crumbles to the ground. Finally, the thoroughly awesome bloodshot eyes of Count Dracula pierce the brush as he claws through a Hawthorn bush in pursuit of Van Helsing provide one of the most iconic images of the Count in the entire Hammer anthology.
The Final Count
We say this a lot at Malevolent Dark, we simply can’t rate every film on its nostalgic merits. Nearly all of them would top the charts. The Satanic Rites of Dracula fails to be a great film. But, for all of its faults, its still pretty darn entertaining. For Hammer vampire films, this film would be the last to feature Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. At minimum, this film provides a respectable swan song for a respectable franchise. At best, it exactly what you are looking for on a Saturday night.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) - Wicked 70's Vampires - Malevolent Dark
Director: Alan Gibson
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:32