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The Satanic Rites of Dracula
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Micahel Coles, William Franklin, Freddie Jones, Joanna Lumley

Written By: Don Houghton Directed By: Alan Gibson

The Short Version

Christopher Lee plays Dracula for the last time in a Hammer film.

If you didn’t know the title, you’d think it was a 70s spy flick for the first 20-30 minutes.

You won’t believe how easy it is to kill vampires circa 1973!

What’s with the slow motion stuff?

The  Satanic Rites of Dracula is too funky/groovy; you have to see it to believe it.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SWISS CHEESE LOG.

Start with cheese that has a bunch of holes in it, process the hell out of it, then disguise it under a thick layer of nutty stuff so you have to dig before getting to the heart of what it really is.


Pairs Well With...

SANGRIA, SERVED IN A MARTINI GLASS.

A drink whose name derives from “blood” served in the glass that made James Bond famous to bartenders the world over; sounds like a fair compromise.

“Things do go bump in the night.  Quite often.”


This is it, folks: Christopher Lee’s last hurrah as Dracula for Hammer Studios.  He had begun to tire of the role some time before, and really wasn’t keen about bringing Dracula to the (at the time) present day for the previous year’s Dracula AD 1972, to which this is a direct follow up.  Once this second “modern” film was in the can, he’d finally had enough.  “In my opinion,” Lee said, “the presentation of the character had deteriorated to such an extent, particularly bringing him into the contemporary day and age, that it really no longer had any meaning.”

On the one hand, it’s pretty easy to see his point.  Indeed, it’s often remarked that The Satanic Rites of Dracula looks more like an episode of the British television show “The Avengers” or even an extremely low budget James Bond film than it does a vampire movie.  On the other hand… it kind of works, and save for some glaring problems, it even has the potential to be very good.  Is it Stoker, or anything even close beyond lifting two character names and a line of dialogue?  No.  Is it interesting, perhaps even “groovy”?  Yes; yes it is.

After some disco/funk music finishes playing over the opening credits, we begin with what is very obviously supposed to be some sort of Satantic ritual.  Several red robed participants are listening to a woman we assume to be the priestess calling up the demons of Hell and whatnot, and there is a naked girl on the altar who appears to be in desperate need of a sandwich (and who also looks like she needed to be carded by the censors to be sure she was of age, if you get my drift).  The fact that we notice a gent in a wool-lined suede vest watching all of this on CCTV from a control room upstairs indicates that we’re in modern times.

Meanwhile, in another room, we see an unfortunate fellow (Maurice O’Connell) tied to a cot.  He’s resourceful, though, and as the camera cuts back and forth between his predicament and the Satan worship going on in the other room, he manages to untie himself, overpower a guard, and escape.  Unfortunately for him, he trips an alarm along the way, and more suede-vested thugs come after him; on motorcycles, no less.  No worries, though; he’s got friends waiting in a car just outside the gate, and they’re able to shoot the suede-vested baddies and haul him off to safety.

“Safety” turns out to be a recovery table in what looks to be a debriefing area of a brightly lit government office.  As he speaks into a reel-to-reel recorder, we learn that he’s an agent of the British government who had been sent in undercover to do a routine security check on a highly placed official: ironically enough, the man in charge of British Intelligence, John Porter (Richard Mathews).  Porter, it seems, is one of the Satanists, as are two other government officials, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, and a wealthy landowner.    Our man knows they’re up to something other than just Devil worship, but what it is, he couldn’t learn before they caught him, and since his next move is to croak on the table, he’ll never find out.

Realizing that they must tread lightly, the remaining folks from our nameless British Intelligence agency decide that it’s time to bring in unofficial help from Scotland Yard in the form of a certain Inspector Murray (Michael Coles), and he, in turn, has another friend he wants to bring in…

Doesn’t really sound like a Dracula movie so far, does it?  And we’re already twenty-plus minutes into an 87 minute film.  Indeed, one thing that I think would be really fun to do is to play this movie for someone who’s never seen it before without letting them either look at the box or watch the opening credits first and see how long it takes them to catch on to what it is. 

If they miss out on the fact that Murray’s friend is an occult expert named Dr. Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), descendant of the famous Abraham Van Helsing, they could actually make it to the 31 minute mark before either Dracula or any other obviously fanged creature makes an appearance or is mentioned specifically by name.  (Indeed, up until the discussion in Van Helsing’s office begins, our intelligence agency and Scotland Yard heroes speculate that the cult is a front for either Chinese or Russian spies!)

[Update: I actually did the experiment described above. After about five minutes, my friend, knowing he was supposed to be looking out in left field, surprised me and said "It can't be Monty Python because there's nudity." After that, he guessed at some sort of James Bond knockoff, but never guessed that it was a Dracula flick until the man himself showed up at 31 minutes... and he still didn't believe it for another five!]

And why, you may ask, is Count Dracula recruiting officials of the British government to be part of a Satanic cult (which apparently has its members mistaking him for Satan)?  Why, as part of his plan to destroy the world with a new strain of bubonic plague, of course!  Sounds like something that a 1970s James Bond villain would be up to, don’t you think?  [As a matter of fact, Christopher Lee actually would be playing a James Bond villain the following year in The Man with the Golden Gun.  There’s an extra snicker in this considering that in this film, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing tries to attack Dracula with a single shot silver gun.]

If that all sounds rather preposterous, it is, but no more so than all but five James Bond films.  And what’s more, on some bizarre level, it actually works.  Count Dracula as a corporate mogul who uses the power of big business as a springboard to some dastardly attack on the world?  That actually makes more a strange sort of sense.  It also plays well insofar as the storytelling goes, helped along by the fact that no one tries to makes a joke of it.  Whatever Christopher Lee’s complaints about the direction of the character after entering the modern age may be (and I can’t say that I don’t understand where he’s coming from), the fact is that this is the part of the script that actually turns out the best.

Ironically, it’s the vampire stuff that gets screwed up here.

Over the course of time, Hammer has played fast and loose with vampire lore, to the point where the answer to the question “What can kill a vampire?” always ends up being “Whatever is most convenient for the director and the screenwriter, probably in that order.”  When they started out with Horror of Dracula, it was the straightforward sun and stakes and vamps-don’t-really-like-crucifixes routine.  By the time of the fourth film (or third, if you discount The Brides of Dracula for the fact that Dracula wasn’t in it), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, one had to be praying while in the process of killing a vampire, or the vampire could just reach in and yank the giant stake right back out of his heart.  That piece of stupidity has thankfully been removed for The Satanic Rites of Dracula, however, it’s been replaced by further silliness.  Along with keeping the idea that Dracula can simply reincarnate into the body of another introduced earlier (thus eliminating the need to spend the first third of the film bringing Dracula back to life), this movie adds the notion that running water not only bother vampires, but will actually kill them, Wicked Witch of the West style.  These leads to one of the single most ridiculous vampire death scenes I think I’ve ever witnessed, involving a gaggle of idiot vampire brides (really; they’re exceedingly stupid) being wasted by a fire sprinkler.  I wish I was making this up.  Dracula’s own death (let’s face it, that’s not a spoiler) is thankfully more traditional, but the lead in involving vampires being bothered by hawthorns is not, and the overall result of these two things combined is one of the more dull ends for a Dracula that I can remember.  Frankly, Christopher Lee deserved better than this.

Speaking of which, it seems pretty obvious as the film goes along that Christopher Lee has given up the ghost.  As one of the industry’s great professionals, he is, of course, incapable of stinking up a room, but it’s still clear that his heart just isn’t in this anymore.  Perhaps his lowest moment of all comes during a scene where he’s seated in shadow behind a desk pretending to be human and made to speak with an embarrassing parody of Bela Lugosi’s accent for no apparent reason.  (Lee’s Dracula traditionally speaks Lee’s own perfect English, and does again as soon as he’s revealed.)  That moment stands right behind the fire sprinkler scene as the biggest facepalm of the film, and I must admit that if I had been in that position, my heart probably wouldn’t be in it anymore, either.

There are other complaints to be had with The Satanic Rites of Dracula – the unnecessary semi-slow motion that the director seems to like as a means of ruining fight scenes, for example, or the fact that the strain of plague that Dracula’s followers come up with is in fact too fast-acting to be effective, since it kills its victims too quickly to transmit well – but really, they’re all minor compared to the way the film treats the vampires that are its central subject, and which indeed are supposed to be the very bread and butter of Hammer as a studio.  (So are bold colors, come to think of it, but those are long gone from this movie, too.)  Peter Cushing – who is, of course, still fabulous here, in case you were wondering – would stay on for one more Hammer vampire flick, but really, Christopher Lee’s departure is but one of many unmistakable signs that this movie is essentially the loudest toll of Hammer’s death knell as a horror powerhouse.

And yet, despite its failures as a vampire film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is still compelling enough as a low budget “Avengers”/James Bond type adventure story – particularly considering the bizarre addition of Count Dracula as our “Bond villain” – that it’s worth seeing anyway.  Even for all the liberties it takes with vampire lore, it’s still not the worst Hammer Dracula flick out there by any means, and any opportunity to see Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, regardless of what surrounds him, is an opportunity well taken.

Bottom line, The Satanic Rites of Dracula may fail at its own core competency, but it’s still too interesting to ignore.  Christopher Lee certainly deserved a better death scene for his final wearing of the fangs for Hammer, but all in all, this still makes for an entertaining and indeed rather unique film, and that, in the end, is what really counts.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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