The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) [31 Days of Hammer Horror Review]

Jules picks up where he left off in October by running through some of the choice horror offerings from the fantastic Hammer back catalogue.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of Hammer” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joanna Lumley
Director: Alan Gibson

Secret agents, man-made super plagues, car chases and Dracula as a reclusive property developer. Say what you like about The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, but it’s different.

A direct sequel to Dracula AD 1972, this final instalment in Hammer’s series swaps swinging London for the altogether more serious world of international espionage and the more corrupt end of high society. The stakes (sorry) are higher than ever this time too. Dracula isn’t just out for revenge on the Van Helsing family anymore, he wants to destroy the world.

A dying secret service agent reveals he escaped from a Satanic cult led by the sinister Chin Yang (Barbara Yu Ling), that counted prominent members of British society such as a government minister, a peer, a general and a famous scientist amongst its members.

Knowing his investigation would be shut down as soon as the minister got wind of it, secret service official Colonel Mathews (Richard Vernon) brings in Scotland Yard’s Inspector Murray (a returning Michael Coles), who then enlists occult expert Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

The investigation into the cult leads the team to uncover a plot to wipe out the entire population of the Earth by means of an engineered plague, “swifter and more awesome than the Black Death”. Worse, the leader of the cult is none other than Count Dracula himself, who’s not only planning to destroy the world, he’s going to make Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley) his bride while he’s at it…

By this late stage in the proceedings, you can tell Hammer are just throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what will stick. Dracula in swinging London? Groovy. Dracula as gritty eco-spy thriller? Might as well.

Although he’s also written the previous, much more light-hearted instalment of the Dracula series, this grand finale is much more in scriptwriter Don Houghton’s wheelhouse. Anyone that has seen his previous efforts for the UNIT-era Doctor Who’s (Inferno and Mind Of Evil) will know he’s got a knack for bringing out the fantastic from a tense real-world scenario and this is no different. Is it a good Dracula film, though? Well, sort of.

It’s got the Cushing/Lee dream team again, which is a huge plus point for any film. The former settles back into his familiar character with ease, while the latter gets to pitch his most iconic role in a new direction. Dracula here is at his most Machiavellian, manipulating some of the most powerful people in the country while establishing himself as a Howard Hughes-style reclusive businessman, pulling the strings of a new kind of empire as he engineers his very own Apocalypse. The eponymous Satanic rites that top and tail the film look the part initially, but feel extraneous and out of place by the end, after spending so much time in such a modern setting full of real-world dangers.

Joanna Lumley does a fine job stepping in for Stephanie Beacham as Jessica, playing her as strong and capable in a way that the more girlish Beacham may have struggled, while Michael Coles’ Inspector Murray makes a welcome return, adding weight to the new world Hammer had created for Dracula with some welcome continuity.

There’s some lovely moments here too, particularly the first face off between Van Helsing and Dracula, not in a crypt or a deconsecrated church, but across a desk, in the Count’s office (or at least his alias D.D. Denham), which is actually built of the site of the deconsecrated church they last clashed on. It’s brilliantly played, with both men knowing exactly who the other is, but pretending not to, at least for a while.

Their final confrontation (and it really is this time, which is tragic) at least ends on a high took with Dracula crawling through briar bushes, being shredded as he goes, before Van Helsing plunges a stake through his heart, one last time. It’s nasty and it’s drawn out, with Cushing really forcing it in and up there. Brilliant.

Where does it go wrong? Well, all too often it feels like you’re watching a different film, like someone has changed the channel over to a grim mid-70s political pot-boiler. No bad thing in itself, but it smacks of a company that just don’t know what to do with its prized asset anymore.

It’s not a bad film by any stretch, but it’s not a particularly good film either. Van Helsing’s story wasn’t over, but Christopher Lee’s Dracula was and both he and his character richly deserved a better swan song than this.

Rating: 3/5.


The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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