• Classic Horrors Club

Movie of the Week: The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

Updated: Jun 7, 2019



You can’t blame Hammer for trying. First, it attempted to modernize its gothic Dracula saga by jumping 100 years into the future with Dracula A.D. 1972. Then, it committed to the conceit by making a direct sequel a year later, The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Both are incredibly fun films, yet they couldn’t be more different in tone and execution.

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The Satanic Rites of Dracula feels more authentic for the era than Dracula A.D. 1972. Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t make the early 1970s as much of a character. It limits the groovy camera tricks and rebellious youth. In fact, Jessica Van Helsing (now Joanne Lumley instead of Stephanie Beacham) seems to have matured since she was last a pawn in Dracula’s game.

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The Satanic Rites of Dracula is not much of a horror movie at all. Instead, it’s more like a spy thriller. Say what? It sounds almost ridiculous, but the screenplay by Brian Clemens is quite ingenious. What might Dracula really do when he finds himself revived in modern times? Well, he just might be head of a secret organization plotting the end of the world.

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Grounded in a possible reality, he doesn’t proceed by creating a race of vampires to do his bidding. Instead, he commands England’s richest and most powerful men, including Professor Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), to develop a new strain of bubonic plague. Masquerading as D.D. Denham, Dracula (Christopher Lee) controls his minions from a high-rise office building.

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It’s an hour and four minutes into the movie until Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), a character returning from Dracula A.D. 1972, confirms his identity by exclaiming, “You ARE Count Dracula!” It’s just in the nick of time, if you ask me: Lee uses an unusual and distracting accent when first meeting with Van Helsing.

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None of this is to say there aren’t horror elements in The Satanic Rites of Count Dracula. It features some terrific vampire action and killing, particularly in the basement of the isolated mansion in which Keeley and his cronies meet to participate in the titular “satanic rites.” Its basement is full of lovely and deadly vampire brides.

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It’s an interesting twist that Dracula has minions to protect him. Initially, instead of the traditional battle between him and Van Helsing, the minions interfere to prevent Van Helsing from firing his tiny pistol containing the single silver bullet that he painstakingly crafted himself by melting a silver cross one evening in his flat.

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We eventually get a beginning of a traditional battle, though, as Dracula prepares, once again, to take revenge on the Van Helsing lineage by giving Jessica the joy of walking at his side. It’s cut short when Van Helsing throws a chair, not at Dracula, but through a window, so he can escape the conflagration caused by a high-tech mishap in the video control room.

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This leads to a new Dracula demise. Dracula A.D. 1972 added to the list of Dracula’s weaknesses the “weapon” of clear, running water, so that Johnny Alucard could die in the bathtub and vampire brides could die here under fire sprinklers. The Satanic Rites of Dracula adds the Hawthorne bush, from which was made Christ’s crown of thorns.

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I choose to believe a plant wasn’t the instrument of Dracula’s death here, but merely a deterrent. It just slows him down until Van Helsing can repeatedly thrust a broken board from a wooden fence into his heart while he’s weakened. Sure, it’s not the most spectacular Hammer Dracula death scene we’ve witnessed, but it’s not as weak as critics of this film would believe.

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I love genre mashups and admire Hammer’s enthusiasm for combining horror and spy thriller here. I love direct sequels and appreciate the continuation that screenwriter Don Houghton and director Alan Gibson, both from the previous film, crafted with this one. Don’t be fooled by its bad reputation as a public domain oddity. Yes, it’s odd, but in the most wonderful way.

Written by Don Houghton

Directed by Alan Gibson

Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Coles, Freddie Jones, Joanna Lumley, Richard Vernon Released Nov. 3, 1973 (West Germany) RT 87 min.

Home Video Warner Archive (Blu-ray)

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