October Horrorshow: The Satanic Rites of Dracula

Here we are. October 31st. Halloween. The end of the October Horrorshow. The final film in this look back at Hammer Film Productions is a departure from type. If there’s one thing I’ve picked up on from watching 31 Hammer films in a row, it’s that Hammer basically made the same film over and over and over again. That’s not negative criticism on my part. Hammer had a style, in the same way that a musician like John Lee Hooker had a style or an artist like Willem de Kooning had a style. Listen to an album or see a painting hanging on a wall and it becomes immediately clear who is responsible. Hammer films followed a theme. They developed over time into something that was very much their own. Towards the end, though, they began to switch things up in search of a new formula. Such is the case with today’s film.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula, from 1973, is the final Hammer Dracula film to feature Christopher Lee in the title role. It is a direct sequel to Dracula A.D. 1972. There’s no more playing around with continuity and no more plot noodling around Dracula’s castle on the continent. There’s no wayward couple that finds themselves ensnared by Dracula’s wiles. In previous films Dracula’s aspirations seemed never to extend beyond the acquisition of necks and women. In this film, the fate of the world is at stake.

The blue bloods of England have been up to no good. At a secluded country house, a cabinet minister, a general, and a member of the House of Lords are among those who have formed a cult and gathered for an occult ceremony. They’ve been up to these shady activities for a while, drawing the attention of the British Secret Service and Special Branch. An undercover operative is sent into the house to ascertain the goings on inside, and he lives just long enough to tell investigators of bizarre rituals, human sacrifice, and resurrection. The investigators have no clue what to do with such information, so they call in an outside consultant — Lorrimer Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing and an endless stream of cigarettes). Upon examining the evidence, Van Helsing comes to the conclusion that Dracula has returned, and it is he who is directing the actions of the cultists.

Van Helsing learns that one of the cult members, Nobel Laureate Dr. Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), has developed a new, super-virulent strain of bubonic plague. It is the aim of Dracula to release these bacteria upon mankind and bring about the apocalypse. Why Dracula wishes to do so is never adequately explained by Don Houghton’s script, but it doesn’t really need to be. The bacteria are just a MacGuffin. It gives the heroes something to chase after while Dracula is not on the screen. And what a chase!

This movie can be profoundly silly at times, and never more so than when it’s not a horror film. By that, I mean that for the majority, The Satanic Rites of Dracula has nothing to do with Dracula. Van Helsing and Inspector Murray from Scotland Yard (Michael Coles) run all over London chasing leads. Henchmen in fur vests try to stop them at every turn. There are fights, gunshots, some light car chases, and a whole lot of cheese. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that a movie is going to be kitschy when the henchmen wear uniforms, and that rule holds true here. The whole effect is very much an amalgamation of comic books and James Bond films. It’s such a rollicking sequence of events that it overshadows the part of the film that has Dracula in it. In fact, had the film excised Dracula entirely it would still be a fun watch. Cushing and Coles team up like partners in a 1970s cop show. Starsky and Hutch. Regan and Carter. Steve and Danno. Van Helsing and Murray.

This film draws its influences from so many contemporary styles that at times it even feels like a product of Hong Kong cinema, only without the kung fu. That could have made the film a confused mess, and it comes close to being so at times when its varied styles clash with what is happening in the plot. But despite the troubles director Alan Gibson had at making it all work together, a viewer would be hard-pressed to find another Hammer film that’s this much fun.

The final product is an absurd film. It’s a product of its time and a production company that was trying just about anything by this point to sell tickets. Only a handful of films remained for Hammer after this film was released, but before the company would disappear for the better part of 30 years, it gave us this bizarre relic. I laughed, I shook my head, and I enjoyed. The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a better film than Alien: Resurrection.