After years of bloody Dracula period pieces, Hammer decided to put the Count in the present era with Dracula 1972. Despite decidedly mixed reviews, the film received a sequel. Better than its predecessor, Satanic Rites of Dracula still does not rank among the great horror classics. It does, however, provide an excellent glimpse into the state of the horror movie in the early 1970s.
We're in the dying days of the older-style monster movie, post Rosemary’s Baby, in the culture that produced Charles Manson, Vampirella, Jack T. Chick tracts, and Man, Myth, and Magic. The same year as this film appeared, The Exorcist changed the face of horror movies. At the same time, the old monsters, popculturized by Universal and kept alive by Hammer and Forrest J. Ackerman, retained a powerful appeal. This film blends the old expectations (somber Dracula, haunted houses, vampire brides in the cellar) with the new (occult rituals, vast conspiracies, Antiente MagickTM in modern times). The film drags out the familiar tropes of vampire films and cop/spy thrillers—but combining the two represents an original, if odd, idea.
We begin with an investigation into a mysterious cult that includes several prominently-placed individuals and one man who resists being photographed. Initially, the police feel its just an oddball boys' club, likely unconnected with certain nearby crimes. Of course, they learn otherwise, as they witness lovingly detailed occult rituals and apparently real magic. Soon, we discover these cultists have revived Dracula, who had definitively died in the previous seven films. The Vampire Lord sets himself up as a billionaire industrialist and launches a world-threatening scheme. Can a low-rent James Bond and a descendant of the original Professor Van Helsing stop him?
The acting has a hamminess that some modern viewers will find hard to take, if they're not used to vintage horror movies. Peter Cushing fares best as Van Helsing. Christopher Lee plays a convincingly demonic Count, demonstrating why he owned the role for so long. His interpretation owes much to the source material. This Dracula isn't cuddly, brooding, sparkly, or particularly romantic; he's evil.
The actors, alas, must battle the script's shortcomings. For a centuries-old vampire mastermind and a brilliant human scientist, Count Dracula and Professor Van Helsing show shocking lapses in their thinking. Instead of just shooting Dracula with his prepared silver bullet once he confirms the Count's identity, he announces his intention to do, thus providing an opportunity for the henchmen to intervene. Dracula, instead of killing Van Helsing, decides "
I expect you to die, Mr. Bond! Ahahah! It cannot be made so easy for him!" and devises a more elaborate scheme that offers plenty of opportunity for escape.
Finally (skip this next paragraph if you don't like major spoilers)
--when Dracula is ready to launch the final stage of his fiendish plot, he informs his high-placed minions-- who believe they're part of a different, much less destructive plot-- of his true intentions, intentions he has to know they will oppose. Soon after, the Count gets lured into a growth of vamp-power-sapping plants which grow, conveniently, outside his headquarters.
The film features other shortcomings. The 1970s cop-show/spy-thriller soundtrack not only clashes with the horror movie ambience, it sounds bad in its own right. The film also raises lingering question such as:
- Why are the female vampires so weak?
- Why would Dracula stock his cellar/vampire bridal suite with tools perfectly suited to killing vampires? And why would he permit the anti-vamp shrubbery in his back yard?
- Water kills vampires? Not Holy Water, mind you, but regular sprinkler-system water? This rather stretches the notion that vampires cannot cross water under their own power.
- Why do Dracula's henchmen all wear groovy fur-trimmed vests?
Despite its many shortcomings, this film may be, after The Vampire Lovers, about the best of Hammer’s early-70s oeuvre. If you really like vampire films or you want to understand this era in horror, you should watch this movie.
Everyone else can give it a miss.
Directed by Alan Gibson
Written by Don Houghton
Peter Cushing as Lorrimer Van Helsing
Christopher Lee as Count Dracula / Denham
Michael Coles as Inspector Murray
William Franklyn as Torrence
Freddie Jones as Prof. Julian Keeley
Joanna Lumley as Jessica Van Helsing
Richard Vernon as Col. Mathews
Barbara Yu Ling as Chin Yang
Patrick Barr as Lord Carradine
Richard Mathews as John Porter
Lockwood West as General Sir Arthur Freeborne
Valerie Van Ost as Jane
Maurice O'Connell as Hanson
Maggie Fitzgerald as Vampire girl
Pauline Peart as Vampire girl
Finnuala O'Shannon as Vampire girl
Mia Martin as Vampire girl