First released in 1973 and, like Dracula A.D. 1972, set in what was then the present day, The Satanic Rites of Dracula was the 8th entry in the Hammer Dracula series. It was also the last to feature Christopher Lee in the role of Dracula and that perhaps is why, judging by some of the other reviews that I’ve read online, The Satanic Rites is one of the more reviled entries in the series.
Judging from a lot of those reviews, the attitude seems to be that The Satanic Rites of Dracula was so bad that it was the film that made Christopher Lee say, “No more!” Reportedly, Lee felt that the film itself was both poorly written and that it was too violent. And, even though the film is rather tame by the standards of today’s horror films, The Satanic Rites is still probably one of the more extreme entries in the series. The film features a graphic and drawn-out flashback in which we see a naked woman sacrificed by a Satanic cult, a scene that’s bloody even by the standards of Hammer. Later, when Jessica Van Helsing (played by Joanna Lumley, who took the role over from Dracula A.D. 1972‘s Stephanie Beacham) is menaced by a pack of female vampires, the vampires literally claw at her body like wild animals. And finally, when one of Dracula’s brides is staked, blood literally splashes across the screen.
Christopher Lee was not a fan of The Satanic Rites of Dracula and neither are a lot of critics but you know what? I think The Satanic Rites of Dracula is actually rather underrated. If nothing else, it’s certainly far more unpredictable than some of the far more critically embraced Dracula films.
Satanic Rites opens with a British secret agent (Maurice O’Connell) escaping from a country house in which he had previously been held prisoner. Though he’s fatally wounded during the escape, the agent manages to tell his superiors that, at the house, he witnessed a Satanic ritual that involved some of the most important people in the British government. Since one of the accused occultists is a government minister, the secret service passes the case on to Scotland Yard’s Inspector Murray (Michael Coles, reprising his role from Dracula A.D. 1972) and then provide him with clandestine assistance. (Or something like that. To be honest, I get the feeling that the main reason Murray was called in was to maintain some continuity between Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula.) Murray suspects that vampires may be involved so he calls in Lorrimar Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).
After discovering that his old friend, scientist Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), is a part of the cult, Van Helsing deduces that it’s all part of huge conspiracy headed by none other than Dracula himself. The plan is to release a mutated form of bubonic plague and wipe out humanity.
Why is Dracula planning on destroying humanity?
Van Helsing theorizes that this might be Dracula’s way of committing suicide. By wiping out humanity, Dracula will no longer have anyone to feed upon and his undead existence will finally end. And, if nothing else, you have to admit that is a pretty interesting motivation!
How can you not enjoy a film that’s as strange as The Satanic Rites of Dracula? It may not be a typical Hammer Dracula film and it may be a bit too obviously an attempt to revitalize a fading franchise by tossing everything that was then trendy at it but so what? This is one of those movies that could have only been made at a certain point in time by a certain group of filmmakers and, as such, it’s valuable as both history and entertainment.
Christopher Lee may have hated The Satanic Rites of Dracula but he’s being way too hard on the film. If nothing else, it provided a nice excuse for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to face off and how can you not appreciate that?