You'd think a Hammer Horror set in the 1970s called "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" would turn out even camper than "Dracula AD 1972". I mean, satanic rites! Hooded robes. Chickens. Beep beep beep... sorry, that's my "comedy gold" detector. Even dafter was its working title of "Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London", which prompted the following response from Christopher Lee at a press conference to announce the film. This would be the last time he'd agree to be Dracula for Hammer.
"I'm doing it under protest ... I think it is fatuous. I can think of twenty adjectives: fatuous, pointless, absurd. It's not a comedy, but it's got a comic title. I don't see the point."
However despite all this, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a serious horror movie that manages to feel 1970s in a good way. Instead of teenagers, it gives us espionage agencies, biker assassins and snipers with silenced rifles. The deaths aren't the usual stylised camp, but instead a brutal assortment of throttlings, beatings to death or even getting hanged and left strung up in their own apartments. It feels real, which is something you can't say of any other Hammer Dracula film. It feels like one of those kitchen sink period Britflicks, probably starring Michael Caine somewhere up north and wandering around slag heaps and multi-storey car parks. It approaches that kind of grittiness.
That doesn't make it dour, of course. No film with satanic rituals can ever avoid camp, although Barbara Yu Ling is full of conviction as their mistress of ceremonies and amusingly the filmmakers do things like cutting away to someone in a kitchen making a cup of tea. In fact I thought the satanism was well handled. Three things stop it from getting boring. #1: breaking it up into little vignettes, each nastier than the last. They keep you waiting for the grand finale, which must be more impressive than a sacrificed chicken given that that escapee was calling their rituals "obscene". At first I assumed they couldn't be big-league cultists. Awww, how sweet. They're trying to be organised!
However things get ever weirder and more brutal until by the time we eventually learn Dracula's plan, it's something so evil that it feels over the top even for him. Why would anyone want that? Peter Cushing's answer to that question is one of my favourite things about this film, a great scene for Cushing and also one of the few times I've ever seen a successful attempt at characterisation for Dracula.
The other two good things about the rites would be the naked girl. I'm surprised they didn't cast someone more buxom, though.
Furthermore it's still a Hammer film, so you'll always have Cushing and Lee to enjoy. The soundtrack has its moments of funk, albeit this time in an appropriate way. There's a nice gore shot when someone shoots a motorcyclist, in which he doesn't just fall down but gets a hole in his helmet visor as blood splashes up inside. This is an oddly hypnotic movie. I like its grimy, seedy mundanity. We have conspiracy theories, urban attacks, espionage rings and bikers chasing down a screaming woman in her car and smashing in her windscreen... but also Christopher Lee's Dracula! One might almost see the vampires as tacked on, but they really aren't. Thanks to that atmosphere, it's a shock when Dracula shows up more than half an hour in. There's also a Brides of Dracula cellar scene that I'm tempted to call the one and only horrifying scene in a Hammer film.
I found it a fascinating spin on the vampire film and all the more so for coming from Hammer, since their vampires already have a well explored mythology. I loved seeing their camp gothic vampires at the rotten heart of all this contemporary grimy evil. The first thing we get after seeing Dracula is a speech from one of his servants to Cushing. "Evil rules, you know. It really does. Evil and violence are the only two measures that hold any power. Look at the world." Dracula's servants really are among the most powerful men in Britain... yet they're also shabby boring cultists in a drab cellar. I loved that. It's losers who are behind the evil, which in real life of course is how it generally is.
I also enjoyed the explicit link of vampirism and satanism. It's explicitly about the Devil. The big guy. Enemy of God. The cultists use inverted crosses, which raises the question of a vampire's reaction to a crucifix held upside-down. This series has been talking about "the cult of vampirism" almost since the beginning and I never thought it made sense, so I'm delighted to at last have been shown it. Peter Cushing does wonders with his mad exposition. Of course it's ludicrous, but so are vampires and for me this film tied together all that into a universe that hangs together surprisingly well. I liked all this religion. Oh, and apparently the 23rd of November is the most evil day of the year and to blame for both World Wars as well as the first ever episode of Doctor Who.
There's also some comedy 1970s costuming with the biker assassins' adorable fleece jackets. Whoops, fashion victim. You'll enjoy their moustaches and sunglasses too.
The cast is basically Cushing, Lee and everyone else. Our Beloved Lord and Master (i.e. Cushing) gets to be a little slipperier this time, while I loved the casual way in which he just dropped in for a chat with Dracula as if they were old friends. The resulting conversation is silly because it seems to assume that Cushing's Van Helsing wouldn't recognise his foe even in half-light, but it's worth it just to hear Lee impersonating Bela Lugosi! It's just a put-on of course and he soon reverts to his normal (and far more impressive) voice, but that was delicious.
The rest of the cast includes a delightful old gent called Richard Vernon as Colonel Matthews, the cold-blooded spy chief. He's been in Gandhi and Goldfinger and had the ongoing role of Sir Desmond Glazebrook in Yes Minister. Michael Coles returns as Inspector Murray and is bland but okay. Even Jessica Van Helsing's back from the last film, albeit this time played by Joanna Lumley in ginger hair that doesn't suit her. Stephanie Beacham was unavailable.
The only real flaw in the film are the vampire deaths. The presumed destruction of the Brides of Dracula would seem to overdo their vulnerability to running water, to the point where they shouldn't go out in heavy rain. Meanwhile Dracula himself basically dies by walking through a rose bush. I should however throw a brick at a moment of plot convenience, in which Cushing gets shot by a sinister killer at point-blank range and then a minute or two later is fine. Bad shot? Grazed forehead? Tranquilizer dart? No, I've got it: heroic immunity.
This film startled me more on first viewing, but it's still one hell of a departure for Hammer and not unremarkable by any other standards too. There's an unbelievable moment towards the end, while we don't know that the ending wasn't grotesquely bleak in two completely different ways. Scarily a major character having been vampirised is the lesser of them.