TITLE: The Satanic Rites of Dracula
YEAR RELEASED: 1974
DIRECTOR: Alan Gibson
CAST: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joanna Lumley, Michael Coles, William Franklyn, Freddie Jones
RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES describes watching his first Hammer Horror, The Satanic Rites of Dracula!
August 18th 1979 was a very important day in history.
Well, it was for me. That night, BBC2 broadcast a double-bill: “The Mummy’s Hand”, followed by “The Satanic Rites Of Dracula”. My Mum was working on a late shift, and my grandmother (a real horror fan) settled down for the late movies, probably thinking I would get sleepy before long and she would send me off to bed. Except it didn’t work out that way…
I sat rapt through the Mummy flick, and my Nan got me a top-up of tea and toast, probably still thinking I should doze off shortly, surely?
Nope. If the opening part of this double feature had entertained me, this next one had me hooked.
The words “A HAMMER PRODUCTION” lit up our Radio Rentals TV, the credits rolled over a series of London views, and a spooky looking shadow loomed slowly larger. I guessed this figure must be the Dracula mentioned in the title. I had no idea what satanic rites were, but I did have a rough idea what a Dracula was. They had fangs and they drank people’s blood, or so I’d heard in the school playground. It sounded interesting to me, and what followed didn’t disappoint…
Opening in a country mansion, a black magic ritual is taking place, whilst a secret agent is tied to a bed upstairs. Freeing himself, he escapes the house to a waiting car. It turns out he’s been infiltrating a cult involving several prominent establishment figures and a global corporation headed by one D.D. Denham, but he dies from his injuries before he can give any further details, leaving only a series of photos indicting all of these men, along with another picture which seems to show nobody at all…
Investigating the evidence, secret agent Torrence (William Franklyn) is joined by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Murray (Michael Coles, reprising his role from Dracula A.D. 1972), who suggests that Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and his daughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley) might be of assistance.
One of the figures photographed with the cult is Van Helsing’s old friend, Professor Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones). He agrees to visit him, and gradually realises that not only is his family’s arch nemesis Dracula involved, but the Count has come up with a plan to destroy humanity, and thus ensure his own eternal rest…
Meanwhile, the cult captures the agents’ assistant Jane (Valerie Van Ost), and when Torrence, Murray and Jessica go to investigate, they find Jane chained in a basement, along with a variety of other young ladies. Jane, however, has already had an encounter with the Count…
In retrospect, yes, this is Hammer horror in its final death throes, and the attempt to reinvigorate the series by throwing in elements of contemporary thrillers and a touch of sci-fi isn’t entirely successful. It’s still a fascinating curate’s egg, however, and a most enjoyable ride, like a particularly outlandish episode of The New Avengers or The Professionals (Lumley was appearing in the former at the time I first saw the film). A variation on destroying vampires with running water is particularly memorable (I won’t spoil it).
In his final appearance as Dracula, Lee gets a bit more to do than just snarl and hiss. It’s a considerable improvement on its predecessor, making a better stab of placing the Count in a contemporary setting. After all, what better cover guise for a bloodsucker than as the head of a global conglomerate? There’s no denying that everyone seems to be giving it their best shot, and there’s some good ideas in here worth exploring further. Besides, to see Lee and Cushing one last time, as arch-vampire and nemesis, is a real pleasure, Dracula’s final dispatchment utilising a method covered in Bram Stoker’s original novel, but rarely exploited on screen.
Meanwhile, as I watched on that night in 1979, I had no idea that Hammer, whose films would become so important to me had recently ceased to operate. In terms of their Dracula series, I had come in at the final death knell. For me, however, it was one hell of a beginning. Warts and all, The Satanic Rites Of Dracula was my first Hammer horror, and will always hold a very special place in my heart.
Yes, my first horror movies. A Universal/Hammer double bill. Not a bad way to start a lifelong passion, was it?
RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES lives with his wife close to the Dorset Coast. He spends far too much of his spare time watching horror films and listening to psychedelic music (sometimes simultaneously). He also writes on Movies, Music, TV and other matters for his blog, The Purple Patch