What kind of rites does Dracula have? Satanic rites, that’s what, and Alan Gibson’s 1972 film is all about the Count standing up for them. Yet this is a late period Hammer film, and so the titular character is largely off-screen for most of the duration; Dracula isn’t even given a mention, let alone seen, for the first 30 minutes. Instead, we bring the Dracula vs Van Helsing legend up to date to 70’s London, and focus instead on a world of motorbikes, sheepskin jackets, nightclubs, government corruption and secret agents; something of a stretch for Bram Stoker’s characters.
The first oddity here is that the narrative from Dr Who scribe Don Houghton, is almost entirely set in one location, Pelham House, where various high-ranking government officials and scientists have been lured to take part in some kind of socially non-distanced BYOB black mass. It’s a pandemic panic, and the British government response is, predictably, to party. Fortunately, the British Secret Service are on the case in the form of Torrence (William Franklyn); we see an agent escape from Pelham House in the opening scenes, but he dies after spilling the beans about the nefarious scenes he beheld. Torrence enlists the help of occult expert Lorimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and after the vampires captures his daughter Jessica (a game Joanna Lumley) to be Dracula’s consort, the forces of good must raid Pelham House and discover who is responsible…
No spoilers are required; the villain is Count Dracula, now calling himself DD Denham and the head of a huge corporate entity which is seeking to end his vampirism by unleashing a deadly virus on mankind; the four government ministers correspond to the four horses of the Apocalypse. The Count’s self-destruction will also be humanity’s, so the stakes are high, and yet The Satanic Rites of Dracula has a intimate feel; the small band of determined adventurers are very much in the style of Dennis Wheatley’s more pulpy writing, popular at the time.
If vampires can be killed by water, why would they build their nest under a well-maintained sprinkler system? Or chose to live in a building surrounded by hawthorn bushes, which are also as deadly as garlic or crucifixes? Gibson’s film doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it’s brisk, silly, and allows for three face to face confrontations between the Count and Van Helsing, which is what you want when Lee and Cushing are involved. This is a much derided late-in-the-cycle Hammer film, but it’s a fun, nostalgic ride for a vintage cast (Freddie Jones! Richard Vernon!) and some amusing updates on the classic characters involved, a few wrong turns perhaps, but generally headed in the ‘satanic’ rite direction.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula is streaming for free on imdbtv in the UK.