Hammer Horror holds a very special place in the hearts of genre fans. Hell, Kate Bush wrote a song about it. There isn’t anything else like these period horror films shot in glorious technicolor with that gorgeous bright red blood. These films aimed for a kind of “respectability”. The British actors in these may have treated them like jobs, but they clearly enjoyed applying their craft to this material. Hammer films at their peak may have been imitated by the likes of Mario Bava and Roger Corman, but never could they truly be duplicated.
By the time Hammer got to the 70s, the films were very different. The films still looked gorgeous in technicolor and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing still duked it out. Everything else though? It’s obvious the studio now tried to compete with exploitation cinema contemporaries in the US and Europe. They were now lurid and sensationalistic instead of atmospheric and “respectable”. Yet while not “respectable” cinema these films remain immensely entertaining. Case in point; 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, a film that, while certainly not Hammer at its peak, remains worth watching for how of its time it is.
Part of what makes this entertaining is the deeply insane plot. A British government investigates an Occult group for subversive activities. They learn several high profile men are involved and they’re plotting… something. This agency enlists Scotland Yard and one Lorimmer Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing. And yes, before you ask, Christopher Lee is Dracula and yes, he is plotting something. This film might as well be called Dracula is Alive and Well and Living in London.
It’s pretty easy not to call this not peak Hammer. Gone is the gothic atmosphere of the Terence Fisher directed films. Like it’s predecessor, Dracula A.D. 1972, this film has a thoroughly modern setting along with the same director, Alan Gibson. Neither Gibson nor cinematographer Brian Probyn quite have a hand for horror. There’s few genuinely chilling moments to be found in this. There’s also the Christopher Lee of it all. This is Lee’s final performance in a Hammer production as Dracula and it shows. You can tell watching the passion is gone for him by this point. None of the animalistic physicality or the presence of evil he carries in other Hammer productions is here. His Dracula is barely there, both screen time and personality wise.
All of this said, all of this remains immensely entertaining. Do the filmmaker’s make a Dracula in 70s London make sense? Not at all. Is it fun to watch? Absolutely. Like any Hammer movie, this looks incredible. Everyone looks fashionable, from Van Helsing’s granddaughter (played by a red headed and pre-Absolutely Fabulous Joanna Lumley!) to the biker gang flunkies in sheep skin vests. Dracula is a fake business executive! Peter Cushing gets melt silver to make bullets and enjoy a cigarette. By the time, men in power realize it’s a bad to idea to get into business WITH DRACULA, you probably have already checked out or you’re all in on this. Also the idea of men in positions of power looking out for their own self interests they would get into business WITH DRACULA? That’s a pretty evergreen idea. Plus it’s got 70s occultists. What else do you need in a movie?
With a title like The Satanic Rites of Dracula, you probably know what you’re getting into here. It’s not the apex or exemplary of what a Hammer production does best. However, there’s so much to enjoy on its own terms. Plus, I want to again point out 70s occultists!