Few stories in vampire lore are visited as frequently as the battle between Count Dracula and his nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing. The 1973 film, “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” revisits this battle with the firepower of two horror genre legends. Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Curse of Frankenstein, A Tale of Two Cities, Dracula) plays the prince of darkness, opposite Peter Cushing (Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes, Island of Terror, The Evil of Frankenstein).
In this telling, Dracula is summoned by the satanic ritual performed by some of England’s most notable and wealthiest contributors. These powerful men embrace the seven deadly sins not as facets of evil but as gifts that will grant immortality. They plot to expand death as widely and as quickly as possible so that Dracula may have an army to rule over in his war against order and righteousness.
Who’s going to stop them? At first, the film sets up law enforcement officials as the protagonists, with camera watches and secret tactics stolen from the pages of Ian Fleming. When these super secret agents approach Dr. Van Helsing with the list of suspects and a description of the ritual, the master of the occult sets his investigation in motion to thwart the plot for worldwide destruction.
Dracula has some interesting bedfellows in this film. The tie between Satanists and vampires is weak at best, and is hardly explained or explored by director Alan Gibson. Instead, the dark prince has a mad scientist and a group of motorcycle thugs as enforcers. (Just an aside, the motorcycle gang in the 1985 film, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” was named the Satan’s Helpers. This might have been the origin of that tequila-loving group.)
The film’s first five minutes include a topless blonde and a guy shot in the face. That combination made up for the uppity blokes from Scotland Yard who couldn’t get to the real powers in the film fast enough. The film finds its stride once its screen legends take control. The action sequences don’t hold up well but the effects used in the film aren’t bad. The fangs of the vampires aren’t overly distracting and the stake scenes (credited to special effects master Les Bowie) remain convincing.
“Satanic Rites of Dracula” holds true in its support of the connection between Dracula and the Bible. The dark prince is entangled in a Hawthorn tree (from which Christ’s crown of thorns was made) during the finale, allowing Van Helsing to once again vanquish him. As thin as the connections between the devil and Dracula may be in this film, the same theme has been revisited with less convincing results since. “Dracula 2000” proposed that Dracula was, in fact, Judas. 2004’s “Van Helsing” had the Vatican dispatch the title character to take care of Dracula, werewolves and the creations of Frankenstein.
This film is the sequel (but isn’t dependent) to “Dracula 1972 A.D.” It would be the last time that Cushing and Lee squared off in these celebrated roles.
“Satanic Rites of Dracula” is an imperfect mash-up of supernatural thriller, spy movie and horror film. Without the swagger and experience of Lee and Cushing, the film would be a useless list of unrelated ideas. Thanks to the experience of film veterans on the screen, combined with the strength of the characters, “Satanic Rites of Dracula” is an enjoyable view into one small portion of a conflict nearly as storied as vampire lore itself.