Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 27, 2018)
For the seventh and final time over 15 years, Christopher Lee played the title character in Hammer’s 1973 opus The Satanic Rites of Dracula. A follow-up to the prior year’s Dracula AD 1972, Rites keeps the Count in the 20th century.
Though Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) appeared to vanquish Dracula in the previous film, Rites brings back the Count. A cult performs a ceremony intended to revive Dracula, and they succeed.
However, MI6 Agent Hanson (Maurice O'Connell) infiltrates the cult and warns his superiors of the plot. With Dracula back on the prowl – now disguised as a reclusive millionaire – Van Helsing attempts to rid the world of his foe once again.
As I mentioned in that review, AD 1972 offered my initial exposure to Hammer’s Dracula franchise, and it didn’t go well. The movie suffered from a slew of flaws and became a silly, campy dud.
Logically, I had no reason to expect more from the next effort in the series, but hope springs eternal and all that. I thought perhaps the filmmakers would eschew the period elements that made AD 1972 as dated as its title and create something a bit more timeless.
Though I can’t claim “timeless” describes Rites, it avoids the pitfalls that marred AD 1972. Gone are the post-hippies and all the early 1970s relics that gave that flick a goofy air. While the score of Rites occasionally feels like part of its era, overall the movie feels much less stuck in that period.
Rites also manages a much more interesting plot, especially because it manages to take some creative twists. Unlike prior Dracula tales, this time the Count shoots for world domination via a deadly disease.
That makes Rites less of a traditional “I vant to suck your blood” vampire story and more of a detective thriller. We follow the investigation and its attempts to discern Dracula’s plans much more than we go through his usual neck-biting antics.
I really like this change, as it gives Rites its own flavor. Face it: most vampire movies follow fairly predictable paths, so I appreciate this flick’s attempts to provide something new.
It helps that Rites executes the story fairly well, especially because it manages to play matters in a mostly straight manner. Sure, it veers a little melodramatic at times, but heck, it’s a vampire movie – I don’t expect objective dramatic reality from it.
Rites still gives matters a reasonably believable feel, as most of the actors avoid too much scenery-eating. Cushing does especially well in that regard, as he adds gravity to Van Helsing.
Whereas Lee offered a glorified cameo in AD 1972 - a Dracula movie that hardly showed Dracula – he manages more screentime here. Expect to wait a while to see him, though, as Dracula barely appears until the movie’s final act.
This works as a dramatic device, however, and Lee fills the final half-hour enough that we don’t mind his relative absence during the prior 60 minutes. Lee can veer campy, but he still adds menace to the part.
Nothing about Rites rivals the genre’s best efforts, but it nonetheless becomes a pretty engaging thriller. It certainly tops its immediate predecessor.