Warner Brothers UK’s recent decision to release The Satanic Rites of Dracula on BluRay means that I can finally spend Halloween recreating the first horror double-bill I ever saw at the cinema – 1973’s Blacula and Satanic Rites of Dracula.

Blacula has been available for some time on DVD, but due to some bizarre copyright problem Satanic Rites has been legally unobtainable for years. Although the last of the Hammer Dracula films has been screened at least once on British TV, its relative scarcity has probably fuelled its reputation as not very good.

I’m probably never going to be unbiased – as I said this was the first Dracula film I actually (illegally) saw at the cinema – an exciting enough event for me to photograph the posters as soon as they went up on Sunday morning (above)! However, I would rank Satanic Rites as probably the fourth best of the Hammer Dracula’s.

For a start, it brings together Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing for only the fourth time (out of nine movies). It also gives Christopher Lee more of an active part. A lot of people don’t like this film because it’s set in the 1970’s and has Dracula acting as a hybrid Ian Fleming/Dennis Wheatley villain. But that’s one of the things I like about this movie. Scriptwriter Don Houghton (who’d worked on the Jon Pertwee Dr Who TV series) firmly updated Bram Stoker’s concepts to the 1970’s. As John Sutherland pointed out, Dracula was written as a contemporary novel with all the latest gadgets of the time. Dracula had spent years researching contemporary London so that he could infiltrate society. Satanic Rites of Dracula shows Dracula subverting the highest ranks of 1970’s Britain.

Just as Stoker has Van Helsing lead a diverse crew of professionals (a doctor, a lawyer, a Texan) against Dracula, so Houghton has Van Helsing and his grand-daughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley) called in by Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) to help MI-5’s William Franklin tackle Dracula’s satanic cult. In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is served by faithful “gypsies”, while in the movie Dracula is attended by “hippy bikers”. When Van Helsing finally penetrates Dracula’s lair, it is in a modern office block rather than a Transylvanian castle. But just as those castle’s always seem to be run by one lone servant, the office block seems to be controlled by a single security guard.

Even Dracula’s leadership of a Satanic Cult (however bogus) is faithful to Stoker, who explained that Dracula learned the secrets of the devil at “the Scholomance” a school of black arts where he first became a vampire.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula has some flaws, but works on its own terms. If there had to be a last Hammer Dracula, this was a good one to go out on.

Blacula complements the film well. Another take on a ‘modern-day Dracula’ but this time with added Blaxploitation. William Marshall dominates the movie as Mamuwalde, an African prince who lobbies Count Dracula (Charles Macauley – the Duke of Clarence in the Vincent Price Tower of London) to help abolish the slave trade. After an argument, Dracula vampirises Mamuwalde, dubbing him “Blacula” before imprisoning him in a coffin where he will thirst for blood with no release.

Ketty Lester and Elisha Cook Junior

Marshall is released in 1970’s America, and stalks the streets in search of his reincarnated wife (Vonetta McGee). The film is slightly undermined by its self-conscious “street-wise” humour but reflects its times. During one scene, Mamuwalde is run down by Yellow Cab driver Juanita Jones (Ketty Lester). The strident Lester berates Marshall soon realises that African princes don’t react well to criticism. Later on, morgue attendant Elisha Cook Jrsays that taxi driving is no job for a woman and asks pointedly “What was she looking for?” (his inference being that it’s a cover for prostitution). When Lester’s body is thawed out from the deep freeze, Cook very quickly discovers what she’s looking for.

Marshall plays Mamuwalde in the same style as Dracula in the Marvel Tomb of Dracula comics of the same period and is supported by a solid cast of TV actors. Despite the obvious low budget, Blacula builds to an exciting climax with the forces of law and order confronting just about every vampire that Marshall has created during his short reign. The final scenes even manage to generate some sympathy for Mamuwalde, despite his inevitable demise. While AIP’s Blacula is definitely the support to the Hammer Film, the two together still make a strong double-bill.