Posts Tagged ‘Scars of Dracula’

Halloween looms once more, and without further ado let us try to establish something of a tradition by reviewing another classic old Hammer horror movie (not that I’m averse to going down this road at any time of year, of course). Roy Ward Baker’s Scars of Dracula, originally released in 1970, opens in majestic style with a rubber bat on a string vomiting fake blood onto the gritty remnants left after the Count’s last dissolution (in Taste the Blood of Dracula).

Lo and behold, Dracula reconstitutes himself (he is once again played by Christopher Lee, though this wasn’t the mortal lock you might have expected at the time). All this happens before the opening credits, which makes a refreshing change after a series of films in which Dracula doesn’t show up until quite a long way in. (There is a reason for this, which we will address in due course.)

Dracula gets back into his old routine by chowing down on the daughter of one of the local yokels. However, the villagers feel the need to nip this latest outbreak of vampirism in the bud and set off for Castle Dracula, flammable objects in hand. The village innkeeper (Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper, getting unusually good material) boldly launches the assault on the Count’s stronghold by walking up to the front door and ringing the bell. Luckily the villagers’ cause is helped by the fact that manning the entrance is Dracula’s dogsbody Klove (Patrick Troughton, in a wig and makeup that makes him look rather like Liam Gallagher’s granddad), who is an idiot. Klove obligingly lets them in and they proceed to set fire to a few bits of the castle, but don’t actually bother looking that hard for Dracula himself. (The damage to the matte painting of the castle seems to be much more severe than to the actual set.) Feeling the job has been done, the villagers toddle off home, only to discover that all their womenfolk have been killed by rubber bats on strings, despite taking refuge in the church. Blimey.

All this is, to be perfectly honest, largely immaterial to the actual plot of the film – although I suppose it does explain why the villagers are so bad tempered for the rest of the movie and why Dracula appears strikingly reluctant to leave his house throughout (clearly concerned about leaving Klove in charge). The proper story kicks off at this point as we meet fresh-faced mittel-European youths Simon and Sarah (Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley), who are in lurve. However, they are concerned by the roguish antics of Simon’s brother Paul (Christopher Matthews). In a slightly dodgy plot development, one of Paul’s conquests goes a bit bunny-boilerish and accuses him of rape, forcing him to flee across the border (which border is not elaborated upon). He pitches up in the village from the start of the movie, where the men are clearly still soldiering on despite everything (the local inn has a barmaid, who in the circumstances is not as well treated as you might expect). Anyway, he does not get a warm reception and – would you believe it? – finds himself heading castle-wards before much time has elapsed. Meanwhile, Simon and Sarah are still looking for him and their attempt to follow his trail inevitably sees them also heading into danger before too long…

Scars of Dracula is a movie which plays strictly according to the classic horror rulebook: inasmuch as any major character with a fondness for an immoral lifestyle is writing their own death warrant, while all those on the path of virtue are essentially untouchable. I think they probably overdo this element a bit: it’s okay to make your good guys nice people, but Waterman and Hanley are such an incredibly insipid couple that it’s impossible to really care about them. It doesn’t help much that, despite the period setting, all the young characters come across as well-brought-up present day kids in fancy dress – an impression only bolstered by an infelicitously-framed shot which reveals that Paul’s choice of sleeping attire is a pair of bright red Y-fronts.

That said, it’s not as if anyone turns up to a Hammer Dracula to see the supporting cast. You come to see Christopher Lee doing his stuff – and, as these things go, he gets a fair amount of screen time here. The script actually gives Lee the chance to play Dracula with a little more depth than usual – there’s a lot of material here which is, broadly speaking, derived from Stoker’s original novel, which means that Lee gets the chance to retain a little dignity and intelligence, rather than simply being a slavering fiend lurking in a ruined church (which he spends a lot of time doing in later Hammer movies).

Despite all this, as had become traditional, Christopher Lee really had to be dragged into the studio and (almost literally) blackmailed into participating. And even this was at the behest of the distributors, who weren’t interested in a non-Lee Dracula movie. Hammer had originally planned to recast and relaunch the series, much as they did with their Frankenstein series in the same year, but their backers insisted that this be, nominally, part of the same continuity that started in 1958.

(Inevitably, one has to wonder who Hammer had in mind to play their new Dracula: I’m not aware of any documentation on this being available. The obvious choice for me would have been Ralph Bates, were it not for the fact he’d been in the previous film as one of the Count’s acolytes (not to mention that he was also the new Frankenstein in Horror of Frankenstein). No-one else in the Hammer rep company really fits the bill for me.)

This is why the film opens in the way it does: the original script was to start with Dracula in his castle doing his thing. The vomiting bat sequence was the quickest way of restoring the character, but this is inevitably one of the things that draws criticism from hard-core Hammer fans – not because the bat is rubbish (though it is), but because at the end of the previous movie Dracula was destroyed in England, and this movie opens with his remains being back in Transylvania (not identified as such on screen), with no explanation given.

I expect it must have been Klove who did all the necessary travelling around and sweeping up. One of the consequences of keeping Scars of Dracula in-continuity with the earlier movies is that Troughton’s playing a character with the same name and job as someone who was apparently shot dead in Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Is this meant to be the same Klove, miraculously recovered?

Well, the first Klove (Philip Latham) was a lugubrious fanatic, but he dressed smartly and was a credible butler. Troughton’s Klove is an idiot who dresses like a yokel and quite frankly isn’t up to scratch as a domestic of any kind. Presumably the Klove family have some sort of ongoing contract with Dracula to do for him, and Troughton’s character was the only person available to do the work. Dracula seems to accept that you just can’t get the staff these days with commendable equanimity.

‘Feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic’, etc.

Nevertheless, Klove is really the pivotal character of the movie (honest), and on top of this as a result of his presence we get an unexpected insight into the domestic arrangements at Castle Dracula. Klove spends his days whiling away the time in his horrible quarters, getting tricked into opening the gates by passing vampire hunters, chopping up corpses and dissolving them in an old tin bath, removing crucifixes from the busts of visiting starlets, and being branded with a red-hot sword whenever he gets something wrong. What kind of money is he making? What must the initial job advert have looked like?

One’s mind inevitably wanders into territory such as this during Scars of Dracula. This is despite an attempt by Hammer to up the gore and sex quotient in an attempt to compete with the stronger meat provided by American exploitation movies of the period. To be honest it’s fairly mild stuff, compared to later movies – the nudity content consists of a pair of bare buttocks, and Baker doesn’t seem very comfortable in his handling of the gore. The importance to the plot of rubber bats on strings is also a problem: at various points the bats are required to savage people to death and wrest crosses from their persons, and all of this looks about as convincing as you’d expect.

The main problem with this film is not to do with the production values, however, as these are mostly pretty good: and there is of course a lush and atmospheric James Bernard score to be savoured. The problem is that, despite the fact that Dracula gets some good material and the film is occasionally striking and involving, it’s essentially bereft of new ideas. Taste the Blood of Dracula had interesting things to offer on the subjects of morality and the clash of generations – but Scars of Dracula isn’t really about anything beyond Dracula noshing on his guests and mistreating his staff. It’s simply a very mixed bag of elements, all present for different reasons, and as a result the film lacks the strong identity of the best Hammer Draculas. Still sort of fun, though.

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