Scars of Dracula (1970) **½
And here’s where the exhaustion begins to set in. Scars of Dracula is by no means a bad film on the whole, but the franchise is definitely showing its age here in the sixth installment. Until it rallies after a Psycho-like midpoint protagonist switch, this movie foreshadows the worst of 70’s Hammer just as clearly as Taste the Blood of Dracula foreshadowed the best. Its human olive loaf of a hero personifies the studio’s escalating young man problem almost as ably as the thankfully absent Ralph Bates, albeit in a rather different way. It picks the wrong girl to be its heroine, and keeps the right one tucked away from the site of the action until it’s time for her ignominious demise. It dabbles ill-advisedly in comedy, frequently leaving you expecting “Yakety Sax” to start up on the soundtrack. The material aspects of the production are junky and threadbare as a result of Warner Brothers’ final estrangement from the increasingly erratic James Carreras. Even stalwart Michael Ripper looks ragged and weary playing yet another gothic horror publican. By the time Roy Ward Baker remembers that, as the director of Five Million Years to Earth and The Vampire Lovers, he can and should do better than this, Scars of Dracula has an awful lot of goodwill to win back.
It begins with one of the laziest, silliest villain resurrections that I have ever seen. In the vault beneath Castle Dracula, walled up so that the only way in or out is a window overlooking a sheer cliff, stands a granite plinth draped with the cloak of Count Dracula, which is in turn sprinkled with the red powder that the last movie taught us to recognize as the vampire’s dried blood. The window has no panes, and an enormous Bat-on-a-Stringtm flies in through it to hover impossibly over the count’s remains. Then it pukes blood all over them, and Dracula (Christopher Lee) reconstitutes himself in an impressively grotesque series of lapse dissolves. You’ll be forgiven for assuming that screenwriter Anthony Hinds isn’t even trying this time around.
Rather surprisingly, Dracula’s peasants are trying for once. More than happy to be rid of their undead lord, they dedicate themselves to sending him back to the grave where he belongs as soon as the first bloodless body comes to light. The leader of the uprising is the keeper of the local inn (Ripper, playing sort of a mean value of his characters from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Taste the Blood of Dracula), with close support from the parish priest (Michael Gwynn, of Jason and the Argonauts and The Deadly Bees). While the women of the village take refuge in the church, the menfolk march on the castle in a torches-and-pitchforks mob of the sort that’s been markedly absent from Hammer’s Dracula movies thus far. Tricking Dracula’s human servant, Klove (Patrick Troughton, from The Black Torment and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), into opening the main gate, the villagers set fire to the castle. Klove warns them that the fire won’t reach his master’s resting place, but he’s smart enough not to interfere beyond that. Castle Dracula takes the better part of the day to burn to the mob’s satisfaction, so the sun is on its way down by the time they hit the road for home, congratulating one another on a job well done. Klove was right, however, and Dracula’s retribution is terrible indeed. His bats fly faster than the villagers can hike, and the mob returns to find all their wives, sisters, and daughters dead— slaughtered within the very walls of the church by the vampire’s animal assassins.
Meanwhile, in a dire British sex comedy, Sarah Framson (Jenny Hanley, of The Devil’s Widow and The Flesh and Blood Show) is celebrating her birthday. Sarah is being wooed by both of the Carlson brothers, but only Simon Carlson (Dennis Waterman, from Fright and School for Unclaimed Girls) is actually present at her party. That’s because Paul (Christopher Matthews, of See No Evil and Scream and Scream Again) is at the home of the burgomaster (Bob Todd, from Burke & Hare and She’ll Follow You Anywhere), banging his daughter, Alice (Delia Lindsay, of Because of the Cats and Aphrousa). Yeah, he’s a catch, alright— although I can see why Sarah would prefer him anyway, because Simon looks like an enormous wheel of very bland farmer’s cheese in a cheap wig, and his courtship offers all the excitement of a restaurant liquor license approval hearing. Anyway, Alice doesn’t know about Sarah, but when Paul suddenly springs out of bed and announces that he has to be going, she takes about a second and a half to figure out that she’s got competition. The couple are arguing in the foyer— Alice stark naked, by the way— when the burgomaster comes home, and the girl lays some Instant Karma on Paul while covering her own ass (figuratively if not literally) by crying rape. One surmises from her father’s reaction that he doesn’t entirely believe her, but he sics two liveried servants on the retreating lad just the same; they catch up to Paul at Sarah’s party. Forced to flee just as he had arrived, Paul never even gets a chance to compete the handover of Sarah’s birthday present. Before the burgomaster’s men can fight their way through the crowd to reach him, he’s out the window, crash-landing through the roof of a coach parked on the street below and frightening the horses into making good his escape.
The trouble is, the horses are so scared that Paul can’t get control of them, and after much madcap mischief on the road out of Kleinenberg, they wipe out the carriage in the forest that surrounds the town. After who knows how much plodding through the dark on foot, Paul comes to a small village with an inn. The latter place is locked up tight, but he figures a knock on the door can’t make his situation any worse. Yeah. Funny thing about that… Julie (The Man Who Had Power Over Women’s Wendy Hamilton), the girl who answers his knock, is friendly enough, but she says the inn isn’t taking new guests. Her boss has a very strict rule about letting anyone in after sunset, and even if it doesn’t make any sense to her, she’s new to the area, and hasn’t worked here nearly long enough to feel comfortable going against him. That’s when Paul turns on the charm. It seems to be working, too, but then the innkeeper barges downstairs to see who Julie’s talking to. That’s right— it’s Michael Ripper. Thought that tavern looked familiar, didn’t you? Evidently the disastrous failure of his vampire-killing career has changed him substantially for the worse, however. He gives Paul the full Basil Fawlty, not relenting even when the lad says something about staying at the castle Julie was just warning him away from. “He can go to Hell for all I care,” the innkeeper tells his flummoxed assistant after he finishes expelling what could have been a paying customer.
Paul’s experience of Castle Dracula is like a greatest hits compilation of moments from Horror of Dracula and Dracula, Prince of Darkness. He gets there by boarding an unoccupied carriage that he unexpectedly finds parked beside the road through the woods, but instead of the horses trotting off on their own initiative, Klove drives them home after returning from a bit of hunting with the carcass of a mid-sized doe. The count is hospitable with what remains of his castle (evidently the worst of the damage was on the upper floors), yet nevertheless puts Paul on edge. And there’s a woman— Tania (Anouska Hempel, from Black Snake and Tiffany Jones)— at the castle who flirts daringly with Paul, then comes to him in his room as he’s getting ready for bed, complaining of being the count’s prisoner. They fuck, and Tania comes this close to following up with a refreshing pint or two of her paramour’s blood. But this is Dracula’s house, and in Dracula’s house, nobody snacks on the guests but him. Paul awakens in the morning with a dead girl beside him, and his efforts to escape from the castle after that shock only lead him straight into Dracula’s sleeping vault.
Now it’s time for that midpoint protagonist switch. Back in Kleinenberg, Simon and Sarah understandably get worried when there’s still no sign of Paul a day or two after his dramatic exit from her birthday party. Fortunately, Paul’s subsequent antics left an easily followed trail, and soon the couple are stopping in at the world’s unfriendliest public house with a bunch of questions that none of the villagers want to answer. They too get the boot from the innkeeper, but not before Julie identifies Castle Dracula as Paul’s last known destination. What happens to them at the Bats Motel isn’t just a retread of previous films, and their adventures redeem Scars of Dracula about as much as it was still capable of being redeemed.
Before we go any further, I’d like to say a few words about Scars of Dracula’s place in the broader narrative of Hammer’s Dracula series. Frankly, it hasn’t got one, at least none that it fits into neatly. We start off with Dracula dead in exactly the manner we saw at the end of Taste the Blood of Dracula, but that doesn’t work, because that movie left him in the Courtley family’s London mausoleum, not back home in Transylvania. Nor is there any way to wedge this film into the gaps between Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and Taste the Blood of Dracula, because Anthony “John Elder” Hinds was careful not to leave any such gaps. Basically, this is just Universal-style continuity laziness, but intriguingly, just a bit of hand-waving and fudging of the details turns Scars of Dracula into In Case You Were Wondering, Here’s What Dracula Was Doing While Van Helsing Was Busy with Baron Meinster That Time. Think about it. If this story were concurrent with The Brides of Dracula, it would explain why these villagers are so much feistier than the usual lot— they’ve just been released from a centuries-old curse, and they haven’t yet suffered through three cycles of Dracula returning and re-returning. For that matter, the drubbing they receive here would more than suffice to make them act like a pack of whipped dogs every other time we see them. Meanwhile, the ten years that Dracula, Prince of Darkness explicitly cites as the time elapsed since the vampire’s death could plausibly turn this middle-aged Klove into the geriatric one we see in that film, and his death here is sufficiently offscreen to be bullshitted away without too much cheating. Scars of Dracula even leaves room to interpret its cowardly priest and the cowardly priests of Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave as a single, most unlucky character. I’ve been inordinately taken with this theory since it first occurred to me, and I think it’s going to become my personal fan-canon for the series.
Anyway, when Scars of Dracula starts to work at last, it’s for some surprising reasons. First and foremost, Count Dracula, who has almost always been primarily a background presence in the Hammer films, really gets his hands dirty here. For the first time, we have a Dracula who truly lives up to his billing— one as powerful, intelligent, sadistic, and all-around dangerous as everybody always says he is. His animal-control powers aren’t always handled as well as they might be, but I appreciate him having something to threaten people with beyond a bite on the neck. The walled-in vault accessible only from a nigh-unreachable window is a great idea, partly because it shows Dracula smartly exploiting his unnatural abilities, and partly because it’s a kick to see a movie finally— indeed, for the first time that I can think of— attempt to depict the wall-crawling bit from the source novel. The torture of Klove and the killing of Tania are both shockingly intense by Hammer’s usual standards, and Lee is disturbingly effective at portraying the viciousness needed to carry them out. I’m sure he hated it, but it’s great. And considering the religious fixation of the past two films, it seems appropriate that Dracula falls in the end not to Simon Carlson (who never really convinces as a hero despite Dennis Waterman’s all-too-visible efforts in that direction), but to what your insurance agent would describe as an act of God.
Scars of Dracula also shows Hammer getting a couple things uncharacteristically right among all the more obvious things that this movie gets wrong. The scene in which Simon discovers Paul’s body, looking like something you’d find in Leatherface’s basement, is one of the few instances I’ve seen when a Hammer film revealed any understanding that the 70’s were going to demand an altogether grander standard of Grand Guignol. The massacre at the church is another, but its impact is limited both by the fact that we never saw most of those women alive in the first place, and by the stubbornly lousy rubber bats that are supposed to be responsible for the carnage. And while Waterman’s Simon is pretty much useless, Jenny Hanley’s Sarah is a tad livelier than the typical Hammer blonde, at least insofar as she understands fully what she’s doing when she walks foolhardily into danger. I’d still rather have Wendy Hamilton’s plucky, no-nonsense Julie in the heroine’s spotlight, but credit where credit is due.
My favorite part of Scars of Dracula, however, is its focus on the workings of the Dracula household, with the attendant fairly thoughtful consideration of what it would mean to live under the dominion of such a monster. Other films in the series have portrayed Dracula as a seductive figure, as an embodiment of false liberation, and even as a wild animal, but this is the first to be serious about showing us the evil of Dracula, through the eyes of his habitual victims. So although it’s desperately cheap and shoddy; although its nominal lead players are thoroughly forgettable lump people; although it relies too heavily at first on ideas used already by previous episodes, and doesn’t always follow its own ideas through to logical conclusions— despite all that, Scars of Dracula does have some merit. It just doesn’t have enough to be anything other than disappointing coming after the much more modern, edgy, and rightfully self-assured Taste the Blood of Dracula.