Sunday, 21 October 2018

Gothic Originals / October Horrors # 11:
Scars of Dracula
(Roy Ward Baker, 1970)

Another year, another straggler crossed off the increasingly short list of “Hammer horror films I’ve never seen”. In fact, if we strictly limit things to their period/gothic horror output, I think this might be the very last one to unfold before my tired eyes.

I suppose I’ve previously avoided ‘Scars of Dracula’ due to the general consensus that it is not very good, but I’ve recently noted some people speaking positively about it, and it’s had a re-release on disc, so… I mean, at the end of the day it’s a Christopher Lee Dracula entry with a reputation for gory violence and Roy Ward Baker calling the shots. How bad can it be, really?

The answer, unfortunately, is very bad indeed. Seriously folks, this one is shockingly poor. It is so unapologetically shit in fact that, if I hadn’t already been in my own living room, and if it hadn’t been raining outside, I probably would have walked out in protest.

Say what you like about Jimmy Sangster’s much-maligned ‘Lust for a Vampire’ and ‘Horror of Frankenstein’ (both of which went into production the same year as this one – ye gods, what on earth was going on over at Hammer House?), at least they were trying to do something a bit different.

‘Scars..’, by contrast embraces the same tone of smirking, half-hearted crappiness, but applies it to a script that is bluntly derivative of earlier entries in the series, barely even summoning the energy to drag itself through the same old clichés one more time.

If you’re feeling charitable (which I tend to be, when it comes to this sort of thing), the two Sangster films could also be excused to a certain extent by the fact that they were helmed by an inexperienced director, trying to bring the blackly humourous aspect of his writing to the screen, with fairly disastrous results.

‘Scars..’ however has no such excuse. Indeed, Baker usually managed to bring some notably superior cinematic chops to the British horror films he directed, sometimes elevating mediocre material to a higher level than it really deserved. Like all work-for-hire directors though, he was at the mercy of what was placed before him by his employers, and it is painfully clear that he has given naff all to work with on ‘Scars..’, whether in terms of budget, scheduling, script, crew or anything else.

The first real warning sign, I think, is the bats. The film opens with the unedifying spectacle of a big, floppy bat-on-a string drooling Kensington gore all over Dracula’s ashes, which are helpfully spread out along with his best cape, on a slab in his mid-European castle at some unspecified point in the fairy tale past (never mind the adventures he had enjoyed in 1890s London in Peter Sasdy’s excellent ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’ six months earlier). (1)

Admittedly, achieving decent bat effects has always been a problem for gothic horror films, but this one looks particularly onerous, with a sculpted plastic face and an overstuffed body like some giant bluebottle. For a single shot, perhaps we could excuse it, but unfortunately these bats actually go on to play a pretty significant role in the film. Acting as Dracula’s primary avatars, they’re flapping about all over the place, and are central to several of the film’s main horror set-pieces. And yet -- they look absolutely stupid throughout.

The fact that neither Baker nor line producer Aida Young were able to have a quiet word in the ear of one of Hammer’s big-shots to say, look, we’ve got to do something about these bloody bats or the film will be a laughing stock, speaks volumes about how little the company actually cared about the quality of their product at this point in time.

A few years earlier, viewers could have had confidence that even the most mindless horror films Hammer turned out could to some extent be redeemed by their technical accomplishments, proving that a little bit of beautiful photography and classy production design can go a long way. (The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is a good example.) Those days seem to have been long gone by 1970 though, and ‘Scars of Dracula’ is blandly over-lit throughout, leaving no shadows, no room for atmosphere, and nothing to hide its rather ugly, poverty-stricken sets.

In stark contrast to the attention to detail that used to prevail at Hammer, the props and costuming too are almost unbelievably shoddy here. When Patrick Troughton, playing Dracula’s craven servant Klove, is seen dragging an animal carcass over the back of his horse at the end if a hunting expedition, it looks as if he’s been handed a bedraggled soft toy splashed with red paint and told to make the best of it. I’m not even sure what kind of animal it was supposed to be, to be honest.

Again, I only bring this up as a symptom of the wider malaise affecting every aspect of this production. The fact this scene was filmed and printed, rather than being put on hold whilst the art director was bawled out and some production assistants dispatched to come up with something better before the next tea break, again speaks for itself. (2)

I should make clear that it’s not really my intention to get all high-minded when it comes to assessing the quality of Hammer Dracula movies. I have no desire to echo Christopher Lee’s snooty approach to such things, and I’d be perfectly happy to enjoy a ragged, pulpy Dracula movie full of sex and violence (for such is the reputation of ‘Scars..’ has acquired over the years). But… this damn thing can’t even get being sleazy right.

The bawdy behaviour that comprises much of the first half of the film is pitched strictly at a Benny Hill / pre-‘Confessions of..’ level, with Christopher Matthews as a leering, jack-the-lad type chancer getting his end away with a succession of flirtatious barmaids and the like, but with no actual nudity, and none of the (relatively) grown up eroticism that caused such a stir in Baker’s previous assignment for Hammer, ‘The Vampire Lovers’.

As to violence meanwhile, Baker seems to have realised that his only hope of winning the fans over with this one was to just go for it (I’m reminded of Brian Trenchard Smith’s tales of how he started desperately hacking off limbs and throwing blood around when his budget for 1980’s ‘Turkey Shoot’ was cut in half mid-way through production), and if nothing else, ‘Scars..’ is at least a contender for the goriest film Hammer ever made.

Even here though, things are compromised by those bloody layabouts in the art department. Hammer’s preferred shade of bright scarlet house paint never looked as absurd as it does here in the light of Moray Grant’s remorselessly bland photography, and the resulting parade of rubber bat attacks and lurid close-ups of poorly applied wound make-up achieves the rare distinction of simultaneously feeling both prurient and boring. (3)

One of the more interesting aspects of ‘Scars..’ is its apparent attempt to associate Dracula with bladed weapons. (“Be careful, it’s sharp” is his introductory line, as he walks in on Matthews’ character admiring the obligatory crossed swords mounted on his castle wall.)

This isn’t necessarily a bad idea (and I’m sure Lee would have relished the opportunity for a bit of supernatural swashbuckling), but it is poorly developed here – most notably in an absolutely astonishing scene in which, following an almost shot-for-shot re-tread of the bit in Terrance Fisher’s ‘Dracula’ where The Count reprimands his bride for trying to take a bite of the Harker-surrogate’s throat before him, Dracula here proceeds to punish her by whipping out a butcher’s knife and stabbing her to death.

Aside from the fact that it is entirely unmotivated by the script, this is… very un-vampiric behaviour, to say the least. (If Dracula were to resort to sword-play, surely he’d do so purely for the purposes of pageantry and sadism, rather than hacking away at one of his vassals like some back alley slasher?)

This is basically only a taster though for an even more witless moment later on, when the Lord of the Undead, whose mesmeric powers can crush a man’s soul with a mere glance, apparently resorts to drugging the heroine’s soup. As Jonathan Rigby laments in his review in English Gothic, “what use has Dracula for these pantomime contrivances?”

Anyway – on to positives. There must be some, I suppose?

Well, it’s hard work, but… at least Christopher Lee gets some lines in this one I suppose, with Dracula speaking calmly and assuming his ‘cold but polite host’ role for the first time since Fisher’s 1957 ‘Dracula’, I believe.

Given the voluminous litanies of complaint Lee liked to issue each time he was – ahem – “forced” to appear in another Dracula film, one can only imagine how cheesed off he must have been whilst participating in this particularly shabby instalment, but even if he’s not exactly giving it his all, such are the meagre pleasures offered by ‘Scars..’ that merely hearing Christopher Lee say some things is quite nice.

As always, it’s nice to see Hammer lucky charm Michael Ripper getting a significant role too, appearing here as the world’s least hospitable inn-keeper. He gets quite a lot of screen time in ‘Scars..’, and spends almost all of it ordering people to get out of his inn, refusing to let them in in the first place, or telling them to “go to the devil”. He does though have one lovely moment when he temporarily drops his guard, wistfully telling our lead couple they should enjoy their best years together… shortly before he discovers they’re also would-be vampire hunters and manhandles them out of the front door before they’ve even finished their soup.

As a fan of ‘The Sweeney’, I was delighted too to see a young Dennis Waterman popping up as our ostensible hero, although it’s doubtful that this role did much to help propel him to his later TV fame, as he delivers a veritable master-class on the theme of “ineffectual youth”, despite being thirty two years old at the time.

I also found it interesting that – for some reason – ‘Scars..’ takes the opportunity to include the rarely filmed scene from Stoker’s novel in which Jonathan Harker abseils out of his locked room in Dracula’s castle and find himself trapped in the lower chamber which houses The Count’s coffin. This bit was relatively well done, and provided a welcome break from the remorseless grind of reheated cliché that comprises the rest of the film’s action.

And… that’s about it really.

[Deep sigh.]

In general, I tend to feel a great warmth and fondness for British horror films of all stripes, and for Hammer films in particular. As such, I can usually find a certain amount to enjoy in just about any of them, even if it’s just a bit of period charm and some familiar faces popping in for a scene or two. Even on this basis though, I can’t stress enough just how dispiritingly rubbish I found ‘Scars of Dracula’ to be. It’s really the pits.

Essentially playing out like some cruel, self-reflexive pastiche of the company’s public image, ‘Scars..’ feels less like an actual Hammer film, and more like a realisation of what the closed-minded contemporary critics who wrote horror films off as juvenile trash and never went to see them might have imagined a Hammer film to be like.

By pandering to this kind of Lowest Common Denominator public expectation, the company did themselves a dreadful disservice in ‘70/’71, and this one seems to me to be the absolute nadir of the particularly dodgy patch they seemed to be going through at the time.

At least we can take succour in the fact that they bounced back shortly thereafter with great pictures like ‘Twins of Evil’ and ‘Vampire Circus’, keeping themselves afloat creatively speaking for at least a few more years before the inevitable end arrived in the mid ‘70s. Maybe I should watch one of those again to help take the taste away...


(I do LOVE some of this foreign language poster artwork for this film though…)

(1) At the risk of sounding like the worst kind of nit-picking fanboy, the fact that ‘Scars of Dracula’ completely blunders the (admittedly loose) sense of chronological continuity established by the other Hammer Draculas just seems to add insult to injury. I mean, after Dracula is defeated in London at the end of ‘Taste the Blood..’, it would seem to set things up perfectly for his resurrection in the same city almost a century later in ‘..AD 1972’ – yet we’ve got this damned mess in the middle, which drags him back to the vague, mittel-european gothic setting we’d previously kissed goodbye to (and frankly had quite enough of) in ‘..Risen from the Grave’ a couple of years earlier!

Is ‘Scars..’ thus non-canonical? Is it a prequel? This being 1970, I’d imagine Tony Hinds and Michael Carreras would have had little to say on the subject beyond, “What the bloody hell are you talking about? Get out of my office!”, but it still irks me.

(2) For further evidence of just how badly put together this movie is, I suggest consulting the unusually extensive list of ‘goofs’ on IMDB.

(3) We should make clear that, after serving a long apprenticeship as a camera operator through the ‘60s, Grant did far better work as DP on ‘The Vampire Lovers’ and ‘Vampire Circus’ amongst others – so again, we can perhaps chalk up the fact that ‘Scars..’ looks as if it was shot under office strip lighting to budget and schedule shortcomings.


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Oh god yeah, Scars is appallingly shoddy. I’ve seen it far too many time than I should have done (and Horror of Frankenstein), but it really is the worst of the Dracs they made.

I tend to go from the sumptuous autumnal wonder of Taste straight to the sheer glory of Kings Road in 72 without even a glance towards Scars.

And, as a further insult, I find that when you talk to “normal” people about Hammer, it’s shoddy crap like Scars that they tend to think of straight off and assume that ALL Hammer is like that, damn their hides!

Ian Smith said...

I agree -- this film is the pits and is by a long way the worst of the Hammer Draculas.

It's no wonder that the embarrassing, early shenanigans involving Christopher Matthews have a Benny Hill vibe to them because the Burgermeister, and enraged father, who chases Matthews out of town is played by Bob Todd, who served as one of the stooges on The Benny Hill Show.

Todd was also at one point a familiar-enough face in British popular culture for piss-taking indie rockers Half Man Half Biscuit to write a song about him. Maybe that's the only reason why when I watched Scars' cringey, bare-bummed tomfoolery with Matthews, Todd and starlet Delia Lindsay, I didn't hear the Benny Hill theme playing in my head -- I heard the Biscuits' '99 Percent of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd' playing in it instead.

Elliot James said...

I admit it. I enjoy this entry in Lee's series. It's pulpy, sexed-up and comic book-like and moves quickly, unlike Taste, A.D. and Satanic Rites and Lee actually gets some screen time instead of standing off to the side and muttering one liners. I've asked how much would it have cost to send a 2nd unit cameraman to Germany or Italy and shoot actual castle exteriors for some real production value? When I first saw Scars on the big screen, the model of the castle looked awful. The Italians always rented real castles for their films and the effect was impressive.