Because Hammer Films were generally sub-contracted by a succession of majors to turn out specific films, the rights to their series are scattered among the corporate heirs of various companies and so we’re unlikely ever to see DVD boxed sets of their Dracula or Frankenstein cycles. It seems odd that SCARS OF DRACULA, worst of Hammer’s Dracula films (and arguably their worst horror film overall), should be issued in a luxuriously-packaged DVD edition before Terence Fisher’s 1958 DRACULA and even in advance of comparative highlights like Freddie Francis’s DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE or Peter Sasdy’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. That said, if you’ve got the nice-looking discs of DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA and LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, you’ll want to own this too — if only to fill the gap on the shelf when the whole series is available.
The opening, as a ridiculous rubber bat slurps blood over a dusty cape and reconstitutes Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), might be taken as a follow-on from the finale of TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, but then again might not. The earlier film, released only months before, was mostly set in London and this drags us back to Home Counties Transylvania. After the obligatory back-from-the-dead bit, a villagers-burning-the-castle and bats-chew-their-wives prologue sets up the story. Screenwriter John Elder (aka Anthony Hinds) shares with Jesus Franco and Ingmar Bergman an unwillingness to invent new names and trots out yet again young characters called Paul, Sarah and Simon. Paul (Christopher Matthews), stud-about-Kleinenberg, flees from an assignation with the Burgomeister’s bare-bottomed daughter when she tells Daddy (Bob Todd) he interfered with her. He winds up in a gloomy village where Innkeeper Michael Ripper (‘I told you never to open that door after dark’) drives him out into the night (‘thanks for nothing, I only hope the castle is more hospitable’). At Castle Dracula, he is charmed by a white-faced and pompous Count, pounced upon by the seductive Tania (Anouska Hempel) and gibbered at by minion Klove (Patrick Troughton), but left in a pickle when he ventures into the Count’s lair and is trapped. We then switch attention to Paul’s even duller brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) and his blonde, vacuous girlfriend Sarah (Jenny Hanley).
Elder poaches the structure of PSYCHO, with the person we tagged as the hero unexpectedly killed off to be replaced by a sibling who inherits the love interest, but Paul only disappears to turn up later as corpse on a meat-hook so we aren’t surprised by his early departure. Fulfilling the structural and exploitative purposes of the shower scene is the Count’s stabbing of his own concubine who is carved up by Klove and disposed of in acid, just as Norman Bates cleans up the bathroom and dumps the car in the swamp. David Pirie called this ‘Hammer’s most unforgivable blunder’, and it does reduce the stature of Lee’s fiendish Count that we see him actually stabbing and torturing (he lays a red-hot sword across Klove’s back) rather than feeding off people or just being an evil influence. In the second half of the film, Simon (‘It’s certainly not like Paul to disappear like this’) and Sarah track Paul to the castle, Klove wavers between helping them out (he has fallen in love with Sarah’s picture) and serving his master (Troughton rolls his eyes and goes for laughs with lines like ‘it may be too late — the broth!!’), and the nameless priest explains to Simon what must be done (‘without my guidance, you’d never survive the ordeal; without your courage, I’d never attempt it’). It winds up on the battlements with Dracula disposed of when lightning strikes an improvised spear he is wielding, which sets him on fire and prompts him to fall off the cliff. Being zapped by lightning, like Patty McCormick in the film of THE BAD SEED, is probably the feeblest of Hammer’s vampire-killing plot devices but is understandable in that Waterman hardly poses the threat to Christoper Lee that a Peter Cushing Van Helsing does and so obviously (like other Elder heroes) needs God or mother nature to help him out.
Though it might not be a direct sequel, SCARS is wildly derivative, scrambling plot elements and characters we’ve seen before. From DRACULA comes the vampire companion who is disciplined for putting the moves on a young passerby and the iconic significance of a locket containing a future victim’s photograph; from DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS comes Klove and the pubload of villagers who turn unfriendly at the mention of Castle Dracula but can’t dissuade unwary visitors from deciding to stay the night there; and from DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE comes the drunken student party, the extremely bland young leads, the hypnotic summoning of the blonde heroine, the vampirising of the jolly barmaid, and the priest who has failed in his previous attempt at destroying the Count and gets killed while cheering the hero on. Leftover chunks of Bram Stoker are worked in, including the famous crawling-down-the-castle-wall bit (first put on film in DRAKULA ISTANBULDA) and the difficulties characters have in going through with the staking of the Count, who exerts a mesmeric power (red eyes superimposed over his closed lids) even while sleeping.
Quite apart from the excess of grue (a zoom in towards Hanley’s bloodied cleavage, anyone?), SCARS is a nasty little film. You expect Count Dracula to be a thoroughgoing bastard, but here he’s also a pathetic creep who hides in his cellar waiting for victims to chance along, burned out of most of his home by the mob, cringing exaggeratedly at the tiniest of crosses, planning and initiating no action, barely even reacting to a parade of annoying ‘guests’ and basically sulking. Aside from the vapid lovers, everyone in the film is gutless and rotten: Paul is Transylvania’s Robin Askew, the burgomeister’s daughter is a hypocritical slag, the priest (Michael Gwynn) is an ineffectual drunk, the burgomeister is pompous and blustering, the innkeeper is rude and cowardly, the vampire’s mistress is a treacherous slut, the peasant mob are whining vandals, and even a couple of passing policemen (one played by David Leland, later the writer of MONA LISA) are shiftless time-servers. The only likable character is Julie the barmaid (Wendy Hamilton) and she goes down in Hammer history as Dracula’s least memorable victim.
This is by far Roy Ward Baker’s worst work in the genre: maybe two or three shots suggest a director on the stage — a subjective shot of Dracula seen through a glass of red wine, a focus shift as the rope is hauled up leaving Paul trapped in the crypt, Tanya’s explicit s-m writhings as she is bitten. For the most part, the film trudges from scene to scene, the actors crammed into tiny (if lushly-appointed) sets, without any apparent enthusiasm or interest. There are moments of sloppiness, as when Matthews is pitched out of Hempel’s bed by Lee and his very 1970 red underpants are in shot, and the usually-reliable Lee tips over into camp in some of his snarls and hisses – though this might have been the only way he could avoid being upstaged by Troughton. It also has the most laughable bouncing rubber bat (courtesy of Roger Dicken) in any vampire movie shot in English (the Universal 1931 rodent is better) – Baker and Lee cringe on the commentary track when it shows up, which it does incessantly, since the script makes it a more dynamic character than the Count.
A pristine, lovely print shows off Moray Grant’s against-the-odds fine camerawork and lighting. The colour is lovely, with especial attention to the greys and blues of the castle and church sets and the lush reds of the velvet curtains, Dracula’s cape lining the many drops of blood. The transfer is so good that the powder used to make Lee younger (or at least immortal) and Ripper and Gwynn older (or at least traumatised) is distinctly visible. In this release, the film’s draggy pacing doesn’t seem quite the chore is has been on video, while Patrick Troughton’s energetic ham performance and James Bernard’s melodramatic score, the film’s rare sparks of life, are highlighted. A commentary track with Lee, Baker and moderator Marcus Hearn ranges entertainingly over a various Hammer-related topics but still includes the usual platitudes about good taste and suggestion being the most effective horror strategy even as the film wallows in the most explicit splatter Hammer ever essayed. Over the closing credits, Lee realises that he’s never seen the film before.