Continuing our Hammer Horror retrospective with a look at the lowest point of the Dracula series.
I don’t know if there is really a point where we can say that Hammer Films became utterly, fatally complacent and so convinced that their formula was infallible that they just stopped trying – but if there is, it’s probably Scars of Dracula, which is, far and away, the most forgettably generic and empty film of their entire catalogue. Yes, even more than On the Buses.
Christopher Lee was already bored on the character by this point – in fact, he barely seemed to be able to hide his contempt for the films he claimed to be blackmailed into making from Dracula – Prince of Darkness onwards. Lee, of course, had a somewhat selective memory of this work and while his claims that Hammer virtually guilt-tripped him into making him by whining that he was going to put everyone out of work if he refused is an amusing story, the reality seems to be a bit of a symbiotic toxic relationship – as early as 1969, Hammer was looking at ways of replacing him as Dracula (much as they had tried to do with Peter Cushing when they made The Horror of Frankenstein, a limp comedy retread of The Curse of Frankenstein with Ralph Bates replacing Cushing in the title role) but never quite had the nerve and Lee clearly didn’t have the sort of career that allowed him to be especially choosy (and as soon as he did have that career after The Man with the Golden Gun, he seemed to have no qualms about saying no). It also seems that Dracula also became something of a necessity for Hammer after a while, when they began literally grinding the films out. This apparent mutual contempt for the series is encapsulated in Scars of Dracula, which lazily throws out any attempt at continuity and instead sets itself up as a ‘Dracula’s Greatest Hits’ movie taking bits and pieces from both the previous Hammer films in particular and Dracula movies in general to create a sloppy mix of clichés – presumably because they thought audiences would emptily lap this up without question. It’s odd to me that Hammer scholars will still claim that it was Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula that killed the franchise when those films were enforced reboots of a series that had clearly already exhausted itself – who can blame Warner Brothers for saying that they wanted the series reinvented if they’d seen Scars of Dracula, a film that is entirely bereft of new ideas? To me, this is where the Dracula series ends, not the films that attempted to relaunch it – and it ends with a definite whimper.
In case any of the above is unclear, let’s state it outright – Scars of Dracula is bad. Very bad. The story is little more than a series of cliches, much of the acting is terrible and there’s an odd ugliness about the whole film. It throws in clumsy bits of comedy that seem closer to a Confessions… film than anything (but with a lot less charm, humour or sexiness) and has a leaden pacing. It’s an embarrassment to watch and the contempt for the audience is palpable.
And yet, as ludicrous as it seems, it probably gives Lee more opportunity to develop the Dracula character than any of the other films. While Taste the Blood of Dracula (a great film in many ways) had essentially reduced him to a supporting player, this film at least allows him to have some actual dialogue as he acts as host to Paul Carlson (Christopher Matthews), a cheeky chappie who has fled Kleinenberg after being caught in the act with the burgomaster’s daughter (the burgomaster is played by Bob Todd, better known as a stooge for Benny Hill) – and later to Paul’s brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) and would-be girlfriend Sarah (Jenny Hanley). The whole scene is very much a riff on both the early scenes of Bram Stoker’s novel and the first Hammer Dracula, but if we have to search for positives, then I guess this is one – Dracula here has more to do than had been the case in any of the films after the 1958 original. Of course, part of what he has to do is engage in petty sadism and murder that doesn’t really fit the character, whether it’s his sadistic torturing of his servant Klove’s back or, most notoriously, stabbing vampire bride Tania (Anoushka Hempel) to death and then drinking the blood from her stomach before having her body dismembered (this all sounds more graphic than it actually is, we should point out). The idea of Dracula as a cruel monster seems fair enough, but there’s a crassness to these moments that feels rather forced and narratively they make little sense. That said, the only real saving grace of this film is its gleeful bad taste – the opening scene has Dracula being resurrected by a bat that flies into a room in his castle and literally pukes blood over his ashes. With the lack of anything else going on, these moments of crude excess are to be welcomed, I guess.
Hammer fans could tie themselves in knots trying to work out just where in the Dracula timeline this film occurs. Clearly, it’s not a direct sequel to Taste the Blood of Dracula, because that film took place in London and this movie opens with the Count’s remains in his castle in Transylvania. The Klove character first appeared in Dracula – Prince of Darkness, but as (spoiler alert!) he dies here, this film must take place after that one…but then, Dracula was revived from his icy tomb that he’d slipped into at the end of that movie at the start of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, so perhaps…. ahh, who are we kidding? There is no continuity here. The film just cherry-picked characters and scenes from other Hammer movies, moments from the novel (Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle) and the Universal films and mashes them together with what were already cliched ideas of what Hammer Horror was – essentially, the film seems like a parody of a Hammer film, but played with a straight face. It’s just a bizarre idea.
Dennis Waterman makes a limp hero after Matthews’ character – who is deeply unlikeable but at least has some personality – is killed off while Jenny Hanley as Sarah is given very little to do even by the standards of a Hammer heroine – she does her best, but her role is woefully thin and the character shallow. We might appreciate that the film has Klove – played with a ratty intensity by Patrick Troughton in a portrayal far removed from the previous incarnation of the character – falling in love with Sarah after seeing her photograph rather than having Dracula becoming obsessed with her – though to be fair, the whole ‘woman is the reincarnation of Dracula’s lost love’ plot was not something that was really a thing in the movies at this point – that would start to be a cliché in subsequent years. Troughton is probably the best thing in the film, even if Klove is all over the place as a character, his motives seemingly depending on what the story needs at any particular point. Anoushka Hempel is solid enough as the seductive Tania, even though the film quickly despatches her – this is, of course, one of the few films that she appeared in during the early 1970s that she didn’t try to have buried once she became a wealthy hotelier, interior designer and society figure (her other work includes Russ Meyer‘s Black Snake and Peter Walker’s sex comedy Tiffany Jones). Michael Ripper and Michael Gwynn do their best with roles that are little more than cartoon stereotypes of Hammer Horror staples (the nervy innkeeper and the ineffectual priest) and we should perhaps draw a veil over the performance of Wendy Hamilton, which feels like a particularly low point in Hammer’s oeuvre.
Roy Ward Baker directs with remarkable indifference – he’s good enough to ensure that the film is efficient, at least, but there is no sense of him elevating the material that Anthony Hinds had clearly knocked out. He certainly doesn’t make this film feel as though it is anything other than a by-the-numbers effort from a studio that was becoming either overly smug or increasingly short of ideas – possibly both. Given that this was the second Dracula film that Hammer released in 1970, it’s very likely that this is the result of a company that thought it could simply grind out the same thing over and over again indefinitely, blissfully unaware of everything that was happening with the genre at the time. It’s not just the point where we can say that Hammer stopped trying – it’s also the point where they stopped mattering. The company that had reinvented the horror film a decade or so earlier would now be forever playing catch-up with the rest of the world. What a pity.
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The apparent reason Hammer didn’t replace Lee as Dracula is that Warners had first refusal on any Dracula films, and made it a condition that Lee played Dracula. That said, they didn’t distribute Scars in either the UK or the US.
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