Scars of Dracula (1970)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: September 10th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Scars of Dracula found Hammer’s infamous bloodsucking count at a crossroads. While the studio would officially (and quite literally) move its iconic character into the swinging 70s with its next film, Dracula A.D. 1972, it did so spiritually with this, the sixth entry in its long-running franchise. The trappings of Scars remains familiar as ever: once again, the old count, here resurrected by the most arbitrary means imaginable—preys upon unwitting visitors to his foreboding castle. However, it’s an alarmingly gruesome, sadistic riff on the theme that reflects the era’s turn towards graphic on-screen violence. Caught between Hammer’s traditionally gothic elegance and its desperate, gore-splashed attempt to keep up with trends, Scars of Dracula bridges the gap from a bygone era to an even more bold and garish new world.
Clearly out of fucks to give, Hammer doesn’t even account for the previous sequel, which was released only months earlier. You might recall that Taste the Blood of Dracula ended with the count meeting his demise in a London church; Scars would kindly ask you to forget that and instead imagine that Dracula somehow found a resting place in his castle, where they lay dormant. In the most random, arbitrary resurrection sequence this side of The Dream Master, one of the count’s loyal bats pukes up blood over his master’s ashen remains, allowing the count to resume his usual routine of preying upon nubile girls in the nearby village. Rightfully unhappy that they have to deal with this shit again, the locals storm Castle Dracula and try to burn it to the ground, an act that only enrages the fiend, who promptly lays waste to every woman and child in the village in a staggering act of brutality.
All of this is the prologue, by the way. The actual story kicks into gear when free-spirited Paul Carlson (Christopher Matthews) is caught in bed with the burgomaster’s daughter and falsely accused of rape. He skips town to flee the authorities, only to wind up at Dracula’s castle, where he’s quickly held hostage. Concerned about his missing brother, Simon Carlson (Dennis Waterman) mounts a search with his beloved Sarah (Jenny Hanley) that leads both straight to the count and his bloodthirsty brides.
Look, it’s obvious this franchise was running out of steam from a narrative standpoint. At this point, Scars of Dracula feels a bit familiar in more ways than one: not only is this the umpteenth riff on unsuspecting visitors stumbling upon Dracula’s castle, but it also has a little bit of a Psycho wrinkle in the way it trades out one ostensible protagonist for another set about mid-way through. It makes for a pretty turgid, herky-jerky story that never quite seems to get going because it involves Simon, Sarah, and the local authorities going through the same routine in their search for Paul. Each makes a stop—as Paul himself did—at the local tavern, where the shifty owner won’t spill everything he knows about the ominous castle in the distance.
But let’s be fair: with its sixth Dracula film, Hammer wasn’t exactly looking to introduce narrative complexity into the formula. It, too, had established a routine that involved solid performances, fun characters, lavish production design, unbridled sexuality, and stark violence. Scars boasts all of this and then some. In her only Hammer horror appearance, Hanley makes for a fetching damsel who is fated to become Dracula’s latest desire, projecting a sweet, innocent charm that stands in contrast to the menacing fiend preying upon her. Surrounding her are vets Michael Gwynn, Michael Ripper, and Patrick Troughton, who each bring a level of respectability to the production. Gwynn is especially venerable as the village priest who becomes something of a Van Helsing surrogate here: he’s haunted by Dracula’s reign of terror and will stop at nothing to finally destroy him forever. He makes for a much more interesting lead than the actual lead, at any rate.
Of course, the film really comes alive whenever it’s lurking about Dracula’s castle, where the count himself and his brides haunt an immaculately designed castle. While it should probably be in worse shape than it appears given the villagers’ raid in the prologue, there’s something wonderfully decrepit and declining about it; this is no longer the lush, vibrant abode seen in Horror of Dracula but rather a faded, hollowed-out relic that reflects its inhabitant’s unnaturally prolonged life.
Somewhat ironically, Dracula has a little more spring in his step here, as Lee’s performance is a bit more spry and livelier than it was in previous outings. It helps that he’s given a bit more to do here in terms of dialogue and Dracula’s depiction, as the old count is here somewhat reimagined as a sadistic tyrant of his own home. Not content to ruthlessly terrorize the village, he also ruthlessly lords over his home with a white-hot sword. Poor assistant Klove (Troughton) and Dracula’s brides frequently bear the wrath of this overlord, and Lee carries himself with a merciless glee.
Dracula is positively Satanic here, as Lee’s brief attempts at charming visitors can barely contain the bloodlust lurking in his eyes. In keeping with Stoker’s original conception, the count feels like a truly preternatural force here, commanding bats and scaling his castle walls like a true demon sent straight from hell. Director Roy Ward Baker accentuates this with a streak of outrageous violence; where Hammer’s golden era thrived on restrained but potent bursts of gore, Scars is a blood-soaked splatter show. The early shot of the massacred church is one of the more stunningly brutal moments in the Hammer canon, one that signals that Scars of Dracula is going to be an especially nasty affair, right down to the count’s outrageous demise. Hammer rarely lacked for memorable methods of dispatching Dracula, and the fiery divine intervention seen here is no different.
If Hammer’s original intent was to restore these old properties to their former glory, then films like this represent a somewhat desperate urge to drag them into a more modern, gore-soaked milieu. It’s not altogether unsuccessful, even if it is a blatantly naked attempt at trying to patch over a tired, somewhat weathered formula. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for dismissing Scars as an unremarkable entry, especially since it doesn’t do much to separate itself story-wise following its more inventive predecessors. However, I find that it works well enough, particularly during the stylish, ethereal climax that distills the appeal of these films down to the base essence: otherworldly moonlight, fog, heaving bosoms, supernatural crucifixes, and outlandish mayhem. Yes, it’s akin to putting a garish new patch on a tattered denim jacket, but that is exactly my aesthetic, thank you very much.
Hammer, however, did see the writing on the wall following Scars; sensing that the formula had become much too ragged, it would more forcibly bring the count into modern times with a pair of strange follow-ups. In many ways, 1972 and Satanic Rites feel like bizarre, fish-out-of-water epilogues to this, the final Dracula film that feels of a piece with its predecessors. Again, some might disagree and see those final two efforts as reinvigorating (and they are, to an extent—bringing Peter Cushing back guarantees as much), but there’s something quaintly charming about the modesty of Scars, a film whose plot effectively boils down to “Dracula’s back to wreak havoc”—and he does so with aplomb.
The final Hammer Dracula to arrive on Blu-ray in the States, Scars finally makes the leap courtesy of Scream Factory, who have ported over Studio Canal’s excellent restoration with two aspect ratio presentations: the original 1.66:1 or a reformatted 1.85:1, both of which look stunning in high definition. Where previous DVD efforts have rendered some of these later Dracula sequels into drab, unimpressive affairs, this transfer reminds us that even these efforts sparkled with that signature Hammer vibrancy.
For supplemental material, Scream has included a vintage commentary with Lee, Baker, and historian Marcus Hearn, plus another track with historians Constantine Nasr and Randall Larson. “Blood Rites: Inside Scars of Dracula” is an 18-minute retrospective featuring Hanley and an assortment of authors and historians, who recount the film’s production and reception. Some theatrical trailers and a stills gallery round out the rest of the extras for another solid release; of course, this one carries a little bit more significance for Hammer hounds looking to complete their Dracula collections. While I’ll find it especially hard to dispose of my beloved Anchor Bay releases, I can do so secure in the knowledge that these are truly worthwhile upgrades.
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