Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Devil Has Won

Scars of Dracula(1970)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Christopher Lee, Dennis Waterman, Jenny Hanley

Hammer had been responsible for inventing the modern horror film, introducing sex and gore to the equation, while expanding upon what Universal had pioneered in the 1930s, utilizing several of the same properties. During the 1960s the studio became very popular and released many classics, but by decade's end, they were running out of steam. Part of the problem, was the rise of increasingly intense and graphic films, such as Rosemary's Baby(1968) and Night of the Living Dead(1968). The gothic horror films of Hammer, appeared quaint in comparsion and the studio lost alot of funding from the major studios in 1970.
Scars of Dracula is in many ways, a landmark Hammer film, introducing a cheaper feel and an emphasis on exploitation, that was only marginal before. From now on, the violence would be more graphic and nudity would become more prevalent. There's much to enjoy about a film like Scars of Dracula, but the beginning of the end was at hand.

Scars of Dracula appears to be set at the turn of the century, beginning some time before, when the peasants of a local village have finally had enough of the Count and decide to get rid of him, led by Michael Ripper as the innkeeper. All the men journey to the castle, while the priest(Michael Gwynne) instructs the women to take refuge in the church. The plan the men have is a pretty dumb one, as they try to burn the castle down, but it's such a half-hearted operation, one has to wonder how serious they were. No one bothers to even volunteer to stake the Count, but oh well.
What follows is one of the best shock openings in any Hammer film, as the men return feeling triumphant, they discover the bloody remains of all their women, who have been wiped out by a horde of bats. Upon seeing this carnage, Michael Gwynne remarks, "The Devil Has Won." It's a very gruesome and downbeat beginning and highly effective.
Jump ahead some years, and a playboy named Paul(Christopher Matthews) is in bed with some babe, but accidently reveals that he has to go to a party and this causes the naked girl to run after him(much to the delight of the male audience) and he runs into her hilarious father, who appears to be the town magistrate, so that keeps the boy on the run. The film threatens to become a comedy, as Paul is invited into the same tavern in the beginning by a bar maid, who he is about to score with, until Michael Ripper arrives and tosses him out. Then, he arrives at Dracula's castle, meets Dracula(Christopher Lee) and a vampire babe named Tania(Anouska Hempel) who also proceeds to sleep with him. Dracula gets mighty pissed at this, and stabs the girl to death, in a fairly sadistic scene. Like in the novel, Dracula, Paul is a prisoner and tries to escape, but ends up in Dracula's lair instead. Whoops!

Meanwhile, Paul's brother(Dennis Waterman) is attempting to locate his brother, along with his girlfriend(Jenny Hanley). They end up in the village and discover the town's fear of the castle and ask for help in finding the brother, with only the old priest giving aid(though he is unfortunately killed by bats in his church). The couple go to the castle and are met by Klove(Patrick Troughton) who is Dracula's servant, and has the honor of being tortured by him, courtesy of a flaming sword! All sadism aside, the couple try to find a way to stop the Count, after discovering Paul dead, and Klove(who has a thing for Jenny Hanley) attempts to fight Dracula and gets thrown off the castle for his troubles, a lightning bolt strikes Dracula and sets him afire, sending him flying off the castle in a spectacular death.

For sheer entertainment value, Scars of Dracula is one of the more entertaining later Hammers and one of the better Draculas that they made. It's hardly a subtle film, but it's nice to see that the screenwriters chose to retain certain elements from Stoker's narrative. Christopher Lee is imposing as usual, and even has a few lines of dialogue than usual. His Dracula is much more sadistic than before, utilizing swords and knives and in general, just being alot meaner. Originally after he slew the lady vampire, he was to feast upon her blood as well, but this was thankfully excised.
The cast are decent, though the male lead appears miscast and the film feels far too comical in it's first half to really sustain any sort of mood. Certainly, the girls are all gorgeous, as expected of a Hammer film production and the sexuality has been ramped up a bit, and will be even more so with the same year's The Vampire Lovers, which certain elements of this anticipate.
Michael Gwynne and Michael Ripper are both fine, but appear wasted, and it's a pity that this was Ripper's final film for Hammer. Troughton was a good time in the role of Klove, though this character changed quite a bit through the series, didn't he? I never remember him looking so haggard as he does here!
Scars of Dracula is an odd film being alternately both shocking and bizarre, particularly in it's gore scenes and the melding of some pretty poor effects, particularly that charmingly inept bat that drools blood(which I kind of adore) and that crazy demise of Dracula at the conclusion. The castle looks right and the matte work is decent, but the sets give the impression of a very cheap film, which is unfortunate, as Hammer was always so good at disguising there flaws.
All in all, Scars of Dracula is no classic, but it's significantly better than the last three in the series and has enough exploitive elements to please the midnight movie crowd and vampire/Dracula completists could do worse than give this later Hammer a visit. I'm sure it won't leave you scarred.

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