Thursday, December 10, 2009

Scars of Dracula

DVD Review
The Hammer film everyone hates—except us


Reviewed Format: DVD
Rated: R
Stars: Christopher Lee, Jenny Hanley, Dennis Waterman, Christopher Matthews, Patrick Troughton, Michael Ripper, Michael Gwynn
Writer: Anthony Hinds (as “John Elder”)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Original Year of Release: 1970
Retail Price: $24.98
Extras: two-disc set; anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary; trailers; bios; gallery; documentary; music videos
Movie Grade: B+ Disc Grade: B+

Let’s get this part out of the way first: SCARS OF DRACULA is not a popular movie. It ranks, in critical estimation, as perhaps the absolutely lowest-regarded film in the Hammer Dracula series, with the possible exception of SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, which of course only about eight people saw. Bruce Wright’s NIGHTWALKERS says SCARS OF DRACULA “sports the production values of a Mexican soap opera,” while the NEW YORK TIMES called it, “garish, gory junk.” Johnson and del Vecchio’s HAMMER FILMS says SCARS OF DRACULA “has little to recommend it... the ‘plot’—which drops Dracula into the middle of another story in which he does not belong—is awash in unappetizing sex and violence. The film is totally lacking in artistry, and any comparison to the company’s 1957 classic would be unkind.”

Even Christopher Lee himself weighed in at the release with a disapproving quote, calling the film “the weakest and most unconvincing of the Dracula stories.” But he would later change his mind, as the new DVD release shows. (In the excellent commentary, the star admits that he may never have actually viewed the film in its entirety and now he finds it a pleasant surprise.)

But everyone else hates it, so is there any harm (or for that matter, any point) in saying that I kind of like this film? It looks as though Shane Dallman of VIDEO JUNKIE and I are going to be the only two critics left in the world with anything good to say about Hammer’s ’70s offerings. Here is what happened: the Hammer Gothics of the very late fifties and early sixties are classics in the truest sense—they redefined cinematic horror and set new standards in style. By the ’70s, horror had moved through yet another paradigm shift into the realm of terror—marked by American films such as THE EXORCIST, THE SENTINEL and THE OMEN, to name three. Hammer, meanwhile, continued to make its Gothic horrors, seeing less and less reward for its efforts. These ’70s Hammers, products of their period but oddly fit to it, are still costume horrors marked by the lush colors and redecorated sets of their older cousins. But looser cinematic morals brought lower-cut blouses and more graphic sex and violence.

Note I said “more graphic,” but certainly not much more by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps it’s my viewing from the vantage point of today, but I hardly find the fairly demure stabbings and torture of SCARS OF DRACULA to be in the same realm of violence one finds in, say, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But what happens, I think, is that Hammer of the ’70s gets knocked for being there at all—in the age of THE EXORCIST it seems poetically appropriate that Hammer would have stayed and died in the ’60s rather than try to keep up. The fact that Hammer did try annoys the critics in the same way that we might be annoyed seeing Frank Sinatra sing Beatles tunes, or Paul McCartney sing something from Sting, and so on. We wish heroes and series to die young, we really do.

All of this to say that SCARS OF DRACULA is a pretty good Dracula movie with the bad luck of coming out too late. It’s certainly better than DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, a movie I enjoyed. Out of the five Draculas featuring Lee, I’d put it squarely at number two, after HORROR OF DRACULA, the original.

For one thing, I’m not sure what the complaints about the plot really mean. Dracula himself receives a great deal of screen time—in fact, it is refreshing to see him as a central part of the story. In SCARS, Christopher Lee’s Count is a twisted and malevolent dictator, still oozing a great deal of vampire charm. We see Dracula’s cruelty from the very start, when he is revived by his bat servant and immediately preys upon a local girl. The townspeople, led by Hammer regular Michael Ripper, storm the castle and try to burn it down while Dracula sleeps. The dark lord’s revenge is stunning: while the peasants brandish torches, the sleeping vampire sends an army of bats to gruesomely murder the women and children of the village. This is a Dracula not to be trifled with, and one far more interesting than the foppish bore Gary Oldman essayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s ’90s pastiche.

The story picks up again ten years after the clash, with the search for a charming rogue named Paul who found his way to Dracula’s castle while on the run from the law. Searching for Paul are brother Simon and Sarah, the woman both brothers love. Dracula plays host to them, displaying the same noble charm with which he greeted Paul, who has disappeared. Simon and Sarah find allies in the parish priest, who alone has the will to oppose the tyrant, and Klove, Dracula’s servant, who has finally decided to rise up against his master.

The pace is brisk and the sets nice and smoky, and the rethinking of Dracula’s castle as seen here is impressive. Dracula sleeps, for instance, in a chamber that can be entered only through a small window high above a cliff, and a nice bit of suspense comes from the trouble of getting in there to try to stake the vampire lord.

This is a very different vampire than the ones seen in BRIDES OF DRACULA and KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, where vampirism was almost trifling in its “sinfulness” and one wanted to fall in with the put-upon vampires. Dracula is above sexiness, except as it serves him. He is above anything that does not involve power.

SCARS OF DRACULA is a very worthy vehicle for Christopher Lee’s Dracula. How could this not be a Dracula story? More than ever before, Dracula represents the cruelty of a completely unstoppable totalitarian noble. The Dracula seen here is a cruel man who terrorizes those around him and is driven by the need to exert power and terror. A great deal of time is spent showing Dracula using his highly advanced mental abilities, reading people’s minds, even protecting himself by overcoming the will of those around him while he sleeps.

This is a Dracula who deserves to be destroyed, and who apparently, the film suggests, cannot be, except perhaps by God himself. I like SCARS OF DRACULA because I like seeing Dracula portrayed this way—as a man who really might have once been Vlad the Impaler, a dangerous, fuming force to be reckoned with, not a victim, not a romantic, and certainly not a fool.

The Anchor Bay DVD is light on extras, with little in the way of subtitles or foreign language tracks. The commentary, however, is one of the best I’ve heard, kept clear of most of the idiotic rambling that attends so many DVD commentaries. Here, Director Roy Ward Baker and star Lee are kept in check and on point by film historian Marcus Hearn, who periodically asks them questions about the movie. Smart. I wish all commentaries had a moderator; it’s too much to ask the talent to stay on track for the duration of a feature and not get precious. Lee, of course, is a treat, absolutely full of himself and every bit deserving of it, and full of tidbits about his long battles with the studio that made him a star, or vice versa, depending on whose side you’re on.

Also included is an extra DVD that features a program called “The Many Faces of Christopher Lee,” which is a collection of Lee’s remembrances of his entire resume. Shockingly enough, this DVD also includes two— count’em, two— very strange music videos featuring Lee and cheesy London singer Gary Curtis. Both are duets; one has Lee singing “O Sole Mio” in Italian admirably well while Curtis sings “It’s Now or Never.” The other is an embarrassing country tune called “She’ll Fall for Me”—the less said about that the better.

1 comment:

  1. I too like this film. It has beautiful colour photography and Dracula is last time in right Victorian/Gothic milieu. Too much sex and violence? Really? Some (thankfully) brief gore and bare bottom, that´s it.