Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Scars of Dracula

1970, UK, Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Colour, Running Time: 95 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R1, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono

As the cinema world moved on in terms of sophistication and evolution, so Hammer remained almost static (increases in gore and nudity aside) as they made an almost unnoticeable transition into the seventies. At the time their films may have began to appear old fashioned or tired but several decades on it hardly seems to matter as their output has taken on a cult status that many collectors today really get into. So after a run of several well concocted sequels in their Dracula franchise during the sixties Anthony Hinds wrote what became the studio's most sadistic and cruel interpretation of all - possibly an attempt to modernise, perhaps a reaction to diminished censorship restrictions... A young, carefree individual is caught in the aftermath of having had ‘relations’ with the burgomaster’s daughter and makes his escape by leaping from a window and landing in a horse/cart combo that carries him off into the wilderness. Coming across a melancholy village that’s in the grip of Dracula’s reign of terror Paul attempts to claim a room for the night by persuading yet another woman to mate with him, only to be turned away by the paranoid innkeeper, thus he hides in another horse and carriage as he’s whisked off again, this time to the castle owned by the infamous count. There the initial hospitality of the count, residing with his servant and a nymph, begins to turn sour as the count interrupts a love-making session between Paul and the young woman (this man‘s a love machine!). The count brutally stabs the woman as Paul stares on in shock, but as the sun comes up Dracula has gone - and the door has been locked. Already in trouble Paul is now locked in a room with a murdered woman! The castle itself is built precariously on the edge of a cliff and, ever resourceful, Paul attaches several sheet together and makes his way down the side to where he can see another window below. What he doesn’t realise until he gets there is that the window is the only entrance/exit to a crypt where the vampire sleeps by day; Paul is not seen again, or at least not alive… Later on his brother and part-time girlfriend attempt to retrace Paul’s steps having not seen him for some time, this leading them to the very same village, castle, and ultimate threat.
There are a multitude of real problems with Scars…, the first being the terribly unimaginative prologue establishing Dracula’s relationship with the nearby village. Basically a bat releases some blood on to Dracula’s cape, this reviving him, before a corpse shows up with holes in its neck. This prompts the villagers to go on a rampage attempting to burn the castle but only enraging the count in the process as he has the worshippers of the church massacred in a fit of deliberate blasphemy. Aside from the church massacre the ten minute introduction is woefully outdated and doesn’t set great expectation for what’s to come. Then there are two factors that cursed Hammer from the beginning, two things they never could get right: day-for-night photography, which never works and was overused; and those ridiculous bats! Seriously, even back in the sixties and seventies these hopeless bouncing rubber things surely didn’t convince anyone. And as if to rub out faces in bat shit, the damn things turn up at every single possible opportunity - they’re an embarrassment. Finally the overall problem is an obvious reduction in production values - the sets looks cheap and I think Roy Ward Baker has expressed his disappointment in the past over his arrival after accepting the script, only to find there was far less money available than what he thought would do the story justice. The climax - not to give anything away but it features a large burning thing falling from the castle top, down the side of a cliff- is a demonstration of god-awful special effects. Based on these issues Scars… may not be looking too hot - however! Once the prologue is out of the way and we’re introduced to Paul, his brother (a young Dennis Waterman) and their spicy female associate (Jenny Hanley) things look up. Paul’s antics get him into some comedic trouble forming the catalyst for a supernatural adventure into the unknown, as one obstacle leads to yet another increasingly difficult one and Paul spirals further into strife until his very existence is in the shadow of the vampire - these escalating events catch you off guard after the mundane opening sequence, suddenly leading to quite an eerie series of situations. This is maintained as Paul’s brother and girl retrace the same route, Hanley is quickly dressed down to clothing far saucier, and the violence is stepped up a notch. Patrick Troughton’s servant character is both tragic and funny - twice during the course of the film he’s tricked into opening the door to unwanted company. On the other hand he reveals horrific scars that are routinely caused by his master as punishment for whatever the count considers to be an issue. The crypt built into the cliff wall is a great idea, both because it’s a suitably creepy hideout for the count (and an ominous place for Paul to get himself trapped in) and due to the fact that it provided Baker with an opportunity at last to have Dracula scale a vertical wall on camera - an element of Stoker’s book that hadn’t been attempted by the studio prior to this. It is brief, albeit effective. Also the inn full of hostile villagers predates that of American Werewolf, though this period piece takes place a hundred or so years into the past - the cast of the inn is headed by a perpetually angry Michael Ripper, Hammer regular as some of you may know. It’s disappointing that Hammer failed the cast, crew, and audience with a diminished budget as there is some good stuff here, almost ruined by stripped down production values. Nevertheless Scars of Dracula is a movie I’ve found myself re-watching a few times and lapping up the periodically creepy, sadistic, titillating moments that punctuate the craziness.

Anchor Bay put this out as a two disc set in the US (the feature documentary Many Faces of Christopher Lee making up disc two), uncut with a moderately soft widescreen image. Picking up the UK disc also (from Optimum) I made a comparison of the two. It seems to me that, whilst the source was probably the same, the UK transfer is slightly sharper in appearance perhaps due to a small increase in contrast. Colour is also a touch bolder on the R2; overall the UK disc looks more attractive by a small degree. It loses the documentary, however, this can be found coupled with the original Optimum UK DVD release of Dracula Prince of Darkness, so it is reasonably easy to get a hold of either way. Both UK and US releases of Scars… also contain a commentary with the director and Lee along with other minor extras such as trailers/stills, etc. Significant flaws aside I’m happy to own this film and the DVDs available are pretty good.

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