Saturday, February 19, 2011


"A Night to Remember" director Roy Ward Baker helmed the liveliest “Dracula” sequel, “Scars of Dracula,” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) with Christopher Lee reprising the role for the fifth time in the Hammer Films franchise. “Scars of Dracula” followed “Taste the Blood of Dracula” but preceded the modern day epic “Dracula, 1972 A.D.” For the record, Dracula's groveling custodian bears most of those titular scars. Whether he went by his real name Anthony Hinds or his pseudonym John Elder, Hinds/Elder penned a screenplay far more ambitious and audacious in its scope, violence, horror, and sexuality. Mind you, despite its cheesy bat massacre, "Scars of Dracula" qualifies as the bloodiest Hammer film. Moreover, "Scars of Dracula" was the first to receive an R-rating in the United States. Dracula punishes his lowly caretaker Klove by applying the red-hot blade of a sword to his back. Further, the caretaker accepts his punishment as if he approved of being punished. Can we say masochism? Of course, the bats are hopelessly phony. Nevertheless, the scene where the bats maul the face off the priest in the church like piranha gorging themselves is terrific. The clergy came under increasing attack in 1970s movies. This scene alone should have landed the film on the video nasties list in Great Britain. Indeed, "Scars of Dracula" is the most supernatural of the "Dracula" franchise. Ultimately, it is the one "Dracula" film from Hammer where the Count boasts more screen time than usual. He also has a fiery death scene that suggests greater powers were at work to vanquish him because mere mortals could not finish him off. Inevitably, this quasi-invincibility adds stature to Christopher Lee's immortal creation

The opening gambit could easily have provided material for an entire movie. Although it somewhat picks up the narrative thread from the previous London-based Dracula opus, “Scars of Dracula” takes place primarily in rural Europe as earlier “Dracula” movies. Dracula’s resurrection scene has got to be the most outlandish of the franchise. A blood-dripping vampire bat shows up (whether by devilish designs or otherwise we never learn) at a remote castle, flies into a chamber that can only be reached by scaling the castle walls, and pukes blood on the Count's remains left over from “Taste the Blood of Dracula.” Presto, Count Dracula is reconstituted into an immaculate, smartly-groomed Christopher Lee. Let the blood-sucking begin! Dracula’s first victim is a farmer's daughter. The introductory credits roll as her sad father totes her lifeless remains to the nearby village. The landlord (Michael Ripper of “The Creeping Flesh”) of the inn assembles the villagers. “This evil must be destroyed,” he vows with feeling. They load up both sufficient fuel and timber, march to Dracula's castle through the woods, trick Dracula’s custodian into letting them within the confines of the castle so that they can set fire to the premises. Of course, their well-intentioned efforts avail them little because Dracula rests in a chamber that nobody can reach.

Ironically, before he allowed them to approach the castle, the priest uttered a prayer to protect his flock. When they return triumphantly from Dracula’s castle the priest congratulates them on the success of their mission. “We must give thanks,” the priest rejoices, “thanks to our savior for his protection.” The villagers agree. The priest turns to leave with them. “Let us go to our church and tell our loved ones they are safe.” Initially, before he supervised their departure, the landlord ordered his wife Marie (television actress Margo Boht) to gather the rest of the village into the church. The last thing that the landlord could imagine has happened. No sooner have they opened the church doors than four vampire bats swoop out past them. The men discover that the rest of the villagers lay blood-splattered and dead in the house of worship. Never have so many people been slaughtered during the first ten minutes in a Hammer “Dracula!” The transition from this scene of slaughter to a faraway birthday party is handled with considerable finesse. As the blood of a victim drips onto the white candles, director Roy Ward Baker dissolves to the red candles at the birthday celebration.

Sarah Framsen (Jenny Hanley of “Undercovers Hero”) and her lover Simon Carlson (Dennis Waterman) wonder where his errant brother, Paul Carlson (Christopher Matthews of "Scream and Scream Again"), is as everybody toasts Sarah. Paul has been sleeping with another woman when he learns that he is going to be late getting to Sarah’s party. When he dresses to leave her, Alice (Delia Lindsay of "The Devil's Widow") is convinced that Paul is leaving her for another woman. A wrapped and tied gift falls out of Paul’s suit jacket, and Alice threatens to scream. Ignoring her threats, Paul retrieves the present and heads downstairs. Alice pursues him with only a bed sheet concealing her breasts and vagina. However, her buttocks are bare for all-to-see in two shots as she follows the recalcitrant Paul down the stairs. As he is making for the door, Paul encounters Alice’s imperious father, the Burgomaster (Bob Todd of "Burke & Hare"), and Alice accuses Paul of wantonly having his way with her. The Burgomaster and Paul struggle briefly before Paul escapes his clutches. The Burgomaster's men chase Paul, and he makes a momentary appearance at Sarah’s birthday party and then leaps from a high window to escape the authorities. Crashing through the roof of a carriage parked below the window, Paul spooks the steeds and they plunge off into the night. Paul finds himself trapped in a runaway carriage. Desperately, he tries to rein in the animals but low-hanging tree limbs knock him off the vehicle.

Paul has no luck finding anybody who will take him in after dark. The landlord of the inn in the village has no room for him and turns him out into the cold night. Predictably, things get worse for Paul. He wanders aimlessly through the woods until he finds another parked carriage drawn by quartet of horses. Climbing into the carriage, Paul falls into a deep sleep. What he doesn’t know is that the carriage belongs to Count Dracula. Dracula’s custodian, Klove (Patrick Troughton of “The Omen”), has been out hunting game, and he drives the carriage back to Castle Dracula without realizing that the carriage contains a passenger. Dracula is very civil to Paul when he meets him. Paul is admiring a knife from a wall mounting and stands with his back to Dracula. Dracula’s first words to Paul are: “The blade is very sharp.” Dracula refuses to let Paul leave.

Klove escorts Paul to a sumptuously appointed bedroom. Meantime, Dracula takes a bite out of his dark-haired hostess, Tania (Anouska Hempel of “Black Snake”) and Baker shows the vampire sinking his fangs into her neck. Later, she comes knocking at Paul’s door in her undergarments. She pleads for Paul to save her and explains that she is being her prisoner against her will by Dracula. No sooner has she told Paul that she is a prisoner than she implores him to sleep with her. Tania and Paul consummate their lust for each other. While Paul lies sleeping, Tania admires his throat. The Count catches Tania staring at Paul’s neck, and his rage at seeing Tania with Paul, prompts Dracula to stab her "Psycho" style repeatedly. Afterward, he quenches his lust for her blood. This is the first time that Dracula has behaved in this manner. In "Horror of Dracula," Dracula drove a vampire woman from Jonathan Harker because she had wanted to feast on him. One interpretation for Dracula murdering Tania is that Tania betrayed him when she had sex with Paul. Presumably, Dracula punished Tania for her infidelity. More probably, Dracula didn’t want sloppy seconds, that is, having to dine on Paul after Tania had done the initial damage. Surprisingly, Dracula does nothing to Paul who sprawls unconsciously on the floor. When Paul recovers, he removes the drapes from the bed canopy and lowers himself down from the bedroom window to the only open window below. Talk about getting out of one frying and then getting into another! Paul has descended into the chamber where Dracula hides his coffin! “Help,” Paul cries as the evil Klove reels up the drapery, “there’s no way out!”

Meanwhile, two uniformed policemen with an arrest warrant question the landlord about Paul’s whereabouts, but he tells them nothing. When Julie (Wendy Hamilton) confides in them that Paul went to the castle, they decide that they want nothing more to do with the case. Eventually, Simon sets out to find Paul with an indefatigable Sarah tagging along despite Simon's protests. They experience the chilly hospitality that the landlord provides at his inn when they inquire about Paul’s whereabouts, too, and are treated like persona-non grata. Simon and reach visit Castle Dracula. Dracula welcomes them and sets aside rooms for them. Dracula’s hospitality turns out to be a ruse. He separates Simon from Sarah. They escape after Dracula tries to sink his fangs in Sarah’s neck. The crucifix that Sarah wears around her neck repulses Dracula. Sarah and Simon manage to get away and return to the village. The priest allows them to sleep in the violated church that nobody attends any more after the bat massacre. The priest explains to Simon that Dracula is not simply a man but the incarnation of all things evil. He compels Simon to wait until dawn before he goes back to the castle to search for his brother. Simon offers Klove the small picture of Sarah so that he can get into the castle again. This time Simon is determined to kill Dracula. He shattered the wooden contraption that holds a wash basin and takes one of the legs to serve as a stake. Locking the door to his room, Simon descends by rope to the window beneath the bedroom where Paul and Tania indulged in carnal pleasures before Dracula interrupted them. This time Simon learns the ugly truth about Paul. He discovers Paul impaled and stuck on a wall. Sarah shows up in time to lower the rope to Dracula’s window.

Earlier, Klove explained that the Master sleeps where nobody can get to him. Baker stages a neat scene where we see Dracula leaving through the window of his room and scaling the architecture to the windows above. Indeed, Bram Stoker wrote about Dracula's uncanny ability to scale walls. Dracula clashes with Klove about Sarah, and the vampire throws him off the top of his castle. Simon appears with an iron spear and hurls it at Dracula so it lands in his stomach. Dracula removes the object from his body without suffering. Nevertheless, Dracula is surprised when lightning strikes the metal stake and kills him.

Christopher Lee’s memories of "Scars of Dracula" aren’t particularly fond. In his 1977 book “The Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee,” Lee describes the Baker film as “truly feeble.” Lee elaborated: “It was a story with Dracula popping in almost as an afterthought. Even the Hammer make-up for once was tepid. It’s one thing to look like death warmed over, quite another to look unhealthy. I was a pantomime figure. Everything was over the top, especially the giant bat whose electrically motored wings flapped with slow deliberation as if it were doing morning exercises. The idea that Dracula best liked his blood served up in a nubile container was gaining ground with the front office and I struggled in vain against the direction that the fangs should be seen to strike home, as against the more decorous (and more chilling) methods of shielding the sight with the Count’s cloak.” Nevertheless, “Scars of Dracula” qualifies as one of the best of the Hammer "Dracula" films.