21 October 2008

BAT MAN FOREVER

By custom, fans of Hammer Film Productions in general, and of the Hammer Dracula cycle in particular, tend to regard Scars of Dracula as an exceptionally bad motion picture. I'm not completely certain that I agree with that. Not that Scars of Dracula is a good motion picture - without a doubt, it's the worst of the first six films in the series, and some of the moments within it that are bad, are extremely bad. But with one glaring exception, the very bad parts are all clumped together in the first third of the movie, leaving a second third that's actually quite good in places. Let us call it a full step down in quality from the already-dubious Taste the Blood of Dracula, yet firmly a step up from the movies still to come.

Released a scant six months after its immediate predecessor in the autumn of 1970, Scars seems to me the film where it became obvious that nobody really wanted to make these movies anymore, and not just Christopher Lee, who barely had time after the last film to publicly announce that he would never for any conceivable reason act in another Dracula picture before signing up to do so. More than any film before it, this is the one where the creativity well dried up; it's a rattling collection of warmed-over ideas filmed on a paltry budget by a crew that really didn't put too much effort into making the finished product look any better than it had to, although at least the cast (better than at least the last two films) puts in some fair amount of effort.

At any rate, the film gets off to a supremely rocky start with two of the worst scenes in the franchise coming in fairly close proximity. We open in Castle Dracula, somewhere in the Carpathian mountains - and do recall, that at the end of Taste the Blood, Count Dracula disintegrated inside an abandoned chapel outside of London, leading some people to count Scars as a film outside of the series continuity. Since the next film abandons continuity even more explicitly, I'm pretty much okay with calling Scars a stand-alone, or a spin-off, or whatever. Where was I? Right, Dracula's ashes are lining the bottom of a coffin, when a rubber bat on a string swoops into the chamber and dribbles blood from its mouth onto the dust. There's basically nothing right with this scene whatsoever: first, that's a wildly stupid and lazy way to revive Dracula, and shame on Anthony Hinds for writing it, although if I'm right that he, like everyone else, was just in it for the money at this point, it explains the almost palpable contempt for the audience on display here. Second, the bat is one of the worst effects in any film with any kind of proper budget in the last 40 years or more. Rumor holds that the more expensive and convincing bat prop that was built for the movie broke just before shooting, and the rubber bat on a string was all they could whip up in time; that doesn't make it suck any less, and it doesn't make the many bats to follow any less stupid-looking. If anything, the subsequent bats only look worse.

But anyway, we've got our Dracula back, and the scene continues in its idiocy: the bat starts squeaking urgently, and the vampire listens to it. He does not, thankfully, speak back - in speech or in squeaks - but other than that, I'm not sure what could have been more humiliating about this scene. Sometimes, one must admit that Lee had a point in all those complaints. Incidentally, I'd like to point out that this is the first time in the Hammer series where Dracula appears to have any particular relationship with bats, a vampiric trait that's not actually part of any folklore, but has long since become one of those things that everybody knows about vampires.

An indefinite amount of time later, a man is seen carrying a dead girl's body through a meadow. For once in his career, apparently Dracula has gone too far, because this event is enough to send the local villagers (we'll never learn the town's name in this round) into full storm-the-castle frenzy, led by the local innkeeper (played by the invaluable Michael Ripper, a Hammer fixture playing his signature role of "man who warns the travelers to avoid the castle" for the last time). He pounds on the gate of Castle Dracula and demands entry from the count's hairy manservant, who we'll eventually learn is named Klove (a name shared by a very similar character in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, though he wasn't then played by Patrick Troughton, unquestionably best-known for his role as the second incarnation of Doctor Who, which is the sort of nugget that makes a certain kind of viewer start to long for a "Doctor Who vs. Count Dracula" scenario that obviously won't make an appearance). Klove is suspicious of the innkeeper, who tries to convince him by waving the mob of villagers to hide and shouting at the door, "I'm quite alone!" like this was some sort of Bugs Bunny cartoon, and incredibly, this is enough to convince Klove. Long story short, the villagers get in, start a bonfire in the castle courtyard, and leave. Meanwhile, Dracula and Klove send a small army of rubber bats to do some evil bidding.

Specifically, the bats have been sent to the church where all of the village's women and children were hiding, to kill them all. The triumphant mob discovers this fact immediately upon the return, in a tremendously shocking scene that's probably the goriest moment in the Hammer Dracula cycle (Scars being the goriest of the nine films). The sobriety of this moment is stretched out for a while, but when it ends, it ends harshly, with the arrival of the film's other candidate for Worse Scene in the Series: in another town (Klinenberg, or Kleinenberg, or some random name involving a K, L and -berg), a randy young man named Paul Carlson (Christopher Matthews) - that would be the third Paul in three consecutive films, by the way - is fooling around with Alice (Delia Lindsay), the burgomaster's daughter. They run around a bit in some kind of half-assed chase scene, as she clutches a bedsheet against her chest, and then her father (Bob Todd) arrives, and he chases Paul around, accusing him of rape, before Paul can sneak out as the burgomaster starts yelling at Alice, who is still nude at this time. Basically, somebody had the idea to stick a Benny Hill sketch right in the goddamn middle of a Dracula film.

Clearly, the film could only improve from that moment, and lo and behold, it will; but not for a couple of scenes yet. Paul heads from this tryst to a birthday party for Sarah Framsen (Jenny Hanley), the girl that has a crush on Paul even as his brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) has a crush on her. Paul's arrival is followed quickly by the police, and escapes them by jumping on a departing coach. No points for guessing that this coach takes him to the tiny village still mourning the loss of so many innocent lives, nor that Paul will end up at the inn where the innkeeper tells him to find some happier place to stay, but the innkeeper's busty daughter (Wendy Hamilton) tells him how to get to the castle in the mountains, where some shelter may be found. And thus does Paul arrive at Castle Dracula, where he finds the count to be a tremendously generous if creepy host, although things start to go wrong when he ends up seduced by Tania (Anouska Hempel), this film's bride of Dracula. The count doesn't care for this at all, stabbing her in the chest with a silver dagger that looks almost as rubbery as the bats (so we can stab vampires with knives now?), but dawn comes before he can finish off Paul. Which doesn't do the young man much good, as his subsequent explorations of the castle leave him trapped in a doorless tower chamber with an open casket containing the sleeping vampire.

After the god-awful beginning, the lengthy sequence following Paul in the castle manages to class Scars of Dracula up quite a lot, even though it doesn't really do much of anything that Dracula and Prince of Darkness didn't already do better. The film's director, Roy Ward Baker is frequently cited as one of Hammer's better craftsman, mostly on the basis of Quatermass and the Pit and Vampire Lovers, neither of which I've seen. His work on Scars isn't nearly up to the standard set by Terence Fisher, but I imagine that a great deal of that is the fault of the movie's palpably lower budget. And in this one passage of the film, Baker is able to wring something like dread out of the cheap sets he's been given to work with. It helps that this film has the most credible of all the series' Pauls, and that Christopher Lee actually has a great deal to do in this film - the usual joke is that he speaks more lines in Scars than all of his other Dracula films combined, which might very well be true, and it comes at the cost of making the count seem much less of a threatening presence, but as a way of keeping things fresh (and Scars is otherwise the most stagnant film in the series), it's nice to see Lee do more than just stand in a corner and snarl.

That level of relative quality isn't maintained for very long, as the film ultimately turns into Simon and Jenny's quest to find Paul. Baker apparently spoke out against Dennis Waterman in the cast stage, thinking him miscast in the role of Simon, and history has vindicated the director's opinion. It's tradition by now for the male heroes of these films to be a bit wet, but Simon is nothing less than mildewy: the least-charismatic protagonist we've seen yet, which is quite a major achievement. And do you know what Simon gets to do for most of his chunk of the movie? Explore Castle Dracula. No longer content to re-work the franchise's earlier entries, Scars is now reduced to re-working its own earlier acts. As Simon goes about being unendurable, Dracula and Klove get to fighting, while Jenny hides with the common or garden variety cowardly priest (Michael Gwynn), who eventually gets killed by yet another fake bat.

Still, the film manages to at least pass as entertainment for most of its increasingly pointless final third, until the very last scene - without hesitation, I would call this the worst of all Dracula's death scenes. Yes, I'm aware that it's been only one film since he died by hallucinating that a desanctified church suddenly became a house of worship again, and exploding into ash, but even that was at least well-executed by Lee. In Scars, he's standing on a castle rampart, about to plunge a metal rod into Simon's body, when a bolt of lightning strikes the pole and sets him on fire. He screams and pitches off the castle, and we watch from a distance as he tumbles into the ravine below. Man, Simon is a crappy hero - at least Paul the Milquetoast Atheist from Risen from the Grave got to tussle with Dracula before the count tripped and fell to his death. Anyway, the ending just makes me want to stab something, so let's move along.

Pretty much the only thing that Scars of Dracula has to recommend it over the uncannily similar Prince of Darkness is that Christopher Lee gets a whole lot more to do - which may or may not be a good thing. It's a fact undeniable that as we get to see a lot more of Dracula, Dracula becomes a lot less scary, and I'd be willing to concede that this is Lee's worst turn as the character, given that he has a lot of vaguely sinister but mostly functionary lines of dialogue to handle. But it does also boast an unusually strong supporting cast, by which I'm really only referring to Matthews and Hanley, who is a rarity indeed: a buxom Hammer blonde who's fairly convincing as an actress, even if she's not required to do much besides swan over Paul and scream at fake bats.

But the problems with the film lie deeper than mere questions of, is the acting good or bad, is it well-written, well-directed, etc. By the start of the 1970s, the British film industry was in a very bad position, with Hammer suffering even worse than most of its competitors. It's not hard to see that Scars was a desperate attempt to do the one thing that Hammer knew to be a proven box office draw, even if nobody had any particular idea for how to do it well. That's also, I suspect, why the film has such a clichéd storyline as "travelers get stranded at Castle Dracula": though the studio had been dabbling in significantly more experimental stories in its non-franchise films by this point (and for that matter, Taste the Blood of Dracula goes to some fairly unique places), it seems more than likely that Scars was meant to be a sure thing. No risky tampering with a successful formula here, just cash the checks and get out. That mercenary feeling is really hard to ignore, in a film that might well be the most routine, both in story and in craftsmanship, of the whole series. Essentially, this is outright hackwork.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Fisher, 1958)
The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Fisher, 1966)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Francis, 1968)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (Sasdy, 1970)
Scars of Dracula (Baker, 1970)
Dracula A.D. 1972 (Gibson, 1972)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1974)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Baker, 1974)

1 comment:

Prowlers said...

I think the reviewer here is being a bit too harsh and taking this way too seriously. As a fan of Hammer Dracula films, this is my 3rd favorite. My favorite is "Brides of Dracula" and my 2nd favorite is "Dracula: Prince of Darkness". But for me, "Scars Of Dracula" is next in line on my "Hammer Favorites" list. It has a great script, great atmosphere and it's very creepy. This film shows the morbid side of Dracula much more than any film in the series. Consider the scene of where Simon discovers Paul skewered to the castle wall or the terrifying scene where the villagers return to the church only to find their loved ones mutilated by Dracula's bats. We all know that Dracula has power over animals and this film portrays this in a very gruesome way.

Meanwhile, back in Kleinenberg, we see jovial times with Paul's hilarious, carefree sexual antics and Simon's earnest plea for Sarah's love. This serves as a great backdrop for upcoming scenes. It shows how life can quickly turn from happy to tragic, especially when you have an encounter with the Count.

Simon and Paul's arrivals to the village are both creepy and scary. You can feel the tension build as you pray they don't dare go to the castle, but of course, they have to go. The film continues to build tension. The castle's elegant artifacts (that still remain after the fire) fail to overcome the castle's emptiness you feel when guests arrive. Tania's beauty is both erotic and eerie, especially when she commands "Love me". But contrast that with her gory demise when Klove carves her up and throws her body parts into a bath of acid. Wouldn't you love to have Klove's job? Beats working at McDonalds! As long as you don't mind the occasional red-hot sword burnt into your back. This is classic horror! Christopher Lee is his most evil Dracula yet, or as the priest proclaims, "The very devil himself". Yet his consummate hospitality towards his guests only adds to the terror.

Does this movie have its flaws? Does the plot have a few holes? Absolutely. But so what. The rubber bats and cheesy special effects only add to the entertainment value. You have to have a sense of humor about these things. The only negative for me about "Scars" are a few minor plot inconsistencies. But this is still one of my favorite Dracula movies. Bottom line: This movie is very entertaining from start to finish. Never a dull moment. Great acting, great cast, and a great script with many memorable lines. A true classic!