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Wednesday, 17 July 2013

'SCARS OF DRACULA' (1970) ~ A Batty, Bloody, Bonkers (and brilliant!) Bedroom Farce/ UK HORROR CHANNEL SCREENING


* There may be some plot spoilers in the belfry below ~ watch before reading!*

SCARS OF DRACULA has had more scathing critics lashing at the poor thing's throat than the Count  himself (Dracula that is) has had stakes driven through the heart.

Directed by Roy Ward Baker (The Vampire Lovers, Quatermass and The Pit) and from iconic horror film studio Hammer (though a lesser-budgeted Hammer, produced alongside EMI Films and distributed theatrically in the UK by MGM-EMI) this was yet another sequel to the original 1958 Hammer version of Dracula that starred Christopher Lee as the Count in a generally faithful retelling (if only in spirit) of the Bram Stoker classic novel.

The man with the fangs himself - Lee,  felt 'Scars' was one rising from the grave too many. Then again, it seems he thought that about pretty much every single one of the Hammer sequels that called him back out of the coffin for a 'final' fling. There were seven Dracula films in total with Hammer casting Lee as the fanged fop, but there may have been others that even he has long since forgotten.


For the record, my favourite Christopher Lee Dracula sequels (yes - I have more than one!) are 1970's hellfire and brimstone burning Taste the Blood of Dracula and the final, modern-day (and for me ultimate) confrontation between Lee and long-term nemesis Peter Cushing as the dogged Van Helsing in The Satanic Rites of Dracula from 1973; a gloriously gorily confrontational and fitting final act for the two legends of classic horror cinema - fighting it out one final time in the thorny mesh of a lonely hawthorne bush (incidentally, despite attempts by Hammer location experts to track down the whereabouts of this famous hawthorne bush since, none have been successful and its fate remains unknown).

Scars of Dracula starts out with the Count being resurrected in his castle by a vampire bat that flies inside his room (without a door) high up in the castle wall (a pocket-sized batcave barely big enough for a coffin - with just an always open gothically-arched window for a front door) and proceeds to vomit blood on the Count's remains (which is basically just a smattering of red powder on a stone table, as is usual for sequels in this series).


If you've never seen a bat vomiting lots and lots of frothy blood out of its cute little mouth - well, watch this film and be forever branded with the memory. The last time I saw a demonic creature vomiting up its dinner was in an 80s episode of Doctor Who (The Awakening). Consider me ready to be told of many others. But it's still not something you get to experience all that often. 

Dracula is soon up to his usual trick of biting the neck of local girls who all seem to come adorned with huge heaving bosom(s) and furrowed brow(s). It's clear that Dracula has a 'type'. And it's not the skinny models of the modern movie era - size 0 is a no go (but blood type O - great!) and would simply be unthinkable to a vampire as red-blooded as this one. Whenever Dracula even looks upon a local lady with plenty of chest to go around his dark eyes glow - literally - vibrant blood red. If only all men had similar warning signs, local barmaids in lonely Transylvanian towns could know when to run (or stay, should they so wish - and some do).


A quick warning before continuing with this review - in honour of the surprisingly smutty tone of Scars of Dracula, a certain Carry On twang  may be detected in my comments throughout - in much the same way lots of unexpected smut slid inside Hammer's back door for this movie. More smut later. Now back to the plot ... 

After the Count goes out biting again and this time leaves a victim with double penetration wounds (or even, hey - scars!) on her neck lying in the local woods for everyone to see, the villlagers, led by gruff innkeeper Michael Ripper (and when isn't Michael Ripper a gruff inkeeper in a Hammer Movie, except when playing a gruff policeman?) storm the castle: "Let me in, I have something for you, there's nobody else out here (honest!)," he tells the hunchback behind the castle door, a withering Klove, played by former Doctor Who - Patrick Troughton.

Of course, the landlord is fibbing, he's not alone - in fact he has an army of about fifty Hammer extras holding burning torches hiding behind the trees. Ignoring this warning sign, poor, dear old Klove actually believes that the local innkeeper with a grudge really does have "something for him" (in a sequence reminiscent of a Parcelforce delivery advert) and opens the gothic doors - possibly expecting a pint and a ploughmans, instead getting a brutal beating (well, more a slap and a shove) followed by a rapid burning of the battlements that he is entrusted to protect by the Prince of Darkness himself - 'oh shit!', I think is the expression. I also think Klove deserves it for being so stupid - Dracula's pal makes Igor (from other monster movies like this) look like Einstein, or even just Carol Vorderman (note: UK readers only).

The castle goes up in flames, but Dracula gets bloody revenge by setting his bats on the local townsfolk - or at least; on their wives and loved ones in a terrifically bloody and batty bite scene. In a lonely church where the women hide, these bats do their bloodiest best as the helpless local priest (Michael Gwynn, complete with Peter Cushing-style flamboyant wig, making us wonder whether Cusing himself may have been 'unavailable' for this one - possibly having too much fun with Ingrid Pitt on Hammer's The Vampire Lovers, filmed the same year) looks on as the house of God gets splattered with bloody eyeballs and random strips of flesh - this is Hammer, to be fair, at its most brutal and splattery. Sure, it's all quite tame by today's standards, but at the time perhaps; the ketchup had certainly gone up a squirt or two, along with the skirts.

Talking of which, it's time for more of the smut stuff now as in steps the film's first half hero (before Dennis Waterman takes control) - Paul (played by Christopher Matthews, very much in the style of Robin Askwith's cheeky chappy Timothy Lea character from the 'Confessions Of..' movies a few years before they got made).

This was the dawn of 70s Britain you see - a time when the British film industry took the sex farce warmly to its heaving groin and giggled rather rudely while also covering up most of the really naughty stuff in the process (if we hadn't had such merciless film censors at the time, they may not have covered it up as often or at all).

It wasn't just Carry On that blueprinted the 70s cultural rude rush, but also the likes of Mary Millington in films such as the 'naughty health spa stocking-a-thong' - Come Play With Me, in 1977; a film still holding the record for the longest running movie to play continuously in the West End, sex farce or otherwise. On the small screen, Benny Hill too was already chasing girls in the park again for ITV (well, until they booted him out when the powers that be decided he was politically incorrect) and throughout this decade just about every well-loved British comedian would lower their principles (and trousers) to appear in (fairly mild) film 'naughties' from the hilarity ensuing likes of Roy Kinnear and Christopher Biggins in hot lollies like 1975's Eskimo Nell to the more sublime stiff upper lips of John Le Mesurier, Beryl Reid and Arthur Askey all adding a touch of class down among the failing suspender belts of 1978's Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse.


Which takes us right back to our hero in Scars of Dracula. We first encounter Paul while  re-bedding (after some quick under the covers chat) the Burgomeister's daughter - Alice (a prettily wicked Delia Lindsay). In a sequence full of double entendre and double everything (buttocks, brandy, beds) the girl's dad (a blustery Bob Todd) arrives home and chases Paul out of the house, threatening revenge and then chasing his naked daughter (well, clutching her bed sheet to her bosom to avoid full frontal nudity, just lots of lots of backside) up the stairs and towards her bedroom (she slams the door on him, but it's still a slightly 'icky' scene wondering what he planned to do to her had he caught her - a few slaps on the bum perhaps? We may never know!).


Let's just examine the career of Burgomaster Bob Todd here for a brief moment. An imposing and scene-stealing character actor granted cult status in vinyl as well as in film reel thanks to quirky pop group Half Man Half Biscuit and their track: '99% of Gargoyles look like Bob Todd'.

Todd went on to become (post-SCARS) a regular on the Jim Davidson and Dick Emery shows and was already a resident straight man on the Benny Hill show. His many films included, in the smut stakes, such rude delights as: Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975), The Ups and Downs of a Handyman (1976), Come Play With Me (1977) and, yes (well, what did you expect - Chekhov?) a role too in Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse in 1978. Just how were so many great British character actors at the time able to bagsy themselves a part in [snigger!] 'Rosie Dixon'? Almost as many in fact as were able to get a part in Mary Millington's big one (well sort of, though she was actually hardly in it) - Come Play With Me. I blame the Soho Mafia - they were all clearly forced against their will!

Anyway, back to the plot . . .

. . .which basically consists of Paul seducing many other ladies throughout the rest of the movie in-between Dracula biting a few necks and stabbing naked girls to death (no - really!). Add that long sequence of Paul running away from the angry Burgomaster faster than you can shout: 'Benny Hill silly music runaround - now!' and Scars of Dracula is complete. Ok, just kidding, here's the rest . . . 

Paul seeks the help of his slightly wetter brother - Simon, played by  a fresh-faced (and wrinkle free...oh how the years have been cruel) Dennis Waterman. Paul fancies Simon's girlfriend (well - duh!) - Sarah, played by Jenny (later to present that 'more anarchic' ITV alternative to the BBC's wholesome Blue Peter kids TV show - Magpie) Hanley, who is suitably bemused and endearingly sympathetic (hugs all round) here (to Paul, Simon, Dracula - you name it!) and has one of the film's most outrageously saucy scenes when, on the castle's battlements she has a necklace with a cross on it ripped from her bare chest by a naughty bat: cue camera to inexplicably focus, not on the bat or the necklace, but on the fact there is now nothing left on Jenny Hanley's chest except chest.


Paul doesn't last long at the party he gatecrashes and says goodbye to both Sarah and his brother Simon before jumping out the window and leaving the birthday cake (or whatever the party was about - I've already forgotten!) uneaten when the Burgomaster's troops come calling. On the run, Paul encounters the local inn by the woods near the Count's castle and takes up the hospitality of the Innkeeper's daughter; Julie (played by Wendy Hamilton who only went on to appear in the occasional TV series, such as Ace of Wands in 1972, which was also her final acting role to date). Cue: plenty more double entendres before the landlord catches the two about to get at it and chases Paul out (much like the Burgomaster did to him just half an hour earlier).

Paul ends up in Dracula's castle (thank god not his bed, oh hang on -) where he seduces the deligtfully exotic Anouska Hempel's Tania in Dracula's spare bed after she tells him she is Dracula's prisoner and needs saving: "Save me," she moans, as she flops back on the double duvet (ok - sheets then), Paul deciding to do the honourable thing and take out his lance to defend her honour (the script may have been taken too literally at this point.) The candles (yes - I noticed this, see if you do) are burning full length at the start of this sequence but are almost down to the bottom of their long length in the next, brilliantly crude, symbolic zoom - it clearly must have been quite a night; nearly a whole candle's worth of nookie!


Then the blood comes. I have to say - about frigging time! Tania is Dracula's possession and in a fantastically disgusting earlier scene, the Count had kissed Tania's neck then squishily bit down on her jugular with slobbery lips, Tania's eyes zooming up to Heaven or Hell or both - a brilliantly played scene of vampiric transformation. Tania's 'death' now though, is swift - stabbed over and over by the fearsome Count, eyes blazing red. More blood follows; Dracula burns the back of stupid and smelly (but loveable) Klove next  with a heated sword, then whips him until his skin peels away. He also impales a main character on a hook on his bedroom wall - reminiscent of Leatherface doing the same in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre just 4 years later.


Simon and Sarah head to the castle to find the missing Paul. It's clear that Sarah still loves both brothers. Has there ever been a more kinky scenario in a Hammer film? Well, apart from Twins of Evil the following year with the Collinson twins and their lines that imply they have to get it on together to shock dear old Uncle Peter Cushing downstairs into a more liberal way of thinking (rather than keep burning witches and things at the stake - a practice he prefers) with the (probably quite correct) statement from one  of the young twins that 'repression is the root of all perversion'.

Count Dracula has plans for Sarah that don't involve either brother and is soon drugging her and trying to poison the poor girl with a nice cream of chicken broth (huh?) but only when not getting his bats to rip crucifixes off her chest. Simon discovers a bloody secret in Dracula's bedroom by climbing down the castle walls into the vamp's secret chamber only to get stuck in there while  Dracula climbs back up the walls of the castle (a bit like Batman and Robin used to do up skyscrapers in the Burt Ward days) in a startling and effective sequence that references Bram Stoker's original novel. The climbing down the castle by Paul into Dracula's lair has a slightly dodgy (if lovely) backdrop, but it still looks a long way down, even if not entirely realistically so. Watching the sheets start to rip as Simon climbs down the castle walls is absolutely bloody terrifying.

Dracula's demise is excellent too - a weird and replaying scream, animalistic and just, well; weird, is one of the best death scenes in a Hammer Dracula movie (until Satanic Rites of Dracula's Hawthorne bush rip and shred demise). Christopher Lee is on top form here - truly making Dracula a vicious, cruel and bloodthirsty villain; happier when stabbing (perhaps pointlessly) other vampires in the stomach, almost as if for fun, less for gain, as he is burning flesh and using bats as creatures of real cruelty and evil (as they need to be in a Dracula movie) even if the budget doesn't allow for absolute realism when he does. No matter, the bat wings flap slowly, but at least we never (or I never) see the strings (but just wait until the bloody Blu-ray  comes along and ruins everything). 

The only flaw in Scars of Dracula that constantly threatens to ruin the party is the accent of Dennis Waterman as Simon; ever so posh, clipped and equally annoying. As bad as if he had been dubbed by someone who hates the actor in real life and wishes to make him look stupid. It's a real shame, as the acting itself from Waterman is good (a man torn between a brother he loves and the one who threatens his future happiness with the girl he loves) and he makes a charismatic Hammer hero - brave and conquering of all initial fears; he turns from quiet and caring to fierce and heroic by the end  confrontation with perhaps the cruellest, most bloodthirsty Dracula in the franchise's history (well, I'd be scared!) and finds a chance to shine when stepping out of the shadow of the lustier  Paul. Dennis Waterman is an ideal choice for the lead role of Simon, but his accent belongs somewhere else. Get over this fact, if you can - and you will enjoy the movie a whole lot more.

Often silly, saucy and decidedly dirty, SCARS OF DRACULA overcomes the 70s British sex cinema fermenting of the time and some Carry On-style ribbing by being absolutely cruel, bloodthirsty and never stopping once to pause for breath. Some scenes - the claustrophobia where the two brothers are, one by one, trapped alone in Dracula's lair high up the castle walls, knowing the fiend himself will soon be returning to the nest or the ferocious bat attack in the church are unexpectedly creative and pleasingly different to the Hammer norm (though later sequels in their Dracula saga were often dabbling with the unexpected and being refreshingly different, despite having detractors who just wanted the older, straighter-faced and laced gothic chills).


Personally, I love to see such wanton delights as Dracula going up in flames screaming like a stuck record, climbing up the castle walls, stabbing girls as they sleep, branding his servant and whipping him with utter fury and rage or impaling those who dare oppose him. This is a Dracula with modus operandi: poisoning, possessing, punishing, perverting. Rejoice!

The film was cut by the BBFC for theatrical release and the cuts remained in the UK home video releases too, most notably of Dracula lapping up blood from the stab wounds to Tania's (rather attractive) torso - which kind of explains why he stabbed her at all, though why he didn't just drink from the neck is anyone's guess. Is he fed up with her (well yes, he is - she's been doing the dirty with Paul, like every other female in the village) - and does stabbing her through the heart act like a mini-staking? Maybe drinking from the wound is a kind of fast food for vampires or stops the victim from becoming a vampire, although seeing as Tania is presumably already a vampire, this scene gets increasingly bemusing with every interpretation. Dramatic, different, kind of a cool scene for sure when Dracula goes psycho - but still bemusing.

The missing cut footage by the way (and thank you for this tragedy to British film censorship of the day), most experts seem to agree, may not even exist anymore - lost forever over the passing years (although there may be an 8mm print out there for collectors to find of the uncut version according to some reports, but this is unconfirmed - and more likely just rumour).

When the end credits roll on Scars of Dracula after yet another bloody great ending, it's good to know that Lee is still (even today) the undisputed, and certainly longest running, greatest ever Dracula to stalk the big screen (ok, so Bela Lugosi fans may disagree, so stake me!) - and he's still prince of the bats. And whatever else you say about Scars - it's totally bats alright. Bats are everywhere. No longer are these fanged little flyers that sleep upside down the supporting cast - here they get top billing throughout! The bats are the merciless killers they should be, no longer annoying little flappy things on strings. Though they kind of still are. Ok - much nastier little flappy things on strings than ever seen before.

Dracula has never been more angry than Christopher Lee plays him in Scars of Dracula - some of that anger could just be Lee's genuine rage with having to act in yet another Dracula sequel he's been forced into yet again under the pressure of the film being sold internationally on his name (so don't let the side down Chris and say no) - the killing of the cast on screen by Lee is done with enough relish, as if he could be murdering the script itself. Or more likely Hammer's head honcho James Carreras. Still, it could have been worse/ better (delete as appropriate). It could have been Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

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