Scars of Dracula
There is a question, an age old question, among Hammer fans. It has baffled and befuddled the best of us. For some, to ask that question is nothing less than an attempt to discover why their beloved Hammer had to end. I would not go that far, you understand, but nonetheless I have stood with the rest of them, shaking my head, bereft of an answer that could ever make sense. But that is over now, for I have discovered that the answer to that question is ‘Scars of Dracula’. And that question, quite simply, is - ‘Why did anyone think Dracula AD 1972 was a good idea?’
Now, that is not to say that Scars of Dracula, the last traditional Hammer Dracula movie, is bad. In fact, it has a lot going for it. For one it’s got Christopher Lee as Dracula, and he’s agreed to talk, which is not as easy to get Sir Christopher to sign off on as you might expect. But there he is, being my favourite Dracula. Nobody else manages to be so viciously snooty and snootily vicious as Christopher Lee when he’s haunting his own castle. I think that’s what makes him so great; he never gives the impression of being some indestructible monster or melancholy metaphor, just very powerful and utterly ruthless. He’s much closer to the idea of the arrogant and cruel man Dracula was in the first place, a faithful representation of the bloodsucking landowner that Bram Stoker wrote about. The classic idea of Dracula may look and sound like Bela Lugosi, but no-one played him better than Lee.
And you’ve got Roy Ward Baker directing it, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Hammer directors. There are some brilliant moments in this one from Roy, and although the bit where Dracula climbs up the wall is the most famous (and it is awesomely, and literally, creepy), my personal favourite is Dracula’s servant placing the photo of the lead actress somewhere he can see it while he’s dismembering the corpse of his master’s last victim. It’s bloody delightful is what it is. First of all the question of what happens to Dracula’s victims after he’s finished with them is answered; his servant potters into their room the morning after and chops up the body, tidying up with the weary resignation of a cleaning lady for The Rolling Stones. But it’s not done in a gruesome and bloody way, it’s more like a little peek behind the scenes of Castle Dracula. But this time, as the whistling Klove makes his horrible preparations, he puts the little framed portrait that he found left behind by another victim in front of him. Now, this is a cool little touch on its own, but it turns out that the whole movie hangs on Klove falling in love with this woman. Roy can’t have been happy with the idea of Klove betraying his master for just a pretty face, when there have been a fair few of those he’s either killed, lured to their death or at best stood idly by while their head gets bitten off. So having Klove discover some measure of peace as he looks at her picture while elbow deep in the grim and degrading reality of his existence, well now that’s a reason to fall in love, that’s a reason for betrayal. It is a corking bit of directing.
But sadly, those are the only two things the movie has going for it - Christopher and Roy. Because the script is terrible, the supporting cast (with the honourable exception of Patrick Troughton as the servant) are boring as hell, and the whole premise is all over the place. It’s not that the script’s bad because people spout cliches or drivel, or because it make no sense. It’s just that it never coheres into anything, it doesn’t give anyone anything interesting to do, and it is fatally lacking in imagination. And this is where the spectre of 1972 starts to loom. For example, at one point the leading man gets chucked out of Michael Ripper’s pub for asking too many questions. The leading man begs Ripper to let the woman stay, but the woman says she won’t leave the man alone, so Ripper chucks the woman out too telling the man to taker her with him. It’s not a brilliant scene or anything, but OK. And then ten minutes later, the same scene happens again! I mean, all the same things happen after they come back from the castle except instead of this time asking questions, now they’re asking for help. But everything happens again in exactly the same way, even down to ‘and take her with you’. It just reeks of a story that’s out of ideas. They have told this tale so many times that they start repeating themselves, even in the same movie! It’s almost like they can’t remember which bits they’ve already done in other Dracula movies and which bits they’ve done in this one.
Christopher isn’t in it nearly enough for my liking either; I mean God, you’ve persuaded him to play Dracula again and he’s agreed to talk, so at least give him something to say. But all he does is moan about villagers burning his castle down, and in front of his proposed victims too! Not the best strategy for your vampire trying to lull his victims into a false sense of security, that’s for sure. And the sense of drift isn’t helped by the idiots they’ve hired to play the good guys either. The Priest is possibly the wettest Hammer character I’ve ever seen. He’s not even cowardly in a funny way. He just sits in a corner looking nervous while other people are shouting, and when he does get up enough courage to go after Dracula, he only ever makes it halfway to the castle before either going back to his Church or stopping at a shrine and waiting there, you know, just to be safe. Now this could be the basis for an interesting character, but because he’s in a not very well written film and played by a trout wrapped in a flannel, he just floats through the movie like a fag-end in a stream. And the leading woman whose beauty and magnetism is such that she causes Dracula’s most loyal servant to betray him is played by possibly the worst leading lady I’ve ever seen in a Hammer film. She’s not even bad, because bad can be fun, like the barmaid with the comedy accent who breaks the menacing silence of a questioned pub by telling people everything they want to know every single time. But the leading lady in Scars is the absolute opposite of interesting, quite frankly she comes across as the opposite of alive. And I can see why Dennis Waterman ended up playing cheeky chappies too, because he’s required to be the strong, silent type here and he absolutely sucks at it. It’s not that he’s bad, he just doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t command the centre of the film like he needs to. He just wanders around in hair and trousers doing things the script tells him to do without once being sympathetic or believable.
And the premise of the movie is… what? It starts off as a sort of explanation as to why the village below Castle Dracula is always so afraid, then it moves onto what if a man was punished for being promiscuous instead of a woman, and then becomes a bog standard love conquers even the blackest heart. But it doesn’t stick with any of them because it lacks conviction. In fact, that’s the whole problem with the movie, a lack of conviction because nobody knows what they’re doing there, except for making a Dracula movie. But you need more than that, you need a reason to get your teeth into what you’re doing - if you’ll pardon the pun.
But there’s still something there; Christopher Lee being as iconic as ever, and the great little flashes of inventiveness from Roy. You can see exactly why they thought they could make more Dracula movies, just not in the same castle in the same century with the same people doing the same things over and over again. And so they took Dracula to 1972. And whether you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea - O.K. it was a bad idea, but quite a fun one in my opinion - watching Scars of Dracula, you can see not only why they had to do it, but why they thought they could pull it off.
So there you go, that is why somebody thought Dracula AD 1972 was a good idea. And that is always a question I have wanted to know the answer to. Speaking of which…