I’ve not written on here very much recently — I’ve been spending most of my writing time working on the podcast, which requires about 5000 words of writing from me a week, plus a lot of research time.
But now that the covid horrors have been happening for a few months, I’m starting to get my mental health back, and I’ve decided that one thing I’m going to try to do is write on here more. Specifically, I’ve decided I’m going to try every day to knock out a quick DVD review. I have several hundred DVDs, some of which I’ve not watched at all, and I recently reorganised my shelves, so I can now easily see them all. So I’ve decided every day to watch at least one DVD and to review it here. In many cases they’ll be ones I’ve seen before, some many times — my plan is just to watch anything I feel like so long as I haven’t reviewed it here previously.
Knowing how hard it is for me to keep up with plans like this at the best of times (and this is definitely not the best of times) I doubt this will last more than a week. But you never know.
Anyway, to start with, a few friends of mine are in a small online book club, and we’re about to start reading Dracula, so that’s been in my mind and I decided I felt like watching Scars of Dracula.
The Hammer films are very much like the other great British film series that started in the fifties, the Carry On films, in that when they started out, they were pushing against very restrictive censorship, and pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. By the mid-seventies, though, those boundaries had relaxed enormously, and both series got caught up trying to compete with newcomers who had pushed things much further, and in the process lost something of what made them special. I’d recommend anyone watch Carry on Cleo or The Devil Rides Out — anyone who can possibly find anything to like in those sorts of films will enjoy those. I’d not recommend anyone at all watch The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires or Carry On at Your Convenience unless you have some weird kink for seeing elderly character actors looking very sad and wishing they were doing anything else.
Scars of Dracula is from 1970, and is seen by many as the precise point at which Hammer’s downturn began — though I actually think they made quite a few better films after this. I’d certainly rather watch both The Satanic Rites of Dracula and Dracula: AD 1972 than this one. It’s the fifth or sixth out of seven or nine Hammer Dracula films, depending on whether or not you count the two that didn’t have Christopher Lee in as part of the series, and it’s by far the most by-the-numbers of them. Much of the film feels like someone simply going down a list of things one expects to see in this kind of film, as if it was one of those “we asked a bot to watch every Hammer Horror film and then generate its own” posts. Mob storms the castle and sets fire to it? Check. Rubber bat flying unconvincingly through a window? Check. Inn where everyone goes quiet when the strangers walk in? Check. Sadistic manservant who falls in love with the beautiful girl and thus helps her escape? Check. Townspeople saying “you never go out after dark, and you should never go to the castle” without explaining why? Check. Pretty young protagonists played by people who can’t act very well (or indeed at all)? Check. Priest who tries to persuade the townspeople not to storm the castle, but says “Then I’ll come with you” after they say they’re going to anyway? Check. The most blatant day-for-night shooting imaginable, where everyone is pretending it’s the middle of the night while the sky is bright blue? Check.
All of it there, and all of it done in the most perfunctory manner possible. It’s exactly the kind of film that people who’ve never watched a Hammer film think all of them were like.
And yet, it’s still worth watching. While the heroic young cast are mostly incompetent (even Dennis Waterman, who I remember as having been OK in later years, if never spectacular), most of the supporting cast are great. I saw a tweet a while back — “the concept of character actors is so funny like. hollywood had to come up with a term to differentiate hot people and people who are good at acting” — and that’s certainly true here (though I know many people who would claim that Christopher Lee is also hot). Hammer’s supporting cast, people like Michael Ripper, were always good value, but in particular here the interactions between Christopher Lee as Dracula and Patrick Troughton as his sadistic manservant are absolutely priceless. The Mighty Trout was always magnificent, and he’s rarely been better than in this, where he goes from cringing servile lackey to screaming in agony as Dracula tortures him, to calmly whistling as he hacks up a body to make it easier to dispose of, as if he’s fixing a broken table-leg.
Most of the people involved in the film simply don’t seem to be trying very hard, but Lee is taking the role very, very seriously, and brings a gravitas and thoughtfulness to his performance that makes his Count a fully-realised personality (and that comes entirely from the performance, not from the script). Troughton, on the other hand, goes completely the other way, and is utterly gleeful as Klove, the loathsome manservant. Both performances, though (and those of other smaller parts like Michael Ripper and Michael Gwynne) seem to come from a much, much better film than the one they’re in, and any time Lee and Troughton are on screen together, the whole film comes alive.
Scars is, to my mind, by far the weakest of the seven Hammer/Lee Draculas, but even here there’s still enough to keep me, at least, watching to the end, and then watching again with the commentary on (in which, as with all Christopher Lee commentaries, he talks about how lovely every single other actor was, and how idiotic were the production people who insisted on making their own film rather than the one he wanted them to make). Not the place I’d start with Hammer, by a long way, but still far better than those Golden Vampires…