2.5 out of 5 stars

In Christopher Lee’s autobiography, the venerable actor thought Hammer’s Scars of Dracula “was truly feeble. It was a story with Dracula popped in almost as an afterthought.” This was Hammer’s fifth outing for the Count, and represented something of a sea change in the studio’s future when it commenced production in May 1970. Financing the film was a struggle and it was, with Horror of Frankenstein (1970), funded through Hammer CEO James Carreras’s last minute agreement with EMI chairman Bernard Delfont to cover the £200,000 budget for each film. Both films would go out on a double-bill in the UK and Europe, but finding American distributors was becoming a serious problem for Hammer in the 1970s, and the company lost its clout in the marketplace.

Hammer also wanted to break with the past. Horror of Frankenstein and Scars of Dracula were intended to reboot their two evergreen franchises, as Hammer sought to appeal to new audiences. The former went ahead without Peter Cushing in the title role, and the latter threw out the established continuity of previous Dracula films, declining to pick up from the arch vampire’s demise in Victorian London at the end of Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), and took the story back to basics with a Transylvanian setting. The studio was also taking advantage of a more relaxed attitude to censorship and increasingly featured full-frontal nudity in their productions. When the X Certificate age limit was altered from 16 to 18 in July 1970, Scars of Dracula was one of the first of Hammer’s films to take advantage of upping the gore and violence quotient.

At the same time, two of the studio’s key producers called it a day. Anthony Hinds (who also wrote for Hammer under the name of John Elder) was still unhappy about leaving Hammer’s old home of Bray Studios and wanted nothing to do with “the tits and bums films that Jim was keen to make.” Producer Anthony Nelson-Keys left Hammer and, in 1971, formed Charlemagne Productions with Christopher Lee to film three of Dennis Wheatley’s novels. A significant blow to Hammer was the death of production designer Bernard Robinson in March 1970. Robinson created stunning sets from meagre budgets and resources at Hammer, and the loss of his talents would become painfully obvious on both Horror of Frankenstein and Scars of Dracula.

Scott MacGregor’s production design was considered one of the weakest elements of Scars of Dracula but, to be fair, MacGregor worked on both films back-to-back at Elstree with a very limited budget and had to revamp some of the sets held in storage from The Vampire Lovers to create their castle interiors. Unlike Robinson, who used Bray’s exterior backlot to supplement his crowded studio stages, MacGregor chose not to do the same at Elstree and built the exterior castle ramparts on Stage 8. Assistant director Derek Whitehurst later noted:

Scott was pretty good but he lived under the shadow of Bernard. He was a hard act to follow, as they say. No fault of Scott’s or anything like that, but there’s only so much you can do. Sets just look familiar, you can’t avoid it.

Anthony Hinds scripted Scars of Dracula just before he resigned from Hammer in May 1970 and, although the title character was given much more to do, an increasingly frustrated Christopher Lee disliked the way that Hammer would come up with a story and then awkwardly try to shoehorn Dracula into proceedings. He continued to lobby for a return to Bram Stoker’s original concept, but the studio insisted on continuing with their established formula. He believed the only reason that this film started from scratch, with no explanation for the Count’s return to Transylvania, was in case he declined the role and thus Hammer “could start all over again with a completely new actor playing the part.”

The Hammer board requested “considerable re-writing” in February 1970 and, although Hinds carried out the rewrite, producer Aida Young was still unhappy with it. It certainly gave Lee more lines on this occasion and he was also enticed back with a financial incentive, being paid for six weeks work for the four that he was required at Elstree. He was joined by co-star Patrick Troughton, sporting an incredible set of eyebrows as the vampire’s manservant Klove. Troughton had just completed his three year stint in Doctor Who but had worked for Hammer, prior to his turn as the Time Lord, on The Gorgon (1964) and The Viking Queen (1967).

The young leads were Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley, with supporting cast Christopher Matthews (playing Waterman’s younger brother), Anouska Hempel, and Wendy Hamilton, joined by Hammer alumni Michael Ripper and Michael Gwynn, and the great comedy actor Bob Todd. Hanley made her first appearances in Joanna (1968) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) before she was cast in her only Hammer film. However, she suffered the fate of several female leads in Hammer’s films and, much to her annoyance, had her voice dubbed. Waterman had had a successful career as a child actor, had a brief stint in Hollywood before returning to British films with appearances in Up The Junction (1968) and Oh, What A Lovely War (1969) and completed roles on television in Hammer’s anthology series Journey To The Unknown and the BBC’s Paul Temple.

They worked under the guiding hand of experienced director Roy Ward Baker, who had an impressive career stretching back to his work in the 1930s as an assistant to Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes (1938). Baker had previous Hammer form, having directed Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Anniversary (1968), and The Vampire Lovers (1970) for the studio after a long stint in television. He was not altogether convinced the casting for the film was right and some decisions were evidence of cost-cutting:

When you’re shooting at speed you need an experienced cast. I thought Dennis Waterman was miscast. He played the older brother who was stuffy and pompous and it wasn’t really him.

Ideally, he felt Waterman and Christopher Matthews should’ve switched roles. Waterman also had concerns about his accent because Hammer heroes rarely said their lines with a Cockney twang.

Essentially, Scars of Dracula is a reconfiguring of the conventional vampire tale and of Hammer’s 1958 movie Dracula. The headstrong Paul Carlson (Christopher Matthews), on the run from officers of the Burgomaster of Kleinenburg (Bob Todd) after his indiscretions with the Burgomaster’s daughter, can find no shelter at a local village and foolishly hitches a ride to Castle Dracula.

There he becomes the victim of the arch vampire Dracula and his bride Tania (Anouska Hempel). His older brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) and Simon’s fiancee Sarah (Jenny Hanley) eventually go in search of him, only to discover his violent fate at the castle. A priest (Michael Gwynn) attempts to assist them when the local villagers refuse to help, but is killed by a giant bat when they return to the castle. Dracula’s tortured servant Klove (Troughton), who’s developed a fondness for Sarah, eventually sides with Simon to battle with the Count and prevent him from making his fiancee a vampire bride.

Baker’s approach to Scars of Dracula was to try and make it as realistic as possible:

Cinema takes on its own reality. So the art of creating an atmosphere of terror, of the supernatural, is a very delicate thing. What I have always tried to do is make the characters believable, and once the audience can relate to them, then you can suspend their disbelief in the fantastic elements.

However, he found it difficult to inject his sense of realism into a production which saw him wrestling with budgeting problems and tight schedules as shooting began in May 1970.

“I was never told what the budget was. But I wasn’t pleased with the direction. There aren’t enough set ups. There just wasn’t time for them,” and he recalled producer Aida Young “forced the picture through at a tremendous pace, with no hanging about.” Baker pleaded with Hammer to include one of his favourite moments from the original novel, where Jonathan Harker looks out of his bedroom window and sees the Count crawling down the castle walls. He rationalised that the costs of the set could be recouped by using it for other scenes “and they grudgingly agreed to it.”

The budget also impacted on visual effects. The weak miniature effects of the castle featured in the opening sequence, where the villagers attack the castle and set it on fire, was a last minute compromise when Baker argued with the studio that “as the film opened with an attack on the castle then you had to see the bloody castle.” Much more successful was the highly reflective front projection material used to create the red hot sword that Dracula uses to torture his unfortunate manservant Klove. The material glowed red, creating a simple but perfect effect, when cinematographer Moray Grant shone a red light along the axis of the camera.

As Jonathan Rigby notes, in the documentary accompanying this release of Scars of Dracula, from the trailer you’d think bats were the star of the show. Unfortunately, the bat effects were not entirely successful. The very visible fishing lines used to fly the many rubber bats were considered by Derek Whitehurst as a “serious blunder” that caused Moray Grant no end of problems trying to disguise them during filming. Made and operated by experienced effects technician Roger Dicken, the model bats were also prone to snagging in the studio gantry lights and this often held up shooting for half an hour as Dicken attempted to untangle them.

With lack of time, money, and experience, he decided to bring in veteran effects designer Les Bowie to assist with the fiery climax to the film when the Count is pierced by an iron bar but, after successfully removing it, is then struck by lightning, bursts into flames, and plunges off the castle ramparts. Both of them worked on the complicated pyrotechnics and stunt work, with Eddy Powell standing in for Lee. This included a rig to show the bar striking Dracula, fire effects, Powell’s fire-proof suit and a mask made of asbestos powder and plaster.

Baker upped the ante with the violence and bloodshed but later felt he had perhaps gone a little too far. This was certainly reflected in the requests made by the British Board of Film Censors to trim down certain scenes in the film when a rough cut was seen by them in July 1970. Lee himself commented that Scars of Dracula was “considerably more graphic, in terms of sex and violence, than the others in the series.” Baker, in an interview with Fangoria, said:

… when I made Scars in 1970 films were becoming increasingly violent and explicit in their presentation of certain aspects, so it was expected by the audience, and Hammer was trying to keep up to date. The violence was there in the script, so that was what I filmed.

The scene where Dracula repeatedly stabs his vampire bride Tania, after she has enjoyed a night with Paul Carlson, and then drinks from her wounds, was the major concern for examiner Audrey Field and it was heavily cut. It is only suggested in the finished film but more can be seen in front of house stills. Cuts were requested to Dracula’s torturing of Klove with the sword and the bat attack on the priest played by Michael Gwynn. Klove’s disposal of Tania’s body by carving her up was also toned down. As noted by John J Johnston on the disc’s documentary Secretary John Trevelyan’s abiding concern about showing blood on breasts, because it was considered by professionals advising the BBFC at the time that such images acted as a psychopathic ‘trigger’, was not raised on this occasion. The scene where Jenny Hanley is attacked by a bat and her cleavage is left scratched and bloody did not impact on the decision to award an X Certificate in September 1970.

Scars of Dracula is film that struggles to deliver on its small budget and, as a consequence, its laudable intentions to return to Bram Stoker as a source are undone. The cycle of Hammer Dracula films were becoming a series of diminishing returns, sidelining the titular character to nothing less than a cameo which consisted of resurrection, revenge and then destruction. Baker’s film duly sticks to this formula and the budget’s so small that Dracula’s resurrection in the prologue is simply footage of his disintegration lifted from the end of previous entry in the series, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), reversed and supplemented with an unconvincing bat dribbling blood on his remains. Even Lee found this uninspiring, “especially the giant bat whose electrically motored wings flapped with slow deliberation as if it were doing morning exercises.”

The earliest Hammer films had Dracula in conflict with an equally powerful, opposing savant figure such as Van Helsing. By the time we get to Scars of Dracula much of that conflict has gone, as has the much more interesting psychological and romantic examination of good and evil as seen through the society, families, and individuals that are directly affected by the vampire’s disruption of conventional codes of class and sex. Scars of Dracula simply sets up a conflict between a rather sadistic Dracula and the terribly genteel innocence of Simon Carlson and his fiancee, Sarah. The corruption of innocence is told as a gory fairy tale but its subtext, if you forgive the allusion, lacks a decent set of teeth.

Both John Elder’s script and director Roy Ward Baker attempt to reinstate Dracula as a character proper, akin to the avuncular charm of the figure in Dracula (1958), and provide Lee with more lines than he’s ever had as the character in a Hammer film. Lee offers an interesting performance, clearly trying his best, as Jonathan Rigby notes, to communicate what he always referred to as ‘the loneliness of evil’. In the midst of a rather perfunctory set up, Lee does have presence and, whether he approved of it or not, the Dracula depicted here is a rather cruel, sadistic creature imbued with the supernatural ability to command doors to open and close at will.

The bold opening prologue is handled well and sets up the ongoing battle between those ever put upon Mittel-European villagers and the Count. Here we meet the two figures leading their resistance against this evil — Michael Ripper’s landlord taking the menfolk up to the castle while Michael Gwynn’s priest gives sanctuary to their wives and daughters in his nearby church. The castle is set on fire, rather unconvincingly in a brief model shot as mentioned, but by then Dracula’s horde of bats have wreaked havoc in the church and Baker relishes in several crash zooms on bloody limbs, chewed faces, and eyeless sockets.

Philanderer Paul Carlson is such a cad that he misses Sarah’s birthday party because he’s too busy bedding the Burgomaster’s daughter (Delta Lindsay). Caught in the act by her Burgomaster father, it all plays like a farce (Bob Todd’s cry of “rapist!” is as subtle as this gets) and comes complete with Lindsay flashing her arse when Todd chases her up the stairs as if this is a Carry On film. It’s a truly dreadful scene and cheaply, simplistically sets up the promiscuous Paul for his comeuppance as he’s chased out of town and into the clutches of Dracula and his minions.

The film also achieves what was then a first by including the scene from Bram Stoker’s book showing the vampire scaling the walls of the castle. It may not look terribly convincing now but purists certainly appreciated it at the time. However, the script is hampered by illogical moments such as Dracula’s sudden stabbing of his vampire bride after she’s seduced Paul Carlson. She’s already undead and there seems little purpose to it apart from a gratuitousness that in the end was curtailed by the BBFC.

There is some reasonable interplay between the villagers and Simon and Sarah as they attempt to track Paul down at a local inn, and they are met with hostility from the landlord and his locals. In terms of performances, one of the real highlights is Troughton as the disheveled servant Klove. He teases out some very evocative and conflicted qualities in the character, whether that be through his unrequited love for Sarah after finding a picture of her in Paul’s bedroom or in his divided loyalties to his cruel master, Count Dracula. I was highly amused to discover that Troughton kept a publicity still of him and Lee, indulging in their S&M red hot sword torture, hanging in his loo.

Other highlights in an otherwise tired looking, poorly lit production include some brief but effective location work, Dracula’s fiery demise by lightning bolt and the James Bernard score. Bernard adapts and transforms his recognisable musical motifs and, softening his penchant for the atonal, develops these to include a haunting and tragic ‘Love Theme’. Sadly these don’t rescue a film that, although moderately successful at the UK box office, was panned as “garish, gory junk” in a New York Times review when it was released on a double-bill with Horror of Frankenstein.

scars of dracula

Blu-ray Special Features:

Studio Canal’s restoration is a double-edged sword. It boosts contrast, colour and detail significantly but its welcome resurrection in high definition also makes the viewer very aware of the poor production values, particularly with the sets and the risible rubber bats that populate them. The disc does not feature the Christopher Lee and Roy Ward Baker commentary that featured on the previous Anchor Bay and Optimum DVD releases but it does include the following:

  • Blood Rites: Inside Scars of Dracula. We join Kevin Lyons, Jonathan Rigby, John J Johnston, Jenny Hanley and Alan Barnes for a new look back at the financing and making of the film, the return of Christopher Lee and Baker’s direction. Hanley’s stories offer an interesting insight to working with Baker, Lee, Waterman and Troughton on the film, her character (“boring as hell, bless her”) and being dubbed (“the screams were mine”).
  • Trailer. Hunt him! Attack him! Burn down his citadel of evil! Oh, alright then.

Cast & Crew

director: Roy Ward Baker.
writers: Anthony Hinds (based on characters from ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker).
starring: Christopher Lee, Patrick Troughton, Dennis Waterman, Jenny Hanley, Michael Gwynn & Michael Ripper.

I am indebted to the following:

  • Wayne Kinsey, Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years, (Tomahawk Press, 2007).
  • Wayne Kinsey, Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, (Tomahawk Press, 2010).
  • Peter Hutchings, Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film, (Manchester University Press, 1993).
  • Commentary featuring Christopher Lee and Roy Ward Baker moderated by Marcus Hearn on Scars of Dracula DVD, (Anchor Bay 2004).
  • Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, The Hammer Story, (Titan Books, 1997).
  • Christopher Lee, Tall, Dark and Gruesome — An Autobiography, (Victor Gallancz, 1997).
  • Jonathan Rigby, Christopher Lee — The Authorised Screen History, (Reynolds & Hearn, 2001).
  • Geoff Mayer, Roy Ward Baker (British Film Makers), (Manchester University Press, 2004).
  • Philip Nutman, ‘A Baker of Terror’ interview with Roy Ward Baker in Fangoria, (Volume 3, Issue 36, 1984).