Home Video Hovel: Scars of Dracula, by Craig Schroeder
Count Dracula’s status as horror’s most sinister sex symbol is a mythology built over the last 100 years. From the pages of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel to Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance, the Count’s grotesque appeal is both hypnotic and repulsive. And while every incarnation of Dracula has added another layer to the common perception of the monster, it is Christopher Lee’s performance—for the now revered cult production company Hammer Horror Films—that perfectly encapsulates the modern vision of the Count De Ville. While Hammer’s Dracula films may never reach the same apex as Tod Browning’s 1931 masterpiece, Lee’s Dracula (he played the Count in ten different films for Hammer) is the one that has affixed itself to the culture’s subconscious. Christopher Lee is the people’s Dracula.
1971’s Scars of Dracula—directed by Roy Ward Baker and Lee’s seventh outing as the creature—is a fairly benign Dracula film. The Count, having been killed in the previous installment, is brought back from the dead when a bat oozes blood (that beautiful, brilliant 1970s blood that radiates a violent glow) onto Dracula’s remains. When the townsfolk attempt to kill Dracula again, he pays them back by killing all of the town’s women in a single blow. Some time later, a pair of brothers (Dennis Waterman and Christopher Matthews) vie for the affection of the beautiful Sarah (Jenny Hanley) and they find themselves ensnared in the Count’s lavish castle.
Scars of Dracula—like all Hammer Films—is a cheap production. The sets are two-dimensional, with gaudy props in the foreground and flat set decoration behind it. It’s shot like a soap-opera, washed in harsh lighting that betrays the production’s budget. The screenplay is limp like an under-stuffed teddy bear and lacks any sense of pace or propulsion.
I know what a dreary killjoy I sound like dissecting the low-rent nature of a production company that is still adored—almost 40 years after its last production—for its DIY style of bargain-bin scares. And the truth is, these complaints don’t really matter. Scars of Dracula is a showcase for its monster and, by extension, its star. And in that regard, Scars of Dracula is ultimately a success. Lee’s Dracula—which turns his already long, gaunt visage into an ice shelf of sexuality and evil—is an invincible screen presence that doesn’t chew the scenery as much as he devours it like Saturn eating his son. He speaks with effortless malice and moves like lava slowly enveloping everything in its path. So much of Dracula as a ubiquitous horror icon—down to the way he tilts his head and bares his fangs—is indebted to Lee’s monolithic performance.
Scars of Dracula (which, seven films in, veers in and out of the lane of continuity associated with Dracula’s mythos) is a messy delight. And though the film itself is but a small brush stroke in pop culture’s fresco of Dracula, Lee himself dominates the painting. If Bela Lugosi is the outline, Christopher Lee is the splash of bright color that gives horror its indelible image of the Count.