It seems that as far as Western pop-culture canon is concerned when it comes to Hammer horror films, Christopher Lee’s performance as Dracula reigns supreme. The steely gaze, menacing height, brutally rough bite. And the gore. Oh, the gore.
Hammer made a name for itself translating what were, as of the late 1950s through mid-1970s, already classic cinematic monsters — Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein and the Mummy — into mostly gothic takes with much more graphic content than their American contemporaries. None more so than Scars of Dracula (1970), the generally derided fifth outing in Lee’s seven-film tenure as the Count.
The story isn’t far off from the other entries preceding it: Dracula is brought back from the grave (this time by the blood of a vampire bat), gets the hots for a local girl / traveller, and proceeds to murder folks while the girl’s boyfriend comes to her aid. Once again, he has a nutty human accomplice, played with great menace by Doctor Who‘s Patrick Troughton. What sets Scars apart is that it’s by far the goriest and most violent of the series. I think it’s right up there with the best of them.
As a novice to the Hammer Dracula series, I was surprised how rarely Lee actually speaks as the Count throughout the series, making his performance in Scars an unanticipated delight. He’s barely a character in most of the films (and entirely absent from The Brides of Dracula, which is actually pretty great on its own thanks to Peter Cushing as Van Helsing). In Scars, you get to see Dracula as more than just a monster, a shadowy evil. Here he is all menace. Stabbing, sucking, throwing people off castles into deep ravines. Some say it’s Lee’s most cartoonish performance, but frankly the Gothic elements found in the first film, Horror of Dracula, were worn thin by the time Scars came around 12 years later. It was a different time, and Scars mixes a taste for grindhouse filth with the decaying aesthetics of more cerebral horror films.
That largely means gore, but the infamous open sexuality of Hammer’s films is present, too, largely in the form of Sarah (Jenny Hanley) wearing a tiny crucifix between the bosom on display in an excessively revealing push-up dress. Hanley’s excellent (if strangely dubbed) performance notwithstanding, the use of her character’s breasts almost exclusively in violent contexts speaks to the choices made in Scars, as opposed to the much more overtly sexual films that preceded it (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Taste the Blood of Dracula). First they become the background of a glowing crucifix scaring Dracula away, and later, once it is removed, he splatters blood across her chest (which pushed boundaries at the time). The boob crucifix-to-blood subplot is Scars of Dracula in microcosm: This is not a Dracula interested in seduction. Lee’s Dracula could care less. This is not the hot, problematic vampire fave like Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000. This is a Dracula — and a Dracula movie — that is mostly interested in linking its sole titillation to gore, violence and the arousal of an audience hungry for violence.
And so it does.
Scream Factory has done a tremendous job bringing hard-to-find Hammer horror over to the United States for some time now (Quatermass II and Quatermass & the Pit), and Scars of Dracula is the most recent addition to the line, preceded by Dracula: Prince of Darkness, an excellent but also hard-to-find film. As with most Scream Factory releases, the features on their Scars Blu-ray set are robust and informative. First, they present the film in both 1.66:1 and 1.85: aspect ratios. Additionally, there are two audio commentaries: one with film historians Constantine Nasr and Randall Larson, and the other with Christopher Lee and director Roy Ward Baker. Trailers and a small documentary about the making of the film round out the features on this exceptional release, available September 10.