Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Last Gothic

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)

New Zealander Anouska Hempel bares her fangs. The actress also played "Australian Girl" in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and the title role in Pete Walker's TIFFANY JONES. Now a hotelier and designer, she married Allied Dunbar chairman Mark Weinberg in 1980, becoming one of the richest woman in Britain. During 1998 Hempel bought the right's to Walker's film and Russ Meyer's slave picture BLACK SNAKE - where she stars as Lady Susan - in order to keep them out of circulation.

HAMMER’s bloodiest film, SCARS OF DRACULA - scripted by Anthony Hinds - is also one of its most beautifully shot, defying its typically meagre budget. Braking the sequence began with their original DRACULA, no attempt is made to link it to the conclusion of the previous entry, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. The Prince of Darkness (Christopher Lee) is afforded more screen time and dialogue, uttering his lines in a dreamy tone (under pasty make-up) that could be the result of Lee’s oft-quoted desire to express “the loneliness of evil” and the curse of immortality. Alternatively, it could be the disenchantment of an actor tiring of a limiting role (John Forbes-Robertson was considered before Lee was persuaded to return, but would later be cast as The Count in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). Lee's verbose performance reminds of Bela Lugosi, but what is particularly grating is that the film dispenses with Hammer's renowned sensual lord vampire to create an atmosphere of brutal violence. The young cast are tepid at best (a miscast Dennis Waterman as Simon, the dubbed throughout Jenny Hanley as Sarah, and Christopher Matthews as womaniser Paul), but the real meat comes from the supporting cast, with Patrick Troughton transforming Dracula’s urbane butler Klove into a masochistic errant boy, and Anouska Hempel as concubine Tania.

The last of the studio’s Gothic Draculas - and developed as a double bill with Jimmy Sangster's equally misguided THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN - the film revels in 70s-style exploitation. Dracula is consequently transformed into a sadist, mystifyingly stabbing vampiric Tania to death, and branding Klove with a white-hot sword. He also impales Paul on a metal hook, and sends legions of bats to massacre an entire church of women and children; even the story is set in motion by a bat vomiting blood on the Count’s remains. Away from the general gore, Anthony Hind's screenplay is a plethora of nonsense: for example, the opening of "The Angry Mob" burning down the castle doesn't seem to have disrupted the interior. Director Roy Ward Baker’s preparatory work apparently drew him to actually read Dracula, inspiring the filmmaker to add an "unprecedented" shot from the novel of The Count scaling his castle’s wall which he claimed was his “only contribution … to the Dracula cycle” (obviously he had never seen DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA, filmed seventeen years previously). In fact, the film’s “only contribution” is to have the most laughable bouncing rubber bats in British horror film history.

During the climax, Jenny Hanley's cleavage is ravaged by a vampire bat, eager to tear away her crucifix necklace. This "blood on breasts" sequence would have been unheard of for less liberal times.

During the audio commentary on Optimum's R2 DVD of 2006 - woodenly moderated by Marcus Hearn - Lee and Baker wax lyrical about the classic cinema dictum "less is more," views that particularly contradict the nature of the film they are viewing. Comments on The Count's shift towards frenzied violence are almost an afterthought, with the duo more lost in their silver screen legacies and after-dinner like recollections. Its a particularly meandering and name-dropping vocal from Lee, who quite rightly highlights the standard of actors Hammer cast in bit parts (here, Michael Ripper as the innkeeper, Michael Gwynn as a priest and Bob Todd as the Burgomaster), but he also makes the amazing statement that not only is Dracula's stabbing of Tania nonsensical, that such a scene is troublesome in the annals of influencing true crime.