For me, the most notable thing about late Hammer films (i.e., those released in the early ’70s) like Scars of Dracula is that the more explicit the sex and violence, the less compelling the results. The studio was never known for its restraint, but once it became common for even the most mainstream of films to exploit nudity and blood, Hammer’s earlier efforts were doomed to appear tame by comparison. The studio rose to the occasion by going one better, but in doing so ended up losing a lot of the panache that made their films so enjoyable.
Hammer’s success came from a combination of taut writing, visual flair, a seemingly limitless pool of talented actors and sheer imagination. The photography and design in Scars continue to impress, but the script is thin and episodic, while the acting, aside from the reliably menacing Lee, depends less on characterization (there’s precious little) and much on the physical appeal of the young actresses. To compensate for the underdeveloped story, in other words, there is plenty of succulent female flesh and explicit, literal-minded violence.
It is not enough, for example, for one of Dracula’s victims to be killed by the Count (in a manner that incidentally contradicts our foreknowledge about how to dispatch a vampire). She has to spurt bright red rivulets of blood and be cut up with a hack saw so that her remains can be dissolved in acid for our delectation. Or when the hapless villagers do their best to kill the Count, they return from their punitive foray to the local church to find all the women and children left there torn to pieces by hordes of bats under Dracula’s control (see below).There is plenty of violence, in other words, but not all that much action in the sense of moving the story forward. Gruesome details burn up screen time, but add little of significance to the experience beyond a nausea that passes for suspense. A lot happens, but for there to be a story, there would have to be causal links between incidents. Instead, the actions rarely move beyond variations on the same repeated fumbles. The only notable difference from one gory moment to another is the amount of blood, as if buckets of red paint can cover a basic conceptual lack.
There are a few compensations. The Count’s send-off, involving an iron stake and a bolt of lightning, is executed with considerable bravura. The contrivances necessary to get to that ending, however, point up the film’s weaknesses and, by extension, the Hammer formula. In Scars of Dracula, the vampire legend begins to wear thin and the reliance on cleavage, rolling around in bed and blood-thirsty bats at best distracts from the hollow repetitiveness of the material. The sex and gore can keep the audience riveted without providing anything really new beyond exploiting the filmmakers’ and audience’s jadedness through repellently explicit depictions of the implicit.