Friday, June 9, 2017
SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), TWINS OF EVIL (1971)
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*
Anthony Hinds was no longer in the producer's chair when Hammer filmed SCARS OF DRACULA, the last of the Dracula films set in the 1800s, but under the pseudonym "John Elder" Hinds contributed the script for SCARS, which was the last time the studio adapted one of his vampire tales.
I'd like to say that Hinds pulled out all stops with SCARS. Unfortunately, I'm the camp of detractors, thato finds that the series had become so predictable that even the subsequent attempt to bring Drac into the 20th century, DRACULA A.D. 1972, was a slight improvement.
The threadbare plot puts Dracula back in Central Europe after his brief trip to England in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. How the Count got back to Europe after being killed in England is not addressed, but soon Dracula revives from one of his many deaths and begins preying on locals with a vengeance. He even goes so far as to unleash flocks of bats on his victims. Instead of focusing on any of the innocents around, though, Hinds centers his narrative on the transgression of a foolish libertine, Paul Carlson, who takes refuge in the Count's castle to escape the consequences of shtupping one of the village girls. At the castle Paul gets propositioned by one of Dracula's mistresses, paralleling a development back in HORROR OF DRACULA. The Count kills the vampiress, and keeps Paul prisoner.
For all the appeal Paul possesses, he might as well have stayed there, but he happens to get some help. Simon, Paul's more thoughtful brother who goes looking for Paul, aided by his girlfriend Sarah. (Amusingly, at one point Sarah tells Simon that Paul made a pass at her, but that she turned him down despite being attracted to him.) The two of them and various allies make assaults on Castle Dracula, but not only are they unable to save Paul, Dracula tries to add Sarah to his list of conquests.
Director Roy Ward Baker would do two more vampire films for Hammer after this, and both have better action than SCARS, even though the film displays more ample gore than any Hammer film previous. The script is exceedingly talky and shows little interest in either characterization or the complexities of vampire mythology. While other Hammer vamp-films had been able to give the other actors their moments to shine, SCARS really has nothing but Chris Lee's charisma to offer. This does give the film an advantage over the ones in which Lee barely appears, like the aforementioned TASTE. But it's not much of an advantage without an engaging script.
Strangely, the next year Hammer issued the last of its "Carmilla trilogy," though TWINS OF EVIL barely has anything in common with the LeFanu novel, aside from using some of the same names. Yet scripter Tudor Gates-- who also authored the previous two Carmilla flicks-- does a better job of producing an "Anthony Hinds" script than Anthony Hinds did in SCARS. I don't remember either THE VAMPIRE LOVERS or LUST FOR A VAMPIRE harping on Hinds' favorite hobby-horse-- "Aristocrats Are Responsible for All Evils"-- but I admit I haven't watched them for a while.
The film is set in "Central Europe," which is under the rule of a vague "Emperor," making it impossible to figure out when it takes place. The other Carmilla flicks are, like the LeFanu novel, set in the 1800s, but some of the costumes in TWINS, particularly the Puritan-like garments of the film's witch-finders, suggest the 17th century. The costumes may have simply been what Hammer had available, but they suggest that the genesis of the project might have been a response to other "witchfinder" films of the period, such as 1968's CONQUEROR WORM, which explicitly took place in the 17th century. The storyline even suggests some of the religious upheavals of that time-frame, pitting the stern dictums of European Protestants against the entrenched practices of Catholics and their aristocratic allies.
The other two "Carmilla" films focus upon the female vampires. TWINS has a corrupt aristocrat, Count Karnstein, who sleeps around a lot and ends up selling his soul to Satan to become a vampire. But this time the vampire is a supporting villain. Similarly, the titular twins are not the real focus of the story, and the title itself is a misnomer, since only one twin, Frieda, embraces the evil of vampirism, while the other, Maria, is entirely innocent. The focal character here is actually the head witchfinder Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing).
Weil-- whose name is appropriately pronounced "vile"-- is a stern man, utterly committed to his view of religion, which means that he sees the Devil manifest in all forms of concupiscence. At the outset he and his fellow worshipers raid a lone cottage, haul out its sexy female inhabitant, and burn her to death for being a witch. This is, however, not a film like CONQUEROR WORM, where no boogiemen exist, for it's soon made clear that there are vampires that prey on the citizens. This conflation of witches and vampires as being equal agents of Satan muddles the theme a bit. If no witches or vampires really existed, then Weil and his cohorts would be nothing but nasty old men acting out violent fantasies on (mostly) helpless women. However, since the boogiemen really exist-- though no witches as such surface-- the film seems to be saying that Weil's main sin is not hypocritical lust, but a lack of discrimination in which subconscious lust may play a part.
The twins Maria and Freida, who have fallen under their uncle Weil's protection following their parents' deaths, are pretty schematic examples of the "utterly good girl" and "utterly bad girl." Weil is never seen to show any lustful emotions toward either of them, but their presence in his house seems to mean nothing to him but the opportunity to save their souls. Weil's wife is a slight mitigating influence on his unbending sternness, but it's hard not to sympathize with the earthy Frieda when she rebels against Weil's tyranny.
Another supporting character, a teacher named Anton, offers a more balanced view of the situation than Weil. Anton, standing in for the audience, condemns the raids of Weil's congregation. Yet he's fully aware that vampires really exist, and even criticizes Weil for burning potential vampires, not because it's wrong to burn people without a trial, but because burning merely destroys a vampire's outer shell, so that the evil spirit can still move on to another form. This is a rather eccentric take on vampire mythology, but it serves Gates' purpose. In the last half-hour of the film Anton condemns the witch-hunter congregation for not taking up arms against the real evil of Count Karnstein, and it's clear that they have been guilty of taking on only helpless individuals because they knew that rebelling against the aristocracy could get them in dutch with the Emperor.
Despite the dodgy morality of giving witch-hunters any ethical compass, Anton's speech galvanizes the congregation into attacking the castle of Karnstein, using stakes and axes rather than fire. It's certainly one of the better conclusions to a Hammer horror-film of the early 1970s, the more so because even though it's a given that nasty Karnstein must die, Weil doesn't get off scot free despite good intentions. I don't know if Gates wanted to suggest that both extremes of libertinism and austerity were bad and deserved to destroy one another, but that's the way I took it.
There are various side-plots revolving around the twins: Frieda gets Maria to cover for Frieda's absences, Freida tries to get Maria burned by the witch-hunters in order to put them off Frieda's track. These plot-lines aren't any more compelling than the characters (though the actresses involved are among the most comely seen in a 1970s Hammer film). Had the film actually been focused on them rather than Weil, it might have resembled those works of the Marquis de Sade in which the virtuous sister Justine is constantly tormented, while Juliette, the sister who represents "vice," is constantly rewarded.