Friday, October 18, 2013

The Brides of Dracula (1960) review


Peter Cushing (Professor Van Helsing), Martita Hunt (Baroness Meinster), Yvonne Monlaur (Marianne Danielle), David Peel (Baron Meinster), Freda Jackson (Greta), Miles Malleson (Dr. Tobler)

Directed by Terence Fisher

"There's a wolf howling down there...  he'll get'em all a' stirred, trust him. You don't know what you've done..."

The Short Version: Following their triple threat of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy, Hammer went a different route upon revisiting the realm of European bloodsuckers. BRIDES has everything a fan of fanciful Gothic horror could hope for and more save for Christopher Lee's iconic presence. David Peel rarely, if ever resonates the vile nature of Lee's vampire with his blonde haired, effeminate Baron Meinster. He does swing a mean chain, and nearly converts Van Helsing to vampirism, though. His polar opposite interpretation is boyish, if occasionally riveting thanks in part to Peter Cushing as a noticeably invigorated Professor Van Helsing. It's essential viewing, and a great entry for fans unfamiliar with Hammer's celebrated brand of horror cinema.

Abandoned by her coach, French schoolteacher Marianne Danielle ends up at the feared residence of the Baroness Meinster. During a late dinner while a storm stirs outside, Marianne learns of the house's dark history and of its young, shackled owner, the Baron Meinster. Warned to stay away from him, the curious girl converses with the young man anyways. The Baron pleads with her to release him, and in so doing lets a great evil onto the world. Learning what has happened, Professor Van Helsing intervenes to halt this new plague of the undead.

Hammer Films follow-up to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) has Dracula in the title but no Dracula in the movie. The film is reputed to have bore the title of DRACULA 2 in the early scripting stages, yet these are merely disciples of Dracula. The absence of the lord of the undead doesn't hurt the film, though, as Fisher and company fashioned one of Hammer's greatest achievements with sumptuous costumes and art decor. There's a macabre ambiance present that would be methodically drained away from Hammer's future vampire entries -- particularly noticeable in the 70s films.


Ostensibly an action-horror picture, BRIDES sets itself apart from the rest by enabling a more athletic protagonist and antagonist. Peter Cushing gets into the spirit of things more than he did in the previous vampire outing. He has a stronger presence this second go round; magnified because David Peel (as the vampire Meinster) isn't Christopher Lee by any stretch, but then he doesn't try to be. This is arguably Cushing's best film playing Van Helsing out of the five he did.

Cushing almost didn't do the film until after changes were made in the script. A few scenes intended for this picture were shoveled over into KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963) such as a bloodsucker being staked with a spade through a coffin; and an astonishing finale where Van Helsing summons hell-sent bats to do in the vampires. Other plot points were just dropped altogether like Marianne being vampirized.

The backstory for the Meinster's (sort of a malapropism on the word monster) likens vampirism to drug addiction. The Baroness and Greta the mad matron mentions the gaiety that once thrived at the estate, but alludes to her son having infested her circle with this "addiction". It also flirts with the incestuous nature, and proposed decadence of the aristocracy, and its latent preying on the human sheep in the villages below. This societal perversion is likewise analogous with the decline of western civilization via the dissolution of the 50s nuclear family into the radical, revolutionary, and controversial 1960s era of free love.

In Hammer's next vampire movie, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), Don Sharp's film fleetingly feels like a sequel of sorts; or at least develops some of the ideas presented in the earlier movie. It expands on the morally corrupt aristocracy talked about in BRIDES by visualizing them as a circle of satanic bloodsuckers who throw macabre masquerades whereby new victims are brought into their fold.

"First it's you clericals, Father, with your monolithic superstitions. And the peasants like her with their troglodyte indifference."

BRIDES OF DRACULA touches on other avenues, yet never lingers for too long on them. It strikes an engaging dichotomy between science and religion. Dr. Tobler (slight comedy relief via Miles Malleson's quasi bumbling, clueless physician) believes in the tangible, quickly disregarding the local superstitions of the peasants, as he calls them. The priest of course is well aware of the deviltry around him. Van Helsing provides a nice bridge between the two. He's a scientist, but also well versed in metaphysics and the supernatural. His vast knowledge is his greatest ally aside from the soul saving, vampire vanquishing accouterments he carries with him. The film doesn't spend much time on this clash of ideals, not that it needed to, but it's there whether intentional or not.

Peter Cushing is stoic and impeccably dressed throughout; and is always carrying his "doctors bag" full of crucifixes, wooden stakes, hammers and holy water. He gets to use them regularly here. One of the films major highlights is a sequence where he's actually bitten by the vampire(!). It's probably the most shocking bit of business in the films 86 minutes. You don't expect it, but when it happens, it's a wonderful cliffhanger moment in the annals of Hammer horror. The method by which Van Helsing escapes becoming one of the vampires brood will make you wince and squirm in your seat. It's highly effective.

David Peel as Baron Meinster isn't quite up to the villainy of Lee's genre defining vampire. A bit on the effeminate side, Peel does exude menace in certain shots, but most of the time, he makes one long for Christopher Lee. He never maintains that sense of evil that Lee brought to the role two years earlier. The delivery of his background and how he came to be in his blood-drinking state is far more terrifying. Peel's performance is a nice diversion till Lee donned the cape again in 1966, although he's certainly better than Noel Willman's Dr. Ravna in the otherwise poetically haunting KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963).

Freda Jackson nearly steals the show from everybody with her domineering stare and her unforgettable moments of voracious line delivery and mannerisms. She was well suited to these sorts of witchery enhanced roles. She was far more subdued, but no less scowling in Jim O'Connolly's VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969). Her last big screen credit was her wildest interpretation of a hunched over messenger of sinister reverence -- she was one of the blind cannibalistic Stygian witches in Desmond Davis's excellent fantasy adventure CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).

One could argue that BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) is a better film than 1958s HORROR OF DRACULA. It does surpass that film in a number of ways. Terence Fisher definitely fills the screen at every turn leaving nary an inch of wasted space. As mentioned earlier, the studio sets and costuming are sumptuous; and go far in radiating a dark fairy tale quality. The score by Malcolm Williamson is vastly different from the signature work of James Bernard, who'd defined the Hammer style of music in the previous Frankenstein and Dracula pictures. Williamson's orchestral cues are accompanied by some eerie organ strains that do much to allow BRIDES to stand out as a defining work in Hammer horror.

Aside from some lapses in logic (the Baron frequently transforms into a bat, but seems to forget this ability at the most inopportune times), BRIDES OF DRACULA is among the classiest, if not the classiest of Hammer's horror canon. It's certainly a sterling effort of the Bray years, and puts the bulk of the latter period at Elstree to shame with its superior production values and meticulous qualities.

This review is representative of the Universal Franchise Collection 2 disc set.

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