From the Vaults: 'The Brides of Dracula' (1960)
We continue last week's gore theme with, at last, a Hammer Films selection!
Hammer is, of course, the British production company known for its high-gothic horror films, made between the 1950s and 1970s, and often involving elaborate costumes, lots of movie fog, candelabras, swooning damsels and copious amounts of rather orangey blood.
I was all excited to write about Christopher Lee, but when "Brides of Dracula" arrived I discovered that he's not in this one; which makes sense, since his character (that's Dracula, kids) is killed at the end of the preceding Hammer film, 1958's "Horror of Dracula."
Fortunately, he was to be revived in "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" (1966) and many other ensuing Hammer films (my favorite being "Dracula Has Risen From The Grave" -- I love that title! I mean, what else does Dracula do?).
But with "Brides" we're on our own, star-power-wise, with Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, and that turns out to be quite a fine thing indeed.
"Brides of Dracula" opens as a carriage rushes through a forest, and a voiceover informs us that we are in Transylvania. Although Dracula is dead, the voiceover tells us, his "cult" persists. Then we meet Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), our resident damsel, and through her viewpoint we're plunged into an entirely new, Dracula-style story of frightened innkeepers, terrified coachmen and spooky old castles. Marianne ends up in the castle of Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who's keeping her own son (David Peel) captive; the son gets ahold of Marianne, explains to her that he's the rightful Baron, and convinces her to free him. Next thing we know, the baroness is dead and so is a local peasant wench. Oh dear!
I got so caught up in this storyline that I forgot about poor Cushing entirely, but eventually he does show up. Van Helsing has been summoned by locals who were already concerned about the Meinster situation even before the Baron got out. The good doctor rescues Marianne from the woods, where she has been fleeing the Meinster castle, and drops her off at the girls' school where she teaches. Then he repairs back to the local inn for a drink with the village priest. Together they diagnose the problem as vampirism, brought on by the Baron! Will Van Helsing defeat the undead?
What kind of question is that? Does a damsel faint in the woods?
This movie (directed by Hammer legend Terence Fisher, who helmed "Horror of Dracula" as well as many of the studio's Frankenstein movies) does some interesting things to the Dracula mythos.
Van Helsing explains to the village priest that vampirism is a sickness that's partly physical, partly spiritual, and is based around a cult that expressly rejects Christianity. I sort of don't know about that... yeah, every modern Dracula story has to explain why vampires are allergic to crosses and holy water, but a cult? I would just think a cult would be more organized: at least organized enough to take out someone like Van Helsing, who clearly poses a threat. But this is a minor quibble.
The important thing is that these lines are being delivered by Peter Cushing, who gets to own the movie without a great Dracula figure to oppose (Peel does his best, but my heavens, look at the fellow). Cushing's Van Helsing is captivating. He's calm but resolute, always capable, and even sexy in his thin-lipped, razor-cheekboned way; in the end, he even gets the girl! (Although he's clear that his intentions are only professional, which is even sexier.)
I love how unflappable he is even in the midst of all the bosom-heaving, bat-attacking, candelabra-hurling classic-Hammer action. Cushing refuses to let the melodrama drag him down, and his dignity carries the film. (This is an odd comparison, but it reminded me a bit of Ossie Davis' brilliant showing in "Bubba Ho-Tep." One heartfelt performance can elevate high camp into something even higher.) Plus Cushing gets to do sweet stunts, hanging from a windmill and swinging from a rope. He wears incredibly well-cut suits, too. And did I mention he gets the girl?
This movie just worked for me. Most of the other Hammer Dracula films have to concoct an elaborate explanation of why Dracula survived his previous death, and they become increasingly campy, but this standalone vampire story hangs together nicely. There are some super-nice set pieces; I enjoyed one in which the coffin of a likely-soon-to-be-vampire is left in a stable, and the horses stamp and knock against their stalls, drowning out the waking vampire's knocks on the coffin sides. And there are enough candelabras and frightened peasants to satisfy any Hammer fan.
My only real beef is with the girls' school setting. A fair amount of the movie takes place in Marianne's school, and indeed her colleague Gina (Andree Melly) becomes one of the titular Brides.
But the possibilities of a vampire running amok in a girls' school -- well, I hate to say it, but they could have been exploited a lot more. You barely see the students at all. It just seems a waste.
Finally, the takeaway lesson of this movie: If you need to cauterize a wound on your own neck, be sure and get a friend to help. It's tricky to do alone!
Next week: Lon Chaney Sr. helps class things up around here.
-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon
Images, from top: I love how the poster uses "Dracula" as a synonym for "vampire"; David Peel demonstrates that a blond vampire is like a blond Bond -- a bit chancy; and Peter Cushing prepares to go Moff Tarkin on an unruly vampire.