“Have you heard of the cult of the undead?”
2,747Beautiful young French tutor Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) is travelling to the Lang Academy for Girls through the rather treacherous environs of Transylvania when she is waylaid at a little isolated hamlet, her coachman having left without her. With uncanny timing, the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) joins her at the inn and insists that she come and spend the night up at the chateau in the hills. Once there, she discovers that the Baroness has her son (David Peel) chained-up and held as a veritable captive. Informed that this is because of some mental illness he suffers from, but smitten by his melancholia and sad attractiveness, she frees him from his shackles and unwittingly unleashes terror upon the neighbourhood. The young Baron, it transpires, was actually a vampire, a former disciple to the cult of Count Dracula. The baroness had been procuring young ladies upon which he could feed, with the aid of a couple of duplicitous retainers. This fate had been in store for Marianne too. Frightened by all she has witnessed in the mysterious old castle, though still believing the Baron to be innocent, Marianne flees out into the night and collapses in the wood from shock and exhaustion.
She is found by none other than the notable Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who has been summoned to the province by the local priest with the needs of his stash of crucifixes and his peculiar talent for hammering stakes into chests.
Learning of the Meinsters’ secret, and horrified to find that he has already taken new victims, he seeks to both aid Marianne and destroy the Baron. Well, he’s got the knack for it by now.
The Brides of Dracula was the first sequel to Hammer’s classic 1958 Dracula, and followed two years later. It was not the film, nor the story that studio stalwarts, executive producer Michael Carreras and director Terence Fisher actually had in mind, but circumstances forced them to adapt and to modify their original plans for a full-blown second round between Van Helsing and the Count. Christopher Lee was unable to don the cape and fangs this time around and since nobody else could take on the role of the Count with as much searing intensity, the story had to veer in another direction. The finished film has a lot going for it. Fabulous sets, attractive women in peril, a sinister sense of fate and sadism and, of course, Peter Cushing, who was now a common factor in Hammer Films and one of their greatest and most reliable crowd-pullers.
In the States, Roger Corman was recognizing the commercial appeal and sheer artistic and atmospheric thrill of the gothic chiller and was unveiling The Fall of the House of Usher (BD and CD reviewed separately) in commencement of his celebrated Poe adaptations, and Mario Bava, equally as taken with the panache, style and redolence of Hammer’s Frankenstein, Dracula and Mummy pictures was about to launch the Italian wing of Cinematic Gothique with Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan). So, the creepy period thrills and spills of curses, the undead, crypts and castles was about to make its big comeback since Universal had swept up their classic monsters into daft mash-ups and Abbot and Costello parodies. But Brides was touted as being the next big thing from the studio that boasted the prime movers in such macabre circles. It proved to be very popular and also surprisingly influential, and is certainly one of the best of their bloodsucking extravaganzas. With only a couple of exceptions, their Dracula series wound up as an arterial splash of diminishing returns. By contrast, their Frankensteins, barring two definite disasters, was a much better all-round series.
I always used to think that The Brides of Dracula was one of the gems in Hammer’s gothic crown. It may not have the title character in it as anything more than a throwaway aside, but it brings back Peter Cushing’s valiant vampire-slaying Van Helsing and creates one of the studio’s most gorgeously mounted productions. That it also contains some terrific themes and a sort of proto-Euro gothic sensibility about it only adds to its provocative, haunting atmosphere of rural redolence and supernatural dread. And it has a wonderfully eerie scene of almost Japanese ghost story splendor, and some truly awesome moments of Van Helsing derring-do and a classic, highly stylised conclusion.
I couldn’t wait to see it on Blu-ray, with Jack Asher’s glorious photography and lighting (some of the most entrancing in the entire Hammer vampire cycle) exhibited, one would hope, at their best, and the film’s distinct three-act set-up – of dark familial curse, evil Academy invasion, and of heroic vamp-slaying, girl-saving crusade – just as dynamic as it has always seemed.
Well, I’m afraid that this didn’t turn out to be quite the exciting nostalgia chiller-trip that I had fervently anticipated.The transfer, itself, is a generally good one if you are coming to it with entirely fresh eyes, but also highly controversial and not without some potentially insurmountable issues – as we shall explore further in the tech review – and, perhaps for me, worst of all, the film just didn’t deliver the same thrills, excitement, mystery, wit and intelligence that it used to seem so rife with. It has always had an inconsistent screenplay, written by Jimmy Sangster under the tentative title of Dracula II and then reworked by both Edward Percy and Peter Bryan as The Disciple of Dracula which, as it turned out, would be far more accurate, but incorporating elements that belonged to this earlier intended sequel to Dracula, and material that would then find their way into other films in the series, most notably Dracula Prince of Darkness, Kiss of the Vampire and Twins of Evil. As such, it often founders over even the simplest of narrative points and falls prey to ignoring its own set of rules. We find that Baron Meinster can actually transform himself into a bat, yet if he could do that why didn’t ever use this ability to escape from the chains that his mother shackled him with? This and many other failings really stood out for me this time around.
The original script called for a vampire-slayer who was not Van Helsing. The established cult of the undead was to be awarded its own legion of hunters, which was a concept already broached in the original 1958 film – Jonathan Harker was Van Helsing’s apprentice, and we could assume that the intervening years would have seen the venerable stake-master investing his skills and knowledge in other worthy disciples. Captain Kronos was still some way off. But this new slayer was then written out as Peter Cushing returned to the role despite his friend, Lee, not being available for the production to renew their onscreen sparring. Yet this sinister character lingers on with a half-life as the shadowy figure of Latour, played by the uncredited Michael Mulcaster, who is seen mysteriously lurking about the woods, hitching rides on the back of passing coaches and clearly obtaining damsels for the Baron, at the matriarch’s bidding and payment. Yet, no sooner has this been conveyed, than the character is gone. Well, there is a terrifically comical moment when he suddenly broaches the impressively wide doorway to the tavern and his coat-collar and his shadow conspire to make it seem as though he has huge bat wings on his shoulders! The concept of the devoted vampirical servant would then be seen in the sadistic Klove (Philip Latham), the throat-slashing swine who rejuvenates the Count from a guest’s blood in Dracula Prince of Darkness, which came next. And, of course, the passing-on of the mantel of vampire-slayer would then shift to Andrew Keir’s crusading monk, Father Sandor, in the same film. Both elements that were supposed to feature in this film but could not be properly worked-in, yet hang on as inconclusive and unresolved facets in Brides. The vanishing of Latour, who is not even named in the film, sticks out like those vowel-mangling fangs that Roy Ashton kept on shoving into vampirical gobs.
The vampire’s human “familiar” is also seen in the somewhat bizarre character of Freda Jackson’s frightening harridan, the baronial maid Greta. Loyal, seemingly, to the Baroness, she is seen hysterical with shock once she discovers that the Baron has escaped, and yet, afterwards, she is a vampirical zealot, lovingly coaxing the next deadster from her grave like some deranged midwife delivering a new baby. Although this is actually a wonderful sequence, and one of the film’s most memorable, really capturing the look and mood of Japanese horror fantasies like Onibaba and Kuronenko, with Greta, wild haired and writhing with voodoo-like exhilaration atop a fresh grave, calling to the corpse below and instructing it upon how to claw its way to the surface – in a chillingly perverse slant upon a genuine birth – it deconstructs her character and transforms her into somebody else entirely. It is even something of an inspiration for Jack Gwilim’s King Aeetes’ excited reaction to his skeleton army rising from the Hydra’s teeth in Jason and the Argonauts seen three years hence. Early moments of her suddenly appearing behind Marianne after she had presumably left the room where capitalized upon by Mel Brooks and Cloris Leachman for the spooky castle-maid, Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein. Her look is also a gypsy throwback to the old Universal days.
The thrusting hand from the earth that elicits ecstasy from Greta is something that would go on to become an iconic image in both vampire and zombie films, from Hammer’s own Plague of the Zombies to Robert Quarry’s Count Yorga and even Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. Greta’s implorings are genuinely unnerving and one tends to wonder why Van Helsing, who is observing all of this from only a short distance away, does not act sooner. In fact, Helsing, this time around is not quite as obsessive or as driven as he was in the original film, though Cushing certainly offers a few of those distinctive sparks when it really counts. Such as when he discovers, to his horror, that Marianne has become engaged to be married to Baron Meinster, and demands to know if he has kissed her, giving her a cursory once-over and then, in a typically brilliant touch from Cushing, reverting straight back to being polite and full of decorum and veiled goodwill.
But he keeps on missing the vamps, time after time, with even the novice deadsters managing to give him the slip.There is no mistaking that this is certainly another powerhouse performance from Cushing in the crucial scenes … yet a quieter, more thoughtful one in others. It is almost as though there are two sides to his character that are vying for dominance – the vengeful slayer and the good, kindly doctor. As consummate a professional as Cushing is, you can’t help thinking that he misses Lee, as some of the zap is extinguished from his mission. Then again, his performance, thanks to the patchwork script, does seem a little bit stop and start, until the breakneck final act.
But all of this is marvelously brought to a head when Van Helsing, himself, is bitten and, after a spell of unconsciousness, realizes with horror what has happened and … well, does what must be done in order to purge himself of the plague. It is a bravura sequence and something that Hammer would selectively revisit, but the sight of Cushing heating-up a branding iron in a brazier and then singeing the bitten flesh of his own neck with it is a pure standout of wildly noble desperation. I’d take umbrage with the heavily religious overtones at this cleansing of evil with the wounds completely healing over, though. I would far rather that the character had then kept the scars throughout his later adventures. It would also have allowed the prop-loving Cushing damn fine reason to keep toying with that pale blue scarf he cherished or to rub, with bitterness, at the mark with dedicated conviction from time to time as an ominous reminder of how damned close he came to going over to the Dark Side. This was a missed opportunity, I think.
If they couldn’t have Christopher Lee, then Hammer weren’t going to make the mistake of having another actor try to emulate his cultured monster from the first film. Out went the decadent air of history and lapsed regality. Out went the dark and European appearance of aristocracy. Out went the imposing height and air of indefatigable feral savagery. And in came diminutive, blonde pretty boy, David Peel to play the shackled and imprisoned Baron Meinster. Hinted as being an acolyte of Dracula, in order to keep the name-tag branding of the movie, this debonair and melancholic prisoner in the baronial home, looks far weaker and much less intimidating that Lee – but this doesn’t go against him. We meet him as a weakened, frightened and psychologically repressed captive in his own home. His wimpish, forlorn neo-romanticism is a fine touch that was sure to have suckers-in the teen brigade falling for his innocent and almost pure good looks, and this makes it easy to believe that Marianne would ignore the rather obvious signs and free him. Peel supplies some great fang-bearing instances too, and goes-for-it against Cushing with some vigour, even having heights put into his shoes to bring him to better dueling level with the taller and far more experienced on-set skirmisher.
You would not have a problem believing that girls would fall for this guy, either. Lee has to rely upon the intensity of his eyes, suggesting a mesmeric ability to transfix his would-be paramour/victims. Peel is the proto-sixties pop idol, with his kiss-curl and smoldering, sadness-filled eyes. That he was considerably older than he looks actually works in the context of him being one of the undead. This element does seem to radiate from his semi-tragic stare and his demeanour in the company of the school proprietors, the Langs, played by Mona Washbourne and Henry Oscar, in which he is cordial and the model of decorum. Mind you, it is clever that he has gained entrance into the school-grounds with permission, although this element of vampire lore was never really exploited by Hammer. Yet, whilst Lee’s highly sexualized Count could never consecrate his desires in any form other than biting the throat, you do get the impression that the Baron could, and would like to do much more than just procure another adoring corpse for his collection. This isn’t properly addressed by the script, but it remains as another tantalizing example of this particular story having elements that it struggled to contain without pushing too many censorial buttons.
Marianne, herself, is simply gorgeous and full of Parisian chic. Softly lensed in a rather unsubtle way that surprises me in a film that is, otherwise, so meticulously and carefully photographed, is not a well-written character at all. She is a plot-joiner. She arrives. She gets set-up. She lets the Baron off the hook, literally. She becomes his intended concubine – and in this instance that seems like a genuine marriage being on the cards. She hangs about to joins in the fight to eradicate him. Apart from her initial wanderings around the baronial estate, which are brilliantly mysterious and seem to play from a different film entirely, she becomes quite a bore – a lovely looking one, but a bore, nonetheless. Her swift and close friendship with Gina (Andree Melly), another attractive young tutor at the school, is not in the least bit believable, although it is far easier to credit Gina’s undead attraction for her new friend – the film superbly delivering that frisson of lesbianism that Hammer would really go on to exploit in many subsequent vampish outings – and you really have to wonder just why she would care all that much to bother watching over her coffin in the barn, having only known her for an evening at best. Melly, herself, has an unusual look. She is full of the bushy, feral eyebrows that we saw with Valerie Gaunt in the original Dracula, but she has a curiously ageless face suggestive both of dangerous youth and of the desires from beyond the grave. Like Peel’s Baron, then, this is actually quite brilliant casting. Peel, however, would give up screen acting shortly after making Brides to become an art dealer.
Character-actress Martita Hunt is excellent as the haunted semi-villainous Baroness Meinster. She is almost a Poe-like addition to the formula. Devoted to her son, yet repulsed by him at the same time, she supplies him with fresh victims to feed his addiction, his curse. This moral dilemma is something that has been eroding her for years and its effects are shown in startling abruptness and withering epithets for former glories. She is regarded with deadly respect by the villagers, who obviously remember the good times that were once had in the grand house on the hill and now shun her every arrival in the town. But whether they know her secret or not – and like all these Transylvanian hamlet-dwellers, they certainly suspect that something dark and nasty is afoot with these aristocrats who lord it over them – they clearly fear her. Hunt delivers a performance of authority and mocking, tragic and cruel at the same time. Yet, she is also able to turn all this around once she falls under the embittered spell of her freed son. Hammer don’t pull many punches, and as these gothic chillers progressed, they added more and more controversial elements to their stories. Not only does the mother imprison her son and supply him with women, but there is the underlying Oedipal puzzle that exists between them both. It is only wryly suggested, of course, but the notion of their relationship being slightly even less savoury than it already is comes across without any script manicuring. Once the Baron has avenged himself upon her, she reveals another layer of complexity, altogether darker and still more aggrieved. Everything has gone wrong. All that she struggled to keep under wraps has taken flight and the once noble name of Meinster – which has not been admired for some time already – has now been dragged into the bloody cesspool of evil and depravity that she is now an even greater part of. When confronted by Van Helsing, who we can clearly pities her, she hides her fangs from his view, sickened by what has been done to her, and completely overwhelmed with self-hatred and revulsion.
This is where the film and Hammer pull another ace from their sleeve. Pathos.She is not a monster, at least not in the terms of Dracula or even the Baron, but she must be extinguished. Van Helsing has shown this sort of pity before in the first film, when he was compelled to destroy both his pupil, Jonathan Harker, and then Lucy … and this is played out with possibly even more dignity. Both parties know what must be done and the staking is done with sober and dour grace as the sunlight penetrates the stained-glass windows. She does not protest and Cushing does not simper. His own eyes and his steady hand provide all the depth of character that we need to feel. And, thankfully, Hammer doesn’t wimp-out when it comes to the actual hammering. We get a fine Kensington Gore-spurt from Roy Ashton. Melting face makeup is also pretty good, with a deep cleave removed from around the left eye that looks quite horridly deep. You still can’t help but laugh when one of these old vamps recoils in clichéd style from the sight of thrust crucifix. Only Chris Sarandon in Tom Holland’s Fright Night was able to inject any spontaneity into this hoary old device. Peel certainly can’t.
When Cushing arrives at the tavern, speaking in the quiet of an empty bar-room, he is then ushered into the next room in which the wake for one of the Baron’s victims is taking place, and it is full of noise and voices and anguish that would clearly have been heard just the other side of the curtain in the bar. Earlier, the innkeeper (Norman Pierce) shuts and bolts the door when he hears the Baroness’ coach approaching, yet when his wife begs him not to open it, he then replies, “But I must!” only a second later. What was the point of locking it in the first place, then?
So even though Brides is an acknowledged treasure of vintage terror, there are a lot of elements that just don’t add up. A simple tale is rendered altogether much too cluttered, with too many elements and ideas hurled at it like the big, flappy fake bat from Sydney Pearson that dodders around the screen like an Airfix model on strings. Yet a lot of these errors and holes can be swept aside in view of the film’s alluring style and dreamlike qualities.
Hammer aficionados know all-too-well of the value and the splendor of this film, but the more casual fan tends to overlook it. Well, now we need to set the record straight and return this classic to its rightful place as one of the best looking vampire films that they ever unleashed, which is no mean feat considering how sumptuous many a Hammer production was. Releasing it alongside the sadly quite risible The Evil Of Frankenstein does, I will admit, tend to make Brides seem even better still, although Evil still tends to excel in the comic-book flamboyance of its laboratory scenes.
The film takes advantage of many genre staples, from vampiric lore in both film and literature, but from many other sources of the fantastique as well, making it something of a luxury of conceits and phantasms and a frequent delight of shuddery atmospherics.
The visitor at a strange castle is vintage gothic straight out of the original Stoker novel – in fact the very opening with Michael Ripper’s near-crazed coachman driving his horses (“Me beauties!”) onward against Marianne’s protestations that he is going too fast is pure Stoker. The familial curse and the attempts to keep it locked away are almost cross-pollinations of the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur classic Cat People, James Whale’s The Old Dark House (which also combines the strangers arriving unwanted at an isolated dwelling diseased by its own occupants), the splendid werewolf fable, The Undying Monster, and the burgeoning Italian horror genre, which would really elaborate upon hidden family members, whether dead or alive but almost always with serious sociopathic problems, and the cataclysmic interventions of “guests” sticking their noses into situations that do not concern them. Hammer, themselves, would even explore this again with Dr. Franklyn’s protective concerns for his snake-lady daughter in The Reptile. The notion of the Girls’ School is something that Hammer would rework in Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil, but it also had its roots in Le Fanu’s Carmilla and would even find succor in the wild and semi-sleazy Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory from three years later. The vision of two deathly white “Brides” harkens back to Browning’s Lugosi original (in which there were three), but it is an image that would linger throughout the genre in films as diverse as Jack Hill’s Spider Baby and Jose Larrez’s sexed-up Vampyres. Thus, Brides becomes not so much a singular story of hunt ‘n’ stake, but a rare thing for Hammer, a complete stew of older influences and newer inspirations that would, in turn, influence and inspire other filmmakers.
Miles Malleson was great value in the first Hammer Dracula, expanding greatly upon his role as an undertaker with improvised coffin-tapping, and here he extends such camera-hogging eccentricity to absolutely ludicrous degrees. I used to love his tincture-and-potion loving apothecary, Dr. Tobler, as a dizzy distraction from the gothic gloom, but now his role seems not only superfluous but also appallingly protracted. He is a great performer, there is no question of that, but this shtick is like a sideshow act in a variety gala, and even though he succeeds in embellishing Cushing’s authority and sophistication, his endless wittering also succeeds in diverting the tension of the movie for too long. I will give him some credit for actually saying at one point, “Ad-lib, I say. Ad-lib.” This was precisely what he was the master of. The theme of science competing with superstition would be revisited in the Hammer series, but, I will admit that, even without Sangster, Bryant and Percy probably realizing that they were doing it, Malleson makes the point quite covertly here. His weird and ridiculous fixations with ointments, treatments and medicinal concoctions make him almost medieval and alchemist in character. His very lack of understanding about the black arts and the occult – a direct polar opposite from Van Helsing, who, we can easily assume, is also a much more accomplished conventional doctor, as well – is an ironic treat considering his own placebo-like addictions.
When the padlocks that fall from Gina’s sealed casket are revealed to still be firmly locked, there is a real sense of black magic at work. The reaction of the horses in the stable as the night wears on and Gina is about to reawaken are also a great touch that adds to the ominous sense of bad tidings.Van Helsing is not as quick-witted or reflexive this time around though.He continually lets vampires slip from his grasp. You could take this as him getting a touch rusty, but he would go on to track down and destroy several dozen more over the ensuing films. But Cushing once again belies those gaunt features with a very physical show of strength and athleticism. Obviously it is not him making that Errol Flynn-style swing across the mill at the Baron, but he does plenty of rolling about and leaping over things. If you look earlier on, there is even a moment when his coach pulls up and he alights from it with great alacrity whilst it is still moving at some clip. His duels with Meinster are both well choreographed too. The kicking over of a table and the sliding of a cross – this guy has the biggest collection in all of Europe – are great little moments, but the Baron swinging a chain at his nemesis and putting the boot in brings some visceral thuggery into the mix. Just as we had seen with the previous Dracula, these vampires liked to fling large candlesticks around as obstacles.
Cushing once again proves how much he loves to use props. Just look at how many times he uses the ropes and the hanging chain to maneuver himself around the stable, when really he doesn’t need such assistance. But it shows how willing he was to use the set and to keep the film active and visually stimulating. Famously, he objected to the original scripted climax in which Van Helsing condemns the Baron for breaking the rules of the undead and infecting his own mother, summoning-up a storm of bats to destroy him. To Cushing’s mind, Van Helsing would never resort to using the very black arts that he is combating to work for him as a weapon. Actually, I think this would have been quite poetic and a nice twist on the character … but, even so, if the budget could not create one convincing bat, then a swarm of them would have been totally unthinkable. As it transpired, this bat-attack would form the conclusion to the later Kiss of the Vampire, which was another tale of aristocratic vampiric hedonism, proving that Hammer didn’t like to ditch ideas once they had been hatched.Those dark, satanic mills …The fiery climax at the old windmill, set against an ominous and demonic night-sky presided-over by a glowering full moon, is a fantastic set-piece. Fisher had already set the bar high for vampirical final confrontations, establishing Cushing’s heroic as a pure man-of-action. The immediate follow-up to this film, Dracula Prince of Darkness, in which Christopher Lee would return to the role of the aristocratic bloodsucker, would strive to continue in this vein of spectacular and elaborately staged vanquishings. But although the design of Brides’ conclusion is also kind of corny, it reminds of the old Universal horror climaxes of burning mills, and would later be recalled by Tim Burton for Sleepy Hollow and Frankenweenie. The Jimmy Sangster/Freddie Francis Evil of Frankenstein would take the Universal tack a great deal further with exploding castles, of course, but Brides only gains from this familiarity, which really adds to the strange mélange of flavours that the film stirs up. But this immensely satisfying finale still comes at a price. What exactly has happened to the two brides? We see them looking sinister for a brief spell, and then we see them retreat as their intended victim proves himself far more formidable than these fledgling undead vixens can deal with. But then they are forgotten about. Obviously we are supposed to assume that the conflagration has taken care of them, but this doesn’t quite work as well as Fisher intended. By now, we expect to see Van Helsing dispatching vampires with Bondian aplomb. Stoker, himself, had always had Dracula’s concubines slain, and it does seem odd that we don’t get even a shot that reveals their fate.
Thus, we have three baddies seemingly escape from the film as though they have simply slipped off the edge script page. Perhaps audiences were to assume that Meinster’s plague was to continue, but you would have thought that Van Helsing would have had at least a line to suggest that his hunt must go on before they spread the plague any further.
Brides of Dracula is thoroughly entertaining but now, more than ever, it seems like a patchwork quilt of ideas, some developed, some frustratingly left dangling. There are plot holes and idiocies, though most fans will happily brush them aside and simply revel in the glorious mood, the valiant heroics of Van Helsing, the creepy set-pieces and the weird new angles that Hammer were able to bring to a genre that they, themselves, would make ever-staler as the years went by. Interestingly, this is one of their most female-dominated movies, with some considerable work put in by Martita Hunt and Freda Jackson. In fact, the male monster most referred to in the movie is the stuffy and officious Academy director, Lang, himself, who is referred to in petite lady-like jest as an ogre. So the film does some deft manipulations that are worth looking under the radar to find.
Hammer continue to stake a claim on Blu-ray!
Movie score : 7
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