The star of Hammer’s Dracula returns,
but not the one you
might be expecting.
Dracula was not only a huge success for Hammer, but also Universal pictures, who distributed the film in the US (under the title Horror of Dracula, to avoid confusion with their own 1932 Lugosi version), and made enough money to save themselves from financial strife.
A sequel: Brides of Dracula was demanded and quickly put into production, but incredibly, without either Christopher Lee or Dracula in it. The reason for this is unclear, perhaps a combination of Lee’s recently-launched career now enabling him to enjoy more demanding speaking roles elsewhere and the Count having been reduced to a pile of ashes.
Instead, Brides is the further adventures of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing and succeeds in every way which the dire 2004 Hugh Jackson vehicle of that name didn’t.
Brides of Dracula 1960
In talking about these films it’s too easy to simply regurgitate what I grew up reading in books and magazines. So I almost felt that I had seen this film (inexplicably, I missed its Sunday Horror outing back in 82-83, but my friends wasted no time in telling me what a good one it was) and already knew its beats and set pieces.
Instead, I find that one of the most entertaining things about Brides of Dracula is its sheer unpredictability. From the outset, the misleading title (no brides, no Dracula) throws you off-balance. To be honest, much of the surprising narrative might be down to an over-worked script which went through several redrafts, some at star Peter Cushing’s request. Instead of this process refining the story, character motivation and plot holes seem to have multiplied. A mysterious coach-hopping, tavern conversation-stopping character dominates the opening scenes, and is then never seen or referred to again. In direct contradiction to Van Helsing’s pronouncement in the first film, Meinster can transform into an unintentionally humorous bat, but is kept imprisoned by a manacle around his ankle (why doesn’t he just change and fly away?). And why on earth does the heroine Marianne (a beguiling performance from french actress Yvonne Monlaur) instantly agree to become engaged to Meinster, after clear evidence that he’s just murdered his own Mother? Perhaps he hypnotised her...
David Peel’s Baron Meinster is a compelling lead when seem in normal human form, but when required to appear fanged and in the throes of blood-frenzy his dishevelled hair and wild eyes make him look a little like a maddened lap-dog. Blond and clad in a light grey cloak, he is almost a negative image of Lee’s Count, and a poor substitute.
And so emphasis is shifted from this rather emasculated vampire and placed on the fascinating female characters. Meinster’s domineering Mother is played beautifully by Martita Hunt, and her ashamed attempts to conceal her vampiric teeth after, as Van Helsing intones with the just right amount of disgust to make the Oepidal euphemism very clear: “He has taken the blood of his own Mother!”, are strangely moving.
Freda Jackson as her servant is a delightfully malignant character and spellbinding in possibly the film’s best sequence where she lies across a grave and coaxes Marie Devereaux’s vampirised village girl to struggle out of her recently buried coffin in a ghastly parody of birth.
Devereaux, a voluptuous proto-Hammer starlet is unfortunately given very little else to do. She and the other vampire ‘bride’ literally just stand white-faced and hissing in the wings, confusedly observing the climactic action and perhaps waiting for some direction which never comes.
Where the film really succeeds is in its intention as a vehicle for Cushing’s beautifully observed Van Helsing. Icily commanding and sensitive by turns, he is utterly determined to stamp out the ‘evil cult of vampirism’ at any cost. Brides also cements his reputation as an unlikely action star, with a surprising display of athleticism apparent as he literally hurls himself into several exuberant battles with the supernaturally stronger Meinster, with no regard for his own safety.
As others have said before me, you can keep your Buffy’s and Blades, this is the only Slayer, with his nattily monogrammed ‘staking kit’, I’d want around in a vampiric emergency.Alas, it would be 12 years before Cushing would return to this role, but here his performance and some truly memorable sequences (watch out for the creepy padlocked coffin scene) elevate Brides as one of the better entries in the Hammer Dracula cycle.