04 October 2009

Movie Review: The Brides of Dracula

The Brides of Dracula (1960)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel.

Bugg over at The Lightning Bug’s Lair is doing another Halloween Top 13 countdown, this time focusing on lists of horror sequels. I’ve already submitted my list to him for the countdown, and I’ll notify you when the list goes up near the end of the month. But I’m going to review one of the films from that list now since I’m in a “Hammer Dracula” sort of mood after Taste the Blood of Dracula.

Hammer faced a difficult situation after the smash hit of Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula) in 1958. That film viciously and decisively kills off the title blood-sucker: Van Helsing turns him into a pile of rotted dust that blows away on the wind in one of the most thrilling endings to any horror film. Bringing Drac back seemed too tricky, and worries about Christopher Lee asking for more money to play the Count made the production company decide to go the same route they had with the sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein: have Peter Cushing’s character carry the next film without the monster. So The Brides of Dracula, shows the continuing adventures of Dr. Van Helsing with Dracula nowhere in sight. The villain is instead one of Dracula’s youthful “blood progeny,” Baron Meinster (David Peel, given low billing despite his status in the story). It is never made specifically clear if Dracula was the one who vampirized Meinster in the first place, although we’re left with that assumption. If true, than it would seem that it is Meinster who is one of the “brides” of the title—a nice warped way to look at it, but certainly not what Hammer’s publicity intended. The title is otherwise nonsensical, as the vampire women in the film are “Brides of Meinster,” not Dracula.

Van Helsing doesn’t appear until thirty-one minutes into the film. Strangely, this is also the point where the story starts to slow down after the exciting opening. Borrowing from Stoker’s novel, The Brides of Dracula begins with an innocent soul on a carriage ride into dangerous vampire territory, encountering the concern of the locals because of her destination. Beautiful French girl Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to teach at an elite all-girl’s school, but her driver (Michael Ripper, a frequent Hammer character actor) abandons her in a village. The Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) offers Danielle lodging in her castle.
The script does a clever piece of subterfuge here: it seems that the elderly Baroness is actually a vampire luring a girl into her lair. She only comes out in the evening, and she turns down eating in favor of drinking wine—two clear vampire warning signs. But it is her son, Baron Meinster, who is the vampire. The Baroness has chained him up and brings girls for him to feed on. The viewer must assume that the Baroness planned Marianne as the next feast for her son; it is hinted at in the dialogue of the maid Greta (Freda Jackson, whom I recently encountered in The Valley of Gwangi). But Baroness Meinster spills too much of her son’s history over dinner, and the curious Marianne investigates on her own. She lets the persuasive super-Aryan-looking Baron Meinster coax her into unlocking him. His mom is the first to go. Kids don’t like being grounded for (un)life.

David Peel gets poor treatment from most critics as a lesser vampire in the shadow of Christopher Lee’s Dracula. I protest, since Peel is not trying to create a vampire anything like the Dracula of the previous film. Lee played an imperious tyrant of a man, a medieval despot. Peel plays Meinster as exactly what he is: a spoiled rich brat who fell in with the aristocratic vampire set and is having a great time biting the necks of buxom Hammer lasses. Peel acts the part with right sort of privileged snobbery. The way he delivers the line, “Mother . . . come here. . . .” when he prepares to pay back the Baroness for years of trying him up like the dog in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, is pitch-perfect. By the end of the movie, you really want to cocky bastard to pay. And he does.
Because, come on, Baron Meinster is no match for Van Helsing. Certainly not the Van Helsing played by Peter Cushing, the greatest version of the character to appear on screen. When Cushing arrives on his quest to wipe out Dracula’s descendants from the globe and befriends Marianne after her escape from Castle Meinster, he seems a touch more friendly than he was in Dracula. He eventually reverts to his icy slayer of the undead mode, the man who effortlessly indicates with everything he says that you must do what I say or you’re all going to die! It’s amazing that Meinster gets the drop on Van Helsing at one point, but even famous vampire-killers will have off moments.

As I mentioned before, Van Helsing’s arrival heralds the film starting to splinter in different directions and drop its pacing. Meinster starts grabbing local female victims, and his old maid Greta suddenly turns into a cackling vamp-enabler. Marianne arrives at the all-girls school, a perfect place for a handsome vampire to do some hunting. Van Helsing investigates the occurrences of female undead activity and goes to castle Meinster to free the undead Baroness. All this hinges on some loose conveniences, such as Marianne being unaware that Meinster—who proposes to her—is actually a vampire (the incidents at the castle didn’t impress her? and why didn’t Van Helsing tell her?), and Van Helsing happening to overhear a country doctor (Miles Malleson) discussing a recent death at the school.
But it all gathers together quickly for the finale, and it’s a killer-diller. Van Helsing puts himself through a brutal “cure” for vampirism, and the haughty twerp Meinster then gets to die in one of the most thunderously cool ways of offing a blood-sucker. Originally, Hammer had planned for Meinster and his female disciples to perish in a flock of bats, but Peter Cushing thought it was too extreme a trick for the rational Van Helsing to use. This device ended up appearing three years later in Kiss of the Vampire . . . but the solution the screenwriters came up with to replace it here is far better.

The Brides of Dracula is a film that, by all logical movie standards, shouldn’t work. The plot contains too much happenstance, the various strands and threads meander around, the score is uninteresting, it has much less gore than its predecessor, and the whole concept sold to the audience hinges on a character who isn’t in the film and only receives two mentions. Yet the whole crazy thing ends up working. It works so well that I have no hesitation in declaring it the best sequel in Hammer’s Dracula series. Director Terence Fisher works with such confidence in the fairy-tale Gothic setting, and aside from the thickly-accented Monlaur, the cast members deliver all that they can. Many individual scenes are stand-outs: a girl at the school (sexy Andree Melly) sensing Meinster creeping up on her while she looks into a mirror; Freda Jackson coaxing an undead girl up from the grave; Meinster confronting his mother; and Van Helsing’s fierce determination at the climax that results in yet another classic vamp-kill in the Hammer catalog. Plus, there’s some scrumptuous sharp-fanged beauties. Melly makes an especially sumptuous vamp, and the sight of her first revealing her fangs is a Hammer classic and the movie’s best-known image:
The film had nowhere near the success of Dracula, unfortunately, and Hammer wouldn’t make another Dracula movie until 1966, when they got Christopher Lee to put on the cape and fangs again (although he refused to speak any of the dialogue written for him) in Dracula—Prince of Darkness. But it can’t hold a shaky crucifix to The Brides of Dracula and Peter Cushing in “Killer Puritan” mode. Cushing would be missed in the following films, only re-appearing in the silly Dracula A.D. 1972.