US Release Date: 09-05-1960
Directed by: Terence Fisher
- Peter Cushing, as
- Doctor Van Helsing
- Martita Hunt, as
- Baroness Meinster
- Yvonne Monlaur, as
- Freda Jackson, as
- David Peel, as
- Baron Meinster
- Miles Malleson, as
- Dr. Tobler
- Henry Oscar, as
- Herr Lang
- Mona Washbourne, as
- Frau Lang
- Andree Melly, as
- Victor Brooks, as
- Michael Ripper, as
- the Coachman
- Harold Scott as
Andree Melly in Brides of Dracula.
Brides of Dracula was Hammer Studios followup to its hugely popular 1958 hit Horror of Dracula (in England its original title was simply Dracula). Although technically a sequel, you don't need to have seen the first movie to enjoy this one. A voice-over narration sets the scene quite nicely, “Transylvania, land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes. Still the home of magic and devilry as the nineteenth century draws to its close. Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world.” A beautiful young woman is shown traveling through this land in a stagecoach.
Her name is Marianne Danielle, a French teacher on her way to her new position at an all-girls' school. She gets unexpectedly left behind at a local village and, despite the stern warnings of villagers, accepts the invitation from a mysterious old woman named Baroness Meinster to spend the night at her nearby castle. Once at the castle she sees a young man whom she approaches and begins conversing with. He claims to be the Baron Meinster (the old woman's son) although he is chained to a wall. A smitten Marianne agrees to steal the key that unlocks the chain, from the old woman's room. She succeeds without yet realizing what she has done.
Fortunately Dr. Van Helsing arrives in the nick of time. Peter Cushing returns as the famous vampire hunter. He had first played the part in Horror of Dracula, squaring off against Christopher Lee. This time around he faces David Peel as the undead Baron, who creates a veritable harem of vampire “brides”, hence the title of the picture. In one of the best scenes a recently “killed” young woman rises from her grave. First we see her hand break through the earth. It is an iconic horror film image that most likely predates this movie and has been recycled many times since.
The Hammer horror films from the late 1950s and early 1960s were very well made. The costumes and sets in Brides of Dracula visually conjure up their iconic setting to perfection. The story takes itself completely seriously and the level of blood and sex is handled in a far more graphic and adult manner than in previous horror films. Psychologically these movies are more complex than earlier horror films had been. The vampires in these films are treated as tortured souls unable to resist their curse and its unquenchable thirst for human blood.
The climax of the movie takes place at an old windmill. It features plenty of action as the good doctor and the undead baron square off with a little hand to hand combat. This movie is a bit like a comic book sprung to life – and I mean that as a compliment. It doesn't waste any time getting to the meat of the story, it's beautifully shot in widescreen and Technicolor, and it features a memorable cast of actors. Peter Cushing makes like a superhero as Dr. Van Helsing, David Peel creates sympathy for his oh-so-tortured Baron, and Martita Hunt is worthy of a mention as the old Baroness Meinster. Andree Melly is the most famous of the movies vampire “brides” (see photo).
Brides of Dracula is a great old-fashioned horror film of the type they simply don't make anymore.
David Peel in Brides of Dracula.
The Hammer horror films were hugely successful from the late 1950s through most of the 1960s and their legacy remains strong. While I can remember watching Christopher Lee play Dracula when I was quite a small child, this was the first time I watched a Hammer horror classic as an adult. Although I'm sure for their time they were quite impressive, they--or perhaps I should say, this one--hasn't aged very well. What might have once seemed frightening, is now rather campy.
There are conflicting stories reported as to why Christopher Lee didn't return as Dracula in this sequel. He claims that he didn't want to do it and the studio claims they didn't want him to do it. Whatever the reason, it didn't stop the studio from keeping the name Dracula in the title, which is very misleading as these aren't the Brides of Dracula at all, but the Brides of Meinster, which just doesn't have the same ring to it. And unfortunately, David Peel--who plays the vampiric Baron--is no Christopher Lee. He's a very ineffectual vampire, and movie title and number of female brides he takes aside, come across as rather effeminate. His most passionate moment comes when he bites Peter Cushing's Van Helsing. I was unsurprised to learn after watching that Peel was apparently quite an out-and-proud gay man (or at least as out-and-proud as the times allowed) who retired from acting shortly after this film to become a fine arts dealer.
Yvonne Monlaur as the female lead, Marianne, is quite attractive in a French sort of way, but her character is completely hapless. She is one of the most silly and naive female characters ever put on film. Her engagement to the Baron is completely unconvincing, as is her inability to see that there's something wrong with him. Her chemistry with Cushing is slightly better, but her stupidity makes her comical.
On the plus side, Peter Cushing does make a good Dr. Van Helsing. He's quite the heroic figure, in an English sort of way. That is to say, he's very upper class and restrained in his manner, but demonstrates a remarkable amount of physicality. Apparently the reason Hammer felt they could get away without bringing Christopher Lee back is because they thought Cushing was the real star.
The film evokes some old fashioned atmosphere but also some old fashioned special effects. There's a vampire bat that appears several times that is as convincing as the bat they used in those old Gilligan's Island episodes. You can literally see the strings being used to flap the wings. And when the vampire's first "bride" awakens and claws her way out of the grave, it's obvious that her coffin was buried a mere inch or so in the ground.
This seemed like a good choice of film to watch at this time of year, being so close to Halloween. However, despite the cult status the Hammer films have as classic horror, I found this one provided more laughs than scares.
Peter Cushing posing for Brides of Dracula
As I watched Brides of Dracula, I wondered who these Hammer films still appeal to today. One could say children as they are not all that scary or graphic in gore or sex. However, children have become jaded with the movies they have been given to watch and so many are being raised on fast paced superhero films that this one would likely seem slow and dull.
Still, I see Patrick’s point that there is some charm to be had here. I agree with him that the best scene is when one of the Baron’s new brides rises from her grave. The Baron’s old human nanny lies on the dirt talking to the ground, encouraging the undead girl below to dig her way out. She is very much like a mother seeing her child take their first baby steps. I found the old woman scarier than the vampire brides.
Speaking of the old woman, I wonder if she, at all, inspired Cloris Leachman’s character, Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein (1974). Both lurk in the shadows helping a monster. There is even a scene where some horses can be heard making noise outside causing a man to yell out at them, much as was done as a running joke in Young Frankenstein.
Scott is correct that Yvonne Monlaur is quite a looker as well as playing one of the dumbest women to ever grace a movie screen. You would think that her first clue the Baron was not to be trusted would be that someone decided to chain him to the wall of a formal bedroom. Hmm, they do not want him to suffer per se but clearly he is not to be allowed to roam. One of her biggest mental lapses is when she takes the rosary off her neck right after being saved from a vampire by Van Helsing, who told her that no matter what, do not take it off. Maybe she thought he was joking?
Speaking of jokes, this movie is filled with unintentional ones. The climactic fight takes place in a windmill where there are piles and bales of hay all over the place. Also in the room is a cauldron of burning cinders. Who in the hell puts a cauldron of burning cinders, that float into the air whenever someone pokes at it, in a windmill surrounded by dry hay? My favorite line is when Van Helsing lays a fainted Marianne onto a bed and tells an old woman to, “Bring me some brandy and hot water.” Why? A person who has passed out cannot drink and what is the old woman supposed to do with the hot water? We never see it arrive so maybe the brandy was for Van Helsing?
Both of my brothers mentioned Peter Cushing as a man of action and he does pull off all that is required of him. Van Helsing is a doctor as well as a man who fights the undead. Perhaps it was films like this that inspired Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing (2004), in which the good doctor was portrayed as an all-out action hero. This brings me back to my original question of who does Brides of Dracula appeal to. Well, I am still not 100% sure but it will likely have a longer shelf life than the 2004 film. Yes, that film had better special effects and a quicker pace but for the life of me I can barely remember a single scene from it.
Photos © Copyright Hammer Film Productions (1960)