Friday, 19 April 2013


If Curse of Frankenstein was the film that put Hammer Films on the map, then Dracula (US title: Horror of Dracula) was the film that made them a sensation - it confirmed that Curse was no fluke, and it helped to make Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into the British film industry’s first full fledged horror stars since the barnstorming days of Tod Slaughter. It was a new found reputation both men accepted with mixed blessings; for Cushing, the sudden financial prosperity at least enabled him to properly look after his ailing wife, while for Lee he hoped to use it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Hammer had wasted no time in rushing a sequel to Curse into production, but when it came to their biggest cash cow, the transition wasn’t so smooth. The end result would prove to have been worth the wait, however.

The Brides of Dracula remains one of Hammer’s most celebrated yet oft debated titles. There’s no denying that the screenplay is a problematic patchwork of ideas, and this can be explained quite logically by the fact that it underwent so many rewrites and reincarnations before going before the cameras. One of the big points of contention is its status as a proper Dracula film, given that neither the count nor Christopher Lee are anywhere to be glimpsed. Quite why this is, nobody can say for sure. Christopher Lee has insisted that he was never asked to appear. Others, including the film’s first screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, maintain that he was never intended to be a part of the picture. Afterall, at that time, Peter Cushing was the company’s established star property - he had come to Hammer after years of distinguished work on stage, screen and TV, and in the UK at least, he was a household name. Dracula had helped to make Lee visible, but he was still a little ways from becoming a true box office commodity. It is also no secret that relations between Hammer and Lee were a bit frayed at times, and if he had allowed the success of Dracula to go to his head, it’s conceivable that he was making demands that were simply unrealistic at that stage in the game. On the other hand, the actor did continue to appear in numerous films for them - invariably in a supporting capacity, excepting his turn as The Mummy (1959) - so the issue remains a little muddy at best. Speculation to one side, The Brides of Dracula was marketed as a Dracula film - but in fact, it focuses on the exploits of one of his disciples, Baron Meinster (David Peel).

A recap for those who haven’t seen it yet (and if not, what’s your excuse?): a young school teacher, Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) is summoned to teach French at a girl’s school in Transylvania. Near the end of her journey, she is abandoned at a local inn by her frightened coach driver (the marvelous Michael Ripper). The mysterious Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) happens upon the scene and offers to put the young girl up for the night at her ancestral castle. While there, Marianna makes the acquaintance of the dashing and seemingly victimized Baron Meinster, who talks the na├»ve young woman into setting him free from the chains which bind him to his room. Once freed, the Baron shows his true colors as a vampire, and he sets his sights - and fangs - upon his mother. Marianne flees in horror, only to be rescued by Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who has come to the area to investigate the Baron and his nefarious activities. The intrepid vampire hunter then sets out to destroy the vampire, though inevitably more victims are claimed before he is able to do so…

So much has been written for and against this film, and much of it comes down to how forgiving one is of its many faults. As noted above, Sangster’s original script was heavily reworked, first by Peter Bryan and then by play write Edward Percy, who was apparently engaged at Cushing’s behest to do a final polish. There are elements of the story that simply don’t make any sense: the mysterious man in black (played by the cadaverous Michael Mulcaster, who previously appeared with Cushing in both Curse and Revenge of Frankenstein, 1958) who is glimpsed at the beginning, for example, simply disappears early on without any clarification; Marianne is stranded at the inn without her luggage, yet the luggage is waiting for her at Castle Meinster - it’s no a great stretch to imagine that the mysterious man in black bribed to coachman to deliver her possessions to the castle, but why is it that Marianne doesn’t even bat an eye at this?; the Baron is able to transform into a bat, yet he is kept prisoner by a chain - why not simply change form and escape?; and so forth. Impassioned fans have argued in favor of a dreamlike tone where logic plays no significant function, but this never really was the way of Hammer horror. Compared to the Italian horror films of the same period, many of which truly did eschew logic in favor of a kind of fever dream state, Hammer’s writers and directors were more concerned with keeping their fantasy rooted in as much logic and realism as possible.

It could be that some of these deficits were originally explained, but in the film as it stands, they seem vague and sloppy. Even if one can accept that the chain possesses some magical property, for example, it’s not consistent with Hammer’s M.O. to simply leave such a crucial plot point unexplained. What’s most likely is that, in the rush to get the script finished and filmed, some connecting pieces of material were pushed aside - and then forgotten. For some viewers, these inconsistencies prove ruinous; I would say that allowing these gaffes to ruin the film is a bit much, however.

Another, more damaging issue comes out of the script’s decision to reinstate a piece of vampire folklore which Sangster had wisely removed from the script of Dracula. Whereas Van Helsing stressed in the first film that the notion that Dracula can shape shift is a “common fallacy,” here Meinster is able to turn into a bad - and a particularly sad looking bat it is, too. Special effects of this variety were never really in the Hammer budget, and this is precisely why Sangster had removed it from the first film; in allowing it to be present in this film, however, he allows for some very laughable moments, indeed. Another rather irksome deficit is to be found in the makeup for the vampire brides played by Andree Meeley and the truly spectacular Marie Devereux. Quite apart from Fisher’s decision to have them constantly baring their fangs, they are rendered even more ludicrous by pasty pancake makeup which is confined solely to their faces - it stops at the face, and their necks, emphasized by a plunging neckline in the costume (which was surely there more for Devereux’s benefit), carry on in a perfectly normal skin tone. One could argue that this is a bit of nitpicking, and perhaps it is, but it does serve to draw attention to itself and undercuts some of the menace in their appearance.

Having spent so long talking about what’s wrong with it, let’s turn our attention to what’s good about it - and believe me, there’s plenty of it. For one thing, the film joins The Mummy as the best looking film Hammer ever produced. Jack Asher’s lighting is simply superb, topping his already lustrous work on Dracula. The use of exaggerated color gels gives the film an appropriately unearthly feel. Bernard Robinson’s sets are truly impressive, offering further evidence of his ability to create a “big” feel with very little money. Malcolm Williamson’s organ-drenched score may be a little more old fashioned than James Bernard’s thumping, percussive music, but it suit’s the tone and texture to a proverbial T. Terence Fisher, too, is at the top of his game. While the script sometimes gets away from him, he does a tremendous job building mood, atmosphere and suspense. There are some wonderfully effective compositions throughout, and if he fails to top the impact of the finale of his first Dracula film (which frankly seems impossible), he still delivers a rousing end for Baron Meinster.

As to the cast, it, too, is one of the strongest Hammer ever assembled. While Yvonne Furneaux is rather wooden as Marianne - a factor not much helped by her uncertainty in English; Hammer would really let her down in casting her as a Chinese in The Terror of the Tongs later that same year! - she is supported by a tremendous gallery of character actors. Peter Cushing is every bit as effective here as he was in Dracula. He dominates the proceedings with quiet grace and authority. He and Fisher viewed Van Helsing as something of a fanatic, but they were careful not to take this concept to extremes, as Francis Ford Coppola and Anthony Hopkins would later do in the uneven Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Van Helsing remains a steely force for good, and his ability to rise to the challenge is most vividly evident in the scene where he, having been overpowered and bitten by Meinster, uses a red hot poker to cauterize the wound.

Cushing plays such physical scenes absolutely brilliantly, helping to sell the effect in a powerful manner. Cushing also displays some sly humor in his scenes with the doddering village doctor played by the wonderful Miles Malleson (who previously played a blackly funny morgue attendant in Dracula). Superb as he is, Cushing is nearly outdone by the double act of Martita Hunt, as Baroness Meinster, and Freda Jackson, as the Baroness’ cackling housekeeper. Both actresses bring a positively Shakespearian dimension to their scenes, and if they had the slightest contempt for appearing in a “Hammer horror” after having done so many distinguished projects on stage and screen (Hunt, for example, is immortalized as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s definitive version of Great Expectations), it certainly doesn’t show.

David Peel was a surprising choice to sub for Christopher Lee, as it were. Though he was 40 at the time of filming, he had a youthful visage, and Hammer’s makeup ace, Roy Ashton, elected to emphasize this with a swishy blonde wig. Peel comes off as a rather pretty and fey vampire, and this adds some interesting subtext to the film. His appearance to one side, Peel is forceful and commanding, whether it be verbally belittling Marianne’s pompous employer (Henry Oscar) or engaging in hand to hand combat with Van Helsing. Peel’s film career never caught fire, however, and after making a “blink and you’ll miss it” appearance as an airline pilot in the Franco-British horror item The Hands of Orlac (1960 - which featured Christopher Lee in one of his most striking villainous turns), he basically retired from the screen to pursue a career in the antiques trade. Even if he had never made another film, Brides would be sufficient to immortalize Peel among the Hammer fan base - he may lack the sheer force and charisma of Lee, but bear in mind that was a tough act to follow… and his sexually ambiguous presence surely informed Roman Polanski’s creation of the character of Herbert (played by the equally “pretty” Iain Quarrier) in his loving lampoon of/tribute to Hammer horror, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). The supporting cast includes some nice roles for the aforementioned Ripper, Malleson and Oscar, as well.

Ultimately, Brides of Dracula manages to overcome its imperfections and is one of the rare sequels - if one chooses to view it as such - that manages to equal, and possibly even surpass, its original. Hammer would continue to mine the vampire myth, creating some wonderful - and not so wonderful - variations on the theme, but Brides of Dracula is arguably their most successful “stab” at the subgenre; as an exercise in pure cinematic style, it’s hard to beat. 


1 comment:

  1. Not detailed but a silver chain or blessed chain could serve as an explanation. Hammer needed the Dracula name in the title for exploitation reasons. Brides of Meinster is meaningless from a marketing standpoint and tossing in the word vampire would not have had the same box office impact as Dracula. No, Brides of Dracula is a terrific title.


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