Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Brides of Dracula May Be Hammer's Best

Hammer Films, the British studio that revived the gothic horror movie in the late 1950s, launched its signature series with 1958's Dracula (US: Horror of Dracula). The studio's colorful reworking of Bram Stoker's vampire novel made genre stars of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Lee chose not to appear as Count Dracula in the immediate sequel and Hammer dared not to replace him after his popular portrayal. The studio's solution was to make a Dracula film without Dracula, with most of the focus shifting to Cushing's energetic and intellectual vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing.

Due to Lee's absence, The Brides of Dracula never achieved the popular and critical success it deserved. It is not only Hammer's best Dracula entry, but it may also be the studio's best film. Regular Hammer scripter Jimmy Sangster and his co-writers seemed to have compensated for the loss of Lee by making Brides more of an ensemble film with Cushing providing the star wattage. The result is a horror film with surprising depth and a vampire villain who has some juicy dialogue to go along with the neck-biting.

The film opens with Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), a young French woman traveling to a girls academy to accept a teaching position. When a coach driver abandons Marianne in a small Transylvanian village, she accepts an invitation by the elderly Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) to spend the night in a nearby castle. She soon meets young, handsome Baron Meinster (David Peel). His mother keeps him in shackles and you can guess why—but Marianne doesn’t. Pretty soon, there’s an outbreak of vampirism at the boarding school and it’s Van Helsing to the rescue. His climatic encounter with Meinster in a dilapidated windmill sets the stage for one of the most ingenious endings of all vampire films.

As in the earlier Dracula, Cushing's Van Helsing may be an intellectual, but he is also a man of action. He is not afraid to physically confront vampires--given the proper weapons--even though he knows they possess superior strength. In Brides, Van Helsing's zeal gets the better of him and he winds with teeth marks on his neck. The result is a marvelous scene in which he demonstrates what to do when bitten by a vampire.

Though Cushing's performance centers the film, Peel exudes evil as Meinster. His vampire may not be as physically imposing as Lee's Dracula, but he comes across as almost more threatening because he is devious and intelligent. Let's face it: the idea of spreading vampirism by means of a girls' boarding school is pretty crafty (i.e., when each girl goes home, she infects others). Meinster is also incredibily cruel--heck, he bites his own mother (marvelously played as a reluctant vampire by Hunt).

Director Terence Fisher propels the proceedings at such a lively pace that one barely notices the screenplay's obvious flaws. For example, if Meinster can transform into bat, as he does at one point, then how can shackles hold him? Also, the relationship between Marianne and Meinster is poorly developed. They meet at the castle and then they become engaged when Meinster visits Marianne for the first time at the school.

Sadly, The Brides of Dracula marked Peel's only appearance as Meinster. Christopher Lee returned as the bloodthirsty Count in Hammer's 1964 series entry Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Cushing would not return as Van Helsing until Hammer made an unwise decision to update the vampire saga to modern times with Dracula A.D. 1972. Hammer eventually made eight Dracula films, but the only subsequent entry to compare favorably with Brides was 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.


  1. I absolutely agree that BRIDES OF DRACULA may very well be the best of the Hammer films. It's certainly my favorite! I love so many things about it: the dialogue is sharp, the cinematography is beautiful, and the relationship between Van Helsing and Marianne is strong and wholly engaging. The film is surprisingly action-packed, and there's an excellent sequence where Van Helsing slides a cross down a table (in the direction of a vampire). I think Peter Cushing was one of the greatest actors of all time, and he makes a wonderful Van Helsing. Splendid review, Rick, and I hope Bray Studios survives and lives on forever, as a vampire would, were it not for Van Helsing.

  2. Rick, loved reading your review. I haven't seen many Hammer films, but due to a number of recent reviews on their films, I think I might add some to my queue at Netflix.

  3. Rick: This is one of my favorite Hammers. It's like a fairy tale come to life onscreen. One of my favorite movies is David Lean's "Great Expectations" so I got a treat out of seeing Freda Jackson and Martita Hunt here. The scene of Jackson pounding the ground in gleeful anticipation as those vampire hands crawl their way out of the earth is one of my favorite sequences in a Hammer movie.

  4. There must be something rather confounding about seeing someone confined against his will. Not only does lovely Marianne not discuss things with the Baroness about why she imprisons her son but a traveler seeking shelter at a monastery had a similar dilemma in "The Howling Man" episode of "The Twilight Zone." There is usually a reason that should be given careful thought in an unusual situation on the screen.

    This is an excellent Hammer entry with arguably the finest conclusion. I think David Peel and Martita Hunt are perfectly cast in their roles and Peter Cushing is masterful as Van Helsing.

    I do love the setting in "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave," too. Both are recommended additions to your Hammer film library.

    Outstanding post, Rick, and I really enjoyed the blog comments, too.

  5. Rick, I love Hammer films, but have not seen The Brides of Dracula. I had no idea it was so good. I kind of avoided it over the years because Lee was not in it and I thought it wouldn't be worthwhile. Your wonderful review has made me eager to see it! Thanks for giving me another Hammer film to look forward to!

  6. Sark, I agree that the relationship between Marianne and Van Helsing is a strong one...she knows him much better than Meinster. If I was writing an artsy film paper, I'd argue that she was displacing Van Helsing with Meinster because of guilt over her Electra complex (Van Helsing substituting for her father). Kevin, I love the scene you described as well as the one where Martita Hunt hides her fangs from Van Helsing. Toto, you compared BRIDES to one of my very favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes (for me, the scariest ZONE episode ever!). Kim and Becky, BRIDES represents Hammer at or near its peak. It's definitely worth checking out.

  7. Rick, loved reading your review. I haven't seen any of the Hammer films. Like Kim.. I think I will add them to my "gotta see" list of films.