It’s Hammer Time again! Every once in a while I like to dip back to that golden age, where the revered monsters of yore were dusted off with loving care for a newly appreciative crowd of teenagers at the Drive-In. Building upon the worldwide success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (’58), and The Mummy (’59), it was time for another Drac attack. The Brides of Dracula (1960) keeps up the high level horror, as long as you’re okay with a Dracula movie having no Dracula. Looking back on the whole series, Brides stands out (and up) due to this very omission.
Released in the UK in July, with a stateside rollout in September, Brides was another hit for the unstoppable Hammer machine; and why wouldn’t it be? All the staples (by this point, a formula, really) are present: cleavage, gorgeous cinematography, solid performances, and a gloriously elevated Gothic tone. But Brides offers something a little different from Hammer than its initial foray into vampiric lore, namely splashes of homoeroticism signaling the turn into a slightly more tolerant decade. (Or at the very least, a genre growing hipper.)
Our film opens with a somber intonation that while Dracula is dead, his disciples live on to spread his campaign of terror. (I can just imagine audiences at the time: “Dammit, Martha I came to see Dracula.” “We already paid for the sitter, Bill. Relax.” “Fine. But I’m not going to like it.” “Zip it and watch, Bill.”) Young Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur – Circus of Horrors) is on her way to teach at a boarding school for girls when her stagecoach driver stops to remove a fake tree from their path. A mysterious man hops on the back and they head into town. The man pays off the driver to take off when Marianne heads into the local tavern for a bite. Stranded without a ride, Marianne is befriended by Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt – Bottoms Up), and invited to stay in her castle for the night. While looking out the window, she sees a handsome young man in chains calling to her for help from across the way. (It’s a really big castle.)
Baron Meinster (David Peel – The Hands of Orlac) gives Marianne a sob story of neglect and abuse at the hands of his mother. Feeling pity for the Baron, Marianne frees him from his silver chains, unknowing that his taste for blood is the very reason that mom keeps him locked up in the first place. (However, she does lure young women to her estate to satiate his bloodlust. Because moms are THE best.) The good Baron ingratiates himself with Marianne, and plans to take her hand in marriage; which is good, because at the rate that he’s decimating the female population, he’s running out of prospects. But not so fast, Herr Meinster – there’s a suave, dapper doctor on his way to save the day. He goes by the name of Van Helsing (Peter Cushing – The Uncanny), and don’t worry, he does make castle calls.
The Brides of Dracula was supposed to mark the return of Christopher Lee as the titular character, but depending on who you ask, either he was afraid of being typecast, or held out for too much money. (For enough money, I could be typecast as an eight year old Girl Scout and be fine with it.) So, several script rewrites later (Hammer God Jimmy Sangster, as well as Peter Bryan, Edward Percy, and an uncredited Anthony Hinds AKA John Elder, who wrote quite a bit for Hammer) and we’re left with no Drac, but in return we get possibly one of the most atmospheric yarns the studio ever produced.
Taking Lee out of the picture allows director Terence Fisher, who made the original trifecta that put Hammer on the map, to tweak the formula a bit and give a bit of air to a legend already becoming stuffy. Yes, crosses and stakes get their due, but the good Baron also transforms into a bat (not an especially convincing one, but a bat nevertheless) and is much more of a charmer than Lee’s growling Count. For some this was an issue; Peel looking too boyish as the Baron, and too foppish in vampire mode – his golden coif seeming to grow two inches taller when he attacks – but at least they’re trying something a little different, with enough confidence to think it could work. And it does; Peel exudes an innocent sexiness as the Baron polar opposite to Lee’s feral bloodsucker. Look, I love Lee; but I find his Frankie a deeper take on a legendary figure. I guess I just like a little swoon with my vampires. (Hold the glitter though, please.) Peel attacks with an insidious grin on his face that may seem silly to some; however it shows his Baron not only needs to feed, he actually enjoys it. And why shouldn’t the eternally damned have some fun? I mean, at this point, they didn’t even have cable.
The game changer in Brides is the Baron’s attack on Van Helsing in a stable. A rousing battle, it culminates in the Baron biting Van Helsing on the neck; something you just did not see. I promise you the implication of this scene must have turned a lot of heads upon release (those fangs are meant for the opposite sex, kind sir!); a vampire’s lust is always expressed through perforation, and while the Baron’s intention is probably to incapacitate Van Helsing, you can’t help but applaud Hammer for bringing a new kind of eroticism to the genre, inadvertent as it may be.
One of the main reasons I return to Hammer time and again is the aesthetic. I adore the lack of gritty realism in their early heyday; there’s an earned sense of pageantry to the costumed vixens and crumbling castles, a nod to the Universal predecessors’ faux sets and staged events. Cinematographer Jack Asher (another ‘original three’ alumni), however, splashes color and shadow around like a master, and frames his set pieces with stylish suspense (see: the graveyard scene and the battles between Meinster and Van Helsing). I adore black & white, but Hammer is my Technicolor comfort food.
Hammer’s greatest ambassador however, was Cushing. A gentleman’s gentleman, his clipped, stern tones a constant reminder that behind the mannered façade lays a hero ready to take action – Van Helsing is all business, and Cushing gives his most athletic performance here as the legendary vampire hunter. Brides ups the game though and throws in some terrific supporting performances as well. Hunt brings an oversized pathos to the Baroness, and Freda Jackson (Clash of the Titans) plays to the back as Greta, Baron Meinster’s familiar. Kudos to Hammer for stocking the pond with so many strong supporting characters; it wasn’t always their practice, but it’s certainly appreciated.
Why isn’t a film like this discussed more? Well, these films are over half a century old now; they’re so far in the rearview mirror for a lot of audiences that all they see are the major signposts – a Christopher Lee here, a Vincent Price there – and fail to notice the points of interest along the way. Trust me; sometimes the little merchant carries the same goods as the big retailers. And occasionally, like with The Brides of Dracula, he may offer you a better deal than you expected.
The Brides of Dracula is available on Blu-ray as part of the Hammer Horror 8-Film Collection from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.