A young teacher on her way to a new job in Transylvania gets stranded at an old castle. There she is persuaded by a young man to help him escape the shackles with which his mother has kept him locked up in for years.
Unknown to her, the man is actually a vampire and a disciple of Count Dracula. Finally freed, he begins to unleash his reign of terror on the local village. That is until Dr. Van Helsing shows up to put an end to the vampire plague once and for all.
When Christopher Lee stated that he wasn't going to reprise his role as Dracula, Hammer had two options. Either recast the role which could alienate a lot of people and they had to be sure they got the right man in the first place. Or the alternative was to switch the focus of this franchise from Count Dracula to Van Helsing and base the films around him and his vampire hunting. Let's face it, Dracula was hardly in Horror of Dracula so this decision was a smart move on the part of Hammer. Having said that, the title is extremely misleading and a little shameless too, designed as a cynical marketing ploy and no more. Dracula does not make an appearance at all here so one must wonder just whose brides these are! Although calling the film Brides of Dracula's Disciple just doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?
The Brides of Dracula is well structured and although it does take time to get its wheels turning, it gets there in the end. We're introduced to the lovely Yvonne Monlaur, obviously cast for her European beauty rather than her acting skills and there are plenty of plot twists which actually set about the releasing of the vampire. These are all reasonably executed so that you're never at the point where you wonder if everything in the film is going to be a coincidence. It might be a little sluggish for some, but it's never boring and perhaps the only reason the film drags in these early stages is that you're reminded of how much you're missing Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing tearing it up on screen. Fear not because the film kick starts itself once Van Helsing turns up and The Brides of Dracula suddenly turns into one of the more memorable entries into the entire series.
He doesn't appear until the half-way stage so not only does the film rob the fans of Dracula but their new main star, Van Helsing, has to take a back seat in his first solo outing. You'll feel a little duped for a while but there's enough tricks up this film's sleeve to make you forget that. It has many stand-out scenes including but not limited to one of Dracula's victims rising from her grave, a scene in which Van Helsing is bitten and takes drastic action to stop himself from becoming a vampire and, of course, a wonderful finale inside an old mill in which Van Helsing tries to end the vampire menace by using the sails of the windmill to create a huge shadow of a cross to dominate the landscape. You'd be hard pressed to find as many entertaining set pieces as this in the later installments.
Atmospherically the film is top notch, with misty forests, dark and eerie castles and humble Transylvanian villages all providing some exquisite sets in which the actors can strut their stuff. Terence Fisher could have produced his most visually-impressive Hammer film here with everything erupting in glorious technicolor. It has dated in some respects but in others, it's beautifully shot and captures the Hammer period vibe down to a tee. It's the perfect set-up for Peter Cushing to come in and do what he does best - command the screen with his screen presence. He carries this film and because he doesn't turn up till half-way through, that is a heavy burden to shoulder. He is, in my opinion, the greatest genre actor to have ever lived and you can do worse than watch this film to see why. Watch his gentle, courteous and esteemed character suddenly turn into a brutal, cold-hearted man on a mission to destroy vampires when confronted with danger. It's a pity that he's not up against someone a little stronger because you get the sense that Cushing underplays his role, for fearing of overshadowing his on-screen nemesis.
David Peel is just too weak and bland and doesn't have any menace or presence about him whatsoever, thus making the vampire threat somewhat of a damp squib. It's a good job they didn't recast Dracula because this guy would have ruined the part. As a minion of the Count, he's passable. In this respect, The Brides of Dracula shares the same fate as many other non-Dracula Hammer vampire films in that they just couldn't top Dracula as the main villain. Once you've had the Prince of Darkness as your villain, everyone else seems second best. As with many Hammer films, it's always the bit roles which provide the most entertainment - Miles Malleson almost stealing the show as a drunken doctor. The actual 'brides' of the title don't get much to do except for parade around scantily-clad.
Coming directly after the genre-defining precedents that Horror of Dracula set was going to be no easy feat and thankfully The Brides of Dracula does its best to live up to standards. It takes its time to get going and has a weak villain (I can just imagine what Lee would have added to the film with his presence) but the final third is as exciting and entertaining as anything Hammer has ever done.