‘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…’
The Ultimate Hammer Collection is boxed away, ready for Christmas (ten days separating me from Valerie Leon - ten days too many!) but in the meantime, and thanks to John Hodson I now have the Region One Hammer Horror Series, eight golden greats for $21.99 (just over one English pound per film, by my reckoning). First up is The Brides of Dracula, one of my personal favourites from the self-acclaimed House of Horror, but a movie I haven’t seen since I was a bairn and when David Peel’s teeth-baring tomfoolery actually seemed fairly creepy. Made for a princely £120,000, and featuring an almost childlike innocence compared with the sexed up Hammers of the 1970s, just how does a 47-year old flick hold up in 2007?
First, actually comparing something like Brides with, say, 30 Days of Night, the most modern retelling of the vampire myth, is of course ridiculous. Bloodsuckers have moved on so far since the early days of Hammer that even a television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer has better effects and a higher creep value than 1960’s sequel to Horror of Dracula. Another obvious flaw with the production is that it doesn’t feature Christopher Lee. In a strange cost-cutting measure, Hammer decided to make the film without its main star, retaining only the services of Peter Cushing as Dr Van Helsing. As a direct consequence of Lee’s absence, the first half of the movie sets out to explain exactly who the main vampire is, what he wants, and what it will take to stop him. And oddly enough, it works wonderfully well. With its castle setting, small-minded locals and beautiful heroine, Brides tells like a dark fairytale, a bit like Snow White but with more vampires and bats.
Our story begins with Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) on her way to Badstein to take up a teaching role at the Girl’s Academy. Via a mysterious interruption, she comes into contact with Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who requests that she stays for a night at her castle. Soon enough, Marianne learns that the Baroness’s son (David Peel) is kept prisoner there. He persuades her to release him, setting off a chain reaction of killings and undead risings that eventually involve Cushing’s Van Helsing.
That’s more or less it. The ‘brides’ refers to the evil Baron’s predilection for young girls, naturally leading to an effort to ensnare Marianne herself. Where the ‘Dracula’ reference of the title comes from, goodness only knows. The gap left by the head vampire’s absence isn’t filled adequately by Peel, a good looking yet vapid presence who hasn’t the presence to carry off his role fully. As for Monlaur, easy on the eyes she most definitely is; an actor of any stature she certainly is not. Thankfully, ‘the Cush’ is on hand to just about make up for the thespianic shortcomings. Once Van Helsing first appears in Brides, he takes over the entire project. The camera follows him obediently as he goes about his vampire slaying business, whether staking the seemingly grateful Baroness, or calling on an array of religious artifacts to aid him in times of peril. He’s supported by a fine cast of cameo actors, including Miles ‘Room for one more’ Malleson as a bumbling doctor, Freda Jackson’s reliably over the top servant, and the inevitable Michael Ripper, who puts in his work early as a Cockney-accented coach driver.
Two aspects really elevate Brides into a minor classic. The first is the set design, which makes excellent use of Bray Studios, transforming Down Place into nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Brides looks wholly authentic. The Baron’s castle is both ostentatious and gloomy, with its gorgeous gothic furniture, dark recesses and absence of humanity. Similarly, the windmill that features in the film’s climactic scenes gives every impression of hardly being used in years. Perhaps best of all is the inn where Marianne makes her first appearance. All chipped walls and rough wooden tables, it’s possible to get a real sense of contrast between the Transylvanian peasants’ lives with the castle’s richness. Also worthy of note is the cinematography. The camera might love its girls wearing nightdresses, but it enjoys roaming the castle’s quarters even more.
Brides features a fast-paced script that rattles through its fleeting 85 minutes. Jimmy Sangster, along with four other writers, was responsible for the screenplay, and belying the obvious ‘too many cooks’ analogy it sparkles with good-natured wit that blends seamlessly with the horror-themed main drag. Minor characters, such as Otto Lang (Henry Oscar), head of the Badstein Academy are made memorable thanks to idiosyncratic bits of dialogue. In Lang’s case, he treats both the Baron and Van Helsing with pompous disdain, before he finds out who they are and subsequently melts into gushing toadying.
All this helps to mask the weaknesses of the plot, in which Van Helsing is able to cow any opponent into undead terror simply by wielding a crucifix. We all know that vampires have a distaste for religious iconography, yet ‘Van’ himself appears to set far more faith in his own methods than those of God, who he nevertheless relies upon continuously to get him out of trouble. Ultimately, you get the impression that if, say, bananas held anti-vampire qualities, your man would happily carry several bunches in his medical bag, whether he believes in them or not. The crucifix’s power is also responsible for the movie’s climax, a monumental cop-out that feels altogether rushed. While we’re on the subject, the Baron turns into a bat pretty much at will – why doesn’t he just escape his chains in this way?
For all Brides’ minor faults, it’s still several leagues in quality ahead of Hammer’s run of the mill output, and a film into which a great deal of heart has been poured. I must add that the R1 restoration treatment is little short of first rate. Brides brushes up beautifully with its clean transfer and crisp mono sound. It makes me look forward to the rest of the set with some relish.