Hammer Time! The Brides of Dracula (1960)

‘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…’ 

Brides of Dracula posterThe 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.

Very scary, David, I'm sureBrides 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.

   

13 Responses to “Hammer Time! The Brides of Dracula (1960)”

  1. John Hodson Says:

    Yes, the film leaps to life the moment Peter Cushing makes his entrance, and he dominates proceedings from that moment on; Cushing simply makes all this nonsense believable. Oddly enough I was watching ‘The Gorgon’ the other night in which Lee plays a Van Helsing type character, and rather unconvincingly I thought. Cushing simply acts him off the screen.

    A good read; I enjoyed that. :)

  2. Mike Says:

    Thanks John, and thanks also for the recommendation in the first place. It really is a fine set so far - the films brush up nicely, and the ones I’ve watched to date have revived a lot of memories from first seeing them back in the early days of getting mine parents to tape a late night showing and being terrified by them the following day. Obviously not quite so scary now, but good stuff all the same.

  3. paulwjm Says:

    I really like Brides of Dracula - the set you picked up is a great one and there are a number of lesser seen films that are well worth watching/owning. There is only one I don’t really like on there and overall it’s much more consistent that the 21 disc Hammer box that’s released over here (though that itself is worth picking up at the price you can get it some places).

  4. Hammer Time! The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) - The Big Whatsit - Films that make you go ‘Mmmm’ Says:

    […] Hammer Time! The Brides of Dracula (1960) […]

  5. Hammer Time! Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) - The Big Whatsit - Films that make you go ‘Mmmm’ Says:

    […] Hammer Time! The Brides of Dracula (1960) […]

  6. The Big Whatsit » Hammer Time! Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) Says:

    […] DPoD starts with a brief reprise of the closing act from Horror of Dracula, reminding us of the climactic duel between the vampire and his nemesis, Van Helsing. Sadly, this is the last we see of Peter Cushing, who presumably was convalescing after squaring off with David Peel in Brides of Dracula, which appears to have been expunged from the canon now that Lee has made his comeback. […]

  7. The Big Whatsit » Hammer Time! The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) Says:

    […] * I looked this up on the IMDb, and apparently if you are conceived of rape and happen to be born on Christmas Day, then your first appearance on the birthday of Christ is unholy, and you’re knackered. This seems a little unfair to me - the film’s moral appears to be ‘Hope your mum doesn’t get knocked up after a violent liaison in late April,’ which doesn’t give anyone a sporting chance. Just as with Brides of Dracula, though, it’s good to see a religious undercurrent resurface in these early Hammers. Some wag also spotted that ‘Leon’ spelled backwards is ‘Noel.’ Coincidence? I very much think so. […]

  8. johnrtracy Says:

    I have watched “The Brides Of Dracula” a number of times and find that the film, almost 50 yrs old, holds up fine. David Peel, in my opinion, did an excellent job as the vampire, Baron Meinster. He is not Christopher Lee or Dracula, wasn’t intended to be. The film has a very good supporting cast and moves along at a good pace. This is one of the better films that Hammer studios made. If you haven’t seen it pick up a copy sit back and enjoy. John R. Tracy.

  9. migsly Says:

    Brides of Dracula is my favorite horror movie. David Peel is the best looking vampire I ever saw.

  10. Mike Says:

    Thanks migsly, but better looking than Frank Langella? And then there are all those lovely lady vampires, starting with Dracula’s brides in the otherwise woeful Van Helsing.

    It is a great movie though, and Peel does fine with the thankless task of subbing for Christopher Lee. Damn, I’ll have to watch this one again before Christmas…

  11. Alex M Says:

    I don’t know, this movie seemed to pale into comparison beside its predecessor and the follow Dracula: Prince of Darkness seemed a whole lot more persuasive to me. The villain of this piece seemed somewhat anonymous and the titular brides were a total letdown and that lead actress…

    hmm, the more I think about this movie the less I liked it!!

  12. Mike Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Alex.

    I agree that David Peel is no Chris Lee, but that apart I reckon it’s a fantastic movie with a superb central performance from Peter Cushing. It’s a shame the rest of the series couldn’t have Lee and the Cush just going at it because they made the first film.

  13. tony burrows Says:

    Hammer made two great vampire films. dracula ( 1958 ) and Brides of Dracula ( 1960 ). brides was not as striking but had Cushing at his best and is easily well worth a view

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