(1960) Directed by Terence Fisher; Starring: Peter Cushing, David Peel, Freda Jackson, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur; Available formats: DVD
Let me get this straight – A Dracula movie without Dracula? Well… sort of. In the opening narration we learn that Dracula is dead, but his legacy lives on in the legions of the undead that he helped create. So, I guess because of the “shout out” to Dracula at the beginning, this makes The Brides of Dracula a semi-sequel to 1957’s Horror of Dracula, despite the conspicuous absence of Christopher Lee’s titular character.
As if to reassure the audience that this is a Dracula movie, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing makes a welcome appearance. Even if his performance seems somewhat phoned-in, Cushing brings a certain gravitas to the role, and in the absence of Lee provides a much-needed center to the action in the film. Christopher Lee’s iconic Dracula is replaced by David Peel’s foppish Baron Meinster. Lee was a hard act to follow, bringing his own unique blend of sophistication and menace to the role. Peel can’t possibly match him in this department, and he doesn’t really try. In Horror of Dracula, you always knew where you stood with Lee’s Dracula. In The Brides of Dracula, Baron Meinster comes off as initially sympathetic. You feel sorry for his predicament, until his evil intent becomes clear.
Warning: There might be a few mild spoilers here, although nothing should be much of a shock if you’re even remotely familiar with the Hammer films or vampire stories in general.
It’s been said that vampirism has symbolized different things throughout the generations. At one point, Dr. Van Helsing refers to vampirism as an evil cult, an antithesis to Christianity, or at least the Christianity depicted in the film. This sentiment appears to be in line with the socio-political climate of the time, viewing outsiders (Communists?) as an affront to moral values. Of course, the vampire paradigm would have to adapt to fit the changing social landscape of the more free-wheeling 60s and 70s, and exploring the consequences of those behaviors in the 80s and 90s. It’s no accident that the most virtuous character, Marianne, is spared while her more licentious (implied) friend at the boarding school succumbs to Baron Meinster, along with another young woman in the surrounding village.
At times, The Brides of Dracula seems like the stereotypical Hammer horror film, replete with the usual items you’d expect: spooky castle, check; naïve female protagonist, check; horse and carriage, check; superstitious villagers, check. Compared to modern horror films, it’s quite tame, but taken in the context of a different era, it’s full of the things that made the Hammer films so much fun. Hammer films often pushed the constraints of the time, offering more in terms of overt and implied sexuality, Technicolor splashes of blood, and generally risqué situations that were usually absent in most of the American counterparts of the 50s and early 60s. Hammer horror films such as The Brides of Dracula seem to be winking at the audience, upholding morals and traditional values while offering audiences of the time a glimpse of the forbidden fruit that censors tried to eradicate.
Things really start to pick up after Marianne, played by Yvonne Monlaur, releases Baron Meinster under false pretenses. Although she gets a fair amount of screen time, her character seems underdeveloped. She’s attractive enough, but a bit bland, and seems to exist mainly as a plot device to draw out the Baron Meinster character. When he started collecting brides like stamps, it was never made clear why he bothered to propose to her while he just skipped the formality with the other women, and simply appropriated them into his personal harem. Perhaps it’s just another facet of his alternative lifestyle? We may never know. Perhaps the real reason is that Marianne is the “star,” so the plot is designed to stall Baron Meinster long enough for Dr. Van Helsing to intervene just in the nick of time. This eventually leads to Van Helsing’s confrontation with Baron Meinster (including one particularly “owwy” scene that made me wince), culminating in an unsatisfying ending that fizzles. Like many Hammer films, it ends quite abruptly. We’re Hammer -- We don’t need no stinkin’ dénouement!It’s never dull, the pacing is brisk enough, with nice sets and atmosphere given its low budget origins, and Cushing is always good in a role nearly as iconic as Lee’s Dracula. Bottom line: It’s a Dracula movie without Dracula that still manages to be fairly entertaining. It’s a fun, if trifle slight, chapter in the Hammer horror canon, even if the title is basically a cheat.