This sequel was the obligatory follow up to Hammer Films monster of a hit Horror of Dracula. Beset by production problems from the very beginning, what was put out certainly wasn’t what the public expected. Dripping more atmosphere than blood, the unusually warm and character driven story focused more on the heroic acts of Doctor Van Helsing than the villainy of the undead.
Most people remember Hammer for their vampire films, especially those starring Christopher Lee as Dracula. He isn’t in this one due to personal fears of being typecast (supremely ironic given what happened later), however this movie is one of the better entries in the genre even if the title is false advertising. Yeah, the character Dracula isn’t in it either.
The movie gets off to a galloping start as we are shown a stagecoach thundering through a fog enshrouded forest road. Dusk is falling (when isn’t it in vampire flicks?) during this horse drawn nod to the opening of the classic 1931 Dracula. A big difference is that the carriage only contains one occupant, a beautiful young woman at the mercy of a mildly panicked driver. Accompanying the murky visuals is a somber and brief narration informing the audience that while Dracula may be dead, he had followers left behind in Transylvania.
A log, rather than a bump, in the road delays their journey. Adding to the uneasy atmosphere surrounding the journey is a mysterious gaunt man. Eventually both the stagecoach and the movie arrive at a quaint Transylvanian village. Oh what would period piece horror films be without hostile, superstitious, and none too bright peasants? Sure enough, things are not hospitable at the local inn for the lone traveler.
The confusingly named Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) finds herself abandoned and unwelcome at the inn, although the innkeeper (Norman Pierce) and his wife (Vera Cook) do go to extremes to find a way for her to get to her destination, a school. At this point in the film I had no clue what her first name really was.
Another benefactor steps forward before the plan can be carried out when the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) arrives in her fancy carriage. She looks and acts like everyone’s worst nightmare of a mother-in-law. Of course she can offer shelter for the night to the young beauty…
Quick paced by even today’s attention span deprived movie standards, the story moves the setting to that hoary standby, the sinister castle. Chateau Meinster stands a top a hill like most of the type, but hardly could be called run down like most horror movie fortresses. Instead, it is a brightly lit and colorful habitation with only the old Baroness and her maid Greta (Freda Jackson) residing there.
Is the maid vaguely threatening? Am I writing a review of a horror movie? Of course she is!
A chance look out from a balcony reveals a young man in another wing of the castle, which leads to a rather interesting and bitter story from the Baroness. It is her son that Marianne has seen and he’s implied to be mentally ill justifying his being locked up. Nothing suspicious about any of that, no nothing at all.
It wouldn’t be a Hammer film if there wasn’t at least one flowing white night gown, so it was no surprise when Marianne changed into one to bed down for the night. Of course the young woman has to go see if the young Baron Meinster (David Peel) is up and about. That leads to a face to face meeting with the French girl becoming quite enamored of the handsome shut in.
Of course he wants something from her and she is more than happy to oblige. Here we get a look into Miss Danielle’s personality and it can be said she is very young. Which is a polite way to state she’s a vacuous twit with the survival sense of a mayfly orbiting a gas station light.
Things, of course, do not go well from there. Eventually Marianne is forced to flee in a scene that highlights some very good night time shooting by the camera man. Seriously, check out the screen capture above for a hint of one of the best visuals in the movie. I appreciate any flick that has someone run into a tree in the dark, that’s something that would happen in reality under the same circumstances.
Hmm. It is possible Marianne simply ran into the tree due to her low IQ.
It’s been a tightly packed first act which ends with our main hero finally appearing to rescue the damsel in distress. Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) heralds a change in tone from a gothic nightmare to an investigative thriller. Dashing, compassionate, and fiercely intelligent, the vampire hunter has been summoned to the village which has an unfortunate missing girls problem.
Given that problem, it is rather odd that a ladies finishing school is located down the road. It is the most lively of locations in the movie with an impressive scene showing the normal student activities while passing through just one room. Run by an officious headmaster (Henry Oscar) and his sweetly patient wife (Mona Washbourne), the setting is equal parts Little Women and Great Expectations making a great contrast with the goings on elsewhere.
I still question the wisdom of opening a finishing school in vampire country.
Completing the main cast is arrival of the local priest (Fred Johnson) who sent for Van Helsing. Deeply concerned about the vampire attacks, his request for help leads to one of the best examples of how to properly present exposition in a movie. Like Van Helsing, he’s a good man trying to help others including the grieving father of a local girl.
Staking out the graveyard of the local church, Van Helsing witnesses a disturbing perversion of midwifing as the girl (Marie Devereux) rises as an undead. It’s a standout performance by Jackson as Greta becomes something of a Renfield substitute in the story. Usually that’s the scene stealing role in Dracula films, however no one is able to top Cushing as Van Helsing.
Now the movie really gets going. Vampires are on the loose promising chills, jealousy, seduction, action, and possibly the worst vampire bat ever seen on the silver screen.
There can be no doubt I’m biased in reviewing this film, since it is one of my favorite vampire films of all time. However, as much as I love The Brides of Dracula, it is flawed and ends rather abruptly. Much of the uneven tone comes from the fact it was rewritten many times with entire scenes being redone on set just before shooting. The director Terence Fisher had an uncredited hand in that according to IMDB.
Oddly enough, the biggest flaw is perhaps also the greatest strength of the story. That flaw would be a supremely dull vampire villain and equally bland leading lady. With their being rather unexciting, the burden of carrying the movie fell upon Van Helsing as portrayed by Peter Cushing. More than up to the task, he makes it his film -- albeit abetted by some top notch character actors in the supporting roles.
His humanity and humanness makes this more of a super hero picture than a villain oriented one like the vast majority of horror movies. If Christopher Lee had returned, the end result would have been much different and I doubt it would have been such a character study or even allowed smaller roles to flourish.
There is some great acting in this movie with the old veterans of the cast showing off their chops while the younger actors are appropriately shallow in their turns. The older actresses in particular deliver some riveting moments.
Effects are a mixed bag. A truly terrible fake bat is the worst of it while the usually superb Hammer makeup jobs are inconsistent, sometimes being completely absent in different angles of the same scene. On the other hand, the sets are magnificent justifying the expensive use of Technicolor film and Fisher’s direction is more dynamic than ever.
The score by Malcolm Williamson is typical of the era being just a bit florid. It is bombastic in places, but wisely subdued for the more emotional scenes. There is nothing memorable about it in the end.
As far as content goes, the not rated movie is solidly PG even with the once censored out staking restored. There is some blood, most in the afore mentioned scene and the gore is relatively mild involving some very nasty burns. Far worse is seen on network TV these days. Kids ten and up should be able to handle it with some parental guidance.
If you like real vampires that don’t sparkle in the sun and truly good gentleman heroes, this film is for you. Highly entertaining and ultimately kind, it isn’t your typical vampire story. I recommend it to anyone who likes good movies, good acting, and intelligent, adult storytelling.
I consider it one of Hammer’s best.
The Brides of Dracula copy I have is half of one side of a flippable DVD from The Hammer Horror Series set put out by Universal Studios. Despite sharing a disc with three other movies, the content is around four gigabytes in size and shows little artifacting.
Video is anamorphic widescreen in 1.66:1 ratio with vivid colors and excellent contrast marred only by occasional ringing (or haloing) present in some scenes. Film grain is present and hasn’t been mercilessly scrubbed during remastering, thankfully.
Audio is available in clear English and Spanish monaural tracks with Spanish, French, and English CC subtitles. Nothing to complain about or rave about here.
Extras? There aren’t any.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
The sudden engagement between Marianne and Baron Meinster shows just how dim the student teacher is. Here she saw the dead body of the Baroness and knows he killed his mother, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t think it is just his looks she’s swooning after, but his holdings.
That impression is amplified by Gina’s (Andree Melly) jealousy and pining after the Baron she hasn’t even met. Rich young nobleman = instant adoration sight unseen. Given the cooking skills she exhibits while going on about him, she isn’t marriage material anyway by 19th Century standards.
That doesn’t bother the Baron since he’s into harems.
A tremendously well acted subplot involves Van Helsing’s meeting the Baroness after she rises as a vampire. She’s in control of her faculties and despondently repentant over her actions, so the moment she genuinely smiles when offered a final release is rather poignant. It culminates in a bloody scene that was soon censored after initial releases in North America.
From the sublime the film goes to the ridiculous in the form of comic relief from the local doctor (Miles Malleson). He’s a preventative hypochondriac and he’s played purely for laughs.
The self medicating practioner is also there to represent the overly educated and enlightened types who mock the peasants. He goes straight into denial even when confronted with a vampire’s bit wound on Gina. Actually, the not so good doctor goes straight for the wine come to think of it.
Check out the serious scene with Van Helsing finding out about Marianne’s engagement to the Baron. In the background is Malleson doing his utmost to steal it.
Padlocking the coffin does nothing to stop Gina in a suitably eerie bit of special effects involving the locks falling off while remaining closed. The now undead girl wants Marianne to join the harem up at the mill. She also wants to embrace her friend… with her teeth. For some reason neither appeal is found appealing.
It might be because Gina is flat out creepy looking.
White nightgowns and vampire babes, yep it is a Hammer Films production. Greta has gone the full Renfield at this point so of course she has to die. And die pathetically she does.
It is well executed and finishes with a lovely bit of framing with depicting the Baron calmly walking in as Van Helsing fails to retrieve the cross before it falls into the depths. Simply terrific composition in that shot.
The two vampire girls, or “brides” really don’t do anything at all in the finale other than stand around and react to what’s happening. No dialogue, no interacting with object, they stand there as window dressing and act pretty. Such a waste.
Can’t help but notice how the makeup on the faces is paler and bluer than on their necks.
While the Baron is a boring character, at least the fights with Van Helsing are good. Featuring frenetic action, they are more brawls than elaborate combat. It brings a needed touch of realism to the fantastic.
As a kid, two things stood out in this movie in my memory. The first is Van Helsing being bitten and taking drastic measures to cleanse the wound. Applying that hot brand to his own neck makes him one of the most BA characters in cinema history.
Occasionally a screen capture will expose a mistake or flaw in a movie. Multiple close ups of Peel’s eyes are in the movie, just like was done with Christopher Lee in 1958 and Bela Legosi decades before. Here you can see the tinted and bloodshot hard contacts a little too clearly. The one on the left has slipped visibly.
I wonder why they didn’t catch it in the dailies?
This movie taught me that holy water is just like acid, at least if you are a vampire. Not only can it cure a vampire bit, it will eat right through undead skin. The acid eaten face is a nastily effective bit of makeup work.
I thought it was interesting how the Baron ceased being able to talk and become a growling and shrieking animal after the holy water attack. Even his reaction to the fire he starts is that of a wild beast.
My favorite vampire kill of all time is the second thing that impressed me as a kid. The whole idea of using a windmill shadow to create a giant cross was brilliant improvisation by Van Helsing. As an adult, I really enjoyed how it just pinned the Baron with nowhere to go and laid him out flat.
The film just ends with Van Helsing holding Marianne in his arms, leaving the disturbing thought she might latch on to him. She’s way too dumb for the intellectual vampire hunter.
Another nod to a Universal monster movie was the burning windmill like the one at the end of Frankenstein. So the movie opens like Dracula and closes like Frankenstein in odd symmetry.