Terrence Fisher, 1960
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel
“Transylvania, land of dark forests, dread mountains and black unfathomable 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…"
A beautiful French school mistress is traveling alone through the Transylvanian countryside to an academy for young girls where she has an appointment to teach. She stumbles across the Baroness Meinster, who bribes the populace to ignore the fact that she procures young girls for her vampiric son, who is chained up in the castle to prevent him from spreading further evil. Marianne is intended to be one of these girls, but the young Baron convinces her he is being unjustly imprisoned and she impulsively frees him. Soon, he professes his love and they are engaged to be married. Van Helsing, who has been attempting to stamp out the “cult of the undead” since the death of Dracula, arrives in time to figure out that the young Baron is responsible for the deaths of local girls, but can he save Marianne in time?
It’s not understatement to say that — despite the absence of Christopher Lee, who neglected to return because he didn’t want to be typecast as a horror actor — The Brides of Dracula is every bit as good as Hammer’s first Dracula film and it remains one of my absolute favorite Hammer efforts in general. To clarify, this film’s title probably shouldn’t have anything to do with Dracula at all, as neither he nor his brides are involved with the plot (though admittedly calling it The Brides of Meinster is a lot less sexy). I really don’t even believe that this should be part of Hammer’s Dracula series and I think it would be better grouped with some of their other films instead. The studio made so many vampire films that they can loosely be gathered into two categories: the nine Dracula films and then a series of mostly unconnected films with aristocratic vampires that prey on the countryside: the Karnstein trilogy, The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil, as well as The Kiss of the Vampire, which is a loose sequel to The Brides of Dracula, among a few others.
The sole overlapping factor between The Brides of Dracula and the Dracula series is Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, who is somehow even more likable in this film. On the whole it’s nice to have an entry that sort of serves as a separate adventure for Van Helsing and I wish there had been more of them. He actually doesn’t appear in the film until about 30 minutes in, but he steals it, utterly. His role is even more physically demanding than Dracula and involves hanging from a mill, cauterizing a vampire bite, and staking a fair few vamps. And of course he kicks some serious ass, rescues the damsel in distress, and somehow remains 100% immune to any kind of feminine wiles.
The way that The Brides of Dracula is effective as a sequel to Dracula is that it furthers Hammer’s use of vampire mythology and is, in a sense, a world building exercise. It presents vampirism as something of a satanic society for initiated aristocrats — a theme that would continue in the Karnstein trilogy and The Kiss of the Vampire — and explores more supernatural elements than Dracula. Here, vampires can turn into bats, Meinster works to create a full brood of vampire wives, and possibly the film’s most effective scene shows a padlock eerily falling off the coffin of a woman who has become the undead.
Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster, director Terence Fisher, and star Peter Cushing apparently all had a hand in rewriting the script once it was clear that Christopher Lee wouldn’t return, and they worked hard to include a number of gruesome elements not present in Dracula. Not only is there the suggestion of incest — Meinster bites and transforms his mother and it is suggested that she took part in the revels responsible for turning him into a vampire in the first place — but this is also Hammer’s first use of lesbianism within a vampire film, a theme they would return to in a big way a decade later with The Vampire Lovers (1970). Marianne’s friend and fellow teacher Gina is turned into a vampire by the Baron and Gina returns and wants to embrace the unsuspecting Marianne, begging to kiss her.
As with The Vampire Lovers, The Kiss of the Vampire, Vampire Circus, and even Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter, there is the implication that Meinster’s immoral, hedonistic ways have led him down this dark path and it’s implied that Dracula may have turned Meinster. Though he’s largely forgotten aside Christopher Lee, David Peel is excellent as the spoiled, but charming aristocrat with clearly wicked intentions. The twist that he primarily transforms women — building up what is essentially a vampire harem — means that his attempts to woo and marry Marianne don’t really make a whole lot of sense, but then… you can’t have everything.
Regardless, the film comes with the highest possible recommendation for anyone who likes vampire films. It has a lovely Gothic setting and is by far the best sequel in the Dracula series. The ending is a bit absurd (SPOILER: Van Helsing using the shadow of windmill, which he manipulates into the shape of a cross, to destroy Meinster…. come on), but overall this is one of Hammer’s finest achievements. Brides of Dracula is only available in the US in the Hammer Horror Series box set, which contains eight films on two double-sided discs. My hatred for double-sided discs aside, it’s a somewhat random but very enjoyable mix of a few of the more obscure Hammer titles: Curse of the Werewolf, Phantom of the Opera, Paranoiac, Kiss of the Vampire, Nightmare, Night Creatures, and Evil of Frankenstein. The set is worth it just for Brides of Dracula, but double-sided discs and a lack of special features indicate an intolerable cheapness on the part Universal. Or you could pick up the UK Blu-ray, which I’m dying to get ahold of.