Conceived as a sequel to Hammer's 1958 Dracula (aka The Horror of Dracula in the U.S.), The Brides of Dracula (1960) retains only one original character from the first movie: the great Peter Cushing, back as the redoubtable Dr. Van Helsing.
However, Cushing only signed on after Tony Hinds assured the actor some script re-writes by Edward Percy would be completed. Christopher Lee decided not to partake in a second round of vampirism and after the first movie had ensconced himself in Europe in the hope of foraging out a career for himself.
Left short a vampire count, Jimmy Sangster (who wrote the first Dracula reboot for Hammer) came onboard and wrote the script, initially titled, The Disciples of Dracula (with a little help from Tony Hinds and Peter Bryan along the way) where a new threat was introduced in the shape of Baron Meinster. Now Hammer had a script with Dracula in the title, but no actual Dracula.
The script eventually became The Brides of Dracula (Bryan apparently thought of the title), and Terence Fisher came back as director. By the time the shooting script was ready, four different writers had taken a shot at the story. Not such a big deal in Hollywood, sure. But on a relatively low budget movie such as Bride, sometimes narrative consistency can be compromised. Here we have a muddled narrative, redeemed by its gaudy, yet sumptuous visuals.
Opening on a foggy forest, somewhere in Transylvania (Hammer created their own Mittel-European, fairy-tale version of the gothic world), a narrator tells us of Dracula’s death, but suggesting that his minions live on. We see a couch as it thunders along the trail bringing a beautiful young woman, Marianne Daniel (played by French actress, Yvonne Monlaur) to her appointment as a teacher at a school for girls in Badstein.
When the coachman (Hammer regular Michael Ripper with a cockney accent) stops the journey because he believes he sees a body on the road (it turns out to be a log), it gives a mysterious stranger (Latour in the credits, yet we never get to know his name) ample time to jump on the back and continue with them to Badstein and a village Inn.
Here Marianne is told there are no room for the night, but accepts a drink from the landlords. Suddenly, the dark stranger who hitched the ride not minutes ago steps enigmatically into the bar, glares at Marianne, and exits. Outside he appears to be paying off the coach driver and seconds later the horses are heard galloping off. And the mysterious stranger will remain mysterious, as he does not appear again in the story. Surely someone would have spotted this inconsistency in the editing?
Apparently not. The character of Latour is fleshed out a little more in the novelization of The Brides of Dracula by Dean Owen).
Soon Marianne is joined by the creepy Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) who invites Marianne to spend the night at her castle. Here we are witness to incredible production design by Bernard Robinson and art direction by Thomas Goswell, as they fill the castle’s room with a gothic decadence, tempered with ominous and uncanny coldness. As a nice counterpoint, cinematographer Jack Asher (Dracula, The Mummy), washes Marianne in a virgin glow that plays beautifully with the dream-like landscape of the castle. By the way, Monlaur’s accent isn’t that bad.
From her room, Marianne sees a young man below on a balcony, and when she questions the Baroness about the young man, she is told he is mentally unstable and is no longer her son, but “a beast of the night.” Back in her room, Marianne once again looks to the balcony below and sees the young man perched on the edge of the abyss, about to commit suicide. However, Marianne stops him, grabs keys from the Baroness’s room and makes it to the young man’s chamber.
She discovers the young Baron (David Peel) has been imprisoned by his cruel mother and shackled like an animal by the ankle. Marianne frees the good looking young man (and his charismatic hair). Innocence has unlocked the manifestation of lust and debauchery. When the Baroness discovers Marianne’s crime she is distraught. Marianne races downstairs, into the arms of the freed Baron Meinster, who, in a lascivious, yet menacing voice, orders, “Mother, come here.” And she does. All Marianne hears are the (pleasurable) moans and screams of the Baroness.
Soon Marianne hears the Baroness’s maid, Greta (Freda Jackson) weeping and goes to investigate. What she discovers is the Baroness, slumped in a chair, with the hysterical maid bemoaning the fact the young Baron is free to roam the night. Marianne flees the castle and races through the forest, eventually collapsing exhausted to the ground.
The next morning she is found by Van Helsing, who helps her to the inn and then on to the girls school. Pretty soon Van Helsing discovers some nasty goings on in the village. A young local girl has mysteriously died and the professor confirms, via some pretty obvious bite marks, she has been killed by the undead. We surmise it has something to do with the escaped Baron.
At the girl school Marianne befriends Gina, a pretty young thing, who is not long for this world. In a bizarre moment, the Baron comes to visit Marianne at the school and informs her of his mother’s demise, where she appears to be shocked– despite the fact she saw the dead body with her own eyes. Another of those hold-over plot holes from another version of the script.
Meanwhile, Helsing makes his way to the castle to find out more about the suspicious deaths in the village, only to discover the now undead Baroness, who fills in some of the questions we have about the Baron and his vampiric condition.
It seems the Baron was a wastrel who pursued pleasure and appeased his appetite, fell in with the wrong crowd, and turned to a darker nature. (Interestingly, it is suggested that the Baroness also partook in the debauchery along with her son, when in an earlier scene Greta berates the Baroness’s dead body for indulging the Baron: “You used to sit and drink with them…you laughed at their wicked games.” Indeed, many hints pointing to a less than normal mother/son relationship pepper Sangster’s original screenplay.)
Helsing finally frees the old woman from her eternal torment and stakes her. Look closely and you will notice Van Helsing has planted the stake, not quite through the heart – more in the stomach. This is one of the few bloody sequences in the relatively bloodless film.
And what would a Hammer horror movie be without a sprinkling of sexuality. In this case: lesbianism. Although it wouldn’t be until the end of the decade -- when censorship and audience appetites would change -- that the studio would become more overt in their portrayal of the vampire lesbian by way of their Karnstein Trilogy (Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil).
In Brides, the lesbianism comes in the form of the undead Gina. Killed by the Baron, the virginal Gina (clad in white, naturally) comes back to life and reaches out to Marianne, intoning, “Put your arms around me, please—I want to kiss you, Marianne. According to Bruce Hallenbeck, in his exploration of The Hammer Vampire, actress Andree Melly, who played Gina, has gone on numerous records to suggest Fisher prompted her to play up the lesbian angle.
The highlight of the movie, for sheer atmosphere and sub-text, is Greta’s old-crone call to Marie Devereux (the village girl killed by the newly released Baron), to come forth from her grave. Hallenbeck (and others) have suggested Greta “acts as though she were a mid-wife to a woman in the process of giving birth,” as she lovingly whispers, “Yes, I know it’s dark, but you’ve got to push…”
Note that the climax is straight out of the Universal Frankenstein iconography. Van Helsing does battle with the Baron in an old windmill, where he is bitten. Using a branding iron and hot coals, Van Helsing cauterizes the infected wound of the undead, rescues the innocent Marianne (not too sure where the brides go), and destroys the malignant Baron by turning the blades of the windmill to cast a cross-like shadow upon the vampire.
For the most part, The Brides of Dracula still holds together quite well, despite its conservative agenda: christianity=good, sexuality/gender ambiguity=bad. Cushing is of course a standout -- his cheekbones so prominent they could sharpen stakes -- as he attempts to stamp out the old pagan ways with pathetic conviction. Fisher also slips in a little class commentary (as many of Hammer’s gothic offerings do), where the Lord of the land literally and figurative sucks the life from the peasants.
A few questions about the rules of the Hammer vampire linger, however. In Horror of Dracula, Lee could not change into a bat. Yet in Brides, the Baron has the ability to transform. The sad bat effect is only rivaled cinematically by the fake bat effect in Scars of Dracula (1970).
The movie posits the idea that rebellion leads to infectious corruption and that the shining light of Christianity is the only cure. While a little dated in its ideology, the movie works within these conventions and doesn't apologize for putting religion in the foreground. Brides is a fairy-tale grounded in a religious and culturally conservative tradition—white, Christian, and is very much a product of its time.
Viewed from today's more secular world (especially among hardcore horror fans who like their ambiguity a little more ambiguous), Brides may raise a few eyebrows with regard to its treatment of gender, sexuality and religion; it does, however, allow for ample argument and interpretation beyond its shortcomings.
That in itself makes the flawed movie worth watching. Not simply for its aesthetics (which are wonderful), but for its unrealized ambition. Brides spoke to a different time and a different generation; a generation that sought comfort in tradition and cinema. Unfortunately, Hammer in the 1970s would eventually pay the price for their traditional storytelling. As much as they tried to go with the times and give their audience more blood and sex, the culture had moved on from the gothic. However, we can still enjoy the past with this un-dying classic.
Only one question remains: if Dracula is dead, who are the brides for?