by Steve Habrat
In 1957, British film production company Hammer Films crossed the pond and spooked American audiences with The Curse of Frankenstein, a bloodier and far less buttoned-up interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. A year later, Hammer would follow up that Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vehicle with another Cushing/Lee horror outing in the form of Horror of Dracula, arguably one of the finest vampire films ever made. Many have argued that the ultra-gothic Horror of Dracula is a much better film than The Curse of Frankenstein, mostly due to Lee’s commanding performance as Dracula. Despite what side you fall on, these films are the reason that Hammer Films became as popular as they did. In 1960, the company decided to make a sequel to Horror of Dracula. While Lee wasn’t game to come back for seconds (he wouldn’t return until Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the studio moved forward with The Brides of Dracula, another horror film that is perfect for a crisp October evening. Sexually charged, gory, and packing one hell of a satisfying finale, The Brides of Dracula only slips due to Lee’s absence. In the wake of his performance in Horror of Dracula, there was no way that the blonde baby-faced David Peel was going to be able to match his evil.
The Brides of Dracula begins with a young French schoolteacher by the name of Marianne Danielle (played by Yvonne Monlaur) traveling to Transylvania to take a new job at the Lady’s Academy of Bachstadt. After being left in a pub by her carriage driver, Marianne is invited to stay with Baroness Meinster (played by Martita Hunt), a wealthy local that the villagers seem very uneasy about. Upon arriving at Baroness Meinster’s castle, Marianne catches a glimpse of her son, Baron Meinster (played by David Peel), who is in chains and said to be insane. Marianne soon meets the Baron, who pleads with Marianne to unlock the chains around his ankle and let him go free. Marianne finds the key and frees the Baron, who then proceeds to confront his mother. All the action scares the innocent Marianne and she dashes off into the night, only to be discovered the next day by the kindly Dr. Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing). Marianne attempts to recount her story, but she has a difficult time remembering all the details. Van Helsing agrees to escort Marianne to her new school, but on their way they make a pit stop to investigate the body of a young dead girl. Van Helsing discovers that she has two bite marks on her neck, which he immediately recognizes as the mark of the vampire. After Van Helsing witnesses the young girl claw out of her grave at night, he begins racing to track down and dispatch any vampires in the area. His quest leads him to the Baron Meinster, who is determined to find Marianne and make her his bride.
With a title like The Brides of Dracula, you’d immediately assume that ol’ Drac would make an appearance somewhere in the picture. For those who are getting their hopes up of catching a glimpse of Lee’s iconic vampire, you’re about to be very disappointed. Heck, the head vampire is barely even mentioned, only coming up twice throughout the entire film. With the role of head vampire vacant, Hammer recruited David Peel, who seems to be having plenty of fun in the role of the Baron, but he just can’t quite rise to the level of the baritone Lee. He swishes his cape around like a kid looking at his new Dracula costume in the mirror and he curls his lips to reveal his plastic fangs, but he’s almost too good-looking to really make your knees knock together. In an attempt to capture Lee’s crazed, bloodshot look, director Terence Fisher cuts to close-ups of Peel’s bulging eyes, but it’s just not the same. Far more memorable are the brides, who basically only watch as Van Helsing tussles around a windmill with the Baron. They may not be all that threatening, but just their ghostly appearance alone certainly sticks with the viewer. They call to mind the three terrors that snuck around Bela Lugosi’s castle and stalked Renfield in Universal’s Dracula.
While Peel’s performance may not have the impact that Lee’s did, Cushing and Monlaur certainly don’t disappoint as the heroes. Monlaur does most of the heavy lifting early on as Marianne, the beautiful schoolteacher who tries to do the right thing, but unleashes evil in the process. Her innocence and kindness makes us root for her when the Baron starts closing in to make her his bride. Cushing reprises his role as the relentless vampire hunter Van Helsing, a hero who seems capable of slipping out of the nastiest situations imaginable. He becomes almost a fatherly figure to the young Marianne, who enthusiastically tells him about her marriage. Like a proud father, he beams with delight—only to slowly become more horrified as she reveals who the man is that will be taking her hand. There is plenty of warmth in Cushing’s performance and you will find yourself holding your breath when Peel’s fangs bear down on his neck. Hunt’s Baroness Meinster is a mysterious piece of work as the Baron’s mother, who doesn’t seem too alarmed when he son finally comes calling. Also on board here is Andree Melly as Gina, Marianne’s jealous roommate who gets turned into one of the dreaded vampire brides.
In true Hammer fashion, The Brides of Dracula is heavy with misty forests, gothic castles, and moonlit graveyards—all things we have come to expect from the studio that successfully revived the classic monsters. Even the opening credits appear as bloody scribbled with a desolate castle looming ominously in the background. Director Fisher, who was the man behind Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein, seemed to be getting more and more comfortable with the gothic aesthetic, as his frames are almost overflowing with crosses, coffins, knotted trees, and withered late falls leaves. In addition to the Halloween-heavy mood of the film, The Brides of Dracula also features a sequence in which Van Helsing shows off an extremely painfully way to treat and get rid of a vampire bite. Using a hot poker and some holy water, it really shows the fight that lies deep within our hero. Overall, with the ever-game Cushing at the wheel and Fisher working double time to make sure each and every scene is as atmospheric as it can be, The Brides of Dracula turns out to be an entertaining and solidly spooky sequel from Hammer. Come to catch a glimpse of the brides and stay for the thrilling windmill face-off.
The Brides of Dracula is available on DVD.