The Brides of Dracula (1960) ***
When Hammer Film Productions spun off their first neo-Gothic horror film into a franchise in 1958, the course they took differed strikingly from what their predecessors at Universal had done with their Frankenstein series. The British studioís leadership didnít set out to do this, but with The Brides of Dracula, the first successor to Horror of Dracula/Dracula, they ended up duplicating the development of Universalís Dracula series much more closely, making a Dracula sequel in which the eponymous count never appears. Ironically, Hammerís reasons were almost exactly those that had motivated the Americans a quarter of a century before. Like Bela Lugosi before him, Christopher Lee turned down the offer to reprise his performance as the vampire, although in Leeís case, his decision represented a deliberate effort not to get boxed in by the role the way Lugosi had. I suppose Hammer could have hired another actor for the part (as they would many years later, when Lee refused to appear in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), but for whatever reason they did no such thing. Instead, the direction for The Brides of Dracula is more along the lines of ďThe Further Adventures of Dr. Van Helsing,Ē as the possibly slightly mad modern-day crusader continues his efforts to stamp out the ďvile cultĒ of vampirism.
This is not immediately apparent, however, though the movie makes it clear that Count Dracula will be staying dead for the foreseeable future. An opening voice-over tells us in no uncertain terms that The Brides of Dracula will be about the countís ďdisciplesĒ and their insidious deeds. Then we see a young French girl riding through the woods at a clearly unsafe speed in a public coach. Her name is Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), and she is on her way to take up a position teaching at a Transylvanian girlsí school. Along the way, the coach is forced to stop because a large rotten log is blocking the road. As the driver moves the obstruction, a mysterious man in black sneaks onto the carriageís luggage rack to hitch a ride. The man stays with the carriage until it pulls up to a tavern in a miniscule town a few hoursí ride from Marianneís destination.
This is pretty much the same spooky village that appears in every movie of this type, utterly interchangeable with the Klausenburg of Horror of Dracula, the Vandorf of The Gorgon, or the dinky village where David Kessler and Jack Goodman stop in An American Werewolf in London. It has the inn whose owners pretend to have no rooms available when someone from out of town arrives near sundown, it has the coachmen who refuse to work at night, it has the shifty-eyed townspeople who are clearly hiding something. And most importantly, it has a big-ass castle on a mountaintop. The place belongs to Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt, who played Miss Havisham in the 1946 version of Great Expectations), and the old lady puts in an appearance at the inn mere moments after Marianneís coach leaves without her, forcing her to stay the night in town. When the baroness learns of the girlís plight, she offers to take Marianne in at her place.
The baroness, of course, has a dirty little secret. Though she pretends to live alone, she has, in addition to her maid Greta (Freda Jackson, from Die, Monster, Die!, who also played the old Gypsy woman in The Valley of Gwangi), a son about Marianneís age. The young Baron Meinster is, or so his mother claims, quite mad, and she keeps him confined to a suite of rooms in an otherwise unused section of the castle. Obviously, this is going to cause more curiosity than the baronessís guest can bear, especially when Marianne sees from her window the baron standing on his balcony in an attitude suggestive of suicidal contemplation, and she swiftly finds a way to sneak into his apartment. When she meets the baron (David Peel, from the 1961 remake of The Hands of Orlac), Marianne is shocked to discover that he is kept in his suite by a silver-plated shackle on his left ankle. This shackle, and the key that opens it, quickly become the focus of a sob-story with which he plies Marianne. Meinster tells the girl that his mother is the mad one, that she keeps him locked up and allows the townspeople to believe him dead so that she can keep her hands on the family estate, and he asks his unexpected visitor to help him escape from his confinement. Meinster has heard that Greta keeps the key to his shackle in an armoire in her room, and the baron hopes to persuade Marianne to bring it to him. Now if youíll permit me to interrupt the narrative for a moment, Iíd like to reopen the subject of that black-garbed hitchhiker. The first time I saw The Brides of Dracula, I came away with the impression that the hitcher was Baron Meinster, leaving me to wonder how he managed to be prowling around the village earlier in the evening when he now needs outside assistance even to leave his quarters. But closer inspection reveals that Meinster and the ominious hitchhiker are two separate characters, meaning that the latterís ride on the luggage rack is an even bigger plot-hole than I realized-- if the man in black isnít the baron, then who the fuck is he?!?! But perhaps it would be healthier for all of our psyches if we left that mystery to fend for itself, and returned to Marianne. Her heart touched by Meinsterís tale of unjust imprisonment, she swiftly agrees to help him. At the earliest opportunity, she stages a stealthy raid on the maidís room to fetch the key, and thatís when all hell breaks loose.
Marianne doesnít realize it, because she goes to bed immediately after freeing the baron, but Meinsterís first act upon gaining his freedom is to kill his mother. His second act is to disappear into the night. Marianne gets only a few cryptic hints of what went on when she awakens to hear Greta screaming from Meinsterís apartment. When she investigates, she finds the old woman incoherent, the baron gone, and the baroness slumped dead in a high-backed chair. Marianne then takes off into the woods, looking for the baron.
She never finds him. Rather, she herself is found the next morning, passed out in the middle of the road, by Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, revisiting his role from Horror of Dracula), who is on his way to the town where Marianne had spent the previous night. After hearing Marianneís story, Van Helsing becomes suspicious, and asks the girl to write him a detailed account of everything she observed, no matter how trivial it may have seemed to her. He then escorts her to her school, where he intervenes on her behalf with the cranky, punctuality-obsessed principal, who is extremely irate that Marianne is more than half a day late.
Van Helsing then returns to town to get about his real business: hunting vampires. The doctor has been summoned by the local priest, who has been having vampire troubles of late. In the course of his investigations, it becomes apparent that the vampire lives in Castle Meinster, and one night, Van Helsing follows a fleeing, newly-risen vampire there, and comes face to face with the undead baroness. She tells Van Helsing that the whole problem is really her fault; she knew what her son was (and as the baroness tells it, what weíre looking at here is an extreme example of what can happen when your kid falls in with the wrong crowd), but she chose to conceal him and feed him pauper girls rather than having him destroyed. Now she has paid the price for her misjudgement. Van Helsing tells her that there is still a way to save her, and he returns the next morning to drive a stake through the old ladyís heart.
Meanwhile, the younger Meinster has been paying nocturnal visits to Marianneís school, and not just for the purpose of making vampires, either. His primary aim is the courtship of Marianne, who ultimately agrees to marry him. Van Helsing takes the news as well as can be expected when it comes up in conversation over his examination of one of Meinsterís victims at the school, but the problem is shortly solved in much the same way that Arthur Holmwoodís disbelief was dispelled in the last movie. Specifically, Marianne is a witness to the vampiric resurrection of her friend, over whose body she had been keeping vigil. The showdown that follows soon thereafter between Van Helsing and Baron Meinster is much better than the corresponding scene in Horror of Dracula. Not only does it end with perhaps the most imaginative technique for destroying a vampire that Iíve ever seen, the contest between the two antagonists is much harder fought than that between Van Helsing and Count Dracula. Furthermore, this is easily the most physical portrayal of Dr. Van Helsing in the long annals of vampire-movie history. Cushingís Van Helsing is a real man of action, far removed from the doddering old boob of Bram Stokerís novel. In light of his performance here, itís really too bad that Hammer would allow so many years to go by before returning his character to the screen in Dracula: A.D. 1972. By that time, Peter Cushing was simply too old for all the rope-swinging and ass-kicking he gets to do here.
I do have one big complaint, though, with this movie. I concede the point that Dr. Van Helsing vs. An Undead Fop, His Mom, and Two Really Hot Vampire Chicks is far too unwieldy a name for a movie, and that it certainly lacks the audience hooks that a studio generally looks for in a title. But at the same time, I canít fully get behind a movie called The Brides of Dracula that not only lacks Count Dracula, but that also lacks any characters who could in any honest way be described as his brides. Itís still a good movie, and itís certainly an improvement over its dim-witted predecessor, but for some reason, the double bait-and-switch in the title really bothers me.