05 October 2008

FEMALE VAMPIRES

It was a foregone conclusion that Hammer Film Productions was going to make a sequel to their massively successful Dracula. After all, The Revenge of Frankenstein had already been released in 1958, just a year after its predecessor, and the whole "color remakes of classic monster movies" concept was proving to be an absolute cash cow. And thus it came that 1960 saw the release of The Brides of Dracula, a sequel very much like Universal's 1936 Dracula's Daughter in that Dracula himself is quite absent, and the relationship promised by the title isn't really reflected in the film. In fact, the Hammer film goes even farther in that direction than its Universal analogue: though there are, certainly, vampiric women in Brides, it's quite clear that Dracula had nothing to do with their creation, back when he was alive. Undead. You know what I mean.

Dracula's absence from the second film in his franchise is explained by one of two anecdotes. The better-known is that Christopher Lee refused to play the role again, fearing that he'd be typecast, and this definitely seems reasonable, particularly given that he spent most of the next fifteen years claiming just that exact same thing, that he was sick and tired of playing Dracula, usually right before Hammer announced the release of a new Chris Lee Dracula picture. The historical record seems to point towards a different story, though: Hammer never even approached Lee, as the actor's star had risen meteorically in the preceding three years thanks to his showstopping performances as the monsters in The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. By 1960, there was just no way that a Hammer budget could make room for both Lee and Peter Cushing, so as they did with the Frankenstein series, the studio sent Lee on to greener pastures while building the sequel around Cushing.

It's for this reason, I think, that Brides of Dracula is typically derided as one of the weakest Hammer Dracula films, with much attention paid to its largest plot holes and poorest actors, as though those things weren't standard operating procedure for the studio. I'd argue that while it's certainly no Dracula, Brides is still a pretty damn fine Gothic horror movie, and its wildly divergent plot is absolutely more interesting, at least conceptually, than seeing how some errant blood would get dribbled on Drac's ashes this time. Instead of that boilerplate, Jimmy Sangster, along with the much less prolific Peter Bryan and Edward Percy, turned in a script that might be thought of as the continuing adventures of Abraham Van Helsing, who wasn't after all nothing but Dracula's arch-nemesis; he was a full-fledged vampire hunter, and the count just happened to be an exceptionally prominent vampire that he took down. Complaining that Van Helsing should only fight Dracula is a bit like complaining that Buffy had a new Big Bad every season, and I for very much appreciated this singular look into Van Helsing's life outside of the traditional box. It is to be admitted that without this precedent, and the uncharacteristcally bad-ass action scene ending the film, we might never have had the abortive Van Helsing to deal with, but there's no stopping the evil that movie executives can imagine.

That said, it takes Brides a good while to actually bring Van Helsing back. Before that, we're plunged into the misty black woods of Transylvania, where the opening narration informs us of the "vampire cults" that Dracula left scattered around the countryside. Then it's straight into the action: a coach tears down the muddy forest road, stopping because a (very, very fake) log has fallen in the middle of the trail. As the coachman removes this obstacle, a squinty-eyed man in black (Michael Mulcaster) hops on board, unseen.

The coach arrives in an unnamed town essentially interchangable with Klausenberg from the first film, and the man in black skips off into the night as the coach's single legitimate passenger, the young French woman Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), heads into the local inn, which proves to be filled with the requisite Paranoid, Lying Villagers. It comes about that Marianne is heading to the local city to teach, but when the coachman speeds away, she finds herself stranded for at least the night. Lucky for her, then - or is it? - that the resident of the local creepy castle on the hill, Baronness Meinster (Marita Hunt) has stopped by for dinner, to offer the young girl lodging, which she accepts despite the obvious terror on the face of the innkeeper and his wife.

From her room at Castle Meinster, Marianne spots the man in black in the courtyard, who skulks into the shadows and then vanishes from the film without a trace. This is, beyond question, an intractable plot hole, and I must in this case agree with the naysayers. The whole first scene of the movie is built around introducing this mysterious character, and then he's just dropped without fanfare or explanation? That is the very definition of sloppy screenwriting (the "explanation" is that he's the Baronness's henchman, sent into the country to abduct girls who won't be missed, but goddamn if I wouldn't have appreciated the movie telling me that, instead of the internet. Besides, he still doesn't do anything in the film as it stands). But moving on to happier things: Marianne learns in short order that the Baronness's "dead" son (David Peel) is very much alive and chained with a silver shackle, and he is able to persuade her to release him. Thus does Marianne go to bed, convinced that she's done her good deed for the night. Except that later in the evening, the maid Greta (Freda Jackson) wakes the young woman with her screams, and Marianne learns that the Baron's first act upon receiving his freedom was to murder his mother and run off into the woods. She pursues him, but we never learn exactly what transpires to leave her passed out in the road, where's she's found the next day by Van Helsing, traveling to that unnamed small town by the local curé (Fred Johnson). The reason? To investigate some suspiciously vampire-ey activity of course! His investigations take him to the now-vampirised Baronness, and thence to the creepy nocturnal visitor courting Marianne at her new job, and ultimately to a rickety old windmill that bears a very pleasing similarity to the one where a certain mad doctor and his creation almost met their firey deaths back in 1931.

Now, some of the criticism traditionally leveled at this movie is undeniably correct. Van Helsing doesn't appear until more than 30 minutes in, and everything preceding his first appearance is, at best, shaky. This is a problem of acting and character above all else, I'd wager; whereas Dracula enjoyed a rock-solid supporting cast, its sequel can only boast one performer who comes even close to matching Cushing. That would be Marita Hunt, a well-regarded character actress whose most famous role (and deservedly) was Miss Havisham in David Lean's adaptation of Great Expectations. Her turn as the villainous Baronness is quite nearly the equal to Lee's Dracula, threatening enough to leap of the screen and attack you right in the audience, and that's before she's turned into a vampire. Unfortunately, Hunt (despite her second-billing) gets hardly any time onscreen, and the character we get to spend the most time with prior to Van Helsing's return is Marianne, a traditional Hammer woman; which is to say, she is extroardinarily easy on the eyes, she is a bit flat in the writing and overwhelmingly dull in the performance. Monlaur was cast for her looks, and I don't think it's wrong of me to make that claim; as usually happens in such cases, she's not much of anything when required to do more than stand and let the camera ogle her cleavage.

Much more significantly, Peel's Baron Meinster isn't a portion of the villain Christopher Lee was, no matter how much added time he gets in which to furl his cape and snarl with bloody teeth. He's certainly no match for Van Helsing, no matter how much harder he is to kill. No-one can fake a great presence like Lee has and continues to have; either you can stand in front of the camera and make it cower or you can't. Peel is just too milquetoast a vampire to register in any meaningful way.

Still, there's only so far the film can tumble with the crack team of filmmakers that Hammer had to offer in the early 1960s, and in the main, Brides is still an exemplary work of horror cinema. Terence Fisher proves just as adept at action in this film as he was with atmosphere and space in the original, resulting in a tremendously exciting climax with just enough imagination to leave us unconcerned about how much it borrows from other sources. Besides that, Brides is not just the equal of Dracula as a triumph of craftsmanship; in at least one important way, it's a major step up. Though the film is still lighter than the modern viewer would think proper, it offers a much deeper collection of musty shadows than the first film had, and a crazy motif of colorful detail lighting that makes no sense in a strictly motivational way (i.e. there's no reason that bright green lights should pour out of the inn's back rooms), but serves a much greater purpose in showing just how off-kilter and nightmarish this whole Gothic world really is. There's never a moment when the film doesn't look every bit as compelling as Dracula despite an obviously reduced budget.

If, when all is said and done, Brides of Dracula isn't as iconic and elemental as its predecessor, that's no reflection on how well it works as a vampire entertainment on its own. Simply put, this is an unusually original way to continue the closed-off story of Bram Stoker's novel, and getting to see more of Cushing's Van Helsing is necessarily a treat. It would be a while yet before Hammer's Gothic style began to show its seams, and while Brides may not represent the best the studio had to offer, it's still a hugely entertaining and mostly intelligent example of what Hammer was regularly putting into theaters during its all-too-brief golden age.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Fisher, 1958)
The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Fisher, 1966)
Dracula Has Risen from the Dead (Francis, 1968)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (Sasdy, 1970)
Scars of Dracula (Baker, 1970)
Dracula A.D. 1972 (Gibson, 1972)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1974)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Baker, 1974)

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