In every way in which it really makes a difference, 1960’s The Brides Of Dracula subtly breaks with the Hammer tradition established by its straight-ahead adaptations of horror classics over the preceding half-decade.
Sure, Peter Cushing‘s gentleman slayer Van Hesling pops up in the middle third to swashbuckle the undead in the face and rescue the jaw-droppingly beautiful Yvonne Monlaur (The Circus Of Horrors, The Terror Of The Tongs) from the clutches of a bloodsucking blue blood, but for the first half-an-hour unease and uncertainty rule.
This is Gothic horror as it was meant to be – heavy with atmosphere and dread, and sparing with the reveal as any classic Poe parable as Monlaur’s sultry Marianne Danielle is waylaid en route to her new teaching appointment at a giggling girls’ school.
Spending the night at the baroque Castle Meinster in the company of the ossified Baroness (theatre veteran Martita Hunt) – who gives every indication of having been prepared for her ‘surprise’ visit – Marianne spies a lonely (and handsome) figure (The Hands Of Orlac‘s David Peel). Taking pity on him she unlocks his gleaming silver chains and her charming paramour bares his fangs and sets about his business…
Once the vampire is revealed, and all the characters fall into their correct places in the baroque timepiece that is peak period Hammer – the minion, the count, the hunter, and the virginal victim – the outcome becomes more predictable but no less thrilling.
Where Christopher Lee’s Dracula and Cushing’s Van Helsing enjoyed a duel of wits over the fates of the Holmwood womenfolk, Baron Meinster and Van Hesling have an altogether more physical relationship – some would say homoerotic. Meinster’s steady accumulation of vampire ‘brides’ seems increasingly designed to torment Van Helsing, especially in his manipulative and strangely chaste seduction of Marianne, and his predatory pursuit climaxes with his fangs upon the veteran vampire hunter’s own neck.
Though working from the same limited resources as later films – Black Park for the Transylvanian wilderness, two or three interiors, and a town square in the courtyard outside of Bray Studios – there’s nothing stagy or claustrophobic about The Brides Of Dracula.
Terrence Fisher is a master of scale and framing, adding depth to scenes where it would be otherwise absent. The cast are fantastic too, despite the absence of Lee and there’s something slightly more vicious about Peel’s vampire voivod, all conceited handsomeness and oily charm, while Cushing is at an action-hero best, sloshing holy water, lunging for his fallen crucifix and cauterising his own bite marks to reverse the transformation that begins to take hold while leering Brides look on in glee.
The stately Baroness is flinty and regal, and her emotional collapse into grief and shame convinces utterly, while seething maidservant Greta (The Clash Of The Titans‘ Freda Jackson)’s descent into cackling lunacy is chilling, doubling the potency of one of the film’s true standout scenes where a fresh victim is drawn like a hungry marionette from her grave.
It could sound like the most damning of criticisms that the sole standout quality of doe-eyed throat-meat Yvonne Monlaur is that she’s Hollywood beautiful with a husky French accent that probably made Sixties schoolboys feel funny. That’s not to say she’s a bad actor, only that her acting ability was clearly of limited importance when Terence Fisher and producer Tony Hinds first started putting the film together.
Totally deserving of its reputation as one of the best, if not the best, of Hammer’s Sixties Gothic horrors, The Brides Of Dracula leaves only it’s misleading title as a bone of contention.
With no obvious link to the titular count beyond a passing mention and an opening caption (Lee was too expensive and/or awkward for a cameo), you keep scanning the walls floor a telltale portrait of our cadaverous count, or some admission that the young Baron’s father was in fact a mysterious nobleman with a stare that could freeze a volcano
While the extras don’t meet the standard of Studiocanal or Lionsgate’s Hammer Blu-rays – there’s no subtitles for a start – Final Cut throw all of their enthusiasm into one documentary that’s as definitive as it could possibly be given how many people involved in the production are now driving wagons through the Black Park, Buckinghamshire of the sky.