The Brides of Dracula
In the fall of 1959, Hinds commissioned Hammer staffer Peter Bryan to have a whack at rewriting Sangster's script, which was now called Dracula, the Damned. Principally a camera operator for the studio, Bryan was battling the throat cancer that would ultimately take his life and was glad for the extra income. The assignment came with just one prerequisite: remove Dracula from the script entirely. With Dracula literally out of the picture, Bryan thought it best to bring back the character of indefatigable vampire slayer, Abraham Van Helsing, whom Peter Cushing had played in Hammer's original. Bryan also added a spectacular climax in which Van Helsing invokes the powers of Hell to destroy Dracula's disciple with a plague of vampire bats. At the behest of Cushing, the bat swarm was eighty-sixed (Cushing felt the righteous Van Helsing would not broker with the Devil) and a third writer, playwright Edward Percy (coauthor of the stage thriller Ladies in Retirement and a member of Parliament from 1943 to 1950), was retained to embroider the script with historical flourishes and elevate its dramatic pedigree. By the time cast and crew set to work on January 26, 1960, the project was called Dracula II, which Hammer bustled through principal photography in order to deliver a summer release to Universal-International in the United States. Peter Bryan was ultimately credited with the final title change to The Brides of Dracula (1960).
"Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead." So begins The Brides of Dracula, with a stentorian bit of narration that sets the stage for an un-Dracula film while at the same time evoking the immortal opening lines ("Marley was dead: to begin with") of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Before audiences can process the implications of this disclaimer, Terence Fisher slashes the frame with the image of a hackney being driven pell-mell through the mossy, mist-choked Transylvanian countryside. In the driver's seat, Hammer trouper Michael Ripper ignores the entreaties of the sole passenger (Yvonne Monlaur) to slow down as he steers the coach into the main square of a somber Carpathian village. Stranded by her driver in the hamlet's discomfiting inn, our heroine laments that she will arrive too late to accept a coveted teaching position at a girls' academy in nearby Badstein but is rescued through the intervention of a local aristocrat (Martita Hunt), who takes the girl under her wing with the expected disastrous results. As if ripping a page or two from Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) while anticipating Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Brides of Dracula has the wizened and witchy Baroness Meinster bringing the girl into her home not for care and comfort but as food for her ravening monster of a son, whom she keeps shackled and safe from the world in the depths of their ancestral manse.
The Brides of Dracula moves fleetly from one foreboding scene to the next, with cinematographer Jack Asher lighting the proceedings with a candied palette whose purples, reds and blues are as sickly as they are majestic. Standing in for Count Dracula is David Peel's younger, more impulsive Baron Meinster, a Wildean libertine whose boyhood experimentations have left him "a beast of the night." While Christopher Lee's instantly iconic Count was a bit stoic and inflexible, the Baron is a Byronic, self-amused and even sympathetic figure... until his true nature is revealed in a toothsome attack on one of the schoolgirls (Andree Melly). A cruelly handsome and quite patently homosexual actor (who eventually quit the business to become an antiques dealer), Peel makes Meinster as feral as he is fey and provides Cushing's dogged and determined Van Helsing with a consummate and capable adversary, able to charm the bodices off the local ladies and then transform into a leather-winged bat to elude capture. The film's standout scene has Meinster bestow upon an unconscious Van Helsing the dreaded kiss of the vampire; this unabashedly homoerotic exchange leaves the good doctor to awaken in a panic and then exorcise this infection with fire in a scene of self-scourging worthy of Martin Scorsese (an admitted Hammer fan). A generation later, Tim Burton would draw on his childhood memories of the pyrotechnic conclusion of The Brides of Dracula while conceiving the final frames of his own Sleepy Hollow (1999).
The genius of Jimmy Sangster's script for Dracula lay in the skill with which the writer telescoped the major scenes from Bram Stoker's source novel so that plot developments were always two steps ahead of audience expectation. For all its intensity and forward momentum, however, the production could not shake the overall aura of abridgement, leaving this epoch-making film feeling decidedly less than epic. In proceeding without Dracula for The Brides of Dracula, Hammer was able to work around its own diffidence toward the character, whom they never again were able (through half a dozen sequels starring Christopher Lee) to depict satisfactorily, reducing "the Undying Count" to a grumpy, reclusive major domo ordering barmaids and defrocked clerics to do his bidding. The Brides of Dracula feels at once more personal, more specific and, despite a syllabus rich in necromancy, necrophilia, incest, homoeroticism and all around monsterism, more human. Manifest terrors to one side, the script works in a persuasively apt leitmotif of social ascendancy, from the airs of Henry Oscar's huffy academy headmaster ("How could I be expected to recognize a doctor of philosophy, a doctor of theology, a professor of metaphysics by the cut of his trousers?") to the royal pretensions of the Baroness Meinster, who boasts that her house wine "is twin brother to the best in the emperor's cellar." Given this class-conscious subtheme of acquisitiveness (Meinster's intention to wed the heroine reeks of a paper marriage of convenience), the requisite risings from the grave reflect a perversion of social climbing, with vampirism itself bearing the shadow of social disease.
Rather than being weighted down by these somewhat academic blandishments, The Brides of Dracula gallops from start to finish, propelled by crisp direction from Terence Fisher, on-target performances by a top-flight of British stage and film actors (including Freda Jackson, an unsung horror hag if ever there was one, and Miles Malleson, who turns in an amusing bit as a comic medico), Jack Asher's seductively chromatic Technicolor cinematography and an invigorating and highly romantic score courtesy of Malcolm Williamson, an Australian expatriate composer who worked infrequently in films and served as Elizabeth II's Master of the Queen's Music from 1975 until his death in 2003.
A success for Hammer at a time when the studio seemed to leap from strength to strength, The Brides of Dracula remains semi-obscured by the long shadow of Dracula/Horror of Dracula yet is well-regarded by the Gothic horror cognoscenti. In his 1996 history of Hammer Studios, author Denis Meikle proclaimed it "the high point of Hammer Horror," noting that the film "functions in a universe that is entirely of its own making, separated from the mechanics of its creation. Like all good fairy tales, it is rooted in a reality of sorts, yet elements of it stay in the mind long after, garish and redolent as a dream." Elements jettisoned from drafts of the script by Sangster and Bryan (most notably, the climactic bat attack) were worked into Hammer's The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), a bid by the studio to squeeze even more blood from the vampire mythos without having to pay a farthing to either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing.
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Peter Bryan, Edward Percy, Jimmy Sangster; Anthony Hinds (uncredited)
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Art Direction: Thomas Goswell (uncredited)
Music: Malcolm Williamson
Film Editing: Alfred Cox
Cast: Peter Cushing (Dr. J. Van Helsing), Martita Hunt (Baroness Meinster), Yvonne Monlaur (Marianne Danielle), Freda Jackson (Greta), David Peel (Baron Meinster), Miles Malleson (Dr. Tobler), Henry Oscar (Herr Otto Lang), Mona Washbourne (Frau Helga Lang), Andree Melly (Gina), Victor Brooks (Hans - a Villager), Fred Johnson (The Cure, Father Stepnik), Michael Ripper (Coachman), Norman Pierce (Johann - Landlord), Vera Cook (Landlord's Wife), Marie Deveruex (Village Girl).
by Richard Harland Smith
English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema by Jonathan Rigby (Reynolds & Hearn, Ltd., 2000)
A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer by Denis Meikle (Scarecrow Press, 1996)
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarland Publishing, 1996)
The Films of Christopher Lee by Robert W. Pohle, Jr., and Douglas C. Hart (Scarecrow Press, 1983)
"'Mother, Come Here' - The Making of The Brides of Dracula," by Bruce G. Hallenbeck, Little Shoppe of Horrors, #14, December 1999
"The Brides of Dracula: the Making of a Classic," by Mike Murphy, Dark Terrors, #10, June 1995
"The Legacy of Terence Fisher," The House that Hammer Built, No. 10, November 1998