Sunday, November 20, 2016

Brides of Dracula


Brides of Dracula (1960)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Peter Bryan, Edward Percy, Jimmy Sangster
Starring Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur, David Peel



Transylvania, land of dark forests, dread mountains and black unfathomable lakes,” intones a solemn narrator over footage from the end of Hammer’s 1958’s DRACULA. “Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires is dead.

With this, BRIDES OF DRACULA handily establishes both its backstory and its chief dilemma. There’s obviously too much money to be had for this property not to continue, but how do you make a sequel when your title character was definitively finished off last time around? Well, the narrator has an idea: “Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires is dead. But his disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world…”

Ah-ha! Brides of Dracula, I bet! So while Christopher Lee sits this one out, we’re going to be introduced to a new rogues gallery of Dracula-adjacent vamps to do battle with a returning Dr. Van Helsing. OK, a respectable, if not especially imaginative, premise for a sequel which we obviously didn’t need but obviously did want. Brides of Dracula. Got it. So when Marianne --a mysterious young woman with an implacable continental accent (Yvonne Monlaur, VAMPIRE CIRCUS)-- rolls up on a small Transylvanian town with a menacing castle in the distance, we have a pretty good idea what to expect. The townies are a little leery of strangers, and her coachman (Michael Ripper, various coachmen, tavern keepers, peasants, drunks and cops in nearly every Hammer films 1956-1972) panics and gets the heck out of Dodge, leaving her stranded. Before long, she’s visiting the castle of the imperious and secretive Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt, BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING), where she learns that the Baroness has an insane son (David Peel, some British TV movies and stuff) she keeps chained up in his room. Of course, our plucky French heroine isn’t going to be able to resist meddling a little. But what exactly is afoot here?


Admirably, BRIDES OF DRACULA isn’t in the business of giving up the game right away. It drops us right into this situation without any setup, and consequently we’re never quite confident that we know what’s going on. We’re on the lookout for any vampire brides, but we’re not quite sure who’s the villain here. Is it our interloping foreigner (who can usually be counted on to be up to no good in Hammer movies)? Is it the icy old countess? Is it the mad son? But no, it couldn’t be, we’re looking for brides here, and it’s 1960. And whoever it is, we’ve only isolated at most one bride, and that title is plural. So what’s up?

The answer is revealed at the end of the first act, but to its credit the movie performs a pretty nimble dance until then, patiently laying out its cards without tipping the whole hand. In a series not, frankly, especially well-known for brilliant narrative construction, this stands out as an unexpected and compelling little vignette. It has plenty of the old Hammer magic too -- opulent sets (this time featuring very cool dragon statuary!), uneasy Transylvanian villages, pretty young people of questionable acting prowess paired with seasoned old pros -- but it’s not often that Hammer made the effort to keep you on your toes about where the actual story was going. It’s a welcome change.


But it can only last so long. Once we’ve identified our villain, the film shifts into a more conventional mode. But fortunately exactly at that moment, we’re reintroduced to Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing (as far as I can tell, never given a first name here). Van Helsing is not one of the great actor’s more interesting characters, but just having Cushing on-screen proves suitable compensation for a more predictable tale of mild vampiric mischief. Still, it can get to be somewhat slow going for awhile as Van Helsing gradually reacquaints himself with a situation which is not only immediately familiar to the seasoned horror pro, but also the exact one we just spent the first act exploring. There’s a pretty tiresome comedy side plot about the stuffy proprietors of a female boarding house (Henry Oscar, who played Burke [of Burke and Hare fame] in THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART), and a much funnier (albeit unintentionally so) plot about Van Helsing trying to get the scoop from Marianne, who somehow seems to have forgotten the entire plot we just saw her wander through. And there’s a pretty comical bat puppet in there, which looks like something out of The Muppet Show. Turns out, some things you really probably do need CGI for, and malevolent bats are probably one of those things. It’s not all bad news, though, because in the middle we also have a vampiric resurrection sequence which is about as perfect an embodiment of this standard trope as you’re ever likely to find on film. Mind you, it’s the exact same scene that every Dracula movie has in it at some point (its prototype being the sequence from Dracula where Lucy Holmwood rises from her grave), but it’s just such a simple and note-perfect recitation that it has the feel of an old blues standard brought back to vitality by a true master with an innate understanding of the material and the confidence not to unnecessarily tart it up. It’s not the notes you play, it’s how you play them, and this is the very essence of these notes in their most unencumbered purity.



Still, the film does dawdle a bit in its middle. But fortunately things start to get rolling again as the third act dawns, and it all builds to quite a feisty and exciting climax (with Cushing doing his own stunts again, it looks like). Marianne is an almost breathtakingly stupid character with the memory of a particularly strung out goldfish, but at least Monlaur plays her likeably enough that we’re willing to invest in her safety, particularly in the excellent scene where she’s menaced by a former girlfriend who has since become vampirized, in a well-staged bit of classic horror cinema just dripping with lesbian subtext. The titular brides, unfortunately, don’t get as  much action as you might hope, and end up playing second fiddle to another in a long and disastrous line of Hammer’s handsome bland pretty boys. If they really had to go with another male vampire, he ought to be either more sadistic or more disarming, and this one is neither. No way around it, Christopher Lee was obviously crucial to this formula working quite right. But the action is plenty exciting, and Cushing commits to the material with an intensity that sells it (including a pretty ballsy part where Van Helsing is bitten and has to Rambo himself back into the fight using a branding iron and holy water). And of all the many, many ways Hammer would eventually have to think of to dispose of an errant Dracula, this one probably offers the most exciting and cinematic, making the finale a real highlight of the whole series.

Even as early as 1960, Hammer was no stranger to sequels and franchises, having sequelized THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT in 1957 and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1958. It’s no secret that they eventually began a long and inevitable decline in quality, but I’m happy to report that this is definitely one of the good ones. It has some slow and dated moments, but it’s mostly aged quite well, and its commitment to an absolutely quintessential classic horror tone gives it a timeless quality which insulates it somewhat from the fickle winds of pop horror. An intriguing opening and an energetic climax seal the deal; if you’re the sort to find charm in the classic Hammer vibe, this is as solid a second-tier outing as you’re likely to find, and more than enough to give one false hope that continuing this series was a good idea.

HAMMER’S DRACULA SERIES:

2: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)
3: DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)
4: DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)
5: TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970)
6: SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)
8: THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

(see also: Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN series)

CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting

TAGLINE
In the privacy of a girls' school he sought his prey - turning innocent beauty into a thing of unspeakable horror! Which is true, and The Most Evil Dracula of All! Which is not.
TITLE ACCURACY
Arguably only one bride, and no Dracula.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
As with Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN adaptations, any relation to the original novel was all but erased by the second sequel. Though Stoker does describe vampiric brides, these are not them; only Van Helsing remains.
SEQUEL?
Sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA, followed by DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS
REMAKE?
No
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
England
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Vampire
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
None.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Peter Cushing, Michael Ripper. Director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster.
NUDITY?
None. Not even much heaving cleavage, I notice.
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
The usual vampiric conversion by means of hypnotic seduction, but it’s pretty tame.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
Killer bat!
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Just the vampires
POSSESSION?
Some discussion of possessed people working for vampires, and there’s no doubt that their gaze can put the mind whammy on ya.
CREEPY DOLLS?
None
EVIL CULT?
There is much talk about the supposed “cult of the undead” but I see no actual evidence to suggest anything ritualistic.
MADNESS?
It’s first claimed that Baron Meinster is mad, but (spoiler) nope, turns out to be vampire.
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
Man into bat, and (implied) into wolf, humans turned into vampire
VOYEURISM?
All this trouble starts because Marianne is spying on the downstairs balcony, and later the Baron seems to be spying on his victims since they’re all facing mirrors for some reason.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Here’s a thought: if you’re ever in someone’s house and find out they have one family member chained up for what they insist are very good reasons, try to investigate a little further before you go around unlocking everyone willy-nilly. Maybe even consider summoning the cops or somebody before you take action. Let’s go slow here.



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