Monday, January 6, 2014

Hammer Rewatch: Brides of Dracula (1960)

            A look at Hammer’s Dracula series, Part 2…

            Opting not to return for this second installment, Brides of Dracula suffers somewhat from the lack of Christopher Lee, substituting in instead his “disciple” Baron Meinster, played as a romantic sort of proto-Lestat/Edward Cullen by David Peel. Given red eyes and bloody fangs like his predecessor, Peel is a poor replacement for the physically-imposing Lee - sort of like a little kid wearing his dad’s over-sized clothes. But despite its lacking lead vampire, Brides of Dracula still comes out shining in the end, resulting in one of Hammer’s very best vampire offerings.

            One of the most refreshing aspects of rewatching the Hammer films today is how unusual their structure is. Brides begins the movie with the young French girl Marianne, who’s recently been hired as a schoolteacher in Transylvania. After being stranded by her coach driver, she is then offered a place to stay at the Meinster Castle by the mysterious Baroness, who keeps her son hidden away from the world under lock and key - for good reason, considering he’s a vampire, and all. Marianne is tricked into freeing the Baron, and then passes out while trying to escape from the castle and its crazed inhabitants. It’s here where she is found by a travelling Dr. Van Helsing, who takes quite an interest in the girl and her wild story of blood-sucking fiends. The film takes the first of its many gear changes, as the focus is shifted from Marianne to Van Helsing and various other sub-plots and minor characters are introduced throughout the run-time.

            The highlight, once again, is the ever-reliable Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, who anchors every scene he’s in with such energy and class it’s hard not to fall completely in love with him. Plus, there’s the incredible scene where he brands his neck with a hot iron and douses it in holy water to get rid of a vampire bite. Yvonne Monclair is undeniably beautiful, but a bit too demure as the other main character Marianne, but fortunately the supporting cast is there to pick up the slack. Martita Hunt is memorable as the Baroness Meinster, at first menacing but soon revealed to be rather sad and pathetic, and Freda Jackson very nearly steals the whole movie as their servant Greta, a fairly complex side character who might just be the scariest of the clan. Couple that with the lovely Andree Melly as Marianne’s friend who soon becomes one of the “brides” of the title, and you have a rather fun and well-rounded cast of talent. 

            Terence Fisher returns to the director’s chair, continuing to define the look of “Hammer Horror” with his inventive use of the same sets of Bray Studios for a successfully creepy and atmospheric look. He also manages to do the unthinkable and create a death scene for Baron Meinster that rivals Lee’s from the first film, which sees Van Helsing affix a windmill so its shadow casts a large cross over the Baron. The congealing of the elements for the classic Hammer formula gives Brides of Dracula its charm, but more than anything I enjoyed the almost freewheeling structure of the narrative; a stark contrast to the boring, staid three-act Robert McKee bullshit we get so much of these days. About every twenty minutes the story changes, with new settings and side characters and plot elements to fill out a feature of their own, but the film holds together marvelously as reveals each new element as it comes. It doesn’t make for perfect filmmaking, but it’s certainly more alive and surprising as a result.           

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