Thursday, July 12, 2012

He Turned Innocent Beauty Into Unspeakable Horror.

The Brides Of Dracula(1960)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, David Peel

Hammer's sequel to the smash, Horror of Dracula(1958) was originally intended to star Christopher Lee as the Count, but Lee refused to be typecast(ironic in hindsight) and dropped out. This caused Hammer to rewrite, attempting a new series that revolved around Van Helsing(Peter Cushing) instead. This could have been a potentially rich idea, but sadly, this film was not the massive success that the previous film was, so the concept was dropped afterward. It's a shame because The Brides of Dracula, is one of the very best of the Hammer horror films, approaching the subtlety of a Gothic romance, more so than any other made before or since. This was original and exciting and contains the definitive hero role for Peter Cushing, in his best performance as the greatest of all vampire hunters. Stylish and well-written, this is one of the most underrated  classic horror films.

The film begins with a young, beautiful school teacher, Marianne(Yvonne Monlaur) travelling through the European countryside by carriage at the turn of the century. Her coach driver is(who else?) Michael Ripper, who adds a nice cameo and his usual comic relief. When the young lady arrives at a local inn, she finds herself stranded, when a mysterious man takes the coach. Luckily, Baroness Meinster(Martina Hunt) offers to let her stay at her castle, which is feared by the local populace. They have dinner, and Marianne inquires about why the village is so afraid, and the Baroness blames superstition. She also warns Marianne to stay out of a certain wing of the castle. When Marianne gets ready for bed, she notices a young man, who looks like he will jump over the side of the castle. She yells for him to stop and meets him, discovering that she is the Baron Meinster(David Peel) and has been imprisoned by his "villainous" mother. With romance on her mind, the young woman frees him from his shackles, only to discover that he is actually a vampire and proceeds to feed on his own mother, much to the cackling delight of the progressively madder, Greta(Freda Jackson), who is quite memorable here.
Horrified by what she has seen, Marianne escapes the castle and runs into the forest, where she collapses. Luckily, she is found by the eminent, Dr. Van Helsing(Peter Cushing), who has been called to the area to help solve a problem involving his area of expertise: vampirism.

Van Helsing delivers Marianne to the School for Girls that she was en route to and explains the situation to the pompous head master(Henry Oscar), and Marianne is taken in to apparent safety. Van Helsing goes back to the village and discovers that a young woman(Marie Devereux) has recently died. When Van Helsing examines her throat, he finds the tell-tale sign of the vampire. Father Stepnik(Fred Johnson) has called for Van Helsing and warmly welcome him. He explains the situation and fears the supernatural. That evening, in a wonderfully eerie scene, Greta waits over the grave of the dead girl, who emerges from her grave as a buxom vampire babe. The Father interferes before Van Helsing can react and he is subsequently attacked by a giant bat, which is thrown off when Van Helsing produces a crucifix.
Van Helsing learns about the Baron Meinster and goes to the castle, finding the now-vampirized, Baroness, who explains her pitiful existence and what her son has become. Van Helsing promises to giver her peace and stakes her, releasing her soul. The Baron also returns and Van Helsing fights him off in hand to hand combat, but the vampire escapes. Later, visiting Marianne and learning that another girl,(Andree Melly) has passed away, much like the first, Van Helsing puts the finger on the Baron. Unfortunately, Marianne is under his spell, oblivious to what he is, and is now engaged. While, Van Helsing tracks the Baron with the Father, Marianne looks over the coffin of her friend, who emerges as a vampire that night and escapes. Van Helsing tracks the Baron to his lair and fights him, losing his cross, which goes down into a pit with Greta.It seems all is lost, as Van Helsing is bit and likely to turn into one of the undead, himself. However, the ever resourceful, Van Helsing, uses the holy water that the Father had given him and cauterizes the wound, healing himself of vampirism. When the Baron arrives with Marianne to turn her, Van Helsing strikes back, by tossing holy water into his face, which acts like acid and burns his handsome features. The barn he has hidden in burns and Van Helsing and Marianne escape. When the vampire emerges from the fire, Van Helsing jumps on the blades of a windmill and forms the shadow of a cross which dispatches the vampire in an exciting climax, unparalleled in Hammer horror. Van Helsing embraces Marianne and thus ends one of the greatest of all Gothic horror films.

The Brides of Dracula deserves better. While, Horror of Dracula is vastly regarded as the definitive Hammer horror film, it was by no means the only classic. This film is often glossed over because it does not contain Dracula, many missing the point that it's a damn fine film without him. David Peel is a suitable replacement for Christopher Lee, lacking Lee's formidable presence, but making up for it with a certain decadence, appropriate given the Gothic-Romanticism of the whole production. Despite, the actor's age(40!) he's believable as a younger vampire and handles the role very differently. Some are confused by the title of the film, though I think it's stated in the prologue that "Brides" refer to the disciples of Dracula, which may have been a more fitting, if less commercial, title. Baron Meinster's background refers to an unknown corruption that made him who he was, and it's quite possible that was by the mark of Dracula. Peel's arrogance and sadistic qualities make him a disturbing character, especially when he actually bites Van Helsing, a moment sure to make first time viewers jump. Sadly, despite his memorable turn, this was his only appearance.(By the way, the ending was originally to involve Van Helsing conjuring up a horde of bats to dispatch Meinster, but was considered too costly. It was later implemented in the film, The Kiss of the Vampire(1963).
The "Brides" of Meinster, I guess they should be called, are among the most memorable babes of "Hammer Glamour". Yvonne Monlaur is pretty and innocent as Marianne, and her French accent and cute demeanor is quite charming, and she certainly conveys terror well with her big, expressive eyes. It's one of the few films that Cushing has a supposed love interest, and considering he would have a son, could this have been his character's future wife? I've wondered that, though this character, regrettably, makes no future appearances and for that matter, neither did Yvonne Monlaur. That's a shame because she's one of Hammer's most gorgeous and likable actresses. I remember for one other Hammer, the silly, but enjoyable, Terror of the Tongs(1961), where she played a Eurasian call girl, of all things, though she looked fantastic, anyway.
Andree Melly makes a memorable vampire and her image has been used in many magazines and books to represent the buxom vampire. That marvelous, demonic grin she sports as she first reveals herself to Marianne is a great fright moment and lingers long in the memory. Her transformation from romantic girl to hot vampire is terrific, though sadly, she did not appear in much other genre work.
Top heavy, Marie Devereux is very memorable, though she does not say a word, she doesn't have to. Hammer knew how to use her and her voluptuous figure certainly compensate for male viewers and she remains in my mind as one of the sexiest bloodsuckers of all time, despite limited screen time. She was even more memorable in the little seen, The Stranglers of Bombay(1960), where she sports some of the best cleavage on film. She also, thankfully for the sake of posterity, made several glamour shoots, including many in the nude. Thanks, for the mammaries, Marie.

Freda Jackson is memorably insane as the faithful servant of the Meinsters and her cackle probably induced a few nightmares, i'm sure. Her reveal of the Meinster's past is well done and the moment where she rises Miss Devereux from the grave is among the great horror moments. It's a small part, but she makes the most of it.
Martita Hunt, initially is seen as the villain, but is actually a sympathetic character. Her primary fault is that she had love for her son, even though he turns out to be a monster. Her transformation into pitiful vampire, is touching and she represents one of the first sympathetic vampires on film, her demise having a bit of sadness that is missing from bloodsuckers in other films. It's a memorable role and adds dramatic weight to the film.
Even though I did not mention him the synopsis of the film, Miles Malleson's turn as an eccentric doctor is a hoot. Malleson was always a delightful, comic actor, having also portrayed as a joking undertaker in Horror of Dracula(1958) and several other Hammer films. I remember him best in the 1951 Scrooge, as Old Joe, the pawnshop owner, who even in such a grim film, was able to make me smile. He performs the same magic here, and his bit with the innkeeper and his medical concoction is not to be missed.
Of course, the lion share of the film's success goes to Peter Cushing who performs the best of his several interpretations of Van Helsing. Just as determined(if not ruthless) as he was in the first film, Cushing also reveals a more humane side and it makes the character more multi-dimensional, though he was already fine in Horror of Dracula. 
His scene with Martita Hunt is a standout, as he shows genuine sympathy for her pathetic circumstances and his scenes with Yvonne Monlaur are tender and kind, showing a layer of warmth that was not shown as much in his "man of steel" interpretation in the original. He also shows fear, however subtly, such as when he witnesses the vampire rising from it's grave or when he battles Meinster. However, what is most memorable is the heroic actions of the character, for Van Helsing has now fully graduated to role of swashbuckler, swinging from chains to knock over Meinster, tossing crucifixes and holy water with abandon and even jumping on the blades of a windmill to make the world's biggest cross. It's an exciting role and Cushing makes the very most of it, adding another notch in his belt, of classic film portrayals.

Terence Fisher, a talent greatly underrated in his lifetime, lends his touch to the proceedings, creating his most fairy tale-like atmosphere of his several Gothic horrors for Hammer. Fisher seemed to have an affinity for the world of the Gothic and this may be his finest showcase, as he creates an eerie world full of romance and adventure, but also terrifying forests, forever filled with swirling fog, along with an underlining of sexual repression and class corruption. It's the most potent of the Hammers and the world created, makes one want to revisit again and again. Sadly, despite the success of this film, at least critically and now, the film was not the success it should have been at the time, so further adventures were never made. Dracula returned, but the creativity evident in the first two films, scarcely appeared again in the series. Here was a peak of horror that Hammer had a difficult time to match as the years went by and the films fell to routine, much like Universal before them. The enjoyment was always there, but the artistic edge of the classics, were largely absent. The Brides of Dracula is a fine trip back to a time of Gothic Horror, when good prevailed, and evil was vanquished by film's end. When heroes really were heroic and the villains were both fascinating and truly menacing.Simply told,  The Brides of Dracula is a great horror picture.

And because i'm a generous man, here's some choice shots of the amazingly, endowed, Miss Marie Devereux. You're welcome.

I'm afraid that is the end. See you, next time!


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