Monday, October 17, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Brides of Dracula

When I said 'Tomorrow: Brides of Dracula' I actually meant Monday, apparently. Better late than never!

Brides of Dracula
I like Brides of Dracula a lot. In general I actually prefer this film to its progenitor, as I think it has a better story, pacing, cinematography, sets and... well, everything but the monster. Christopher Lee apparently had no interest in filming a sequel to Horror of Dracula and passed on appearing in the film. Cushing agreed, however, and with the return of almost all the original crew - Director, Writer, Producer etc. the movie went forward with a slightly tweaked script.

Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to a girls school in Transylvannia where she is to teach music and deportment. Abandoned in a small village by her coach, she accepts an invitation from the Baroness Meinster (a wonderfully arch Martita Hunt) to spent the night at her castle. There, Marianne sees the Baroness' son on a balcony below her room. Finding the handsome noble is a prisoner in his own castle, she conspires with him to find the key to release him from his chains.

I know I just met you, and this is crazy, but unlock my chains, I'm a vampire, maybe?

Bad idea.

I love the Baroness Meinster and kind of wish she had been the villain of the piece. (Well, MORE of a villain - she is luring young girls to the castle to feed to her son.) Martita Hunt plays her alternatingly arrogant, terrified and ashamed and she's the only one of the cast that comes anywhere close to matching Cushing on screen. It's too bad she's given so little to do after the first few scenes.

But I'm going to milk the scenes I've got!

Monlaur does fine with Marianne and, given the time in which the movie was made, she's pretty self-motivated and indeed sets the main action in motion with her theft of the key that releases the vampire... oh, I'm sorry, didn't I say? Yeah, the Baron Meinster (played with pomp and pompadour by David Peel) is one of the undead. That's why the Baroness had him shackled to the wall in his private rooms and brings him women to feed on - she couldn't bear to kill her only son, but he was - literally - a monster.

Into this Gothic fairly tale comes Abraham Van Helsing, nearly running over the unconscious Marianne in the woods outside the castle. (Where she's fled in the aftermath of the events at the castle and the really disturbing laughter of the maidservant, Greta, who may have gone a little mad.) Van Helsing, it seems, is still hunting down the remnants of 'the Dracula cult' around Europe. Though he's aware of the Meinsters, Marianne doesn't recognize words like "vampire" or "undead," se he simply escorts her to the school where she was originally heading.

Somebody threw away a perfectly good white girl...

Despite all of the initial action by Marianne, this is now Van Helsing's film. It's too bad, because I like the idea of - somehow - Marianne being the main protagonist. Past this point, however, she becomes a standard secondary heroine, existing mostly to be menaced by various  male figures (the headmaster, the Baron) while the male hero does all the actual heroics. Normally I can suspend my modern sensibilities for this, but it annoyed me this time around for some reason. I would dearly have loved to see a film in which Marianne and the Baroness had to team up to defeat the Baron and Greta. But ah well. Instead we get the Baron showing up and mesmerizing her into agreeing to marry him. Look at that hair, Marianne! A man who spends that much time on his 'do' has no time for you!

Yeah, yeah - large, pointy teeth. I get it. But that hair!

At least the male hero is played by Cushing, projecting his usual quite competence and kindness. He needs to get a watch or something though, because he's constantly telling people that he'll be back before dark, only to arrive well after. Having actually fought Dracula you'd think he'd be more punctual about that extremely important timeframe!

Interestingly, the abilities of vampires have changed since the first film. Van Helsing is very adament in Horror of Dracula about how silly it is to think that vampires can change shape, but the vampire in Brides changes into a bat - even killing a man in that form. There are intimations that he can also change into a wolf and make locks fall off of coffins (without unlocking them). Looks like Van Helsing needs to do a bit more research.

And get a watch. I hate to harp, but like 5 minutes sooner and this could have been avoided.

Van Helsing returns to town, only to find there's a funeral going on for a village girl who's died from what is obviously a vampire attack. He waits too long to show up at the cemetery and she rises and escapes, aided by a vampire bat. From there, Van Helsing investigates Meinster castle, finding the Baroness turned into one of the undead by her own son. There's a confrontation with the Baron, who flees with the help of the risen village girl, the first of his 'brides.' The vampire intends to make Marianne the second, but gets distracted into turning her roommate instead.

I'm sorry, but at no time is David Peel's vampire a threat on the same level as Lee's Dracula. He's got a certain smarmy charm, but it's not put to good use and as a monster he's just too much of a dandy to really carry much weight. The lack of an actor with the same gravitas as Lee or Cushing in the role is the film's greatest weakness, letting it become merely a really good entry in the Hammer vampire film library, rather than a great film.

"I'm not choking, just gagging at the smell of your cologne!"

There are some great moments in Brides, despite this. In particular the consequences of a battle between the Baron and Van Helsing in which Van Helsing loses! He's bitten and infected, but manages to cure himself using a combination of holy water and a branding iron in a sequence so interesting that the two vampire brides just watch him do it, not interfering in any way. The final confrontation between Van Helsing, Marianne and the Baron ends up being a bit anticlimactic after that (even with a giant cross formed by a windmill shadow).

"And that's how we get rid of pimples in the middle ages!"

"Are you seeing this shit?!"

The Bottom Line
In a lot of ways, Brides of Dracula is a better film than the original - in production and story in particular - but it's a cheat - there are no brides and no Dracula, and the result is a stew with a richer broth, but missing one of the main ingredients that made it delicious in the first place.

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