When people talk about the sequence of films that make up Hammer Studio’s “Dracula” series, a good many of them make the eight-year leap from the first film, 1958’s Horror of Dracula to Dracula, Prince of Darkness in 1966. It’s quite a jump, indeed, but one that seems to land you just about where you need to be, with the latter film beginning with a quick recap of the climax from the former. What gets lost in between the two films is the actual first sequel to Horror of Dracula, which is a shame because it’s one of the best in the series. It gets skipped over primarily because, while it sees the return of Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, it is Dracula — and Christopher Lee — free. Upon seeing how popular he was in the role, Lee was keen not to play the count again lest he be typecast and never get to play anything again besides Dracula or some cheap public domain variation thereof. The phenomenal success of Horror of Dracula and the first two Hammer Frankenstein movies showed the producers that audiences were hungry for the Hammer brand of Gothic horror, and another entry in the Dracula series was a given. But where to go when your Dracula doesn’t want to do it again?
That was the question facing Hammer as they set about creating a sequel to Horror of Dracula. Without Lee, where do you go? The most obvious option would be to cast another actor in the role. That Dracula was destroyed in the finale of the first film was meaningless. Hammer could make up any number of ways (as we would later find out) to resurrect the count if they had the right man in the cape. But dropping another actor in, even another very good actor, just wouldn’t do. Hammer was smart enough to recognize that a big part of the reason Dracula was so popular was because of Christopher Lee. Replacing him would almost surely result in fan backlash, regardless of how good the replacement might have been. So Hammer went with the second option, which was to attempt to handle the franchise the same way they were handling things in the Frankenstein movies: concentrate on Peter Cushing.
Going into Horror of Dracula, Peter Cushing was the bigger name, and Christopher Lee was still an unknown commodity despite his appearance as the creature in Curse of Frankenstein. Coming out of Horror of Dracula, if Lee wasn’t quite as big a name as Cushing, he was still inarguably a big name. Hammer had progressed to a second Frankenstein film without Lee, focusing the series on Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein instead of the monster. Perhaps, then, they could do the same with Dracula, and focus the film on the reoccurring character of Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing and his conflict with a parade of vampires. Assembling the remaining key players from the first film — director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster — Hammer went about creating the sequel to Horror of Dracula without Dracula or Christopher Lee. Initially titled Disciples of Dracula, the film soon became Brides of Dracula because even if Dracula isn’t in it, that doesn’t mean you can’t have his name in the title. Bruce Lee could tell Dracula a thing or two about that.
The movie begins with fearless Hammer beauty Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur, also in Circus of Horrors and Hammer’s Terror of the Tongs) finding herself stranded in one of your standard-issue creepy little villages with an ominous secret. She’s desperate to make it to the academy where she’s to start a new teaching job since showing up days late with stories about villagers giving you the evil eye rarely endear you to the headmaster. Naturally, no one is willing to go out after dark, though no one will explain exactly why. And they’re not willing to give her a room at the inn, which is often the case with these grumpy locals, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why. The landlord yells at you not to go out after dark and then, a breath later, yells at you to get out because he’ll not rent a room to the likes of ye! What does he get by not renting out the room? I mean, they’re often shown later regretting their decision and going, “Well, what would you have had me do?” How about give her a room and then see her off in the morning with a smile?
Marianne eventually finds a sour old woman named Baroness Meinster who is willing to give Marianne a place to stay for the evening. Now all of a sudden the landlord has all sorts of rooms for rent and pleads with Marianne not to go. What’s with these guys? If you went and ordered a pint of ale from them, they’d yell, “We’ve no ale for the likes of you!” as they were serving you up a pint of ale. Every one of them is loopy as an outhouse bat. Not wanting to stay with the gruff and apparently crazy innkeeper, Marianne graciously accepts the Baroness’ invitation to spend the evening in a posh mansion. Of course, we all know this’ll lead to trouble, and it soon does. The Baroness seems to act weirder and weirder the longer Marianne is there, and before too long Marianne encounters the Baroness son — who the Baroness keeps chained to the wall in another room. Obviously this woman is as loony as the innkeeper, so Marianne agrees to free the young Baron Meinster (David Peel). Well, wouldn’t you know it? The guy turns out to be a vampire, though Marianne herself is unaware of the fact.
Marianne gets where she’s going with the help of one Dr. Van Helsing (Cushing), who happens to be passing through the area on his never-ending quest to study, understand, and drive a stake through the heart of the undead. Meinster, meanwhile, spends his time out of the grave preying on the local beauties, as well as the girls at the finishing school in which Marianne now works. As young lovelies start dropping dead then crawling back out of the grave, it’s up to Van Helsing and Marianne — but mostly Van Helsing — to put an end to Meinster’s reign of terror, thus putting one more nail in the coffin of the horrible disease of vampirism his old arch-foe Dracula has spread throughout the world.
Although a Dracula film without Dracula sounds like it should be a misfire, Brides of Dracula works even better for the absence of the titular neck-biter. David Peel’s Baron Meinster isn’t in the same class as Christopher Lee’s towering prince of darkness, but he’s plenty good and looks well scary when he starts to get all lusty and vamped out with bloodshot red eyes. Peel didn’t have a lot of credits to his name before or after this film, but that doesn’t reflect on his performance here. He is superb, tender and sincere-sounding when he needs to be, and ruthlessly animalistic once he’s free to show his true colors. He wisely decides not to attempt a Christopher Lee impersonation and instead come up with a unique vampire character that has some obvious similarities stemming from the fact that the blood of Dracula runs through all vampire veins.
As Marianne, Yvonne Monlaur is acceptable, another in the long line of Hammer beauties who were picked for their looks instead of their skills, but who never the lass manage to come off relatively well, or at least well enough so as not to ruin the scenes in which she appears. Though her agreement to marry the Baron comes almost out of nowhere, we can write that off as Victorian-era female innocence and the desire to be swept off one’s feet by a dashing prince, or baron as the case may be. Too bad he’s the baron of evil. Despite the occasional girlish foible, Monlaur has one of the better sketched-out female roles in the Dracula films. She is surrounded by women who, one by one, succumb to Meinster’s charms, to say nothing of his fangs, and she rarely resorts to screaming and running down unless it’s absolutely necessary.
The focal point of the story, however, and the link to the first film, is Peter Cushing returning as the intrepid Dr. Van Helsing. He is here as he was the first time around: authoritative, kind, and believable. The sort of chap you’d really want looking after you if a vampire was chasing after you. From interviews I’ve read with his co-stars and directors, Cushing was fiendishly devoted to every role he had and did mountains of work before the cameras started rolling. The result on screen is that he makes this type of role look utterly effortless and thoroughly convincing. Hammer films have about as much half-baked mysticism and “occult anatomy” in them as the average episode of Star Trek has half-baked techno-babble, but coming from Cushing, you’d never dream of questioning his theories on vampirism not so much as a function of the supernatural, but as a social or sexual disease, very much a part of the rational world. Cushing is also very good in the action scenes, of which there are several. The finale of the film, in which Van Helsing goes one-on-one with Meinster in a burning windmill is at least as good as the climax of the first film, and perhaps even a bit better, especially given the ingenious way Van Helsing eventually defeats his undead foe.
Speaking of which, two of the other great scenes in the movies belong to the other two standout performers. Martita Hunt is wonderfully creepy as the mysterious Baroness Meinster, who seems at first to emerge as the villain of the film until we comprehend the reasons for her cruelty to her own son. The scene in which she beseeches Van Helsing to kill her after her son has turned her into a vampire (something Van Helsing seems to liken to a form of incest) is outstanding. The other scene involves Freda Jackson as the Meinsters’ servant. She seems to be on the side of the Baroness, but it’s soon revealed that her true loyalties lie with the vampire in the secret room. The scene in which she, in full ranting hag mode, coaxes a young victim of the baron out of the grave is positively chilling.
Sangster’s script is well-constructed and keeps a quick pace as it navigates the many twists and turns that establish everything. The complex path upon which we’re carried that leads to the freeing of Baron Meinster is quite exciting and well put-together — intricate without being convoluted. There are also a number of clever surprises in the film, not the least of which would be the fact that Baron Meinster gets the better of Van Helsing and puts the bite on him. We can guess that Van Helsing will have some multi-step ritual to reverse the infection of the bite, but even so it’s a major shock when we see him actually get bitten. This script seems to have been the result of some serious rewriting when Cushing apparently reacted very unfavorably to the initial draft and said he thought that he, like Lee, might want to have nothing to do with it. Although there are some small holes here and there, the story is all the better for whatever amount of revisions they made to keep Cushing happy and on board.
Fisher’s direction is once again top notch. The film is filled with the various requirements of Gothic horror as set down by Hammer itself. Misty forests, decaying cemeteries, shifty peasants, and the menacing dark old house up on the hill are exploited for their full power by Fisher’s expertly guided camera. Along with cinematographer Jack Asher, Fisher paints another gorgeous picture for Hammer and further solidifies the studio’s emerging look and style. Asher is probably as much responsible for defining the look of Hammer horror as Fisher, perhaps even more so given Fisher’s reportedly easy-going style of direction. Asher had already worked on the big three — Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy — as well as the equally superb Revenge of Frankenstein and The Hound of the Baskervilles. His work in Brides of Dracula goes a long way to establishing the increasingly menacing mood developed by Sangster’s script.
If Brides of Dracula is the forgotten Dracula film, I can’t imagine it will stay that way for very long. It’s simply too good. Maybe not quite as good as the original, but definitely the equal of the next sequel, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, which saw the return of Christopher Lee to the role of Dracula. Brides of Dracula may even be better than that film. It’s certainly a real gem in Hammer’s filmography. Almost everything about the film works perfectly, and the few parts that don’t work are easy to overlook. Cushing is magnificent, Peel is solid, and in the Baroness and her servant we have two of the best supporting characters in the whole series. Brides of Dracula should be able to take its rightful place next to Hammer’s best horror productions.