My friend Wendigo mentioned Brides in passing when I asked him to list his least favorite cinematic vampires, but he's here today to praise the film. His critique, in short, is "bad vampires, good movie." He hasn't warmed over time toward David Peel's tepid portrayal of Baron Meinster, the master vampire of the piece. Peel still strikes him as little more than a pretty boy who brings no power to the role. It is true that he bests the mighty Van Helsing in combat, but Wendigo reminds us that there were two other vampires plus a minion in the fight. The vampire women also disappoint him. The big problem with the otherwise typically attractive Hammer women is that they look like they're wearing clown makeup. Their faces are paler than the rest of their flesh and to Wendigo that just looks silly. Don't even gets him started on the bat effects; he finds them nightmarishly bad. The oversized bats float without flapping their wings or bounce awkwardly on wires like a silent-movie ornithopter. Hammer was usually more careful about trying effects they couldn't achieve, but this time was an embarrassing botch.
Brides is the first Hammer vampire film and possibly the first vampire movie Wendigo remembers seeing. He was more impressed by the vampire hunter than the vampire, understandably, with Cushing setting the standard for fighting the undead for ever afterward. Wendigo digs Cushing's energy, the character's courage, creativity and determination. The images of Cushing cauterizing a vampire bite on his own neck with a hot iron and holy water, throwing holy water in a vampire's face, and killing the vampire by catching him in the cruciform shadow of a windmill's blades are indelible for my friend. Stephen Sommers would probably never have made his Van Helsing movie had this one never existed -- but don't hold that against Brides. Wendigo's opinion, of course, is that Cushing could kick Hugh Jackman's ass no matter how many steampunk weapons Sommers's hero brought to the fight.
Besides Cushing, Brides boasts some luscious art direction and vivid cinematography, along with the gorgeous Yvonne Monlaur as the heroine. Fisher shows off Monlaur's red hair to full advantage, and she gives just the right performance of naive vulnerability and longing as her aspiring schoolteacher falls into Meinster's gothic trap. The first half hour of Brides is a little gothic tale that could virtually stand on its own in an anthology film or an EC comic; the poor victimized (and handsome) young scion who proves to have been held prisoner for excellent reasons. Unfortunately, Peel isn't especially convincing even in that role, but the film marches on in spite of him.
Like other early Hammers, Brides develops the mythos of the "cult of the vampires" that was briefly mentioned in Horror of Dracula. The spectre of the "cult" reflects British fear and hatred for an occult revival already underway in the U.K., but also seems to anticipate the accelerated decadence to come later in the Sixties. In this picture, Van Helsing offers an origin story for the cult, claiming that it began with pagan resistance to Christianity during the late Roman Empire. Later in the cycle, when the idea of the cult is picked up again, the vampires will be portrayed as Satanists, but for now the decadent eastern aristocrat Meinster and his harem of brides stand in for Wicca and other evils in the heritage of Aleister Crowley. Wendigo is something of a student of Wiccan history, and his observations allow us to see the early Hammer vampire films in a fresh light.
In Hammer history, Brides can be seen as the middle film of a trilogy dealing with the "cult of the vampires" that closes with Kiss of the Vampire, which does without both Dracula and Van Helsing but boasts a much bigger cult. While certain concepts of Brides (particularly the girls' school setting) are taken up again in the sexier Karnstein films of the Seventies, the film itself is a kind of dead end in that Hammer didn't use Van Helsing again until they cast Cushing as a modern-day version of the character in Dracula A.D. 1972. The studio must have decided that it couldn't build a horror series around a hero, though they would try to create their own such hero late in the day in Captain Kronos. Like Kiss, Brides is perceived as a poor relation to the "real" Dracula films lorded over by Christopher Lee. In Wendigo's opinion, Brides is much better, despite its inferior vampire, to many of the later Lee films. It may be the most visually impressive of all the Hammer vampire films, and it deserves respect as one of Peter Cushing's greatest showcases.
David Peel is relegated to fifth billing behind Cushing, two old ladies and "France's newest sex kitten" in this U.S. trailer, uploaded to YouTube by TheFearChamber.