Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wendigo Meets BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

If ever a film should have been called "Van Helsing," It's Terrence Fisher's 1960 follow up to Hammer's breakthrough vampire film (Horror of) Dracula. As an opening narration tells us, Count Dracula himself is dead, but J. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) carries on his holy work from the previous picture. Cushing is clearly the star and Van Helsing the main character, but the world wasn't ready for a film bearing the doctor's name. The "Dracula" name was more of a sure thing, as testified by contemporary films where the famous vampire's presence was a tease (Return of Dracula) or a lie (Blood of Dracula).

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.

Really: would Count Dracula take these whitefaced women as his brides? They're more than good enough for Baron Meinster (David Peel, below), as are Brides's bumbling bats.

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.

Dr. Van Helsing doesn't just clean up your vampire problems; he's also a client.

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.


Our latest viewing of Brides made more clear for us how British vampire films emphasize class and aristocracy in a way that'd make no sense for American movies. Class and the dominance of aristocracy or gentry was an inescapable fact in the 19th century Europe portrayed in Hammer's films, and its legacy had a long-term influence on English and European images of the dominant, lordly vampire who holds whole communities in thrall. If American stories have made the vampire a different sort of creature, it's at least partly because Americans, no matter how much they may embrace certain gothic motifs and concepts, don't really feel that feudal heritage. The vampire as predatory aristocrat was bound to become too campy to be taken seriously, and at that point the vampire had to become something meaningful to an American or a post-aristocratic global audience. People watching Brides today may not get how the Meinsters could hold such sway over their community; as a result, they may miss some of the horror of films like this one.

Bite a Van Helsing in the neck and then just walk away? You deserve everything you get, Meinster.

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.


dfordoom said...

I agree with Wendigo - some of Hammer's vampire films are not actual Dracula films. Vampire Circus for example.

venoms5 said...

I love this one. It's a huge favorite of mine. One of the company's best I'd say as well as being one of their best looking movies. A good handful of memorable sequences, too. It's also my fave Cushing Van Helsing role.