Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Vampire Season - The Brides of Dracula (1960)

After an unrelentingly hot US summer that took its toll on this fair skinned red-head physically and psychologically (I am more acclimated to cold, dark places after all), Autumn kicked in full bore this past weekend with a cold snap that has me sleeping under mounds of blankets with the windows open… cause that’s how I roll. With the change in weather come the fragrant aroma of fallen leaves and the acrid smell of wood fires. Days are gloomy, nights are chilly, the dogs howl at sunset, and the bats are about – metaphorically, if not literally.

I’ve never actually put together a top ten list of favorite Hammer Films or favorite vampire movies for that matter, but Hammer’s 1960 The Brides of Dracula would rank high on either list. It’s probably sacrilege to say I don’t care for most of the Christopher Lee Dracula entries (the Peter Cushing Frankenstein series is consistently more creative and, if not frightening, at least disturbing), so what better way to kick off vampire season than with a repeat viewing of Brides of Dracula?

The story goes that Lee turned down the script, originally titled Disciples of Dracula, and that it was hastily rewritten in order to go before the cameras as scheduled. The final product shows some signs of dropped plot threads – but then, story continuity is not one of Hammer’s strong points.

What it lacks in story cohesiveness it more than makes up for with originality and some of the best set design, lighting, and cinematography of any of the Hammer entries thanks in part to the brilliant work of Director of Photography, Jack Asher.

A voiceover narration introducing the film informs the audience that Dracula is dead, but as the nineteenth century draws to a close, the cult of the undead is alive and well in Transylvania. Where else?

Our beautiful heroine, Marianne Danielle (played by “France’s newest sex kitten” Yvonne Monlaur) is traveling through the misty mountains by carriage when she is waylaid at a country village and meets the Baroness Meinster, a stiff shouldered aristocrat played to the teeth by Martita Hunt (Miss Haversham in the David Lean film version of Great Expectations). The Baroness convinces Marianne that she can’t possibly spend the night in the uncivilized country inn and whisks her away to her chateau in the mountains. Saucy French sex kitten, sinister Baroness, isolated castle – the stage is set for some vampire hanky panky.

The first act takes a surprising turn here with a brief detour into family psychodrama. It seems the mutton-sleeved Baroness has a son she keeps chained by the ankle in his tower room. To spice up the plot a bit, there’s an old family retainer on hand, Freda Jackson in a role as equally juicy as that of the Baroness. Scenes between these two women are some of the most dynamic performances in the movie, and Jackson as the young Baron’s nurse delivers a monologue that tells the back story of how the boy became a vampire.

Don’t blame me, mistress. It was none of my doing. Nay. I’ve always kept faith with you. Twenty years since I first saw you come to the castle here with the old Baron and your little son. A fine, handsome little imp he was, too. But you spoiled him. Oh, yes. He was always self-willed and cruel, and you encouraged him. Aye, and the bad company you kept, too. You used to sit and drink with them, didn’t you? Yes, and you laughed at their wicked games. Till in the end one of them took him and made him what he was. You’ve done what you could for him since then, God help you… keeping him here a prisoner, bringing those young girls to him keeping him alive with their blood.

There’s more than meets the eye in this three minute speech than is worthy of any Hammer horror flick. Just what were these wicked games, and why was the Baroness drinking with a bunch of vampires? To me, the implication is a deeper one, inferring that vampirism is a disease that is spread…well, the way diseases are spread… through, ahem…unprotected contact.

This theme of vampirism as disease was explored again in the 1963 follow-up, Kiss of the Vampire, and is what sets these two films apart from the Hammer Dracula series where Dracula is simply a vampire with no social commentary attached. If we look back at Stoker’s original novel, the fear of venereal disease was a palpable undercurrent… and it took more than 100 years for a film version (the 2006 Masterpiece Theatre version) to bring the theme literally to the forefront of the story.

There are some inventive moments in Brides of Dracula, particularly when old Greta lies atop a grave, coaxing the vampire bride to claw her way up through the fresh pile of dirt, and a shocking sequence where Van Helsing, after being bitten by the vampire, burns his throat with a fiery brand before dowsing himself with Holy Water.

The production values and unique story themes are strong enough to make up for the film’s weaker moments – an early, sinister character who follows Marianne to the village only to disappear from the movie altogether, and an embarrassing giant brown bat on a string. Whenever I watch this scene I am reminded of Nicholas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss: “Shoo, shoo.”

If you haven’t seen this entry, or haven’t seen it in a while, you’re in for a treat. If you’re into recreational psychedelics, the colors in this film just might cause you to burst a blood vessel in your eye, and that alone is worth the price of rental. It’s still easy to come by on DVD and is available from online streaming services. 

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