When it’s on: Thursday, 28 January (1.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
It’s been several years since I started this blog and I’m left wondering exactly what it is. I’m uncomfortable with the phrase ‘film review site’ because that implies an impersonal and objective attempt to discuss movies, and it hasn’t evolved into that at all. With every title I cover here I try to find some personal dimension, because on that kind of level I think that’s what film appreciation is all about, finding a connection with it, whether it’s something I remember from childhood, a movie I haven’t seen before and my reasons why, because it features an actor or crew member who I especially admire. I’ve come to realise that I’m more of a film lover than a critic. My interest isn’t in lambasting a title that possibly deserves to be dragged through the gutter, but rather to find some angle that suggests a degree of love has gone into it, that even with the poorest features there are people involved who have invested bits of themselves.
As a film fan, I have found myself supporting people and studios beyond the pale. I can’t imagine proper critics discovering an awful lot to love in the varied work of Hammer, indeed on the exhaustively researched 1,000 films collated by critical appraisal on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? I believe only Dracula has figured, and then at the lower end of the spectrum. Now, I don’t suppose Hammer’s first concern was ever to produce great art. What counted was the bottom line and there are times when they even appeared to court adverse reactions because at least this meant people were talking about their work. But over time there has been an increase in affection for their movies. Many are now available on DVD, some even in HD format, and the likes of the Horror Channel screen them regularly. Sadly, this stops with their horror output – as any fan knows, the real jewels in Hammer’s crown were their black and white thrillers, inspired by the likes of Psycho and Les Diaboliques, playing to the studio’s strengths of making ’em cheap and knocking ’em out, and often featuring taut scripts and some very gripping performances. But that’s a minor quibble. As far as I’m concerned some Hammer is better than none at all.
I think the reassessment of their films and a re-evaluation of where Hammer stands as part of celluloid history comes largely from people like me, people of a certain age. I was too young to visit the cinema for any of these movies (indeed seeing The Woman in Black II: Angel of Death on the big screen was my first cinematic Hammer, perhaps my last given the way things appear to be going) so catching late night televised offerings was the order of the day. Having started my initiation into the horror genre with the Universal double bills served up on BBC2, it was a short step from there to the Technicolor blood and cleavages of Hammer and The Brides of Dracula was the first I ever watched. At best I was ten or eleven years old, and I had never seen anything quite like it. The experience was both terrifying and elating. There’s a scene where Peter Cushing’s heroic Van Helsing is investigating a castle for signs of vampirism. While he stands in the foreground of the shot, facing the camera on the right of the screen, the left takes in the long perspective of the room and at the end a door. A woman appears just on the other side, someone we know has been ‘made undead’, and quietly she approaches. It’s just a few seconds, but the forced perspective makes it an agonising wait before Van Helsing realises he isn’t alone and turns to face the woman. Moments like these, really simple scenes yet beautiful in their construction, are what sold the film to me. At the time, the faltering acting skills of doe-eyed Yvonne Monlaur flew straight over my head, as did the clearly visible strings that held those bats in their air. What mattered was the atmosphere, which dripped with danger, the calm assuredness of Van Helsing and a plot that wrapped everything up in less than ninety minutes. By the end I was ready for more and as I remember it The Curse of the Werewolf came the following week, which was almost as good.
With more than thirty years logged between that first breathless viewing and now, and with the majority of Hammer’s back catalogue of horrors watched, the Brides of Dracula remains pretty much my favourite. Perhaps it all harks back to that first viewing; I never felt that gnawing sense of dread with any of their other films. But I think there’s more to it than that. At their best, these films played like dark fairytales, set in some remote Central European location around the turn of the twentieth century to ensure a sense of dislocation and to enforce an environment of peasant superstitions and societies that aren’t yet equipped for scientific rationality. The Brides of Dracula takes place in Transylvania. It was originally written to include Lee’s Count once again, but the actor refused to return to the cape* and Jimmy Sangster was forced to revise his screenplay, including an opening narration that introduced the concept of Dracula’s disciples taking over his diabolical work. In a great bit of casting, Hammer made matinee-handsome David Peel into the film’s villain, with Cushing’s charismatic authority figure its hero. Peel’s Baron starts the film in chains, confined to a wing of the Meinster Castle by his mother (Martita Hunt) and kept alive by the blood of the young women she brings home to him. One such is Marianne (Monlaur), bound to start a teaching job in the area but waylaid en route by the Baroness, who arranges for her carriage to leave and then invites her to stay the night at the castle. Unknowingly, Marianne is heading for Meinster’s fangs, but there’s a twist. Instead of killing her, the Baron appeals to Marianne’s good nature and begs her to find the key to his bonds. She does so, believing the austere Baroness is one horse short of a full carriage, and with that he’s free. He kills his own mother, leaving Marianne to run for her life and by lucky chance into the path of Van Helsing, who’s visiting at the appeal of a local priest to look into some strange deaths.
The stage is set for a showdown between Meinster and Van Helsing, but not before a couple of local girls are killed and become vampires themselves, and the good Professor has to deal also with the Baron’s human servant, Greta, played by the second billed and reliably demented Freda Jackson. There are some sweetly judged moments of comedy to be found, in the shape of Henry Oscar’s class-driven Herr Lang, and later in the foolish and greedy Doctor played by Miles Malleson. Mostly though, it’s horror all the way, and the cherry picking of the Dracula legend in Sangster’s script that makes free use of Bram Stoker’s source novel to produce something both reverential and original. Peel makes for a great bad guy. Brilliant make-up and lighting effects transform him from an Adam Faith lookalike in his ‘normal’ guise to a rather terrifying monster, not to mention a choosy one – he simply attacks the ‘ordinary’ girls while Marianne, whose adjudged to have good breeding, is actively courted. In real life, Peel was gay and he brought an effete feyness to his performance, not to mention a hunger about the way he eventually betters and attacks Van Helsing in one of the film’s more thrilling scenes. The pair’s tussles make for fine cinema. They’re nicely matched and the film draws out that fact, though it’s disappointing to see that the two girls (Andree Melly and Marie Devereux) who become the Baron’s brides have so little to do, though the former does get one scene playing alongside Marianne that carries a genuine level of threat.
It’s pulled together by the sterling work of director Terence Fisher and the cinematography of Jack Asher, two Hammer stalwarts who were arguably turning in their best work at the time. It’s Asher we have to thank for picking out all those colours in stained glass windows that festoon Meinster’s castle, casting eerie and disjointed light effects that make it feel so disorientating. and what about the scene in the stables, when Marianne is guarding Gina’s (Melly’s) coffin and in the background we hear the nervous clopping of horses, sensing at that animal level that something is very wrong? We don’t see the horses so we have to imagine their fretting, which makes the effect all the more potent. Fisher was a master of economical storytelling and really brought that to the fore here. Though The Brides of Dracula never feels rushed, scenes come and go without an inch of fat left on them, each one advancing the story and its characters towards their logical conclusion. The personalities of the people involved are teased out through little moments of exposition and some very fine acting. We learn that Van Helsing is a respected man of science through his assured manner and the reactions of those around him, nothing more than that, so when he does spring into action (and he does! Cushing brought a lot of athleticism to his roles before premature old age crept up on him) we have complete confidence in his abilities.
I would be lying if I said that The Brides of Dracula a perfect film. For a start, there’s a long shadow cast over it and that’s the absence of Dracula himself. Peel, as good as he is in playing Meinster (and it’s taken me a few watches to really appreciate his performance) is no Lee, and the Baron’s no Count. Yvonne Monlaur was one of a string of European lovelies cast not for her acting chops – I love the American trailer, which describes her as ‘France’s latest sex kitten’; a sign of the times if ever there was one. For seasoned Hammer fans the use of buxom babes over actors for their lead roles is all part of the fun – Barbara Shelley was the one exception who brought both looks and talent to the table – but I can see how her performance might grate. And there are numerous little inconsistencies that, once noticed, can undermine the overall effort, such as the Baron’s ability to transform into a bat that is somehow impeded when he’s wearing his leg iron; why doesn’t he just change and escape? I think bits like this are victims of the script rewrite, instances that might have been dealt with better by a consistent screenplay but were overlooked in the rush to get the film finished.
It takes thirty minutes, more than a third of the running time, for Cushing to enter the film. Once he does, it becomes his stage, one in which he blows everyone away as part of a commanding turn. Cushing fans routinely place this one at or near the top of the list and it isn’t hard to guess why. At the height of his powers and operating in the full knowledge that this is his picture, it’s great work and an all-round fine movie that finds the chief players at the top of their game.
The Brides of Dracula: *****
* It’s Lee himself who claims he turned down the chance to play Dracula again, whereas studio people insist the decision was more their’s. A murky, real-life sub-plot teases at Lee growing increasingly fed up at having to play second fiddle to Cushing, who was seen as Hammer’s real A-Lister, a suggestion borne out by the number of occasions when the latter played the central character and Lee was handed the ‘creature’ roles. As it is, Lee’s diffidence has stronger grounds in Hammer’s handling of the Count. Whereas Cushing’s long running character, Baron Frankenstein, went from strength to strength as the central figure of his Gothic nightmares, Dracula was less well served, the scripts reducing him to a character who did little more than make threats, bare his teeth and bark commands to the women who were under his spell, rarely letting him blossom as a character. Arguably he’s a weaker element in the direct Dracula sequel, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, in which he has to get by through sheer force of personality alone and refused to speak the hammy lines that were in the screenplay. Despite this, audience numbers kept the cape and blood-soaked fangs in business, giving the impression Hammer were doing something right, whereas in posterity the shameful truth is that The Brides of Dracula, the one entry in the series that doesn’t feature the Count at all, is almost certainly its strongest.