Saturday, 6 August 2016

Hammer Films' The Brides of Dracula (1960)

 (This post is part of "The British Invaders Blogathon" hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

The "Dracula" movies produced by Hammer Films from the late Fifties into the Seventies number among my favourite horror movies ever made. And for me it will always be Sir Christopher Lee whose image enters my mind when I think of Dracula. It is then curious that Sir Christopher Lee does star as Dracula in my all time favourite Hammer Film, despite its title. Not only does Dracula not appear in The Brides of Dracula (1960), but he is only mentioned twice in the whole film. Regardless, The Brides of Dracula remains one of my favourite horror movies of all time and my favourite film Hammer ever produced.

It was in 1958 that Hammer Films released Dracula (titled Horror of Dracula in the United States), their adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic novel. Alongside their earlier film The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula was one of the earliest Gothic horror movies to be released in colour and both were among the first to inject a healthy dose of sexuality into the proceedings. Dracula proved to be a smash hit on both sides of the Pond. With such success it was perhaps natural that Hammer Films wanted to produce a sequel.

As it turned out, that sequel would not star Sir Christopher Lee. After having played Frankenstein's Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula in the film of the same name, as well as having been cast in the title role in The Mummy (1959), Sir Christopher Lee was concerned about being typecast in monster roles. As a result he was reluctant to once more play Dracula. Despite this Hammer Films went ahead with their plans for a sequel. It was in early 1959 that producer Anthony Hinds hired screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (who had already penned X: The Unknown, The Curse of Frankenstein, and Dracula for Hammer) to write a sequel. The end result was Disciple of Dracula, which centred on a follower of the vampire. Dracula was set to only appear at the beginning of the film and the end of the film, at which point he would put the disciple of the title back in line.

By the autumn of 1959 Disciple of Dracula had been retitled Dracula the Damned. Given Sir Christopher Lee did not want to return as Dracula, the screenplay did present Hammer with a problem It was at that time, then, that Anthony Hinds hired Peter Bryan, who had written the studio's adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), to rewrite the script and remove all references to Dracula. Not only did Mr. Bryan remove Dracula from the screenplay entirely, but he also brought back the character of Dr. Van Helsing and made other major changes as well.  Indeed, Peter Bryan is generally credited with the film's ultimate title: The Brides of Dracula. Star Peter Cushing would be responsible for one major change to the script. Peter  Peter Bryan's screenplay included a climax in which Van Helsing calls upon the forces of Hell to destroy the vampiric antagonist with a swarm of bats. Peter Cushing felt that Van Helsing would never stoop to black magic, so the climax was rewritten.

Despite this, after Peter Bryans' completed screenplay was sent to Peter Cushing in November 1959,  the actor refused to do the film. Antony Hinds then hired playwright Edward Percy (perhaps best known for having co-written the play Ladies in Retirement with  Reginald Denham) to rewrite Peter Bryan's screenplay. Edward Percy did not change a lot in the screenplay beyond giving it a more period flavour. Regardless, Peter Cushing finally decided to do the film.

While Peter Cushing had finally elected to once more play Van Helsing, that would not end the problems Hammer Films had in completing The Brides of Dracula. Hammer Films had a delivery date to keep with Universal (who was distributing the film in the United States) and the various revisions to the screenplay had delayed production from late 1959 to early 1960. With time of the essence, Anthony Hinds chose not to submit the screenplay to the British Board of Film Censorship (BBFC) before filming began, but instead to try to head off any problems with the BBFC by rewriting any possibly objectionable material even as shooting started. Amazingly enough given much of the content of the film, the BBFC's only major objection to The Brides of Dracula when the completed film was submitted to them was the staking of vampires. Anthony Hinds told the BBFC that there had been a similar scene in the first movie and so the scenes remained. Apparently there were some other minor cuts to The Brides of Dracula, although they do not appear to have been documented. Regardless, the BBFC passed the film with an "X" certificate.

While today The Brides of Dracula is regarded as a classic and by some as the quintessential Hammer Film, it did not receive the best reviews upon its initial release. In the United Kingdom The London Observer referred to it as "a ludicrous monstrosity". In the United States, in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote of the film, "For here is but another repetition of the standard tale of the vampire bugaboo who likes to sink his oversized dentures into the necks of pretty girls" and "There is nothing new or imaginative about it." The tone of reviews of The Brides of Dracula at the time probably did not surprise Hammer, as they were similar to those the original Dracula (1958) had received. That having been said, like Dracula, The Brides of Dracula also did very well in the box office on both sides of the Atlantic.

Being the product of four different writers (Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Percy, with uncredited rewrites done by Anthony Hinds), one would think The Brides of Dracula would have turned out very badly. Fortunately it would turn out to be one of the the best Hammer Horrors (some even consider it to be the best). In The Brides of Dracula Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing) once more faces off against a vampire, one who this time has an entire girls school to prey upon. While at times the story lags, over all The Brides of Dracula is one of Hammer's most exciting and frightening films.

What is more, in The Brides of Dracula there is no doubt that Peter Cushing is the star. As might be expected, he gives the best performance of any of the cast. What is more Van Helsing is given more to do than he is in perhaps any other Hammer film in which he appears. Peter Cushing gets to be very much the action star, swinging from ropes and dropping from windmills. Van Helsing even gets the closest thing to a love interest he ever had in the Hammer films in the form of French school teacher Marianne (played by Yvonne Monlaur).

The rest of the cast also does quite well. While many have criticised David Peel as Baron Meinster for not quite coming up to the standard set by Sir Christopher Lee as Dracula, it must be pointed out that Sir Christopher Lee set the bar so high that almost no other actor has ever reached it since. I personally thought David Peel did very well in the role. His Baron Meinster is alternately charming and sinister. He is also a very different sort of vampire from Dracula. While Dracula was a taciturn aristocrat, Meinster is Oscar Wilde as a vampire. Meinster is impulsive, hedonistic, and self-absorbed. He truly enjoys being a vampire and as a result he proves to be a worthy adversary to Van Helsing. Martita Hunt also gives a great performance as his mother, the sinister and ultimately tragic Baroness Meinster.

Ultimately The Brides of Dracula takes the Hammer formula further than the original Dracula (1958) did and even some of the later entries in Hammer's "Dracula" series would. Sexuality plays an even bigger role in The Brides of Dracula, to the point that the film even has overtones of homoeroticism and incest. The film also has some truly creepy scenes, including Marianne's initial trip through the woods of Transylvania. What is more, The Brides of Dracula has more action than any other Hammer film save perhaps Kronos (1974--known as Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter in the United States).

The Brides of Dracula is hardly a perfect film and has its fair share of flaws. In the end, however, the film is so exciting, creepy, and entertaining that its flaws are easily overlooked. Ultimately, The Brides of Dracula is definitely a film whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Although it must have seemed a difficult task at the time, Hammer succeeded in making a a "Dracula" movie without Dracula.

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