I teach Bram Stoker's novel Dracula almost every semester in an introduction to literature course, so I have a certain fondness for vampire films. But, as I tell my students every semester, the "quality-to-crap ratio" is pretty off balance in the genre, and I've given up on seeking out new vampire films unless they have something extraordinary to recommend them. I do, however, frequently extoll to my students the virtues of the Dracula cycle from England's Hammer Studios, despite the presence of many duds in the final years of Hammer productions. The Hammer films were known for kicking up the sex and violence from the Universal horror cycle while also featuring a fine repertory of actors: most notably, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The series started with Horror of Dracula (1958), a very loose adaptation of the Stoker novel with Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing and Lee as Dracula. Lee wouldn't return to play Dracula for another eight years in Dracula--Prince of Darkness (1966), and even in that film, it takes more than half the movie for Dracula's servant to revive his master from the ashes of his fate in the first film. (The conclusion of that movie also featured one of the worst ways to defeat a vampire: Dracula is frozen in a lake. That doesn't defeat him--it just makes him someone else's problem later.)
In between those two movies, however, Hammer put out a couple of very good vampire movies: Brides of Dracula (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1962). Kiss of the Vampire, unfortunately, devolves from an awesome opening scene, where a mysterious, possibly drunk man stumbles into a somber funeral and suddenly thrusts a shovel into the grave and through the casket. When a scream and fountain of blood emit from the casket, several attendants faint and the man walks away. The camera then goes into the grave and through the casket to reveal that the young woman being buried is really a vampire! Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to the opening, though it's still enjoyable.
I really enjoy Brides of Dracula, despite the false advertising of the title. While there are several vampire brides, Dracula is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we have Dracula's apprentice, of sorts: Baron Meinster, played by blond actor David Peel.
Also, the poster claims that the vampire "turns a girls' school into a Chamber of Horrors," but the movie fails to live up to that tantalizing promise as well. However, we do get the return of Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, putting this film in continuity with the rest of the Dracula cycle. So, minus Christopher Lee, this film has everything I love about the Hammer Dracula films, including the gothic setting and the psychosexual horror elements. The film was also directed by Terence Fisher, who directed most of the great Hammer horror films.
The film opens, as so many of these Hammer films do, with a young woman, Marianne, arriving in a strange village, near an all-girls school where she's about to start work as a teacher. Her carriage stops at an inn along the way, and the villagers start behaving strangely, refusing to serve her and advising her to move along. However, her carriage suddenly leaves without her, and the villagers all clear out of the inn for some mysterious reason. Moments later, thundering hooves can be heard from another carriage, and the Baroness Meinster enters the inn. She begins striking up a conversation wit Marianne despite the protestations of the innkeepers, who seem to know something about the Baroness. Soon, the Baroness has convinced Marianne to spend the night at Castle Meinster before embarking on the last leg of her journey in the morning.
I'm a sucker for this kind of opening--you see it in a lot of Hammer films, as well as movies like Die, Monster, Die!, which I commented on in an earlier post. These villagers have been living with this unspeakable horror their entire lives, and their moral system is so completely tuned to self-preservation that they easily sacrifice a total stranger.
While getting settled in her room at Castle Meinster, Marianne steps out on her balcony and sees a beautiful young man chained up in a room below. When she asks the Baroness about this, she responds that her son is "ill." Later, Marianne again looks out to the balcony to see the young man apparently trying to leap to his death, fearing the worst, she rushes to the room to save him. The young man then explains that he is the Baron Meinster, and his mother keeps him prisoner in the room. Feeling sympathy, Marianne resolves to help him escape.
Throughout these opening scenes, the viewer is in the same position as Marianne, assuming that the mother is the monster here, keeping her innocent son chained in his room. However, once Marianne allows him to escape, we learn that the truth is far worse: he's a deadly vampire, and his mother was the only one keeping him from running amok in the nearby villages. We also learn, though, that the mother has had to make some serious moral compromises to keep her son this way--she frequently would bring him young women to satisfy his hunger, and Marianne was soon to be the next victim.
The mother/son relationship is just one of the elements that make this movie interesting. Once the Baron is free, the first thing he does is transform his own mother into a vampire by biting her neck in a scene that does more than imply incest: "He has taken the blood of his own mother," she explains to Van Helsing as willingly allows herself to be destroyed by him later in the movie.
Van Helsing appears in the village at the behest of the local priest, who is trying to convince villagers that something must be done about the recent deaths of many of their young women. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing is coldly methodical. He's long since dealt with the emotional and moral issues of destroying vampires, and he has little time or patience for those who wish to treat the vampires as if they were still their loved ones.
My favorite part of this movie, though, is the climax, which contains one of the more clever methods of destroying a vampire. Van Helsing tracks a recently turned vampire bride to an old windmill, where The Baron soon arrives with Marianne. In the ensuing fight, the Baron bites Van Helsing and leaves him to his transformation. Van Helsing, however, acts quickly, cauterizing the bite wounds with a hot blacksmith's iron and dousing the burn with holy water. This does the trick, and he returns to the fight. The Baron then attempts to escape by torching the windmill. As the Baron runs away, Van Helsing makes his way to the top of the windmill, jumping on the blades and turning them so that their shadow, when cast across the Baron's path, make the form of a cross. The Baron then collapses dead in the shadow. This may be a bit silly, but it shows some of the inventiveness of these early Hammer horror films.
There are two good Hammer horror DVD boxed sets that I know about. The "Horror Collection" contains six movies all together, including three Dracula films: Horror of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and Taste the Blood of Dracula. Unfortunately, the set skips Dracula--Prince of Darkness, and therefore confuses the continuity between movies. Brides of Dracula , along with Kiss of the Vampire, can be found on "The Hammer Horror Series," which features eight movies on two disks with no extras.