The morning has broken when Dr. Van Helsing’s carriage chanced upon Marianne lying unconscious in the forest. After reviving her, the doctor and his driver Carl took her to the “Running Boar Inn” where Father Stepnik had booked his boarding. From Johann, the landlord, he came to know of the death of a village girl whose wake is being held there now by a few male relatives.
The deceased maiden, attired in a clean beige satin gown, lay on a patterned sheet inside the wooden coffin. It is the custom that the men related to the deceased are bound to spend the night, short of sleep, keeping watch over the corpse. This is called the privegghia*.
Although no one knows how she died, a brief look at the girl’s bitten throat was enough for Dr. Van Helsing to know the reason. He found a garland of wild garlic flowers # around the girl’s neck, placed there by the superstitious Transylvanian villagers as a precaution against evil. (# It is also very usual to lay a thorny branch of wild-rose bush across the body to prevent it leaving the coffin).
Sometime later, finding Marianne fit to travel, he took her to the Lang School. En route, Marianne related the events at Castle Meinster to him. At the school, they were happily received by the principal’s wife, Frau Helga Lang, a jovial woman.
Although the principal was initially annoyed by her late arrival, upon realising the identity of the eminent Dr. Van Helsing, a Doctor of Philosophy, Theology, and Professor of Metaphysics, he was impressed enough to forgive Marianne.
When Dr. Van Helsing returned to the Inn, he learned that Hans, the dead girl’s father, a casualty of hard times, had buried his daughter in the churchyard which Fr. Stepnik objected because he had this inkling that she is not like all the rest*. Having met Fr. Stepnik who had send for Dr. Van Helsing to investigate the local nefarious activities, the doctor decided to seize the initiative and visit the girl’s grave to ensure that she will not rise as undead and become bound to this earth, which would initiate a new cycle of evil.
Later into the evening, at the girl’s grave, he was horrified to find Greta lying above it, gently tapping on the loose ground, urging the dead girl to wake up to go for her ghastly business. With constant prodding from Greta to push from underneath, the ground finally broke and a feminine hand came out. No sooner the lid of the coffin opened and the girl sat up, the hysterical Greta reached over and flicked the garland of wild garlic flowers off the girl’s neck. The reign of terror of the vampire has reached its full zenith. – (rest on the screen…..)
What is so ground-breaking about this horror film with a level of fear that has made some followers going gaga over it? “The Brides of Dracula” with its devilish violence and sexuality follows the formula of most of the classic Hammer horror films of the 1950s and 60s, a time when the vampires were elegantly dressed unlike someone displaying his buff biceps and abs in an ad of Paco Rabanne. Those spooky films were noted for their eerie storyline, good characterisation, inexpensive sets and gorgeous costumes (that appeared more lavish and expensive than they actually were), sharp and kinetic editing. The action is kept close to its original period and the climax always featured the triumph of the good over evil, despite the occasional dominance of the evil.
Most of these movies were of low-budget nature, created by Hammer in the family atmosphere at Bray Studios using the same producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, production designers, set/costume designers, including sets, costumes, etc.
Veteran Hammer director Terence (Terry) Fisher (1904-1980), an astonishing visionary, helmed the direction with an intuitive and decisive flair. A former editor in films from 1933, Fisher had directed “The Curse of Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, and “The Hounds of the Baskervilles” (1959) to impressive results. Born in London, Fisher began his career in 1928 as a clapper boy from which he worked his way up to become an apprentice editor (for Gainsborough Studios) before progressing to a trainee director with the Rank Organisation. Having been invited by Anthony Hinds to direct “The Last Page” (1951) for Exclusive/Hammer, his unique, laid-back style in gothic horror would start to develop with “The Curse of Frankenstein”. Reportedly, Fisher always insisted that the script came before all else in film-making, although he chose not to follow the original outline of Jimmy Sangster for the destruction of the vampire woman in “Dracula”. Staying within that framework and using minimal resources, Fisher was able to fashion up many horror creations with such power and conviction.
The cast is led by Peter “Wilton” Cushing (1913-1994), one of my favourite actors. Cushing had left the English theatre and moved to Hollywood’s “dream factory” in 1939 to commence his film career. Soon after his arrival there, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. In March 1942, he was back in England, fell in love with his future wife actress Helen Beck in April of that year. Cushing joined the Hammer horror school in 1956 to star in “The Curse of Frankenstein” which brought him instant international fame and set him on a course to face an assortment of monsters.
A great persona of humour, Cushing reportedly enjoyed learning not only his lines but his co-stars’ as well. Cushing gives a charismatic and commendable performance as the renowned vampire hunter whose strength is rooted in his knowledge, generosity, honour, discipline, and courage. A noteworthy scene that easily comes to my mind is the one in which Cushing perfectly conveys the learned man’s physical and mental agony upon his realization that he had been bitten by a menacing vampire and should instantly muster up a life-prolonging intervention to get rid of the curse, which he does with the help of a white hot poker from a brazier.
English actor David Peel (1920-1981), once a student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, was known to Cushing since their days in the 1954 BBC adaptation of “Beau Brummell”. In his last major role as Baron Meinster, Peel is acceptable, particularly convincing as a prisoner in the castle.
Although Peel had restrained from aping the mannerisms of Dracula, at times his depiction lacks the presence and menace of the vampire who recharges his batteries on young blood. This deficiency is understandable since, to the audience, the character of Baron Meinster is just a small fish compared to the animalistic ferocity of the chief Transylvanian Count who is successfully anchored in the public mind by the portrayal of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Dracula depicted by Lugosi and Lee appeared menacing and sexy even when he gently approached the woman, forcing his will on her, brushing his lips lightly on her cheek before sinking his teeth into the throbbing vein of her neck.
Actress Yvonne (Bèdat de) Monlaur (born 1939) is the daughter of a Russian count and his ballet dancer wife. It was her performance in “Avventura a Capri” that drew the attention of Anthony Hinds to her. After Monlaur’s arrival in England, she had much to be glad about since she could not only act in TV series but also in three films in quick succession – “Circus of Horrors” (1960), “The Brides of Dracula” and “The Terror of the Tongs” (1961), a low-budget Hammer film starring Christopher Lee. Known mainly for her roles in Hammer Film horrors, Monlaur also did a screen test for the role of Dominique “Domino” Derval in the James Bond vehicle “Thunderball” (1965) though the role eluded her since the producers eventually cast French actress Claudine Auger.
As student teacher Marianne Danielle, alone and new to the surroundings, everything from the way she dresses and does up her hair to the way she talks reveals the movie’s personality of a naïve young woman with good upbringing. However, the range of emotions Monlaur goes through needs refinement, while, in fact, her energy and beauty gleams throughout the movie.
British theatre and film actress Martita Hunt (née Burnett) (1900–1969), was reportedly trained as an actress under Dame Geneviève Ward and Lady Benson. She graduated from roles of spinsters to grande dames one of which is her role as Baroness Narbonne Meinster. She is noted for her role as Baroness Elena von Livenbaum in director Anatole Litvak’s Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner starrer “Anastasia” (1956) and as Grand Duchess Elise Lupavinova in director Charles Walters’ “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964).
As the mysterious Baroness dressed in glorious black and red, (folds flowing downwards in soft easy lines, sleeves full and bulging while on her head was a dark, embroidered filmy veil floating down the back like a Spanish mantilla), Hunt’s looks and mannerisms, highlighted by lights and camera angles, project a certain fear factor which initially leaves us with doubt whether it is she or her son who is the vampire. Her scenes at the Inn where the Baroness gains the confidence of Marianne and entices her to the castle are well acted.
There follows a scene of the Baroness’ encounter with Dr. Van Helsing when, looking pale and morbid, she bares her fangs but does not show the animalistic signs of nosferatu (described as a Romanian word for vampire) in spite the fact that the Baron had initiated his mother into his the realm of the “flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood” – creating a “little death” that gave her the gift of immortality (essential aspect of the vampire) and an eternal demonic bond with her son. Hunt’s depiction of the vampire here is noteworthy for her acting as well as its deviation from the general perception of the characteristic of a vampire.
Even with limited screen time, we cannot help but notice the fine performance of the British actress Freda Jackson (1909-1990) as the eccentric housekeeper/nurse of the Baron – especially, the eerie scene when the hysterical Greta coax the young girl to “push and push” (suggesting parturition) to emerge from her grave.
As much as Bram Stoker wished to demonise his female vampires, he did not create them with decomposing faces and bodies. Likewise, Hammer’s female vampires had beautiful but spitfire eyes, fair skin, voluptuous bodies clad in flimsy negligée, and pearly white fangs.
Beautiful English actress Andrée Melly (born 1932) acts in the role of Marianne’s roommate Gina who was initiated as a bride of the vampire. Andrée’s depiction of the vampire when Gina* tries to sink her fangs into a frightened, but naïve Marianne whose mind fails to register the fact that, by its very nature, the penetration of the vampire’s bite could transform its victim into undead, has come out convincingly.
Mona Washbourne (1904-1988) as the round and roly-poly Frau Helga Lang, the Principal’s wife, is a joy to watch. Her part, though minuscule, provides a fresh air of breath amongst the dark undertones of the movie.
Although obscured by a muffled scarf, hat and top coat, Michael “George” Ripper with his wide staring eyes and controlled mannerisms in a cameo role as the coachman of Marianne, is instantly recognisable.
The supporting characters in pivotal roles are represented by Norman Pierce (Johann, Landlord), Vera Cook (Landlord’s wife), Miles Malleson (Dr. Tobler), Henry Oscar (Herr Otto Lang, Principal), Fred Johnson (The Cure, Father Stepnik), Victor Brooks (Hans, Villager), Marie Devereux (Village girl), Harold Scott (Severin, stable-keeper), Michael Mulcaster (Mysterious man), etc.
The marvellous sets created by Production Designer Bernard Robinson, who enriched more than forty films for Hammer, provides a wonderful gothic feel of the period, namely, the splendidly furnished castle at “the land beyond the forest” featuring a grand staircase, spiral pillars, the griffins, candelabras, wooden furniture, etc.
Likewise, the old Transylvanian Inn with its old-fashioned wooden furniture, stone fireplace, wicker lamps, metal utensils on walls and cupboards, old clock, antique table glasses, wooden walking sticks, a coat-hanger that appeared like the branch of a tree, framed thread-works of flowers on the walls, etc, provides a traditional appearance that is customary in Hammer horrors. All of this was set up at Bray Studios.
The costumes were executed by Hammer Wardrobe mistress Molly Arbuthnot (1908-2001) who discharged the same assignment for “Dracula”. The film is well pieced together by Film Editor Alfred Cox (“The Revenge of Frankenstein”, “The Mummy”, etc).
The celluloid canvas of the movie was illustrated by master Cinematographer Jack Asher (1916-1991) whose immense talents in what is essentially a visual medium, was evident from his initial Eastman colour photography of “The Curse of Frankenstein”. His crisp photography created a sharp, eerie, and visceral look.
The horse-driven coaches, the gothic castle, the haunted cemetery, the simple Transylvanian woods and Inn are all beautifully photographed in glorious Technicolor in superb lighting which has a rich illuminating flavour.
Hairstylist Freda (Frieda) Steiger’s ingenuity is evident in David Peel’s look which was emphasised by a blond wig. You can identify a similar look on the blond character of Herbert von Krolock in Roman Polanski’s “Dance of the Vampires (1967 – “The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck”) which also feature a wonderful set of a Transylvanian Inn. Roy Ashton’s make-up appears a bit topped up, especially relating to Andrée Melly and Marie Devereux.
The other members of the crew are: Anthony Nelson-Keys (Associate Producer), Michael Carreras (Executive Producer), John Hollingsworth (Musical Supervisor), John Peverall (Assistant Director), Len Harris (Camera Operator), Sidney Pearson (Special Effects), etc.
The soundtrack dominated by organ, is composed by Australian-born prolific composer Malcolm “Benjamin Graham Christopher” Williamson (1931-2003). Though repetitive, it is nevertheless romantic and genuinely suits the tone of the movie. Being his first film score, Williamson would go on to compose scores for several Hammer productions. A former nightclub pianist whose music maintained a touch of the jolliness and forthrightness of his native Australia, he was the first non-Britain appointed as Master of the Queen’s Music (in 1975) whose duties include composing appropriate music for state events. In 1976, he was appointed CBE., and an officer of the Order of Australia in 1987.
Even if you will not miss Dracula or Christopher Lee, “The Brides of Dracula” does have few flaws. It does not offer any explanation about the motive or connection to the castle of the mysterious man who coerced the coach-driver to ditch Marianne at the Inn. Besides, he never turns up after his initial appearances in which he could be sometimes mistaken for Christopher Lee from the distance. In another instance, Marianne had left her luggage at the Inn and miraculously, it was waiting for her inside the room assigned for her in the castle. The garland of wild garlic flowers does not appear to be an impediment to the dead village girl to rise from the grave.
However, Terence Fisher maintains the suspense while keeping the film well-structured with taut narrative, visually impressive – the atmosphere top notch. As an added incentive, here is Peter Cushing, the great perfectionist and believer in politeness, at what he does best – the positive aspects that would ultimately win this movie a cult following.
By the sixth year after the release of “The Brides of Dracula”, I was into the second year of my school days when, once again Christopher Lee donned the long dark cloak and appeared as the Count in director Terence Fisher’s “Dracula: Prince of Darkness”. That was another reincarnation which would subsequently spawn various horrific and brutal sequels. Though the subject matter would not be necessarily attractive to just anybody, there are many who sought and welcomed the appearance of this abhuman entity. Bram Stoker wrote in his novel: “He may not enter anywhere at the first, unless there be some one of the household who bid him to come, though afterwards he can come as he please.” Are you very warm and welcoming? Until next time, Ciao, Jo
1) The DVD of this movie is available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc. Reportedly, the Blu-ray version is scheduled for release on July 22, 2013.
2) In “Chapter XXV: The Roumanians: Death and Burial – Vampires and Were-wolves” (Page 318) of “The Land Beyond The Forest: Facts, Figures & Fancies From Transylvania” (published in 1888), its author Emily Gerard recounts: “In the case of a (man) who has died a violent death, or …..without a light, such a (man) has neither right to bocete, privegghia, mass, or pomeana (funeral feast), nor is his body laid in consecrated ground…..”. Gerard’s book had quite an influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
3) Scene of the Wake: Although we can see a man standing in the back of the room who could be leading the wake, the film shows only chanting of prayer and omits “Bocete”, the mourning songs usually sung over the corpse by paid mourners. According to Gerard’s book: “Bocete is sung as a “last attempt by the survivors to wake the dead to life by reminding him of all (he) is leaving, and urging (him) to make a final effort to arouse his dormant faculties, – the thought which underlies these proceedings being that the dead man hears and sees all that goes on around him, and that it only requires the determined effort of a strong will in order to restore elasticity to the stiffened limbs and cause the torpid blood to flow anew in the veins.”
4) When Gina’s corpse was watched over in the night as instructed by Dr. Van Helsing, it is kept in the stable inside a closed coffin. According to Gerard’s book, the corpse must remain exposed a full day and night. Maybe the film-makers kept the lid closed in order to dramatize the following scene.
5) Listen closely for the faint notes of “Hallelujah” in the climax scene.
6) A movie tie-in novel “The Brides of Dracula” by Dean Owen is available in some bookstores including amazon.com.
7) This illustrated article is meant for the promotion of this movie. Please refer to “About” for more details.
(This review is dedicated to the memory of Peter Cushing, OBE, one of the finest British actors whose 100th birthday falls on May 26, 2013)
(Text: © JS/Manningtree Archive)