It's "Hammer" country. The bright Technicolor, the lush sets, the brash musical score, the violence, the women whose bosoms seem just about to burst free....
Hammer Films Productions Ltd. made the best period horror films of the 1960s (Italian Mario Bava's superb black and white La Maschera del demonio or Black Sunday being a notable exception). Almost without peer. The cycle of Dracula films, starting with 1958's Dracula (Horror of Dracula, in the United States) with Christopher Lee as the count and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing were highly popular and even critically well-liked (less so in their time but since then there has been a reappraisal of the worth of genre cinema). Cycles featuring the mummy and Frankenstein's monster were also successful, though the studio is probably best-known for its vampire films.
One that seems to have slipped through the cracks is the excellent Brides of Dracula (1960), probably for two main reasonsno Christopher Lee and, in fact, no Dracula at all. It's a shame, as it's a wonderful example of just what Hammer did right (the only American films to even make an attempt at what they were doing were Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations).
It opens (following the credits) with a shot of a pale sky through leafless tree branches. We are introduced to
Transylvania. land of dark forests, dread mountains, and black, unfathomed lakes. Still the home of magic and devilry as the nineteenth century comes to a close.
Count Dracula, monarch of all the vampires, is dead. But his disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world.
It starts, much like the original novel (and most film versions), with a wild coach ride through the woods in what appears to be a race to beat nightfall to the next town. The traveler, Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur, probably cast for her looks and French accent over acting ability) is a young school teacher from Paris with an appointment at a school nearby. A log briefly blocks the road while a suspicious man secretly boards the back of the coach. Arriving at the local inn (they always stop there first, don't they?), she enters and is warned away and begged not to stay. Of course the coach leaves her stranded (like they always do)the mysterious man paid off the driver.
Forced to stay the night, another coach arrives. This one carrying an older woman of apparent noble bearing and birththe Baroness Meinster. She invites Marianne to be a guest in the more suitable surroundings at the chateau (surprise? not really, but I think the point is that everything works so that the standard plot devices and trajectory don't matter as the viewer is drawn into the story). If she hasn't given off enough of an air of menace, it's suggested more clearly when Marianne says she is "very kind" to take her in.
"No, I'm not. No, I'm nothing of the sort. I'm a very lonely woman who often longs for the company of someone with a little breedinga rare thing in these parts."
They arrive at the chateau, all fairy tale-esque in its Technicolor gloryprimary colors standing out and against strongly delineated shadows, a wonderful nonrealistic view of the world perfectly suited for the sort of story being told (no wonder Italian director Dario Argento used three-strip Technicolor when he made his classic 1977 dark fairy tale Suspiria). There, Marianne sees a table with an extra placethe only other (not really) inhabitant being a female servant named Greta. She's informed it's in case someone stops by. Indeed. When asked if she would like some soup, the Baroness replies that she has "very little appetite." Curiouser and curiouser.
That night she discovers the castle's other inhabitantthe Baroness' son, the Baron Meinster, who she later discovers is kept in his room with a heavy chain shackled to his leg. She is told that he is "ill" and has "destroyed my piece of mind these last years." People once came from all over Europe to the chateau for parties and gatherings but no longer that he has "ruined it all." "It hurt me too much not to be able to present my only child to my friends. To have to keep him locked up." She refuses to even interact with him, letting Greta care for him.
He, who made her "suffer so appallingly," is dead to the world"we pray for death, he and I. At least I hope he does. The people around here think he's dead already.... I encourage that belief." As Marianne turns to go to bed, she says "God bless, you." The Baroness rolls her eyes, muttering "if only he could."
Intrigued by the son, she visits him, hearing the other side of the story. About the mother who is a "vicious, evil" person who keeps him locked up, letting the people think he's dead. Mesmerized and enchanted by the sympathetic son, she steals the key and releases him. The two meet up with the mother. He tells Marianne to return to her room and approaches the mother, his voice powerful and commanding, with a hint of something elseno longer meek and pleading. One hears the mother cry out.
The following day, Marianne comes upon the Greta who has discovered the castle's two other inhabitants missing. Marianne wants to know where he is but she doesn't know. She can show her where the Baroness is: sitting dead in a chair. Greta cries out "she's dead and he's free!" Cries that turn into maniacal laughter.
Marianne flees, as Greta delivers a monologue explaining the relationships in the castle. How when she came to work there the son was already "spoiled," "self-willed and cruel." How the Baroness "encouraged him" in his behavior, the "bad company" he kept and their "wicked games." And how "in the end, one took himmade him what he is." The Baroness, while keeping him chained up, procured young girls for him so he could be nourished by their blood (presumably the occupation of the mysterious stowaway on the coach). She knows he'll be back though, opening a red curtain behind which lies his coffin. And if there were any lingering doubts, the body of the mother is revealed with the telling bite marks on her neck. The mark of her son.
Marianne is found, having collapsed on the road in the woods. The man who finds her is none other than the fearless vampire killer Doctor Van Helsingonce again played superbly by the great Peter Cushing (who was a hell of a lot better actor than Christopher Lee could ever hope to be, even if he got the Dracula roles). Van Helsing is headed to the town from the opening where he has been summoned by the local priest.
Marianne is taken to her position at the school. On the way, Van Helsing has her tell him everything about the chateau where the Meinsters live. He explains to her that he studied a "sickness" that is "partly physical, partly spiritual."
In town, his fears are realizedthere is a vampire afoot. A wake is being held for a local girl who died in a way no one can fathom (that only Van Helsing seems to suspect it has to do with the obvious puckered punctures on her neck is never explained). The night she is expected to "return," he stakes out the grave (grin) and observes a mad Greta giving the girl instructions on how to escape the coffin. She rises but the priest shows up as Van Helsing is about to attack and the girl runs. He tries to follow but is accosted by a large bat (very poor bat effectsthe fangs in the film are a bit sub-par, too).
He visits the chateau, finding the Baroness, now a vampire. But she's a pitiful creature, wracked with guilt for having encouraged her son and keeping him alive all these years. Now that he has escaped, she is trapped as an undead, compelled to do whatever her son orders (later Van Helsing, mercifully, "releases" her). The Baron shows up but is chased off by the doctor's heavy crucifix.
Meanwhile, the Baron has made his presence known by visiting the school and enticing Marianne to announce their engagement to be married. There, he turns Marianne's friend into a vampire, creating his second bride (Greta may not be a real vampireas Van Helsing explains to the priest, a vampire needs a human to attend to and protect him). "Bride" is an important concept, given the sexual subtext of the film (usually present in the Hammer films and something that became more overtmoving beyond subtext to pure exploitationlater on).
There are obvious oedipal implications in a mother who procures women for her son's sustenance, followed by his "taking" her, turning her into a vampire. Even more than the suggestive sexuality of the bite and exchange of blood, itself, Van Helsing describes the bite (in a scene with the priest, of all people) as a "kiss." The intimacy required to be able to penetrate another's neck furthers that subtext. That the "taste" is often taken after coercion or against protestations (or after mesmerizing the victim), it cannot be seen without the suggestion of rape. That he only kills the men, rather than the women is notable.
Marianne is to marry him, thus giving him full access to her. Her friend pines away, wishing it had been her getting engaged, before getting her wish when the Baron comes and "takes" herin, as so often is the case, her own bedroom and in her nightclothes. As he moves to bite her, his tongue is teasingly visible as preface to his "kiss." Later she rises from her coffin and tries to make Marianne a vampire. She asks her "darling Marianne" to "put your arms around me please, I want to kiss you" and asks for forgiveness for letting him "love me" (implying that the taking of life and creating the undead is equitable with love). She promises they can both love him and invites her to the "old mill" to be together. Before Marianne acquiesces, Van Helsing bursts in, scaring the girl away.
Van Helsing enters the mill, finding empty coffins as he quickly moves around taking advantage of the nicely constructed set, using ropes and iron rings to aid his movement. There he encounters the brides and loses his crucifix in the scuffle. The Baron enters, enraged. They battle, Van Helsing finally being choked with a heavy chain before being bitten (the only male to bepossibly since he is viewed as a counterpart or equal to the Baron).
Meanwhile, the Baron breaks into Marianne's room at the school where she has fled. He gets to her before she can reach the tiny crucifix draped over the mirror in which he casts no reflection. They return to the mill where Van Helsing has come to, and realizing his situation, takes a hot iron from a brazier and burns his neck, cauterizing the wound. He then uses the holy water provided by the priest to cleanse it ("partly physically, partly spiritually," to be sure). The wound heals, leaving his neck unblemished.
The Baron informs him that Marianne will now become one of them and Van Helsing will watch her "initiation." He takes the container of holy water and flings it at the Baron in the sign of the cross, severely burning and scarring his face. In retaliation, the Baron tips the brazier, lighting the straw on the floor afire that spreads to the wood of the structure. Cut off from the exit by the Baron and the flames rush up the stairs toward the top of the building while the vampire escapes to the courtyard.
On the roof, they find a ladder to climb down, but Van Helsing cannot let the Baron get away. In one of the more clever vampire demises in film, the doctor leaps up, catching the end of one of the windmill blades and pulling it down until it shadows the courtyard with a large cross, trapping the Baron Meinster at its center. He dies and Van Helsing comforts Marianne while the mill burns starkly against the black night sky (not unlike the ending of James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein).
(Source: my personal copy of the film on video tape)