Brides of Dracula

Hammer Films, 1960
Directed by Terence Fisher

For Hammer's first sequel to their hit Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee was not yet interested in reprising the title role, so the studio contrived a plot involving another vampiric nobleman, the Baron Meinster, in the same Germanic milieu. The only link to the preceding story is the presence of the fearless vampire slayer Doctor Van Helsing, and a vague statement at the beginning of the movie: "Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead. But his disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world." The notion of Dracula as the leader of all the vampires was not present in the original film, but helps to establish a link between him and the vampires of this movie.

The story finds a young French schoolteacher, Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) traveling alone to her new post at a girl's academy in Badstein. Along the way, a mysterious stranger bribes her frightened, guilty-looking coachman to abandon her at a small town. The innkeeper and his wife, who must rank as the friendliest bunch of fear-crazed locals in the Hammer Dracula canon, do their best to hustle her out of town, but stop short of telling her that the elderly Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) who befriends her has been the death of many a young woman traveler. All unsuspecting, our heroine goes with the Baroness to spend the night at her castle, and finds a young man—the Baron Meinster—thought by the locals to be dead, who is being kept captive with a chain around his ankle. Taken in by his blond good looks and evident charm, the young lady engineers his escape, thus unleashing him on the countryside to resume the  fiendish depravities of the Undead. 

The first sign that Marianne might have made a mistake is the long hysterical cackling of family servant Greta (Freda Jackson), as she kneels by the unlocked chains that held the Baron until recently.  Greta later acts as a sort of deranged cheerleader for the new vampires in the story.

Luckily for the locals, their curé has already sent for the assistance of Doctor Van Helsing of Leyden University, where he is Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Theology, and Professor of Metaphysics. So eminent an expert easily understands what the buffoonish local medical man does not, that the local superstition about vampires is well founded, and the twin cuts on the neck of a newly departed local girl show that she has become the latest victim of the fiendish plague.

A curiousity is that in one shot, Van Helsing's medical bag can clearly be seen to bear the initials JVH, which would seem to indicate that his first name begins with "J" rather than being Abraham as in Stoker's original story. However, the bag is so old and beat-up looking, it could have belonged to his father. It also includes some implements that might make a patient nervous: a mallet and several wooden stakes, neatly wrapped in chamois.

Virtues and Vices
The greatest strong point of the movie is Peter Cushing's dashing, intense performance as Van Helsing. As a plus, the writers gave him some surprisingly literate dialog. Another great strength is the design work of Bernard Robinson, who was also on Horror of Dracula. (Watch for his signature spiral pillars in the main castle.) Michael Ripper, a regular character actor in several of the Hammer Dracula films, has a tiny role here as the coachman at the start; his face is half-covered in every shot.

The weak points of the movie include the Baron Meinster character, who is not drawn very vividly. David Peel was not given much to work with in the role, but he also simply looks ridiculous whenever he bares his fangs. Another weakness is the laughably thick white makeup slathered on the faces of the vampire "brides," which looks all the more incongruous since the rest of their skin has its natural color. A "comic relief" doctor character also does little to advance the story.

 The coach that Marianne is taking to her teaching job lists destinations including Badstein, Ingolstadt, Abensburg, and Regensburg. Of these, the latter three are actual cities in South Bavaria, Germany. Badstein has evaded my Google searches; it means literally "bath stone" and one can imagine it being a spa town, closer to Ingolstadt than the other cities. This means that the vampire plague supposed to have afflicted Karlstadt in the first movie has cropped up about 70 miles to the South-East (By the way, Ingolstadt has genre associations, having been the site of Victor Frankenstein's university studies.)

Vampire Lore
Dr. Van Helsing gives a handy lecture on vampirism in response to the questioning of the local curé: "It's a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions, in their struggle against Christianity... The vampire, by its kiss, the taking of blood from its victim, makes of that victim another vampire. And so the cult grows: infinitely slowly,  but it grows. The vampire rests in the day, usually in his tomb, issuing as a living form only at night. That means they need the help, the protection, of a human being during the hours of daylight... If it wasn't for this protection, the vampires could be tracked down during the day and destroyed."

The curé asks: "How can they be destroyed?" 

Van Helsing: "By driving a wooden stake through the heart, or by burning. The tormented soul is then released to return to the peace of death. These colonies such as you have here must be wiped out. Only then will this bondage of Hell be lifted from the world."

"Are there ways of telling these undead from the living?"

"They are repelled by holy things and Christian images. They are thin, they have an air of hunger about them, they cast no reflection."

"Not in water? Not in a mirror?"

"No. Some have the power to transform themselves into bats." 

This lecture shows that Van Helsing's views have changed somewhat since the first movie, when he denied that vampires can transform into bats or wolves. Also, this may be the only Hammer vampire movie where the vampires cast no reflections. For example, in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Dracula's reflection appears in water. In Vampire Lovers, Mircalla is shown brushing her hair in a mirror.

Interestingly, although the two young women who arise as vampires show an instant, voluptuous glee and desire to attack others, the old Baroness hides her fangs in distress and willingly remains with Van Helsing until dawn so he can put her out of her misery. 

Apparently the vampiric mindset doesn't "take" equally well with all victims. What is more peculiar is that while the baroness was relatively depraved in life, given to abducting victims for her Undead son, at least one of the young vampiresses was a relatively sympathetic person in life. Perhaps the evil that has been most thoroughly repressed, bursts forth the more strongly after the vampiric conversion?

The power of garlic in this story seems more doubtful. Although Van Helsing shows approval when he sees that the village girl was buried with a garland of garlic flowers, she seems totally unbothered by them when she rises up from the grave. Still, Greta solicitously lifts the flowers off her.

Baron Meinster seems to lack the usual super-strength attributed to nosferatu, as in his fight with Van Helsing they seem relatively evenly matched. Unlike most of the rest of the Hammer series, the vampires in this one do show the ablity to transmute into bats for purposes of escape, attack, or just easy travel. More surprisingly, they seem to be able to dematerialize solid objects. Thus, the padlocks fall off of vampire Gina's coffin without ever being unlocked. Similarly, the village girl vampire sticks her hand up out of the earth, even though her coffin lid was still closed at the time. (The latter example is probably just a continuity error, but the former was certainly deliberate.)

The highlight of the movie is a scene where Van Helsing, having been bitten by the evil Baron and left for Undead, sterilizes the wound with a hot iron and holy water. Now, that takes nerves of steel!

Baron's Demise - Spoiler
The unfortunate Baron, his face hideously disfigured by the holy water that Van Helsing dashed in it, stumbles out of the old windmill into the night. Van Helsing, struck by an inspiration, climbs the windmill and, hanging from one of the arms, succeeds in turning the vanes so their moonlit silhouette casts the shadow of a great cross on Baron Meinster, who collapses and apparently expires.

Loose Ends
We never learn the identity of the mysterious man at the beginning who acts as a spy/procurer for the vampire menage. Apparently he is still on the loose at the story's end. Worse, the two vampire "brides" are unaccounted for. Although we perhaps are to suppose that they perish in the burning windmill, it seems unlikely since we see them go up the same staircase where Van Helsing and Marianne make their escape. In addition to which, it has been established that these creatures can transform themselves into bats, so should be able to fly out of any high window. 

Fortunately, Christopher Lee finally agreed to don the cape again for Hammer in 1965's Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Sadly, however, Peter Cushing would not return until Dracula A.D. 1972, when he would play a modern descendant of the original Van Helsing character.

Hammer Horror Series (Brides of Dracula / Curse of the Werewolf / Phantom of the Opera (1962) / Paranoiac / Kiss of the Vampire / Nightmare / Night Creatures / Evil of Frankenstein). This DVD set includes Brides of Dracula along with a number of other horror and suspense features from Hammer Studios.

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Background pattern from Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament

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