The Brides of Dracula
Review by Mike Finkelstein
During her journey to a girl's school in Germany, Marianne is left behind by her carriage driver, forced to spend the night in a little town in the middle of nowhere. Seemingly to her benefit, the Baroness Meinster comes to her aid, inviting the girl to stay at the Baroness's manor for the night.
But the Baroness has a dark secret: her son, the young Baron Meinster and rightful ruler of the lands, is locked in a bedroom upstairs. Through charms and kind words, the Baron is able to convince Marianne to release him. Sadly, this unleashes and evil on the land Marianne is unable to notice or comprehend. Thankfully for her, a Doctor, Van Helsing, comes to her aid. Will he be able to find and defeat the evil vampire Baron before it's too late?
The first thing to note when discussing The Brides of Dracula is that despite the name Dracula doesn't actually show up in the movie. For a while after the release of the 1958 Dracula, Christopher Lee refused to reprise his role. Although he would eventually come back to play Dracula (starting in 1966 with Dracula: Prince of Darkness), for a time this put Hammer Films in an interesting position. Their version of Dracula had proved successful enough to warrant sequels, but how could they produce them when the titular character wouldn't be in it?
One solution was to just recast the role, something Hammer Films was apparently loathe to do. Instead, they went a novel route: have Van Helsing be the connecting thread between the films. Peter Cushing was willing to reprise his role, and the movie received its first sequel. Having Van Helsing in the film does help to speed up some of the plot details for the sequel -- they didn't need to establish the rules for vampires again, nor have the eventual vampire hunter try to figure out what was going on and how to kill the monsters, since Van Helsing is already up on his lore and ready to go.
That said, the movie still does drag in places. The first part of the movie concerns the release of the Baron Meinster from his prison, and it takes a good twenty minutes or so for Van Helsing to appear. This leaves the viewers in an odd position of wondering how anything going on in the film relates to the events of the first movie. The various threads do eventually come together, but the movie feels oddly disjointed for most of its run.
Even then, when the movie does come together, it suffers from pacing issues. Whole stretches of the film show Van Helsing searching locations in long, steady shots. While back in the day this may have helped to amplify the tension, these sections now seems slow by modern sensibilities. And still, when the action does pick up, the events are over quickly with little fanfare or much in the way of scares. This early in the Dracula cycle it seemed like Hammer felt the horror part of their horror movies was almost unseemly, something to be hurried past to get back to the ambiance and acting.
But then, when you have Peter Cushing as the lead in your movie, it's only understandable to keep the focus on the main attraction. To his credit, Cushing is able to carry much of the movie on his shoulders -- his scenes crackle such that when he's not on screen the movie suffers. This isn't aided in any way by the fact that David Peel doesn't make a very interesting vampire, lacking the menacing presence of Lee. Like in the first movie, the evil vampire soon stops speaking, instead relying on his eyes and body language to carry the role, and Peel just looks goofy attempting this -- he always looks like he's trying to choke back a giggle instead of dominating people with his eyes.
Still, for a sequel with compromised origins, Hammer did manage to crank out a decently competent film. It lacks the menace and horror of the 1958 original, but The Brides of Dracula is a tolerable diversion in its own right. It just might have fared better if it didn't have the previous movie to compare it to.