American fans of the British horror movie company Hammer Films have had a rough time of it, putting together a collection of that august production company's monster movies: over its peak period (late fifties through early seventies) the company went through a variety of partnerships with American studios, resulting today in a confusion of DVD releases from different home entertainment concerns.
The first big Hammer releases, for instance, Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula are presently available from Warner Video, though the sequel to Curse is presently a Columbia DVD; later Hammer entries can be found as MGM or Anchor Bay – or even Craptastic Video discs. Two years back, as part of its "Franchise Collection," Universal Studios Entertainment released a budget set of eight films made during the company's brief attachment to Universal Pictures. Originally released in the early sixties, the films include several attempts at continuing Hammer's monster movie resurrections (The Curse of the Werewolf, Phantom of the Opera), follow-ups to already established series (Brides of Dracula, Evil of Frankenstein and, tangentially, Kiss of the Vampire), imitations of Psycho (Paranoiac, Nightmare) plus a darker version of the Dr. Syn swashbuckler entitled Night Creatures.
Though many followers consider Evil of Frankenstein (only one of the Hammer Peter Cushing outings to utilize the flat-headed version of the creature, since the makeup was apparently copyrighted and owned by Universal) to be a disappointment in comparison to Curse of and Revenge of Frankenstein, this is a strong selection from the prolific studio. I recently took it upon myself to watch Brides of Dracula (1960), in fact, for the first time in years and was thoroughly entertained by it. The first follow-up to Horror of Dracula, the studio's first reinterpretation of the Drac story, Brides is a Dracula flick in name only. Christopher Lee, who so memorably assayed the Count (and would later return to do so in a string of Hammer hits), sat this one out – much as he did the follow-ups to Hammer's Frankenstein films. Fortunately, Peter (Knows A Good Thing) Cushing returned as vampire slayer Doctor Van Helsing to provide a sense of continuity that the movie's opening narration ("Dracula is dead… though his disciples live on!") can't quite fulfill.
Tidily directed by studio man Terence Fisher, Brides takes place in Transvylvania, "still the home of magic and devilry as the 19th century comes to an end," and centers around the evil doings of Baron Meinster (David Peel). The youthful looking Peel is a far cry from darkly imposing Lee, but the script uses that look to its advantage: when French school teacher Mme. Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) first sees him, he looks more like a male ingénue than a vampire.
Meinster is being kept chained in his room by his appalling mother the Baroness (Hammer regular Freda Jackson) and, from first impression, looks to be the victim in all this. But, of course, he isn't: instead he's a member of what Van Helsing tells us is the Cult of the Undead, a "survival of one of the ancient pagan religions in their struggle against Christianity." (So, vampirism is the 19th century version of "Islamofascism"?) After turning his mother into a vampire (Oedipus Alert!), the freed Meinster escapes to start picking off local villagers and the faculty of a local girls' school.
Enter our hero Van Helsing, who's been called to the area by a concerned priest. Cushing is his usual stalwart British self: in his most memorable moment, he himself is bitten by the decadent Meinster and staves off vampiric infection by burning the bites with a hot branding iron and some holy water. Pretty strong stuff for 1960. His showdown with Meinster and the "brides" in a deserted old windmill isn't as rousing as his first climactic battle with Lee's Dracula (when he finally kills the bloodsucking blackguard, it's from a distance, so we don't even get to see any cool close-ups of Meinster's body disintegrating), but it's still reasonably action-packed. (Has anybody done anything on the influence of Hammer's fight scenes on early James Bond flicks?)
"What about the 'brides'?" I hear you ask. Well, their primary function is to stand side-by-side, looking darkly photogenic. The studio wouldn't really start pushing the sex-and-vampirism angle until 1970's Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers. Meinster's lady minions (Andree Melly and Marie Devereux) were still hot enough to stoke the fires of many an early adolescent horror fan when he saw their pics in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland or Castle of Frankenstein, however.
Christopher Lee's Dracula would return to the studio in Dracula: Prince of Darkness five years later, only this time Cushing's Van Helsing was M.I.A. This less than satisfying follow-up currently exists in the U.S. as an out-of-print Anchor Bay two-fer, alongside Lee's Drac swansong, Satanic Rites of Dracula. Some days, being a fannish completist can be a real [read this last in a Gene Rayburn voice] pain in the ______.