I Can Hardly Believe It Happened: Terence Fisher’s The Brides of Dracula

A coffin shivers and bursts its locks. An elegant dowager in scarlet and black invites a beautiful young teacher to a glass of wine and takes her home to her opulent, empty chateau. A well-dressed young man emerges from the shadows, as fair and shackled as a lion. A girl in her winding-sheet breaks from the earth as stiff and smiling as an archaic koure. No, these aren’t outtakes from The Bloody Chamber or a lost novel by Tanith Lee. These are some of the beautiful nightmares on offer in Terence Fisher’s The Brides of Dracula (1960), the second in Hammer’s Dracula series. It’s a strange film: full of reverses and lacunae, proceeding on assumptions the audience is never given grounds to share. It is above all a Gothic film, full of dreamily charged encounters and the shape-changing sexuality of fairy tales. Even the occasional narrative hiccup or clumsily executed bat effect cannot ruin the mood. It’s one of the weirder films I know.

Meinster victim rising

On a practical level, the film’s mysterious qualities are partly the result of a troubled production history. Originally pitched as a starring reprise for Christopher Lee, Hammer’s sequel to its groundbreaking Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the U.S., 1958) had to be reconceived as the less Count-centric Disciple of Dracula when Lee proved reluctant to return to the role, retaining only a climactic cameo which was then itself exchanged for a Dracula-free finale when Lee’s pursuit of work outside the horror genre made him totally unavailable to the studio. Characters were split and recombined, motivations were reassigned, whole sequences reinterpreted or excised and the first film’s Dr. Van Helsing reintroduced after being previously dismissed as unnecessary with Dracula himself on board. The seduction which renamed the story The Brides of Dracula failed to survive the next draft, but the title stayed. Patch jobs created new plot holes. Deadlines loomed. The script as it stands gives most of the credit to Jimmy Sangster (a name so impeccably suited to a scribe of vampire stories that I was actively surprised to discover, on his death in 2011, that it was not a pseudonym), but there are two other names on the title card and that’s just the official rewrites. Director Terence Fisher, producer Anthony Hinds, and even eventual star Peter Cushing are acknowledged to have had a hand in the final version—following the substitution of Van Helsing for the original hero, the climax was once more rewritten when Cushing protested that a doctor whose weapons are science, stakes, and crosses would not invoke black magic to dispatch a monster he couldn’t handle himself. When the film finally made it to the screen, it did so retaining fragments and echoes of previous drafts, nothing ever quite ironed out or gone.

And yet what all these skips and flaws and divers hands add up to is something strangely more evocative than a straightforward adaptation like Dracula. Dreams are not logical. They do not proceed from point to point. They flicker and scar, freeze and recur; they are images and atmosphere and the taste they leave in the brain on waking. The Brides of Dracula is not the most dreamlike film I’ve seen, but it’s not an inappropriate place to start.

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Before we plunge into the dark forests of Brides, a word on its predecessor seems instructive. Dracula is a great deal of fun; it’s nowhere near as weird. As an original script, it’s tight and fast-paced, taking less than ninety minutes from Harker’s arrival to Dracula’s demise. As a version of Stoker’s novel, it’s oddly telescoped and reshuffled, as though Terence Fisher reconstructed the plot from hearsay and a list of principal players—Jonathan Harker is a vampire hunter posing as a librarian to gain access to Dracula’s castle; Lucy Holmwood is his fiancée, whose brother Arthur is married to Mina; Van Helsing is his older and more experienced colleague, come to Karlstadt to investigate Harker’s disappearance. A middle-aged GP by the name of Dr. Seward ineffectively tries to treat Lucy’s undiagnosed vampirism. Quincey Morris is not missed, being often elided in adaptation, but there is a notable absence of Renfield. Its most striking departure from the novel—and its greatest innovation as far as the genre is concerned—is a function of changing the scene. Because none of the action strays outside an acidly Technicolor, handwavily nineteenth-century Mitteleuropa, the danger Hammer’s Dracula poses has nothing to do with foreigners and very little to do with plague. Boy, howdy, though, has it got to do with sex.

With the cautionary specter of Bela Lugosi behind him, it’s easy to understand Lee’s desire to avoid being typecast; it remains an equal fact that he’s one of the great Draculas. His Count is a gliding, courtly aristocrat whose moments of violence actually startle in a film where every sight of blood is a lurid carmine splash; he commands a room when he enters it, with none of the Byronic angst that attends on many a latter-day vampire. He rarely needs to overpower, because he can mesmerize. With Lucy and Mina, he barely even needs to speak. The results are potent and immediate. Lucy plays the greensick virgin to get her brother and sister-in-law out of her bedroom so she can let her lover in. We never see Mina’s first encounter with Dracula, only the telltale smile of the morning after (the exquisitely demure “Arthur, darling, don’t fuss. I feel perfectly well”), but the second plays out in an atmosphere of queasy bedroom farce—Holmwood and Van Helsing shiver the whole night through in the garden, while upstairs the Count takes his bloody pleasure with Holmwood’s wife. For a dead man, he’s arrestingly vital. The effect should be denaturing—isn’t the vampire above all a thing of graves and stolen blood, an indecently unburied corpse? It can only be a few fatal steps from a hot-blooded vampire to one that sparkles.

chris lee drac

Instead, partly because the film insists on the genuine blasphemy of vampirism (otherwise that trick with the makeshift cross would never work) and partly because the Count’s erotic instincts never are allowed to overwrite his predatory ones (it’s not just the little death a tryst with him ends in), Lee’s Dracula remains a monster in one of the best senses, magnetic and bestial, a true daemon lover. Opposite him, Cushing’s Van Helsing is crisply etched, science-minded and springily athletic, the unusual force for good who can command as much attention from the audience as the monsters he fights. He and Lee make a Jungian pair, the cipher of sexuality and its ascetic opposition—there is something priestlike about Van Helsing in this neverwhere forest where crosses impel and repel like magnets and the sun crumbles evil like old rotten wood. His ice-boned leanness set against Lee’s saturnine gravity draws their characters as clearly as a pantomime, the one daylit and questing, the other a haunter of dark places.

For all this innovation, however—the explicit sensuality of the vampire, the vampire hunter as a professional archetype, the fight choreography that Douglas Fairbanks could have been proud of—Dracula remains more interesting for its reworkings of its source material than as a story in its own right. It set the scene for the films to follow. The Brides of Dracula is something else again.

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I should make it clear that it’s not as though Brides’ production woes left the film without a story. It’s just that the story there is is composed first and foremost of symbols, so that it almost matters less how the narrative moves them about than that it has them all in the first place. The plot thrashes around a bit in the beginning, trying to get its characters all in the same danger. Once it has them, though, they are laid down for us as clearly as Tarot cards: the innocent abroad, the Oedipally locked mother and son, the cautionary bad girl, the backdrop villagers, and above all the magician who is the outsider, who stands against the monsters but never fits anywhere among the mortals; he knows the rules of both worlds and belongs to neither. More on him in a moment. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at this configuration. If it’s messy, well, the insides of people’s heads generally are.

Appropriately, much of the film’s ambiguous tone can be sourced directly to its presiding vampire. It is established by the opening narration that no matter the alluring callback of the title, anyone who bought a ticket for Christopher Lee might as well go home and read a horror comic; he is important only in legacy, retconned as the Patient Zero of European vampirism: “Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world.” The undead sensuality he so memorably introduced remains, as does the level of cleavage randomly on display in Hammer’s fin-de-siècle Transylvania. But if Lee’s Dracula was a fatal attractor, Liebestod walking, he never played for amusement with his prey: his sexual directness was the hallmark of his transgressiveness, not merely exploiting but openly satisfying the desires that none of the female characters in Dracula could get their menfolk to notice. (I have a soft spot for Michael Gough, but his Arthur Holmwood is not the hero of that movie. He frets laudably over his sister’s health, but his initial distrust of Van Helsing contributes more than a little to her undeath and as a husband he takes his wife so absently for granted, I kept wondering if the next tall dark stranger to move in on Karlstadt would be Ibsen.) David Peel’s Baron Meinster is a more calculating creature, cruelly seducing. He lingers as much over the power his bite affords as the nourishing blood itself, lazily wrapping his Cambridge vowels and his blond-browed toying charm around persuasive small talk and suddenly curt commands, as his initial appealing helplessness—chained like a prisoner in his mother’s chateau, pleading with her guests not to believe him mad—is revealed as no more than a decoy, the dog-teeth behind the boyish smile. The viewer cannot help but wonder whether he might not have turned out the same silkily deceptive predator even without the suggestive Dorian Gray-ish “wicked games” of his youth that left him “a beast of the night.”

Meinster vampire

I would not write off the Wildean overtones as an accident of backstory, either. In the previous film, Van Helsing likened the effects of vampirism to drug addiction. Here the language is that of initiation, sexual and contagious: “The vampire by its kiss, the taking of blood from its victim, makes of that victim another vampire. So the cult grows.” No wonder Badstein is up to its eyeballs in every kind of boundary-breaking Sangster et alii could get past the British Board of Film Censors. The Baron’s first act of freedom is to bite his mother, rendering her at once his progeny and his lover in passing. Their relationship is already over-intimate; she has acted for years as her son’s procurer, offering hospitality to easily missed travelers like Yvonne Monlaur’s Marianne only to play out the same game of sympathy-for-the-prisoner that ends each time in a meal. She is portrayed by Martita Hunt, David Lean’s Miss Havisham: an imperious, silver-haired aristocrat with haunted eyes who encourages her guest to dine and touches nothing herself.

Baroness Meinster and Marianne

Her scenes with the grateful, if slightly puzzled young woman play like a prelude to Báthory before we realize she is only the vampire’s enabler, his Renfield by more ordinary blood. (She is peculiarly more normal after her conversion. Her first postmortem encounter with Van Helsing even grants her true pathos, as she tries to converse with him without revealing her vampire’s teeth, the visible shame of what she bred and became and allowed to go on. Alone of the film’s undead, she is permitted a peaceful death; it is by her own request.) The vampire’s kiss is not only an orgasmic, but a procreative act. The grave is the new womb: a freshly turned girl is coaxed out of hers like an unsettling synonymy of mother and child, midwifed through her own undeath by the Baron’s old nurse. “Push, push! That’s right. Now, just one little effort more. You’ll soon be here. Come, my precious. That’s right. Come, my little love. The master’s waiting for you . . . There’s my clever one.” Her body in its lithe grave-clothes is neither infantile nor maternal; her fingers curl up from the dark earth like crocus roots, Kore-Persephone. The Baron proposes marriage to Marianne one moment, seduces and bites her friend and fellow-teacher Gina the next. And when Gina rises?

“Marianne, my darling Marianne. You haven’t forgotten your little Gina? Put your arms around me, please, I want to kiss you, Marianne. Please be kind to me. Say that you forgive me for letting him love me. We can both love him, my darling. He’s up at the old mill now. We can go there together. Come with me, Marianne.”

gina vamp

Even the film’s own sexual conventions are contravened, once they’ve run long enough for the audience to put stock in them. We know, because we have been following the body count, that the Baron turns women, kills men. Preempting anybody’s Yuletide request by at least four decades, the first confrontation between Dracula’s disciple and his killer ends with the homoeroticism cranked up to eleven as the Baron chokes out Van Helsing, throws him down on the mill’s hay bales and bites the good doctor while his undead brides watch wide-eyed, open-mouthed with delight. That Van Helsing is able to reverse the effects of his kiss by burning out the infection with hot iron and holy water is immaterial to the metaphor. But it is one more testament to Cushing’s extraordinary embodiment of a potentially offputting character that while the audience does trust him to find a way around the rules of vampirism as established by his own research over the last two movies, we are by no means sure how he’ll do it, and there’s no guarantee—if anything, we brace for the opposite—that it’ll be easy.

He’s the other presiding spirit of Brides, its real anchor to the first film. As previously hinted, I would watch Peter Cushing read the ingredients off a packet of cornflakes. Admiring an actor and liking a character, however, are two very different things. Going strictly by the position he occupies in Dracula and Brides of Dracula, I should find myself either bored with the Hammer Van Helsing or actively opposed to him. He stands against the forces of darkness when I am generally on the side of the monsters; he’s an avatar of order where I tend to favor subversion, drawing lines and holding them with the Enlightenment in one hand and the Church in the other; instead of an open-minded academic pulled into a situation too strange to explain away, he seems to be a monster slayer by self-appointment, making it his life’s work to study vampires so as to eradicate them all the more efficiently. The combination should be cracker-flat and fanatical, especially given the proven efficacy of Christian iconography in these films. Stoker’s professor employed holy water and wafers in his combat of the undead, but he was making it up as he went along. Straight off the page, Sangster’s Van Helsing has few such humanizing quirks. It is therefore up to Cushing to fill in the character with all the things the script doesn’t say and he does it splendidly.

Part of it is the quality alluded to earlier: that Cushing is, for lack of a better word, a very hurtable actor. Take the very last scene of Dracula. It’s a cold, desolate moment, with the sunlight paling through the hall and the rotten dust of Dracula blowing across the zodiac floor, and Van Helsing does not look righteous or triumphant, he looks tired and slightly bruised, wincing at the strain in his shoulder as he pulls his gloves back on. Not all the expressions on his face as he pinned the Count down with those two crossed candlesticks were hope or terror or resolve: Dracula’s pain appalled him and he knew no other way. He was alone then; he is alone now. Out in the daylight, never having entered Castle Dracula, the Holmwoods will heal without him. They have no blood on their hands. The same lonely poignancy characterizes the ending of The Brides of Dracula—regardless of whether one buys the shadowplay with the windmill (it works on the symbolic level, logical as a dream; it’s impossible to imagine it wouldn’t make life in a world even of lamps and moonshadows idiotically hard), it is a subdued and effective touch that Van Helsing closes the film holding on to Marianne, comforting her as the mill burns and the vampire corpses of her closest friend and her fiancé with it, drawing comfort from the fact that at least he was able to save her, and it is still night and they’re alone in it and there is no future for him in Badstein any more than there was in Karlstadt. He may behave like a knight-errant, but he has no illusions about his own invulnerability. Challenged by the new-turned Baroness—”Who is it that is not afraid?”—he gives a riddling, truthful answer: “Only God has no fear.” Keeping watch over her all night, he hunches his shoulders and chafes his hands in their fingerless gloves, no more impervious to cold than to pain or worry. He’s a driven man, not a complacent one.

vh burns the evil out

There’s the other half of the character’s saving grace, Cushing’s sheer physicality—it is impossible to regard Van Helsing as a force for repression when he’s as flip on his feet as a fencer, as thoughtlessly agile in his body as he is flash-quick in his thoughts, and like anyone who possesses that degree of bodily grace, just beautiful to watch as he moves. If you are the sort of person who fantasizes about actors, you may wonder what else those lean clever hands are good for. If you prefer a more aesthetic appreciation, I rather like the way Van Helsing seems to have only the most academic understanding of stairs, taking them two or three at a time on the way up and more often than not just vaulting over the handrail on the way down. Either way, it’s a neat, nimble means of infusing the vampire hunter with as much charisma and invention as his prey, so that it doesn’t matter that we know nothing of him beyond the movie’s frame and his first name could be “Doctor” for all we’re told. That’s character acting. And he gets to do it as the protagonist. Packet of cornflakes, people.

And yet I am not sure, even as I write these words, that we need to know Van Helsing’s given name or the history of his dedication to vampire-hunting any more than we need the details of Baron Meinster’s youthful debaucheries. They are vivid as real people, but they’re not in a real world. They are dream-figures, swum up out of the shapeless forests through which Marianne runs, fainting, from the lie of a Gothic romance into an older folktale which she remembers like the fossil trace of the first time she came to Badstein, when she was the willing victim and accomplice of the handsome Baron who preyed on her students at the academy and Van Helsing was only a name to conjure with, a rumor around the death of his master Dracula. Stripped of her own history, she is even more the fairy-story innocent, not knowing to shiver in a world where terrible forces move beneath the surface of a smile, a familiar lure of narrative. Why does she accept the Baron’s proposal of marriage after all that occurred at the chateau? Why does the Baron abandon his ancestral home and nest in an abandoned windmill like an interloping Orlok? What does Marianne really remember of the night the Baroness fetched her from the inn? Is a giant cross made of shadows all that’s needed to defeat a vampire? Is there any point to the scenes with the apothecary? Why is that bat effect so dodgy, anyway? Another script might have answered all these questions seamlessly; I don’t know if it would linger so hauntingly in my mind, bright and dark instants fanned out like a hand of cards. They don’t tell a straight story, but they shuffle and deal a nightmare we know how to read. The whole night was like a bad dream, Marianne tells Van Helsing—I can hardly believe it happened. We dreamed it with her; we can.

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Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found in the collections Postcards from the Province of Hyphens (Prime Books), Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books), and A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press), and in anthologies including Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, and The Best of Not One of Us. She is currently senior poetry editor at Strange Horizons; she holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object. She lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats and cares a lot more about film than she used to think.

One reply to “I Can Hardly Believe It Happened: Terence Fisher’s The Brides of Dracula

  1. That’s a fine piece! Just a thought – the scene where the locks fall off the coffin comes from “Count Magnus”. Jimmy Sangster was quite well-read in the field – his screenplay for X THE UNKNOWN quotes Machen.