Horror Bites - Baron Blood

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Hammer's Dracula series has a lot of films with increasingly outlandish names as they progress. Taste the Blood of Dracula and The Satanic Rites of Dracula spring to mind when considering the absurd monikers used during the life span of the series. However this entry remains their best effort, despite the non-appearance of Count Dracula himself. In an impressive turn of events he actually stays destroyed in this story, which is quite a feat considering his track record. But that means the titular women are not his brides at all. Perhaps something like Curse of ... or Disciples of ... would have been more appropriate. This odd title and the lack of Christopher Lee as the villain means this is often overlooked and people consider Dracula: Price of Darkness as the true follow up. But make no mistake, this is the superior sequel.


Despite the man himself being left as a pile of dust off screen, we still get a great turn from Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. In fact of all the films in this cycle this one feels like the true spiritual successor, particularly in terms of tone. It's the only one to retain the brisk pacing and all of the Van Helsing related action from the finale of 1958's Horror of Dracula. While he's somehow quite inept during several undead awakenings (I guess they needed to at least have those brides somehow) he's still a surprisingly physical presence, swinging from ropes and taking candlesticks to the face. Most impressive of all is his vampire bite cure technique, involving red hot metal and holy water. It's a shame that he wouldn't return to the role until several years later, focusing instead on all those Frankenstein sequels.

The characters elsewhere are just as good, again making up for Count Not Appearing in this Film. In fact just about all of the supporting cast are really entertaining, although Michael Ripper's appearance is criminally brief as a coach driver in the opening. Miles Malleson shows up as an eccentric village doctor, basically repeating his performance from Hammer's adaptation of The Hound of The Baskervilles. But why not? Henry Oscar as a fickle ballet academy owner is also fun, leaping from fiery outrage to sickening admiration at the drop of a hat on two occasions when he realises his anger is towards someone of notable social standing. It's this kind of charm that allows the story to have more texture than the usual blood sucker storyline might have offered alone.

This isn't to say the actual villainy on display isn't also memorable. Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) is a dance teacher from Paris travelling to her new position Eastern Europe. After a few strange incidents in a small town she ends up staying the night at the Meinster Estate where it's soon obvious that the Baroness (Martita Hunt) has a few sinister secrets. The Baroness is a strange and melancholy character rather than the usual evil castle owner; she's a sympathetic kind of bad rather than someone truly malicious. Her assistant Greta (Freda Jackson) on the other hand gets to do all of the maniacal laughter once things get out of hand and the real bad guy of the piece, Baron Meinster, (David Peel) is let loose. Soon enough Marianne's naive intentions release true evil onto the village below.


The bulk of the story revolves around all the usual vampire adventure tropes as dead bodies are soon discovered with bite marks, and coffins are later reopened from the inside. The idea of an undead ruler taking innocent girls is nothing new, but at least the initial mystery involving the castle's inhabitants is engaging while it lasts. It's just a shame they don't offer more details on the cult of Dracula itself seeing as how it furthers the story of the original film. A lot of it does feel like an excuse just to have Van Helsing uncover all the same old mystery plague victims again. But it's not a deal breaker and the story still manages to include plenty of moody set pieces and atmospheric drama. This is a film that's all about the oddball character actors and the classic Hammer style.

Red, black and purple is the order of the day whether it's the way characters or the sets are dressed. Tavern rooms are lit with eerie unmotivated lights and castle halls are decorated with ornate dragon statues surrounded by velvet. There's plenty of moonlight, candlelight, wine and blood which is just the way it needs to be. It might lack an elaborate number of locations but there's enough eye catching detail in most cases to keep the visuals appealing. Wakes are held in the same inn that everyone arrives at and a lot of the action involves the ballet school grounds, which means it all feels slightly claustrophobic. But it does still manage to emphasise the otherworldly nature of the story. It's efficiently done but it's polished enough to keep the feel of the blood soaked title cards going throughout the running time.

The Baron might not be a screen presence equivalent to Christopher Lee's Count, but in the grand scheme of things it's a minor detail. He's conveys a reasonable sense of charm and intimidation, and they at least give him some dialogue that allows a little characterisation. It's a brisk, tightly crafted vampire sequel above all else, and nothing is wasted as things race to the giant crucifix finale. If only they'd kept things going in this direction as the franchise devolved in a series of increasingly silly plots in which Dracula just happened to make an appearance in a pre-written story. It's a Hammer essential, if only they'd stuck with their original idea of calling it Dracula's Disciples.

4/5

BONUS REVIEW
DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)


Eight years after his first appearance Christopher Lee returned to the role of Count Dracula, with mixed results. Shot on the same sets as the superior Rasputin: The Mad Monk (and using several repeating cast members) this is pretty much by the numbers, as a band of stupid tourists end up at the spooky castle they're warned about by a local priest (Andrew Keir). In storyline terms this apparently took ten years to happen, which seems a bit unlikely considering how easy it was to set the trap. However in just a few hours one of their party is drained of blood to resurrect the 'fountainhead' of this 'obscene cult'. This overwrought narration describing Dracula this way in the opening is pretty interesting as he never speaks a single word himself.

Maybe no dialogue was written or perhaps Lee refused to deliver any of it, it depends who you believe. Outside of all his glaring and hissing genre regular Barbara Shelley is probably the best performance. She's fun as the only traveller who thinks that a supernatural carriage taking people to a deserted castle is unsettling, and she's great as a servant of evil when things go awry. Andrew Keir has the unfortunate job of filling the shoes of Peter Cushing, and while he does a fine job of being a no nonsense instrument of God, the lack of Van Helsing can be felt throughout. Everyone else just feels too clueless as they sit around waiting to become vampire bait, though admittedly that's part of the amusement value as the story unfolds.

They do at least use some of the original plot elements that were skipped the first time around, with the inclusion of a fly eating Renfield stand-in called Ludwig (Thorley Walters) and the grisly scene in which Dracula attempts to transform one of his victims using his own blood. The second half of the story in which he finally gets down to business is at least more interesting than the lethargic opening, but not all the developments are as engaging. His defeat by  'running water' is pretty anticlimactic, and it's rather perplexing when so many of the versions of this story have him travel by boat. Some moments are fun (including the toast to Dracula as a great man) but a lot of this is underwhelming, and it lacks the eye catching production values of other instalments. However that being said it's still the best sequel until Scars of Dracula.

3/5