As always, spoilers ahead! So if you don’t want all the surprise sucked out of your first time viewing, close the coffin and retreat.
The title for The Brides of Dracula (1960) is misleading, as the film does not feature Dracula, and the brides are rather scarce. Although Bride of Baron Meinster would probably have been a bit of mouthful, and not attracted as many cinema goers that were generated by the success of Dracula (1958). It also would not have created a connection between Dracula’s gliding succubi and the film, even if the connection, when watching the film, is rather thin.
In keeping with the events of Dracula (1958), the sharp toothed Count is dead, having been vanquished by Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, but a rather ominous voice over after the opening credits have rolled in all their crimson glory, informs us that Dracula’s disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world. There’s no news like bad news, especially for the Transylvanian public at large.
“Transylvania, land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes. Still the home of magic and devilry as the nineteenth century draws to it’s close. Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world.”
After this foreboding piece of exposition, there is an obligatory frenzied carriage scene where our heroine is flung about enough to ensure serious head injuries are sustained. The rolling eyed stagecoach driver ignores her pleas for him to slow down, and he only does so when a large branch appears in the road. This allows a coffin faced man in black to appear and hitch a ride on the carriage. Our heroine is so addled that she does not realise the carriage has significantly dipped with his added weight.
The carriage pulls into the signature Hammer Horror hamlet set, where it is revealed that the man in black bribed the stagecoach driver so he could hitch a ride. The significance of this is never really explained, and after entering the inn and causing all its customers to hightail it out of there, we never see the man in black again. The convenient departure of the bulk of the inn’s customers and the stagecoach, means that our guileless female lead is stranded at the inn, where there is cryptic urgency on the part of the innkeeper and his wife for her to leave. This does not take place, of course, and our instinct-less heroine, Marianne, accompanies the mysterious Baroness Meinster to her hilltop castle, which was definitely reused for Dracula: Prince of Darkness six years later. The Baroness’ presence at the inn, when she lives in a castle up the drag, is unsurprisingly not explained, and Marianne does not question it.
At the castle, Marianne is, you guessed it, put in a room overlooking the mysterious (and conveniently pretty boy handsome) Baron’s room, allowing her to see him, and giving the Baroness the opportunity to do a bit more cryptic exposition about him being mentally ill, and his rooms only being accessed through a “forbidden” door that is in plain sight and (of course) leads off the dining-come-entrance hall. Later, Marianne awakes from her slumber, because she obviously has the senses of a bat, and goes through the visible but forbidden door to stop the Baron from supposedly throwing himself off his balcony. Once in his room, he, too, speaks cryptically to Marianne about his mother’s captivity of him, and Marianne, unsurprisingly, does little to seek clarification of the situation, and inexplicably instantly trusts him because he has dewy eyes and pronounces mother as “mutha”, like a good public school boy.
In an utter plot twist, Marianne frees the Baron, who is, of course, a card holding member of the undead. The cryptic language directed at Marianne continues until the bats in the belfry servant, Greta, shows her the Baroness’ corpse. Marianne flees to wander in the forest in a daze, while Greta has a monologue directed at the lifeless Baroness, which provides a handy amount of exposition about how the Baron became a vampire, and where his coffin is located behind flamboyantly red silk curtains. Apparently the Baroness wasn’t such a strict mommy, and the Baron grew up to be a cruel, licentious young man before he became Dracula’s successor. The Baroness supplied her son with fresh blood by luring young girls to the Castle Meinster, which explains her presence at the inn. Greta seems to have the hots for the Baron, but unfortunately she’s like forty, with a super natural looking thick grey streak in her dark hair, and therefore doesn’t have a chance of becoming one of his brides.
Van Helsing discovers Marianne in the woods, where she is lying in a position that no one lies in ever, unless they’re trying to showcase their bust, and revives her with the aid of smelling salts before returning her to the inn. Once there, Van Helsing discovers a local girl has been murdered in the woods, and wild garlic has been strewn over her coffin. She looks less dead than as if she’s just half closed her eyes and is waiting for tea break on set. When Van Helsing comments on the wild garlic, the innkeeper suddenly becomes a professor of anthropology and asks Van Helsing to “humour these local superstitions”. During Van Helsing’s questioning of the dead girl’s bereaved father, the innkeeper’s wife fails to press Marianne about her experiences, which Marianne says are “such a long story”. Once she and Van Helsing are in a carriage on the way to the finishing school that Marianne is to be employed at as a student teacher, Van Helsing explains that vampirism, which he says is “quite prevalent in Transylvania and the lower Danube”, is a cult and a virus. Having dropped this bombshell, he then proceeds to make an utterly ridiculous request of Marianne, which is that she must promise to forget everything she’s experienced, and not warn anyone of the rampant local vampirism.
They arrive at the finishing school, which will obviously be a breeding ground for the impending spread of vampirism via the Baron. Once Van Helsing has deposited Marianne at the one place the Baron is most likely to find her, and many other heaving bosoms, he returns to the inn. Here he proceeds to explain to the priest who sent for him that the cult of vampirism is a Pagan struggle against Christianity. The Anglo-Christian identity is good and everything else is bad. Even though all the characters, aside from the French Marianne, are supposed to be Transylvanian and Easter European.
Van Helsing goes to the dead local girl’s grave, where Greta is using gentle persuasion to get the girl to grow a backbone and rise from her coffin. Freda Jackson, who plays Greta, gives a great, verbose performance as a female Renfield. She is clearly a servant of evil, cackling in delight when the girl rises from her grave. The girl, having been summoned so maniacally by Greta to join the undead, is wearing pale face make-up while the skin on her body is a normal colour, making her look rather like an undead clown or lady of the Elizabethan court. Immediately following her escape from the priest and Van Helsing with the help of Greta, Van Helsing is attacked by the Baron in Halloween costume shop bat form. He proves to be utterly inept against the drunken pitching of the plastic bat, until his case falls open and a crucifix handily lands right side up in the hallowed dirt. Van Helsing gives a contained sigh of relief at not being batted around the head, before setting off to the Castle Meinster.
There, he encounters both the hissing Baron and his mother, who shyly hides her uncomfortably large fangs from the good Anglo-Dutch doctor. Despite Van Helsing’s ineptitude against the Baron’s aerial attacks, he proves quite handy in his all out brawl with the vampiric aristocrat, and shows his athletic skills by loping after the retreating Baron. Despite his best efforts, the Baron escapes in a carriage (possibly the one the good doctor came in). His flight allows for Van Helsing and the Baroness to have a heart to heart, where she is reflexive and regretful about her part in her son’s fanged escapades, and Van Helsing makes much of the fact that the Baron has had the blood of his mother. That’s maybe code for something worse, I don’t know.
Back at the finishing school, the Baron has indeed tracked Marianne down, where despite her previous trauma at the castle, she accepts the Baron’s marriage proposal. It seems she has really taken her promise to Van Helsing to heart. In their room, Marianne, and the other student teacher, Gina, discuss the former’s impeding matrimony. When Marianne leaves the room to retrieve more bread for unsafe fireside toasting, Gina gazes into the mirror and wishes she was the Baron’s bride-to-be. Well Gina’s in luck, because she’s the stare-y eyed Baron’s next victim. Jealousy makes you undead.
At the Meinster Castle, Van Helsing dispatches of the Baroness, although her heart seems to have migrated to her stomach. This could explain the copious amounts of pudding red blood. Upon his return to the inn, the overworked Van Helsing is informed by the priest with lamb chop sideburns and the local quack doctor, that Gina has been finished off at the finishing school. Once there, Van Helsing informs the headmaster and his wife that their employee has died of a fever. Upon discovering Marianne’s engagement to the Baron, and her love for her fiancé, he fails to inform her that she is engaged to a dead dude and about to become Queen of the necrophiles. At Van Helsing’s instruction, Gina, in her coffin, is kept in the stables. Marianne, along with the stable master, watches over Gina’s coffin, before the coffin’s lock repeatedly falls off. Although they both comment on the peculiarity of this occurrence, the stable master goes off to retrieve a lamp for Marianne to look at her dead friend. He is then attacked by the plastic Baron bat and dies of extreme (?) facial (?) lacerations (?). Surprise, surprise, Gina rises from her coffin and proceeds to try and persuade Marianne, via decidedly previously latent lesbian feelings, to enter into the Baron’s bigamous undead set up with her. After Gina has conveniently revealed the location of the Baron’s lair, Van Helsing arrives in time to save Marianne from the Girl’s Gone Wild moment, her own lack of logical thinking, and her friend turned massive toothed member of the undead.
When Van Helsing reveals to Marianne that it is the Baron who’s been snacking on local girls (duh), she has a minor meltdown. Through some heavy face handling, Van Helsing convinces her of the truth of his statement, and manages to get her to reveal the Baron’s location. He instructs her to wear a rosary, which she, of course, removes when she sets about undressing for bed. This allows the Baron to enter Marianne’s room and abduct her after he has had a tussle with Van Helsing in the mill, and bitten the good doctor.
Van Helsing enters full Bad Assery level when he cauterises his own vampire wounds and douses them in holy water. The Baron’s brides seem simultaneously impressed and chagrined by this turn of events, and retreat into the upper room of the mill. Peter Cushing does some brilliant physical acting during the cauterising scene. He throws his entire body about as if he’s, well, pressed a hot brand against his own throat. Strange, breathless, half screams escape his throat before his neck returns to its unblemished state thanks to the addition of the holy water.
The Baron appears with a decidedly reluctant Marianne in tow. After some more close up shots of the Baron’s eyes as he tries to glamour his flummoxed French fiancée, Van Helsing throws holy water (he seems to have a Mary Poppinsesque flask), into the Baron’s face, resulting in some rather nasty pizza face burns. The mill is set ablaze by a well placed kick aimed at hot coals by the Baron, necessitating Van Helsing and Marianne escape to the top of the mill. Van Helsing outdoes himself by jumping onto one of the blades of the windmill, and turning it so that the blades cast the shadow of a giant cross on the fleeing Baron. With the Baron dispatched, and the brides and Greta extra toasty in the mill fire, Van Helsing and Marianne embrace.