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As mentioned at the end of my last Hammer Dracula review, I have set myself the intellectual challenge of seeing if I can conjure up an internally-consistent continuity framework for the entire series, even though no such thing was ever used or imagined by the people who originally made the films. For the lulz, I'm interpreting the challenge in the most extensive possible terms, and am thus going to (at least attempt) to include not only Brides of Dracula (a perfectly good film which presents no particular continuity challenges anyway) but also The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (a terrible film which utterly contradicts almost everything Hammer had done before) within my remit. May the gods have mercy upon my soul...

Brides is the first avowed sequel to Hammer's original 1958 Dracula, but in spite of its title Dracula himself is not in it. His place is taken instead by David Peel as the Baron Meinster, one of Dracula's 'disciples'. As if to signal the relationship between them visually, Peel wears a costume which is generally similar to Christopher Lee's, but his cloak is grey instead of black. In other words, he is 'Dracula Lite'. The Baron is also portrayed as a young and attractive romantic heart-throb character, though David Peel was actually two years older than Christopher Lee (and hence four years older at the time of making this film than Lee had been when making Dracula). A 'making-of' documentary on the DVD suggests that this may partly have been because Hammer were aiming at American teenagers (who could watch films denied to British under-16s thanks to the absence of a formal ratings system).

But I think it also opened the door to some critique of contemporary teen culture. After he has killed his own mother, the Baron's former nurse, Greta, delivers a brilliantly demented monologue to her corpse about how he got in with a 'bad crowd' as a young man, leading to his becoming a vampire, which is fairly easy to read as reflecting contemporary concerns about the consequences of teenagers hanging out together in coffee shops. Meanwhile his power over his mother, dominating her life, causing her shame and eventually killing her, also works as a metaphor for the strained relationship between a teenaged generation, high on the belief that the world is their oyster, and an older generation who had brought their children up to believe exactly that in the aftermath of the war, but were starting to feel concerned at the results.

Up against the Baron is Peter Cushing as an impeccable Van Helsing, who has been summoned to the area by a suspicious local clergyman. The first film had already established Van Helsing as a combination of an academic research authority on vampirism and also an active vampire hunter (working in tandem with Jonathan Harker). But this one extends and reinforces the consultant vampire-hunter role in particular. We've now got a quite different character from the Van Helsing of Stoker's novel, who pontificates a lot less and gets into fights a lot more. In fact, his first encounter with the Baron features the two of them leaping over long wooden tables, and the Baron throwing a candlestick at him - both of which very much recall the exciting final confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula at the end of the previous film. This is all great value, and definitely much more fun than Stoker's character.

The principal young lady whom Van Helsing saves from the Baron's clutches is Marianne Danielle, who arrives in Transylvania to take up a post teaching French at a Ladies' Academy. Unusually, because her only love-interest in the film is the Baron Meinster himself and he turns out to be a vampire, a staple trope of the entire franchise - the romantic male hero reclaiming his girlfriend / fiancé / wife from the vampire's advances - is missing. Instead, Marianne is saved directly by Van Helsing, and falls into his arms at the end of the film. The only other time this happens is in Dracula AD 1972, where Jessica Van Helsing's boyfriend, Bob, meets a sticky vampiric end, and she too is saved by Van Helsing and falls into his manly embrace. But of course there she is his granddaughter. We're given no cues to suggest a romantic relationship between Van Helsing and Marianne in this film - rather, he behaves in a fatherly manner to her throughout. But there is still enough scope here for a fan-written sequel in which the two of them discover a romantic attraction after the film, marry, and become vampire hunters together (or whatever).

There is a great supporting cast of classic British character actors, too. Martita Hunt practically owns the film as the icy yet tragic Baroness Meinster, but Freda Jackson as the insane serving-woman, Greta, gives her a good run for her money. It's also fabulous to see Miles Malleson, who played the undertaker in the first Hammer Dracula film, back on fine comic-relief form as a hypochondriac money-grabbing doctor. Much-loved Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper also has a small role early on in the film as a stage-coach driver, which actually means that he is in four of these films in total: Brides, Risen as a cheery inn-keeper, Taste as a police inspector and Scars as a surly inn-keeper. That's the same number as Peter Cushing if you don't count Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, or one fewer if you do.

Some nice misdirection sets us up to expect that the Baroness Meinster is the vampire at the beginning of the film, rather than her son, and that she is keeping him prisoner for some unknown but undoubtedly evil reason. She turns up imperiously after dark at the village, where everyone is clearly afraid of her, wears a black dress with red edging (though of course Dracula himself didn't acquire the red lining to his cloak until the film after this one), lures Marianne to her castle, and then doesn't eat anything at dinner - always a dead giveaway! But eventually we learn that in fact she is human, and merely driven to strange and desperate behaviour by the horrible obligation of procuring blood to keep her vampire son alive.

Meanwhile, the script works quite hard to preserve ambiguity around the matter of how active a role she plays in this process, which in turn adds all sorts of interesting nuances and depth to her character. One major area of ambiguity involves an unnamed man in a dark coat, who puts a log in the middle of the road to bar the progress of the stage-coach carrying Marianne towards the Ladies' Academy, jumps on the back of the coach while Michael Ripper removes the log, and then bribes Ripper when the coach stops in the village to abandon Marianne at the inn. This allows the Baroness to turn up and invite Marianne to stay the night in the castle, but since we never quite know who the man is, who he is working for or why, it remains unclear whether she set this whole scenario up herself or not. (The unnamed man could equally be working directly for the Baron, or via his devoted servant Greta.)

Once Marianne is at the castle, the Baroness also treats her with perfect hospitality. It is only Marianne's curiosity which causes her a) to discover the existence of the Baron, b) to visit his rooms and c) to set him free. Perhaps if she hadn't snooped around where she wasn't supposed to, the Baroness would have allowed her to pass the night entirely unharmed and leave freely in the morning? Or perhaps the Baroness knows perfectly well that because the balcony of the guest bedroom where she puts Marianne overlooks the balcony of the Baron's quarters, all of her impressionable young female guests end up seeing the Baron, becoming curious about him, and sneaking through the castle to see him in the middle of the night? She certainly makes a point over dinner of bringing up the fact that Marianne has told Greta she thought she had seen a young man, explaining all about the tragedy of her son's illness and indicating the exact door which leads through to the Baron's part of the castle. So I guess this is how the Baroness assuages her conscience - she doesn't actively cosh people over the head and throw them down on the floor for her son to feast upon, but she carefully manipulates her guests into taking themselves right to him.

Ultimately, of course, her system breaks down, and she falls victim to her own son, whereupon her former conflict and disquiet escalate into utter torment. Hiding her fangs behind her veil in shame, she laments to Van Helsing that now there will be no escape, no relief, and she will have to do whatever vile things her son wishes. As I already pointed out in my review of Dracula's Daughter, this trope of the self-loathing female vampire has its origins there, and it is very well-played here. The sequence in which Van Helsing prepares his stake, waits patiently for the sun to rise so that the Baroness falls asleep, and then clinically delivers her the release which she craves at the end of a stake is memorably conceived and beautifully played.

Intriguingly, Van Helsing speaks of vampirism in this film as a strange sickness which is partly physical and partly spiritual, and more specifically as a 'cult'. Indeed, he explains to the local priest that it is "a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions in their struggle against Christianity." Adherents of the cult within the film would include the Baron, who evidently dabbled with it when he got in with his 'bad crowd' to the extent that he became a vampire himself; Greta, the Meinsters' servant, who presumably became embroiled in the first place via her loyalty to the family, but by the time of this story displays all the deranged devotion of a stereotypical cult follower; and the unnamed man in the dark coat who helps to entrap Marianne at the beginning of the film. This partly builds on the idea established in the first film that vampirism is like a powerful addiction which the victim consciously detests but cannot resist, but the cultic aspect in particular also takes us somewhere new. In the first film, Dracula is cast as an unholy being who can be overcome through Christian symbols, but here we have vampirism not simply as an absence of Christianity, but an alternative system of religion in its own right.

This points the way towards the connection between Dracula and Satanic rituals which we get later in Taste the Blood, AD 1972 and Satanic Rites (via the popular misconception that paganism and Satanism have anything to do with one another whatsoever), but I must say that I like the 'survival of an ancient pagan religion' idea much better. Satanism just seems silly if you don't believe in the principles of Christianity, and all the more so in a horror film setting, where (for all that The Devil Rides Out is excellent) it was horribly overdone in the late '60s and early '70s. The whole Wiccan notion of pagan religion surviving through the centuries in the guardianship of persecuted witches is also ridiculous in a UK context. But of all the places where it does kind of work, Transylvania, which wasn't really Christianised until the Hungarian conquests in the 11th century, and where at Christmas time people dress up as goats in what sounds very much like the pagan traditions which Caesarius of Arles railed against in early sixth-century Gaul, is high on the list. I would really have loved to see that idea developed in some of the later films in place of the Satanism.

Also much to my liking are the strong lesbian overtones when Marianne's colleague at the Ladies' Academy, Gina, gets vamped by the Baron and attempts to seduce her - especially in the line "Put your arms around me - I want to kiss you, Marianne." This is of course matched by vampire!Helen's approach to Diana in Prince of Darkness. But here there is scope for a poly reading as well, since Marianne, not realising the the Baron is a vampire, has got engaged to him, while Gina has also now allowed him to seduce her behind Marianne's back. She asks Marianne to forgive her for this, and adds "We can both love him my darling!" I suspect that what the film-makers were actually trying to convey here is some sort of harem set-up. In fact, the Baron successfully acquires two vampire brides during the course of this story (an unnamed village girl plus Gina), and is clearly intent on adding Marianne to their number. This would bring him up to the canonical three from Stoker's book (and the 1931 Universal film), and although it's never mentioned in the script this might be what the title is meant to signal, and indeed on some level what the whole film is supposed to be about - the Baron's quest to acquire three vampire brides. The weight of established vampire lore suggests that this would indeed effectively be a harem in which the power rested entirely with the Baron, rather than a consensual poly relationship - but since the dynamics of the relationship between the Baron and the two brides whom he does acquire are never explored on-screen, it can be read however anyone wants, really.

Finally, the sets for the Meinsters' castle are wonderful, so that it is easily as opulent as Dracula's in the first film. Which isn't surprising really, since it is the work of the same person - Bernard Robinson. Indeed, some of the same elements are reused, like the helical (i.e. spiral) columns all over the place, or an obelisk standing on four globes which can also be seen at the foot of the staircase on which we first see Dracula in the 1958 film. I especially loved the amazing sculpted 'stone' dragons towering over the main hall. We can take these as a nod to the Dracula legend if we want, since the historical Dracula's father took the name 'Dracul' after being enrolled in the Order of the Dragon (Latin draco). The lighting and camerawork are very nice throughout, too, but sadly James Bernard, who did the music for the first film was not on the team this time, and the soundtrack for this one just doesn't compare.

There is also a Giant Rubber Bat, which was carefully avoided in the first film, and again after this until Scars. This one isn't actually quite as bad as the one in Scars, but it is regrettable, nonetheless, mainly because of the way the wings flaps up and down slowly and rigidly, rather than fluttering and flexing in the way a real bat's wings do. Mind you, while I suppose I know that bats fly much more rapidly than that from seeing them in real life, I guess I only really know about the details of their wing movements from seeing them in slow motion on nature documentaries. I'm not sure that nature documentaries with such technically-advanced camerawork were widely available when this film was made, so maybe audiences were more forgiving about what did or didn't look convincingly naturalistic. The make-up department also wasn't doing as good a job on this film as the first, or most of the later sequels. All the vampire characters have fangs which are just too prominent, to the extent that they start to look silly rather than subtle and scary, while the two vampire brides are decked out in white-face make-up which would make the most dedicated Goth cringe.

Next time: kung-fu vampire-hunting adventures in turn-of-the-century China - so help me.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 20th, 2014 08:06 pm (UTC)
I'd give anything to fall into Cushing as Van Helsing's arms.

Is it the Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires? it's silly but fun, shonky but great all at the same time :-)Though it is very much of its time in terms of its portrayal of characters.

Edited at 2014-01-20 08:55 pm (UTC)
Jan. 21st, 2014 09:59 am (UTC)
Actually, fresh from watching this film, I find myself thinking that an alternative series of spin-off sequels along the general theme of 'Van Helsing, Vampire Hunter' might have been very good value indeed. I'm glad that as it was, they made the Dracula character the main thread knitting the sequels together, rather than Van Helsing. But I wouldn't have said no to a Van Helsing series as well.

I've seen The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires before, but had hoped to keep it to just the one time! Personally, I don't really think of it as part of the Dracula series, but as I've said I want the challenge of seeing if I can make it 'fit' with the other stories, even though it blatantly doesn't. So I'll give it one more chance, and maybe it'll be more fun than I remember.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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