I have been a fan of Hammer Films, particularly their horror cycle, even longer than I have been a filmmaker. Ridiculous as it may sound, I credit the studio for introducing me to art cinema, but not because any of their films pretend to be High Art. Rather, their exceptionally inventive production hooked me even before I knew what filmmaking meant. The evocative period recreations of the vampire films especially appealed to my interest in the past (not to mention male sartorial elegance), while the horror atmosphere built a bridge to the possibilities of mood, texture and visual expression that have been at the core of my adult interests. Without Hammer, I doubt I would have seen The Seventh Seal, for example, with its Expressionist gestures firmly grounded in the Gothic. In other words, my bridge to Bergman and ambitious expression was built on the violence and design of commercial horror.
Brides of Dracula was a pleasant discovery because I had not seen it before, though I thought I had. While it offers few surprises, it is a good example of what makes the Hammer horror films special. (Incidentally, the title is misleading. This is a vampire film, complete with Transylvanians, capes and bats, but Dracula is not a character. Presumably the Count’s name offered a shortcut to audience appeal.)
Veteran director Terence Fisher wraps the story in cluttered, gloomy decor, stylized lighting and theatrical costuming, and the situation is always treated seriously as a compelling life-and-death scenario, never as a knowing joke. The vampire, Baron Meinster (David Peel) is both appealing and quite frightening, once he shows his fangs. There is also an interesting double-twist on the legend: van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is actually bitten by the Baron, thus breaking two cardinal rules of the genre. Van Helsing is shown as vulnerable, and the implicit homoeroticism of vampire fiction “comes out” into the open, however briefly. (It’s revealing that Marianne Danielle as the gullible female protagonist Yvonne does little but get in the way and the Baron has several opportunities to take her, but never does.)
Having just finished making a film, I wanted to watch Brides because I realized how much I owe as a filmmaker to the Hammer model (though my movie isn’t a horror film). For even more impressive than the baroque visuals, literate dialog and compelling performances is the fact that Hammer films were produced inexpensively. All concerned knew how to achieve effects economically, in both a financial and expressive sense. They knew when stylization was not necessary, and when to pull out the stops. The best of Hammer can be excessive, but rarely do the elaborate flourishes occur in a vacuum. There is always a purpose. That the filmmakers mine an ancient legend over and over again hardly matters. It is what they provide with limited means that inspires. And who knows? Following their example, you may find you’ve created art after all.