The Brides of Dracula
In our continuing series of articles 'The bloke down the pub' will tell us all about his favourite Hammer Horror films. In his tenth review he's rightfully praising every element of Peter Cushing's brilliant portrayal of Van Helsing in The Brides of Dracula, from 1960... Enjoy!
You know what I love about Cushing in Brides of Dracula? He is not even a tiny bit afraid of vampires, he just does not give a monkey’s. Every time he comes across somewhere there might be a vampire, you’re expecting him to retire, make a plan, gather supplies and come back at daybreak, probably with somebody’s Dad and possibly an innkeeper for comic scaredy-catness. But not in Brides of Dracula, oh no, he just goes running in! And sometimes all he has is a cross! He could be thinking ‘Well, I’ve done in Dracula, actual Dracula, so whoever this mug is he’ll be easy as pie’. Or he could be thinking that there’s a possibility someone might be in trouble so he had better get a move on hadn’t he? After all, every single second a vampire is still alive is a second he might be doing some poor blighter serious harm. With some justification in Brides it has to be said. Every time Pete’s back is turned, some other poor soul gets bitten and turned. It’s enough to make the sanest man charge around trying to stake the bleeder causing all the bother as soon as he possibly can. But each time Van Helsing goes running into a castle or a windmill without thinking, to do battle with the undead without a plan, it’s so... thrilling! I mean, we’re not talking about a beefed up action hero here, we’re talking about Peter Cushing going toe to toe with one of the strongest, cleverest and most evil monsters of all time. And all he has is the absolute certainty that his will is stronger than theirs. Their ancient, unquenchable, despicable will forged in the fires of hell is going to be snuffed out by Peter Cushing armed with nothing but a small leather bag and a very nice hat.
Which is another thing I love about Cushing in Brides, he is always impeccably turned out. These days your vampire hunter is going to be some scruffy, unshaven hipster with more jaw than charisma. But this Van Helsing sees no reason why having to charge around Europe on an endless mission of good versus evil shouldn’t have to mean you’re not well turned out. There are quite a few nice suits, luxurious coats and natty hats being sported by Pete in this movie. And it seems fitting somehow, the sartorial equivalent of the moment Pete sweeps his hair back into place after doing battle with a vampire. As long as he’s looking smart, the world makes sense. It’s splendid. When he pulls on his fingerless gloves you realise that everything he does is practical, even the way he dresses has a purpose.
But it’s not just about how he looks, there are those eyes as well. Lord, I forgot how much Cushing does with his eyes. When he’s a bad ‘un, they’re strong and implacable, a man who won’t change and won’t be stopped. But when he’s Van Helsing they twinkle with melancholy as if permanently fluttering on the edge of giving in, but always firing back into life. It’s no wonder everyone he meets does what he says, they’re drawn in by those eyes; every time Van Helsing speaks he’s talking right to the part of them that would still pick up the telephone if God ever bothered to call.
But he’s not some righteous force of heavenly justice like some other vampire hunters. He is not carrying out God’s will, that’s just incidental. What he’s doing is helping people, that’s all. A very old-fashioned sort of hero. He’s not battling personal demons, he’s not searching for redemption, he’s not hiding behind bad habits and casual cruelty. He’s a hero because he wants to help people, and he devotes his life to doing just that no matter what it takes. I lost count of the number of time Van Helsing runs to someone in danger in Brides of Dracula to make sure they’re OK before he even thinks about going after the vampire. There’s no scenes of Cushing killing a vampire but someone innocent getting caught in the crossfire so we have to endure a ten minute scene of someone reassuring the hero that he had to do it and it was just bad luck. Nope, not Van Helsing. He makes sure everyone is safe first, and then he goes after the vampire. He is a class act, and no mistake.
Yup, Van Helsing is unbeatable in Brides of Dracula. There’s plenty more to love in the movie too - the M.C. Escher like shots of the castle’s balconies, the windmill with sails like the wings of a bat, the moment the vampire bites Cushing that actually made me gasp and say ‘No!!’ out loud even though I was on my own, the phenomenal ghost story that starts off the movie, the screwed up relationship between the vampire and his mum that leads him to collect undead women like trophies - including his old mum! Maybe it’s not perfect - a movie written by three people is always going to have parts that don’t make much sense - but it’s a brilliant chapter in the life of the greatest Van Helsing to ever hit the screen. The incomparable Peter Cushing, who I would like to raise my glass to. So…