Favorite Horror Films of the 1960s: The Brides of Dracula

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A tsunami of horror films cascaded into movie theaters in the 1960s, some by the larger studios and an abundance of grade B-Z films from smaller companies. Following the success of Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy, Hammer created a plethora of sequels as well as new horror films. Frankenstein and Dracula would serve as the basis for the most sequels, thereby creating a seemingly non-ending money source for the studio, even as the films often became bad imitations of the original productions.

Oddly, the first sequel to The Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, (1960) does not feature Dracula as a character. Instead, the movie features a Baron Meinster, as the opening voice-over narration says is a disciple of the ongoing cult of vampirism led by the now destroyed Dracula. While Dracula does not appear, the renowned vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing does as played once more by Peter Cushing. Along with Baron Frankenstein, this role would establish Cushing as a major horror film star of the 1950s-1970s.

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The characters are indirectly based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, the foundation for most vampire films, until Anne Rice’s revolutionary treatment of the undead in Interview With The Vampire.

The plot involves a young teacher who is “wooed” by a Baron Meinster. He proposes to her, while intending to make her his vampire bride. The tone of the film is clearly Gothic, with an architectural focus on a castle, the threatened young maiden, and a Bryonic Hero–the Baron.  These are standard, but not all inclusive, elements of a Gothic tale, and the Byronic Hero is typically a sexually attractive and threatening person, but more importantly, someone who lives according to his or her own rules, ignoring  the dictates of society.

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While much of the film does not break new earth in exploring the vampire story, it does feature one very unusual twist. In one sequence, Dr. Van Helsing is attacked by a vampire and bitten. He passes out, and when he awakens, he is able to remove the curse of the vampire bite. He heats an iron in glowing coals, then uses it to cauterize the bite and finally pours holy water onto the wound. It works and suggest that the vampire attacks are not merely demonic but also infections. This motif is one that will be greatly developed in many later vampire novels, TV shows, and films.

Van Helsing is successful in destroying the vampire and saving the young woman. The motif of the holy symbols are repeated: Van Helsing throws holy water onto the face of the Vampire, repelling and burning him, and then he is able to catch the Baron in the shadow of a giant cross, which destroys him.

Terence Fisher directed, and the film did well enough at the box office to justify a chain of sequels. Even though Christopher Lee did not appear in this movie, he would soon return to reprise the role of Count Dracula in the near future.

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1960s: The Curse of the Werewolf

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The decade of the 1960s saw the production of many horror films, some fairly standard offerings and some innovative. In 1961, Hammer Studios continued the re-imagining of classic horror characters, which they had begun with The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, in the release of The Curse of the Werewolf. 

Movie audiences in 1961 were still very aware of the image of Universal Studios’ The Wolfman and its assorted sequels with Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, the unfortunate and reluctant lycanthrope. Talbot, a good man, was cursed to become a killing monster after having been bitten by a werewolf while attempting, unsuccessfully, to save a girl from its attack. This cinematic image was one that would be very difficult to alter for the horror viewing audience.

While not making viewers forget Lon Chaney Jr. and Larry Talbot, The Curse of the Werewolf, directed by Terence Fisher, did establish new cinematic territory in this often overlooked, but important, film. This film, unlike its Universal predecessors, which were made primarily in black and white and influenced heavily by German Expressionism, is shot in color and features an almost blond werewolf in an extremely effective makeup and, for the time, a great deal of blood.

The star of this film, in his first movie, is Oliver Reed, who would go on to have a long and productive career as a film actor. Set in 18th Century Spain, the film bases its lycanthropy  on the juxtaposition of two events: Leon is the result of a peasant girl being raped, and he is born on Christmas Day, which was considered a very unlucky event. Leon is raised by a kindly man, but when puberty hits, besides the normal changes in his body, he becomes literally a monster.  What would Freud have to say about that?

Just as religion plays a part in his curse, so does it in his death. His step-father, a kindly man becomes the agent of his release. His step-father has a silver bullet made from a cross.  He shoots Leon with it, while his step-son is in the form of the monster; thus, he  destroys the werewolf and release’s Leon’s soul, but it also fills his step-father with deep grief.

Like the previous Hammer productions, this film continues with its exploration of sex and violence, going further than that which had been seen in the Universal films. While tame in sexual depictions by our contemporary standards, it was shocking to many audiences of the time.

From a critical perspective, this film also introduces an element of class critique. The young woman who is raped at the beginning of the film comes from abject poverty at the lowest level of the class structure, and the man who puts her in the cell, setting up the circumstances for the attack, is a Marques, a Spanish nobleman. Clearly, the film indicts the abuse of power and the class inequity of that time. If this were an academic paper, I would focus heavily on the class critique, but I simply wanted to draw attention to it briefly in this post.

The Curse of the Werewolf was another successful entry in Hammer Studios’ new cycle of horror films, although unlike the Dracula and Frankenstein movies, it would not generate a run of sequels. On its own, however, it rates as a film of importance in the horror genre.

Overall, if you have not seen this film, I give it a very strong recommendation.

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1950s: Horror of Dracula

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I am returning to my series of examinations of horror movies through various decades.  After the great horror  cycle of movies from Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s culminating in the Abbott and Costello spoofs, serious horror movies vanished for a period. They were replaced by the spate of giant critter movies spawned by the fears of nuclear fallout post World War Two and the ominous threat of nuclear armageddon of the Cold War.

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In 1958, Hammer Studios, a British film company initiated a new cycle of horror films with the release of Horror of Dracula (the American title) or Dracula (the British title).  This film not only allowed this film studio to emerge as a major force in horror films, but also it spawned a new cycle in horror that would span nearly two decades. The film starred Sir Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, and Michael Gough as  Arthur Holmwood and was directed by Terence Fisher.

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This film dramatically changed the course of horror films.  Prior to Horror Of Dracula, most horror movies, especially  the classic Universal films were shot in black and white; this film was in vivid color. Also changed noticeably from the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi was the pacing and the level of over sexuality and violence. This movie moved at a very rapid pace with condensed action and compression of characters from the book.  A very lively film score added to the tension and feeling of almost constant movement.

 

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Christopher Lee brought an imposing physicality to the role and played the count with a noble British accent. He showed great strength and mobility in his performance. And this film introduced  the vampire with fangs and blood.  When he emerges in full fury after the vampire girl has attacked Jonathan Harker, he is a demonic image.  This was a representation of the vampire that was entirely new and very powerful.

In Britain, this movie received an X rating because of its, what was for the time, overt sexuality and violence. The women sometimes wore low cut gowns, and Dracula’s attacks carried a not too subtle sexuality, although by today’s standards, this shocking sensuality certainly would be tame or almost quaint.

Horror Of Dracula was a success both financially and critically. Hammer studios would make numerous sequels to this film and would also base the release of other movies, principally on Dr. Frankenstein , on their good fortune. If you enjoy horror films and have not seen this particular movie, I recommend it.

 

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Favorite Horror Movies of the 1930s: The Invisible Man

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One of the more interesting and unusual horror films of the 1930s is The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale and produced by Carl Laemelle Jr. for Universal Studios (1933). This film is based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name, and it is a reasonably close adaptation of the book. Some changes were made to the story line, notably the addition of a love interest and moving the time from the Victorian Era to the 1930s.

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The film was unusual in the caliber and sophistication of the special effects, which still hold up to contemporary scrutiny.  It is important to remember that these filmmakers were not using computer generated images to create their effects; rather, they were forced to create from ingenuity, creating new techniques in cinematic art.  The end result shows visual images that are still powerful and compelling.

The story is well told and excellently acted. Claude Rains  stars as Dr. Griffin, the Invisible Man, and he does a superb job in his performance. He creates a convincing character of the scientist, who much like Victor Frankenstein, exhibits hubris in his research.  He succeeds in finding the way to invisibility but goes insane as a result and becomes homicidal. The film ends with his character being chased down and killed, and before perishing, he admits he should not have explored forbidden areas of science.  Again, this reinforces the theme earlier seen in Frankenstein.

Another interesting theme that is hinted at in this movie is the danger of drug abuse, as also show in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Griffin uses a drug identified as “monocane” in his formula, and the consequences are his becoming dangerously insane. While he does not use the drug as an addict might, he still ruins his life through its usage.

The film did well at the box office and is considered by many critics, including me, to be one of the best horror films of the 1930s.

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