There is a recurring scene, albeit with slight variations, in Terence Fisher’s trilogy of vampire films—Horror of Dracula (1958), Brides of Dracula (1960), and Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—in which a wise and devout man releases a vampire from the pains of immortal existence. In the Horror of Dracula, Van Helsing releases Lucy, much to the relief of her brother Arthur. Arthur smiles as he sees the beauty of innocence restored to his sister. In Prince, Fr. Sandor releases Helen from the curse, as her brother-in-law, Charles, smiles upon witnessing the peace that finally envelops the troubled Helen. In Brides of Dracula, Van Helsing, introduced as a doctor of philosophy and theology, releases vampire Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), at her own request. After being staked, the Baroness shows a touch of a smile.
For the first (and best) sequel to Horror of Dracula, Fisher and the writing team (which included an uncredited Anthony Hinds, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Pearcy) chose a disciple of Dracula, in the person of Baron Meinster (David Peel), as the antagonist rather than the Count himself. The Baron is blond, pretty, manipulative, charming, and genuinely menacing. Luckily, Peel fits the bill, although by general consensus he is no Christopher Lee. Still, he is refreshingly different. Such a choice allowed the production imaginative freedom and innovation. The resulting film is inordinately elegant, poetic and seething with atmosphere.
Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to start a job at a girl’s school when she is stranded at a local inn. The Baroness Meinster arrives and offers to put Marianne up for the night at her castle. The locals , well aware of the Baroness’ motives, attempt to to keep Marianne from accepting the invitation, to no avail. Marianne is introduced to the Baroness’ imperious maid, Greta (Freda Jackson), and discovers that the Baroness’ son, the Baron Meinster, is a shackled prisoner in the castle. The Baroness’ plan to feed Marianne to her son is upset when her guest releases the Baron from his chains of bondage.
Marianne flees the castle, confused and frightened, unaware that she has set a vampire free. Peter Cushing‘s Van Helsing, ever the father figure, discovers her in the woods, takes her to the school, and, after hearing Mariann’s story, knows that his crusade to rid the world of vampires is far from finished.
Jackson, as Greta, is one of several acting delights here. She cackles and theatrically waxes poetic. She hams it up in several scenes, most notably one in which she assists a vampire’s attempt to resurrect himself directly through the soil. Equally good is Martita Hunt (best known for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations-1946) who becomes her son’s Oedipal victim. Miles Malleson also does a charming turn in the role of the alcoholic Dr. Tobler. Cushing, as usual, conveys self-assured, icy precision in a part that he seems born to play. Peel’s Baron puts the bite on Helsing and, in a blood-red, thrilling scene, the Doctor plants a burning iron to his own throat to cauterize the wound. Cushing masters the scene in his inimitable way.
However, Monlaur, as Marianne, is merely decorative and, consequently, bland, which is a serious defect in the film. Another glaring flaw is in slipshod writing (the result of too many hands in the pot, no doubt). A compelling, eerie henchman character appears and is ingloriously dropped. Van Helsing’s appearance is far too convenient and contrived. A cheesy flying bat is a major distraction. Despite the flaws, however, Fisher’s enthusiastic direction is contagious; aided , in no small part, by lavish art direction and camera work. The finale, at a windmill, is sumptuous and visually exciting.
Unfortunately, there would only be one more good film in the series; Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. After that, the series was pretty much turned over to the hacks and it did not take long for the rot to set in.