85 minutes of awesomeness = this film. So much better than Hammer's original Dracula that you'll think they'd all previously been pod people, this must surely be one of Hammer's finest vampire films. I haven't seen them all yet, but I can't remember another I liked as much as this.
It's magnificently florid without even for a moment letting its confidence slip. It's a visual feast, the actors are at the top of their game and even the goofy bits somehow sing. There's no Christopher Lee, but Peter Cushing's here and... we are not worthy. After being strangely off his game in the original Dracula, here he's back on form and kicking arse. I'd been seeing him in so many villainous roles lately that I'd forgotten how good he could also be as the hero. I don't think it's his best performance, but that doesn't mean he's not brilliant. He even gets action scenes! This is a man who jumps on vampires! I can't think of another Van Helsing I'd sooner have on my side, although I'm surprised that emergency technique of his worked.
Admittedly he doesn't show up until the half-hour mark, but the rest of the cast is great too. I do mean the whole cast, incidentally. For once there's no weak link letting down the side with plank-like delivery. Act One positively blasts off thanks to the indomitable stage presence of Martita Hunt (Baroness Meinster) and Freda Jackson (Greta). Our heroine Marianne Danielle, played by Yvonne Monlaur with an adorable French accent, is travelling through Transylvania when her coachman takes fright in a small village and makes a bolt for it. Stranded with nowhere to go and a new teaching job starting the next day, she's "lucky" enough to be offered a place to stay at the local castle. You know exactly where this is going and it's actually creepy. I wouldn't normally call a Hammer film scary, but here you know there's a vampire waiting to cut loose and it's not entirely comfortable to watch. The key factor is that Monlaur's so delightful while Hunt and Jackson have such powerful personalities that together they create a world so rich in atmosphere that it seems ready to burst.
Also returning from the first film, strangely enough, is one Miles Malleson as Dr Tobler. No, you won't know him. He was the bizarre old codger with a stop-the-show cameo as a mad undertaker, which worked so well that he's back again here with more of the same. He has a bigger role here and he's even funnier. Maybe it's the "porter in Macbeth" principle or something? Anyway, it's rather splendid. Comedy in horror is a dangerous thing that's backfired more times than I care to remember. In its own silly little way, this is actually one of the best examples that I can think of.
The vampire himself isn't Christopher Lee this time. Hammer thought he'd want more money. His replacement is one David Peel, who makes the fascinating decision to play Baron Meinster completely straight. He's charming, civilised and completely without the usual "I vant to suck your blood" vampire mannerisms. This is of course because he's simply imitating Lee. That tended to happen at Hammer, as can also be seen in the way all their Frankenstein figures seemed to be clones of Peter Cushing. I don't normally like it, but in this case it makes for a refreshing and ironically more menacing vampire...
...until David Peel puts on the fangs, whereupon he becomes hilarious. He's blonde, cherubic and as camp as John Inman at the ballet. It's hard to believe he was forty at the time. This film's vampire effects are risible, with comedy fangs and an extraordinary decision to put white make-up on the faces of freshly-risen undead girls but not bother with anything below the neck. As for the bats, the prop department worked hard on a realistic model and then lost it. I rather like the one they ended up using, which of course looks terrible but has its own charm.
More problematic is the vampire lore. Obviously I love this film and find it all the more entertaining for its comic little lapses, but you'll need a lot of goodwill to get past that ending. I can accept vampires being scared of crucifixes. It's traditional. I don't think we needed the film's batshit notion that vampirism is a religion rather than an undead plague, which explains the crucifix thing, but in such a mad way that your brain cells will liquify and spray from your ears. Regarding that ending, it's ridiculous that vampires would react the same to any cross-shaped object. ("Yaaah, a hot cross bun!") Thinking about the theology of this, surely it's more than halfway towards saying that you'd get identical effects from holy water and ordinary tap water? As someone who's only just started Hammer's Dracula series, I understand that's going to be an ongoing problem.
Judging by the elaborate explanation of vampiric powers, I suspect the producers thought contemporary audiences simply didn't know their basic vampire lore. That might explain a lot.
Then there are the plot lapses. If these vampires can turn into bats, what's the point of chaining them up? Is that a deliberate lapse and did we really see Baron Meinster clinging to the back of Marianne's coach at the beginning, or was it some completely different vampire-like figure who sweeps in and terrifies everyone at the village before sweeping out again and disappearing without explanation from the film? This is a silly script, yet it's been brought to life with such verve that somehow it works anyway.
Mind you, the girls are all beautiful and born to play vampires. Terence Fisher gives them such loving close-ups that you'll be convinced they're doomed to get bitten simply because they have perfect faces for it.
This is a wonderful film, despite or perhaps even because of its goofs. It's deliciously rich, with unique touches such as mad old Greta talking to the ground or the sight of a vampire who's clung on to her personality and is in such despair that she willingly accepts Van Helsing's hammer and stake. What's more, this is still a film worth watching just for its visuals despite those aforementioned special effects glitches. It's gorgeous and for the time occasionally nasty. Now those are what I call holy water burns. It's also continuing the sexy vampire thing that Christopher Lee had going, but even more explicitly. Some of the worst films I've seen (Jean Rollin) were chasing that sexy vampire thing, but this is still approximately the 1950s and so has to be genuinely sexy instead of just showing nipples.
This film is everything that Hammer should have been. And it has Peter Cushing.