BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) July 9th 1977 00.00-01.25
Anglo-Freud! In Colour!
Colour! This one was in colour!
I’ve always loved black and white – for its subtle chiaroscuro, its pools of expressionistic shadow and light, the way in which it creates a readymade short cut into a world of dreams and fantasy through its poetic, self-evident distance from the prose-coloured world that’s always just there in front of us, and perhaps most of all for its pleasing ability to generate a smug, holier-than-thou sense of my own arty cleverness as I went to see such out of time 80s big screen black and white movies as The Elephant Man and Stardust Memories. Nonetheless, there was always a certain thrill, as these double bills rolled on, in the glorious Eastman colour of the second film on the bill when, as here, it turned out to be a later Hammer movie rather than a 30s or 40s Universal classic.
I didn’t understand such distinctions quite yet of course, since at the time my fixation with the genre was only a week old. In the broadest sense I’d heard of Hammer, but only in that pop culture way in which the words are just somehow out there in the ether, a part of the fabric surrounding us, a few vague impressions, maybe the title of a weird Kate Bush single. I didn’t really know what Hammer horror was. For this briefest of spells, before I’d read any more, or seen any other films, this Peter Cushing vehicle might have been a direct sequel to Lugosi’s Dracula which had so thrilled me a little week before, rather than, as I later discovered, the second (and Dracula-less) entry in an entirely separate cycle of movies centring around Christopher Lee’s upright, fanged and red contact-lensed version of the Count and Cushing’s sharp and agile interpretation of Van Helsing.
Beginnings are always like that. There’s no shape yet, just a cloud of delightful mystery and sensation, discovery and possibility. When you begin writing fiction, for instance, at first there’s just the beautiful vague cloud of maybe and what if, which you gradually begin to tame and fashion into this specific thing here which you’re actually writing – you create focus, and if you have the luck and the talent, maybe a kind of truth, but it also gets so much smaller than the ocean of the maybe that you had to swim in in the first place.
It’s like falling in love. For all its passionate intensity, in the beginning that other person is still a mystery, only a vague idea of themselves. You may not be able to think about anything or anyone else, and can find solace only in dropping the beloved’s name into every conversation, however unrelated – ‘We’ve run out of bread? Zoë likes bread…There’s been a hurricane in America? Zoë’s cousin went to America once…’- but the truth remains that you don’t know that much about them. It’s only as time goes on that they refine themselves from that possibility of a person into the actual human being who stands ever more specifically in front of you in this exact and actual shape. A shape made up of the things we discover like a sculptor chipping away at the stone to reveal the form that had always been waiting in the block. If the love’s to last, then that shape will still be wonderful in your eyes, but inevitably it’s now defined, hemmed in by fact, and so very much smaller than the infinite possibilities it had encompassed before.
The birth of any obsession is like this. Our own ignorance allows us to swim, however briefly and blissfully, in a potential world, a world where Lugosi may have frolicked in lurid colour opposite Cushing, Karloff might have won the Best Actor Oscar for Bride of Frankenstein, and Lust for a Vampire was even a tenth as good as its title. Until our own irresistible need to know narrows that world down to the shape of the single and the concrete at the expense of the abstract and the infinite.
For my ignorant twelve year old self though, viewing the film for the first time without preconceptions of any sort, what struck me most – after the lush, sumptuous beauty of the colours, courtesy of Jack Asher’s luxuriant cinematography and Bernard Robinson’s wonderful designs – was the sheer Englishness of the whole enterprise.
The great literary originals – Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the ghost stories of M.R. James – all have a decisively English soul, a surface composure quivering with barely repressed passion and hysteria, a national and cultural identity that is both indefinable and immediately recognisable. I know at this point someone will inevitably wish to point out that Dorian Gray and Dracula were both written by Irishmen, Jekyll and Hyde and Baskervilles by Scotsmen, and Poe was American, but for my money the point still stands. Whether the writers were born from it or simply made it their spiritual and creative home, there’s something in the English soil – a sense of history perhaps, of ancient mysteries forever lurking round the corner or behind the monument, or perhaps something in its landscapes, its misty moors and its barren flatlands, the bleak beauty of its desolate coastline, its haunted palaces and its foggy alleyways – which is particularly fruitful for the dark imagination and which means that Gothic horror has always had a peculiarly English identity.
However, for all their reliance on the literary source material and despite their emphasis on the fairy-tale qualities of their middle European settings; for all that the key figures in the evolution of the studio and amongst its creative personnel were European émigrés, the Universal movies are resolutely and unarguably American, not least in their relentlessly modernising approach.
The passage of time had leant the 1930s themselves a surface patina of nostalgia even by the summer of 1977 which rather disguised the boldly contemporary settings which the Universal films had adopted. In this, as in their frequent use of many of the stock character types of American cinema of the time, (Lugosi’s Dracula, for instance, is in many ways the lounge lizard and the Valentinoesque Latin lover of so many contemporary Hollywood movies, while Helen Chandler and Frances Dade as his victims are bobbed 20s flappers rather than Victorian maidens) and in their eager deployment of a figure as all-American as Lon Chaney jr. during the 40s, the Universal cycle looks and feels American to the core.
This is not intended as a criticism. Perhaps I’m culturally blinkered, even philistine, but although I’m as capable as the next man of bluffing my way through a conversation about Kurosawa and Ozu, Bergman and Bunuel, Fellini, De Sica and the rest, and although Giuseppe Tornatore’s sublimely elegiac Cinema Paradiso would always come close to the top of my all time top ten favourite films, it seems to me self-evident that cinema is an essentially American art form and the greatest cinema is American cinema, if not always geographically then at least in sensibility. Nothing that has come from outside the States can rival what has come from within it in terms of scope and grandeur and intensity. Where else could have produced Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep? Or The Searchers, Rio Bravo and True Grit? Some Like it Hot and Sunset Boulevard? Jaws, The Godfather, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Taxi Driver, Mildred Pierce and Now Voyager? Top Hat and High Society and Singin’ in the Rain? North by Northwest and Silence of the Lambs? Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life and Psycho?
So there’s genuinely no sub textual lip-curl of disdain when I suggest that the Universal horror films are wonderfully, meltingpotaliciously American in tone and feeling, but it’s also true to say that for me there’s something very pleasing and English about the fact that it took a small family owned production company called Hammer, operating shoestring productions out of a tiny studio in an English country house to finally bring horror back home to England. As I’ve pointed out, I wasn’t aware of any of this production background when I first watched Brides of Dracula, but I felt every inch of the sheer Englishness on screen, from the production designs and performances which render the geographically condensed middle Europe of the film’s ostensible locations in terms of the Home Counties, to Hammer’s crucial decision to give their movies a Victorian setting, perhaps the period when England appeared at its most ‘English’.
Of course, Hammer’s version of England has nothing to do with flags and parades, nor with putting the Great back into anything, and it’s not in any sense aggressive or imperialistic. Much closer to the mark was Orwell (or, lord help us, John Major) with his England of warm beer and cycling spinsters and long evening shadows on village greens, but of course that England was always a fading nostalgic fantasy, and one made more so with each passing year – except in the cosy-crimed all-white world of Midsomer. Nevertheless, some of that quiet, precise, benevolently ordered and essentially rural country, struggling to restrain and contain the seething forces of disorder and chaos simmering below, has strong echoes in the world created by the Hammer movies.
It was a fictional English world I already knew intimately, from Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells and Kenneth Grahame and C.S. Lewis and Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton and Stig of the Dump and more particularly from Doctor Who in it’s Terrance Dicks, Barry Letts and Jon Pertwee era, a world of irascible squires, affable poachers and nervous vicars; a world of retired majors, amateur experts and gentleman heroes who found it hard to suffer fools gladly but always saved the day by doing the decent thing; a world of good chaps and rough, sometimes sullen and threatening, though often good-hearted, lower class types; a world that would like to have dreamed it was timeless and rather feared it was not; and perhaps most of all a world in which monsters lurked in the dark corners of its tranquil landscapes. A world, at least in its Hammer incarnation, in which everyone was Michael Ripper.
There is a tendency among critics to see this nostalgic picture of England, most especially in its Gothic form – and in the Hammer films in particular – as essentially parochial, xenophobic, even racist, and it’s certainly fair to say that, in common with pretty much every area of the British media at the time, the films do not directly represent the increasingly multicultural society in which they were made, with ‘the foreign’ (whether the ‘mysterious East’ in The Reptile or Haiti in Plague of the Zombies) often embodying a source of threat.
For me, however, to leave the point there is a fundamental mistake, and one which spinelessly concedes the sense of what constitutes an English identity to the bigots of UKIP and the EDL and the BNP and the sadly successful Brexiteers. Crucially and demonstrably, England, even in its nostalgic, backward-looking Hammer guise is absolutely and irrefutably multicultural in its essential soul. Look no further than Christopher Lee’s patrician features, which allowed him to spend most of the 60s and 70s flitting with equal facility between English aristocrats and swarthy continentals – and perhaps the less said about his Fu Manchu in this context the better.
We are a mongrel race, and that is something of which we should be justly proud. Anglo-Saxon. The clue is in the hyphen. We are also Celts. We are Roman, and Norman. On the East coast, particularly, we are also Scandinavian, thanks to some wild oat sowing by those marauding Viking fellows with their Danelaw and their horny helmets. All mixed up with the remnants of the Ancient Britons who preceded them all. And round my way there’s also a strong Flemish, Walloon and Dutch influence dating back to a wave of persecution-escaping immigration in the 1600s. Oh, and back in the twelfth century a sizeable and prosperous chunk of the population of my city were Jewish. Then the racists and the bigots got at them, just as, in today’s world, they’d dearly love to do to the asylum seekers, the refugees, the Asians and the eastern Europeans. For more than fifty years, since the first major influx of citizens of the former colonies, England’s most recent brand of hairy-knuckled hate-mongers with their staring eyes and their sloping foreheads have been spewing out their venomous bile, but what they want you to forget is that, despite its sea borders, the English spirit, the English identity, has always, and wonderfully, been defined by an inclusiveness, a blending of cultures, far more so than much of continental Europe. And I do mean English, very specifically, incidentally.
I find the word ‘British’ harder and harder to use with any conviction as time goes by. It speaks of an outdated and rather ugly sense of Empire and expansion, of fluttering Union flags and the last night of the Proms which says nothing to me about my sense of my own identity or my place in the wider world. It seems to me that the smaller and more local those definitions are the more meaningful they become. One, I’m a Galley; two, I’m from Norwich; three, I’m East Anglian; four, I’m English, and only after that do I see myself as British or European or any other such loose conglomeration of associations.
In my idealistic and internationalist twenties I vociferously denied that any of this meant anything at all – there was no such thing as national identity, I declared; this was just a lie designed to allow our rulers to send us to war against our neighbours, blinding us to the truth that a plumber from Bristol has far more in common with a plasterer from Meinz than either of them do with the posh officers giving them their orders. I still stand by that to a degree – the madness of narrow nationalism, of ‘are you one of us or are you other?’ can be seen all too easily in the world around us, and leads ultimately and with a terrifyingly remorseless and insane logic to the ovens of Auschwitz, to the flying of planes into tall buildings, and to the public execution of the shipwrecked monkey washed up in Hartlepool during the Napoleonic wars because the locals took the poor hairy little jabberer for a Frenchman.
Nonetheless as I grow older I do find there is something: a vague, but palpably real sense of Englishness which lurks both within and around me – some loosely defined sense of intimacy, of belonging, which makes me warm to the sight of a red post-box or bus, which allows me to be every bit as interested in the latest score from the Test Match as an English binman or an English aristocrat. Of course the exact nature of that something is much easier to acknowledge than it is to define – but its outline is a love of the quiet life; a gentleness which is partly a genuine tolerance and partly an almost metaphysical dread of making a scene; a restraint which masks the depth of an unseen iceberg of hidden feeling; a resigned, nagging sense of disappointment in things as they are, and, perhaps as a corollary to that disappointment, a consciousness of the past, almost an aching for it, which at both a personal and national level is so intense as to approach the unhealthy.
A sense, in other words, of the English spirit perhaps never embodied more completely in one individual than in the shape of Peter Cushing.
My sister and her husband live in Westgate on the Kent coast, and I try never to allow a visit to them to go by without a private pilgrimage round a few miles of coastline to the Tudor Tea Rooms in Whitstable, where Peter Cushing took tea almost every day, at a quiet table tucked unobtrusively behind a pillar. There’s a melancholy to seaside towns, particularly of the more genteel variety, a kind of faded, out-of-season beauty which somehow seems to fit Cushing’s quiet, inward quality like a blood-stained surgical glove, and which becomes all the more poignant when you know how he pined for the loss of his wife Helen through the last decades of his life. I picture him, quiet and immaculate, sedate and restrained, the very model of an English gentleman, sipping tea alone at that little table, and all the time a wild pain and loss gnawing invisibly and monstrously at his broken heart, and not only do I feel a terrible sympathy, but also somehow a much greater and more immediate understanding of the furious intensity he lent his best-known characterisations; an unparalleled – and I’ll say it again, an utterly English – ability to suggest both an eerily aloof composure and a wild, frantic desperation. Implacable, icy, and unperturbed on the surface, and turbulently, chaotically human beneath it.
There’s an insignificant little sequence in one of his lesser-known films, The Blood Beast Terror, in which Cushing, playing a somewhat fastidious police inspector, rebukes his sergeant for allowing some tea to slop out of the cup and into the saucer. Perhaps a minute or two later, at the end of the scene, Cushing scrapes the bottom of his china cup against the edge of the saucer, a barely perceptible flicker of distaste fluttering across his usually impassive features. In one sense it’s absolutely superfluous – a split second of ‘character business’ which would have gone entirely unmissed had Cushing not chosen to throw in such a subtle little flourish in a largely unimpressive low budget quickie, but that tiny moment for me is quintessential Cushing; exquisitely judged, perfectly suggestive of an entirely English quiet outrage, and typical of the extraordinary attention to detail he brought to every role, making him easily the most versatile of the great horror stars, slipping with ease from dotty enthusiasm to steely determination to coiled–spring tension to narrow-eyed evil to wild-eyed whimpering panic.
He truly was the most extraordinary of actors, gifted with a rare talent and a meticulously controlled and studied technique which, uniquely, enabled him to inhabit Van Helsing, Baron Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Winston Smith, Grand Moff Tarkin and Doctor Who with equal conviction and grace.
Those two 1960s Doctor Who Dalek movies, incidentally, directed with real panache by Gordon Flemyng and made by Aaru – a kind of sister brand to Amicus, the production company which staked its own claim on the horror genre of the 1960s and early 70s with its highly enjoyable series of present-day portmanteau films – were a regular Saturday daytime and school holiday TV treat, and had made Cushing as reassuring a presence in my earlier childhood as his respective co-stars, Record Breakers’ Roy Castle and Bernard Cribbins from Jackanory and The Wombles. Had there only been a third film with Blue Peter’s John Noakes in Tardis some kind of BBC Childrens Programmes cuddliness quotient overload would probably have made my head explode.
Cushing’s Dr. Who (and yes, ‘Who’ was actually the character’s surname in the Dalek films, as opposed to on TV when it depends) is an absentminded, charmingly dotty English professor, rather than William Hartnell’s much more acerbic, alien and mysterious figure from the TV series at the time, but he inhabits the role whole-heartedly, reprising it in all but name a decade later in another highly enjoyable Amicus fantasy adventure called At the Earth’s Core. His skill was such that I never found it difficult to accept that the cosy Saturday afternoon Dalek defeater of my childhood was now the much icier Van Helsing, or, as I was to see before long, the downright monomaniacal Baron Frankenstein.
As predictable in my tastes as most fans of old horror movies and Doctor Who, I’m also a Sherlock Holmes aficionado – my childhood was filled and endlessly enriched by my discovery of the stories, then the wonderful Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films of the 30s and 40s which were a similarly regular feature of the BBC’s 1970s schedules. Later I came to love the daring and manically committed Granada TV performance of Jeremy Brett, and now, with no little reluctance – even the same sense of betrayal of one’s childhood heroes that many of my generation faced when forced to accept that David Tennant was every bit as good as Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee – I would have to admit that the extraordinary performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the BBC’s Sherlock, are as near as dammit the definitive version. It’s high praise indeed, therefore, for me to say that the meticulous precision of Peter Cushing’s Holmes, first essayed in Hammer’s endlessly enjoyable 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and, as I discovered only relatively recently through the wonder of DVD, refined even more successfully in the 1960s BBC series, is fit to swap deerstalkers with the best of them.
As Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing he embodied two of the three pillars on which Hammer’s extraordinary achievements were built (Lee’s Dracula being the third of course), and I don’t think he was ever better than he is here, in Brides of Dracula. The blinkered, condescending and – lets be honest – snobbish attitude of the critical establishment to the talent at work in genre pieces never fails to irritate me. A few years back I saw the previously mentioned Bernard Cribbins appearing as Wilfred Mott in David Tennant’s final episodes as the Doctor, and he gave a performance of such immense subtlety and sensitivity, so filled with feeling and nuance and tenderness, that had the identical characterisation been given by some established theatrical gent in a quiet little social realist drama about dignity and old age I have no doubt the performance would have been showered with the BAFTAs and the plaudits it so richly deserved. Coming from him that sang Right Said Fred in a slice of Christmas sci-fi fun for kids though, it passed relatively unnoticed.
In similar vein (no pun intended), the role of Dracula’s arch enemy has been attempted on film – and walked through – by no lesser luminaries than Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins (thespian Sirs both), and anyone with eyes to see would have to acknowledge how completely the much less lauded Cushing trounces them both. For one thing, Cushing, Lee, and director Terence Fisher had the good sense to jettison Stoker’s clumsily accented dialogue, and in losing the foreign baggage rendered the conflict between Dracula and Van Helsing in terms of an enthralling battle between the iron wills of, respectively, Lee’s animalistic, icy, aristocratic entitlement and Cushing’s stiff, puritanical, bourgeois morality.
Of course, although this was my first encounter with Cushing in the role, Brides of Dracula was Hammer’s, and Cushing’s, second stab at the character, and for me the film undeniably suffers because it lacks the central presence of Lee’s Dracula from the first film. David Peel’s Baron Meinster is a very different animal, and the awesome shadow cast by Christopher Lee is even more deadly to the somewhat fey vampire villain than the shadow of the windmill sails which Van Helsing manoeuvres to finish him off in the film’s highly effective climax. Nonetheless, Brides is a remarkable achievement, and I can well understand why for many it represents the high watermark of Hammer Horror.
What does strike me now, however, in a way that entirely escaped my twelve year old self, is just how startlingly Freudian the whole enterprise is. I first read Freud when I was in my late teens, starting with the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis and The Interpretation of Dreams. He took me entirely by surprise, partly because I hadn’t expected such complex and original thinking to be rendered in prose so witty and accessible, and partly because I’d never previously realised I wanted to shag my mum and murder my dad. Brides of Dracula should probably have led me to suspect as much however.
Freud has been much derided over the years: for a lack of theoretical rigour; for an intrinsic sexism; for drawing wild generalisations from researches on a very narrow, homogenous sample group; for thoughtlessly assuming that memories of child abuse were always fantasies rather than actual recollections; for too emphatic an emphasis on sex as a sole determinant of human behaviour and personality; and for giving a bizarre degree of credence to his friend Wilhelm Fliess’s frankly weird theory that the centre of neurosis was in the nose, and could be rooted out with a bit of unsurprisingly disastrous nasal surgery.
For all that, however, Freud’s approach was revolutionary for me. What I recall best from my early reading of his work was the sense of a new world being opened up. It was what Freud referred to as parapraxis which most immediately impressed me – the sense that these tiny and everyday moments of apparent accident; slips of the tongue, forgetting, taking a wrong turn, revealed an undiscovered continent of hidden processes and motivations which could be further, and poetically, investigated through the analytic process and, particularly, the reading of dreams. Whatever the validity of Freud’s clinical techniques and theories, what he taught me as a teenager, with all the force of genuine revelation, was that the world was not entirely as it seemed to be on the surface, that I knew myself only slenderly, and that much of what went on inside me remained a mystery to what, as Freud helped me realise, I could only loosely consider to be myself. He was not its inventor, but before Freud the idea of an unconscious mind had never really been fully formulated, and it is a concept which continues to echo and reverberate to this day.
Brides of Dracula unfolds like the Freudian dream par excellence, in a much deeper and more resonant sense than more conscious efforts to incorporate Freudian theory into the cinema – like the Dali designed dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound for instance.
Initially Meinster is held in chains by his domineering mother. Freed from the metaphorical apron strings by a beautiful young girl, Meinster immediately puts the bite on his mother before infiltrating a nearby girls’ school. Symbolic father Van Helsing must then sternly penetrate the matriarch’s body with his stake and holy water. There is a startling sequence in which Meinster’s servant acts as a perverse sort of midwife encouraging one of his victims to push her way out of the grave.
The boarding school scenes have something of the moist, Sapphic yearning of LeFanu’s Carmilla. And ultimately of course, Meinster, more than a little camp throughout, successfully sucks on Van Helsing, with the appalled vampire hunter only able to burn out the ‘evil’ (of vampirism, or homosexuality?) from his soul with a literal branding iron applied to the bite and a good splattering of holy water. I’m not sure what Freud’s thoughts on fangs were, but I can make an educated guess. Sometimes a cigar may be just a cigar, but not in this case I think.
It’s not only Brides of Dracula of course. There’s something about horror films which makes them uniquely placed to illuminate and embody the hidden and repressed. Freud himself could have made a decent horror writer – his ideas on the uncanny are profoundly unsettling – while Jung’s shadow selves might almost have been designed to describe the denizens of the horror film. I have no doubt that, given the chance, both Freud and Jung would have been avid Saturday night horror double bill viewers – though not in the same room of course, or Freud would have kept fainting. Freud described dreams as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ and if cinema is the art form closest to the sensation of the dream then horror cinema is surely the most dream-like of all. Often it’s overt; a part of the film maker’s intent and focus, as in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, or pretty much all of Roger Corman’s Poe Pictures. But even with less intent and ambition, even amidst the worst and most obvious of slashers or cheapo mad scientists, isn’t there something of the elusiveness and the unfathomable strangeness of the dream? The darkness, and the shadow at the bottom of the stair? The strange door at the end of the corridor?
It’s this, to me, that’s the true, beating tell-tale heart at the core of the horror film’s appeal. The explanation usually offered for the apparently irrational and illogical pleasure audiences are able to take from being scared and horrified in the cinema uses the analogy of a rollercoaster. The films, it suggests, offer their audiences the adrenaline rush of a fearful, even life-threatening situation but from a position of complete safety. I’ve never bought it.
I’ve seen more horror films in my time than anyone probably should, and can honestly say that real fear has only ever once been a part of the experience. I watched Nicholas Roeg’s intricate, majestic 1973 masterpiece Don’t Look Now when I was 13, and was terrified beyond measure by the film’s shattering climax (SPOILER ALERT – jump directly to the next sentence if you’ve never seen the film, and yes, I am aware that the nature of my prose style may mean that reaching the next sentence requires a leap of BobBeamanesque proportions), in which the mystery figure in the red coat is revealed to be not the benevolent spirit of Donald Sutherland’s dead daughter but the dwarf-like serial killer who is to murder him. Every time I turned out the light I saw that face – malevolent, malformed and mocking of all human hopes. Every time I closed my eyes, haunting my dreams for weeks, there was that slight, sneering shake of the head – was it aware of what Sutherland was hoping for? How could it have known? I can state categorically that pleasure was no part of my response to Don’t Look Now, the only horror movie which has ever genuinely frightened me, and to this day I find it almost impossible to return to the film. I’ve steeled myself to it twice over the years, and the effect was hardly diminished at all by age and experience. In fact, in many ways now that I have daughters of my own the film inspires an even deeper dread. Fear, in other words, is not what I go to horror cinema for, and I didn’t like it on the one occasion when that was what it delivered.
Neither, I think, is there any vicarious sado-masochistic pleasure for me to be found in the genre. I don’t enjoy the current vogue for ‘torture porn’ – in films like Saw, Hostel, and The Human Centipede – although I certainly don’t presume to pass any kind of judgement on the audience for those films, since I’ve read enough archive material to know that the same howls of outrage hurled at them today were once directed almost word for word at the now-tame and nostalgia-friendly works of Universal and Hammer. Images of pain, suffering or humiliation are actually comparatively rare in the horror films I hold most dear, and even where they do occur – Lugosi’s cackling delight in his Poe-inspired torture chamber in The Raven, for instance – those moments are so poetically heightened as to transform them into something of an altogether different order, bearing roughly the same relation to genuine violence as the ‘It was the lark’ love scene from Romeo and Juliet does to a ‘Teen Babe loves Cock’ internet video.
No, it seems to me that what audiences, and fans, truly gain from horror is an uncertain kind of recognition. Freud identifies the key to the experience of the uncanny as being a potent combination of the familiar and the strange, and explains it as the return of the repressed. In a truly dream-like way, and without the need for years of hideously expensive and dubiously effective psychoanalysis, horror allows us to explore our own unconscious selves, and this idea of self-exploration is the central pleasure films like Brides of Dracula continue to offer me. Whether it’s a shadowy something in my own psyche or a universally resonant collision of archetypes from the collective unconscious, in some mysterious way these movies are, like the lover in Shane MacGowan’s Rainy Night in Soho, the measure of my dreams. I don’t believe it is likely that I would ever be able to establish exactly how or why Brides of Dracula speaks to me so profoundly, but I think I’m sufficiently self-aware to recognise that what I’m responding to in its potent blend of sex and death, of the sumptuous and the barren, of the rational and the instinctual, of the real and the dream-like, is a vague, half-formed sense of myself, of my many different selves, playing out an elaborate, enigmatic, flickering dance on the screen in front of me.
It’s a heady cocktail – of the film’s on offer in this season perhaps only Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 The Black Cat can rival it for sheer, delicious revelling in perversity – and a very, very beautiful film to look at. The combination is seductive and irresistible, and if you’ve never seen the film I urge you to surrender to its bizarre temptations forthwith: always much the best response to temptation, I find.