Reel Romance: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2015

portraitofjennieMaybe I did too much living in 2015, because I sure didn’t do much writing!

I attended 5 film festivals, got quoted in the L.A. Times as a “classic film blogger,” watched over 200 new-to-me movies, and marked my 25th birthday with an epic weekend of 5 horror films on the big screen. And I got to meet my hero Kevin Brownlow. I think I might need to make a new “life goals” list now.

Before I can let go of that glorious year, I need to process some of the film discoveries that delighted and haunted me most. If you’ve never seen them, I hope they’ll delight you for the first time in 2016.

A theme that connects most (though not all) of these movies is unlikely or unexpected romance. In Second Floor Mystery, two strangers flirt through coded messages and elaborate fictions, modeled on potboiler clichés. In Heaven Can Wait, a playboy reflects on the value of lifelong commitment. In Portrait of Jennie, a ghost finds the soulmate she never knew while alive. Even a few canonical characters surprisingly gave in to the lovefest. Sherlock Holmes renounced his bachelorhood, and Doctor Van Helsing showed some more-than-professional interest in the lady he’s trying to save!

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“I just watched Portrait of Jennie. Please give me a few moments to collect myself.”

Another “theme” was me weeping uncontrollably, whether sobbing my eyeliner off in the presence of 500 other cinephiles or sniffling in my pajamas while streaming something on my laptop. I was unprepared for the catharsis. So, fair warning to you, dear reader: some of these films may mess with you mercilessly, causing trauma, vulnerability, revaluation of your life’s purpose, and the inability to get them out of your head.

Since some people have been asking, I’ve noted which films are currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray (in the United States) with asterisks. As for the ones that aren’t marked… well, let’s just say that you can find many of them around this cavernous thing called the Internet.

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Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, 1916)*

Since the news broke in 2014 that the Cinémathèque française had found a print of the presumed-lost Sherlock, I’d desperately wanted to see it on the big screen. That chance finally came in September when New York’s Film Forum screened the mystery thriller with live accompaniment. It did not disappoint.

William Gillette’s formidable, archly romantic portrayal of the great detective won my heart. From the luxurious dressing gown to the intense, Zen-like focus, many of the mannerisms and traits established by Gillette as Holmes have influenced (whether directly or indirectly) every actor who essayed the role after him. I also did a longer write-up on Sherlock Holmes and how it portrays the sleuth as a romantic hero.

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A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

Words are feeble to describe the heart-wrenching impact of this Japanese silent. A grief-stricken man works as a janitor at a mental asylum in order to stay close to his disturbed wife… and, he hopes, to set her free. The protagonist’s anguish and alienation anchor the film as his obsession verges dangerously on the madness of the inmates.

A Page of Madness is a lyrical and terrifying invitation to empathize with extreme states of mind. Blurring dreams, reality, and hallucinations, it encourages us to see the inmates not merely as unfortunates to be pitied but also as awe-inspiring (and sometimes frightening) volcanos of emotion and creativity.

Rather than beginning with an outsider’s gaze, director Teinosuke Kinugasa immediately pulls us into the interior universe of a patient. The film opens with a bizarre, opulent dance: a woman draped in a glittering white costume moves slowly in front of a giant spinning ball. As the camera tracks backwards, we see the cell bars that confine her physical space, but fail to confine her vast imaginings.

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Lonesome (Pál Féjös, 1928)*

An average boy and an average girl fall in love over the course of one chaotic day at Coney Island. Within the framework of this breezy, you’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times rom-com plot, Pál Féjös delivers both a documentary about the mating rituals of the Jazz Age working classes and a paean to the rush of young love. Out of a horde of merrymakers, a jostling crowd of tired, lonely people looking for stimulation, two people find each other. After some initial bluffing, they agree to be honest about themselves and their feelings. It’s a tiny, everyday miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

The cheap thrills of the amusement park—confetti, hot dogs, ice cream, sand between our hero’s toes, rollercoaster rides—mingle with numinous devotion. Lonesome offers up one of the most beautiful, almost divine images of romance in cinema: a couple dancing against a periwinkle sky besides a golden castle and a flickering crescent moon. The couple are really twirling in shabby beachfront dancehall, but their giddy affection elevates this ordinary moment to the stuff of fairy tales.

Even the few stilted dialogue scenes (a novelty thrown into an otherwise silent film) exude an awkward likeability. As the hero and heroine sheepishly open up to each other the film medium finds its voice.

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Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)*

Colleen Moore was one smart flapper, onscreen and off. In real life she banked a fortune and grew it. And in this movie she showed her legions of fans that there’s nothing more fashionable than a woman who stands up for her rights. Indeed, Why Be Good? quickly reveals itself as a sequined feminist manifesto.

Pert Kelly, all-American girl, department store worker, and dance champion, doesn’t hesitate to run her own life and crush double standards under her bejewelled pointy-toed shoes. For instance, when her traditional Irish papa starts to dictate her curfew, she reminds him that her salary is a hefty part of his household income.

Better yet, she gives her entitled beau an earful when he assumes that any stylish, fun-loving girl is sexual fair game. Moore defends a woman’s right to control her body and boldly defines her clothing choices as a means of playful self-expression—not a way of separating “good” girls from “bad.”

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Our Blushing Brides (Harry Beaumont, 1930)*

Come for the pre-Code lingerie, stay for the emasculating comebacks tossed off by Joan Crawford (often while wearing pre-Code lingerie). I watched this movie twice in a row when I discovered it last January. Both times I could be heard to exclaim variations of, “You tell him, girl!” at the screen.

Crawford plays a department store model who fends off the advances of skeevy rich guys. Her blistering retorts and gritty sense of self-worth—along with zingers written by Bess Meredyth, one of classic Hollywood’s greatest lady screenwriters—make this shopworn shopgirl drama shine.

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The Border Legion (Otto Brower and Edwin H. Knopf, 1930)

Festivals of rare films are inevitably bittersweet, since there’s always at least one film that makes me want to storm the projection booth and abscond with the reels (preferably fleeing on a white horse, discharging two six-shooters into the sky). The Border Legion, screened at Capitolfest, provoked such an impulse in me.

This Western from Paramount moves along at a hell-for-leather pace. A young man wrongly accused of murder (Richard Arlen) joins a band of outlaws governed by an enigmatic former cavalryman (Jack Holt). But a beautiful hostage (Fay Wray) ignites tensions that lure the gang to its doom. The plot culminates in a catastrophic raid on a frontier village. An uneasy stillness bursts into deafening explosions, showcasing the dramatic, shattering power of sound for the directors and crews who knew how to use it in the early talkie days.

Jack Holt gives his rendition of “the good bad man” as a paradoxical combination of rugged and immaculate. He embodies a drive to conquer and command so fierce that it marks him for death like a bullseye on his back. Holt’s ability to project an archetype and a nuanced human being simultaneously in The Border Legion puts him up in the Western pantheon with Hart, Wayne, and Scott.

I really wish you could all see this film. Maybe you will someday if Universal ever releases its hundreds of neglected pre-Code Paramount classics… Or, you know, I could saddle up, put a bandana over my face, and “liberate” the vault. Just a thought.

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Follow Thru (Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, 1930)

I can’t describe two-color Technicolor without resorting to dessert metaphors: peppermint candy, peach and mint sherbet. It looks yummy, as though your eye could taste it. This silly Paramount musical, shot entirely in the two-color process, circulates in terrible prints online, but I had the good fortune to see a UCLA restoration on 35mm at Capitolfest. (I also did a write-up on the experience.)

As fluffy and entertaining of a musical as you could wish for, Follow Thru uses early Technicolor to invigorating effect. Oh, and did I mention the musical number where chorus girls dressed as lipstick-red devils hoof it to the tune of “I Want to Be Bad”—amidst actual rising flames? Talk about a dance inferno…

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Second Floor Mystery (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

This delirious parody of crime capers and pulp writing—all wrapped up in an appealing love story—is so meta it could’ve been made yesterday. (Only then it wouldn’t look so sleek and it would’ve been, like, 2 hours longer.)

Geoffrey, a young man of means (Grant Withers), woos American tourist Marion (Loretta Young) from afar through “the agony column,” the cryptic newspaper personal section. As the lovers exchange messages, what begins as an idle flirtation unfolds into an exotic tale of murder, espionage, and secret societies … or does it? Once Geoffrey admits that he’s been fabricating his intrigues to impress Marion, another conspiracy arises!

I adore movies that mess with my head, and The Second Floor Mystery doesn’t hesitate to send its viewers right down the rabbit hole. Just when you think the story couldn’t get crazier, couldn’t ascend to further heights of hyperbole, it does.

One wild fabrication is debunked and set aside… only to make way for another. This castle of cards comes fluttering to earth at the end when Marion reveals that she set up a plot within a plot for Geoffrey, “to give you a few of the thrills you gave me.” Is this love as a metaphor for pulp fiction? Or is pulp fiction as a metaphor for love?

The Second Floor Mystery shows, as The Thin Man did 3 years later, that romance and spine-tingling excitement reinforce each other—especially when abetted by harmless fibs and ruses. Courtship, the process representing yourself to the object of your affections, often echoes the Byzantine twists of detective novels.

I’d absolutely love to see this currently unavailable Warner Brothers film (which I saw in already-digitized form at Cinefest) get the Warner Archive treatment. Powers that be, please make this happen!

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Don’t Bet on Women (William K. Howard, 1931)

I caught this zippy pre-Code Fox romp at the TCM Classic Film Festival and, boy, was it ever a treat. A stuffy husband (Roland Young) makes a bet on his wife’s ability to resist the charms of a cheerful playboy (Edmund Lowe). Unfortunately for hubby, his wife (a cheeky, non-singing Jeannette MacDonald) discovers the wager and decides to make her husband sweat it out. Una Merkel steals virtually every scene as Jeannette’s flirtatious cousin who dispenses all manner of risqué advice in a Southern twang.

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Painted Woman (John G. Blystone, 1932)

Imagine Safe in Hell (1931) with a happy ending—and an utterly ridiculous sequence of a giant octopus attack—and you’ve got the essence of this Fox potboiler. One sultry night in Singapore, a singer and prostitute known only as Kiddo (Peggy Shannon) bashes in some creep’s skull and goes on the lam with her abusive ship captain boyfriend. When Kiddo’s main squeeze parks her in a remote South Sea island, she fends off the local sleazeballs, but falls hard for an affable ex-Marine (Spencer Tracy). Alas, the nasty boyfriend rolls back into town, threatening to crush Kiddo’s future.

As Kiddo, Peggy Shannon looks out at the world from bedroom eyes set in an incongruously childlike face. She exists in a state of jagged bemusement, halfway between weariness and wariness, as if asking life, “What next, pal? Where ya landing the next punch?” Painted Woman sometimes borders on dumb and sometimes crosses right over, but Shannon holds it together with bruised dignity. Even skinny dipping in a lagoon, she can hurl tough-dame one-liners with a bite that made me think of Stanwyck… crossed with Harlow… with a pinch of Bow. I’d never heard of Shannon before Cinefest, but I couldn’t help thinking: Here’s an actress ripe for a rediscovery.

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Goodbye Again (Michael Curtiz, 1933)

This bawdy Warner Brothers comedy confection gave pre-Code bad boy Warren William the chance to show a more relaxed and hilarious side of his lascivious screen persona. A writer of risqué novels, William rekindles his romance with a now-married former sweetheart—much to the chagrin of his long-suffering secretary Joan Blondell.

With a marvelous supporting cast (Genevieve Tobin! Helen Chandler! Wallace Ford!), Goodbye Again has a wacky soundstage party ambiance. And who doesn’t love endless meta-cracks at the expense of prudery and censorship?

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Quatorze Juillet (René Clair, 1933)*

When a movie audience leaves the theater literally dancing to the exit music, you know you’ve witnessed something special. I saw René Clair’s Quatorze Juillet (14th of July, France’s Fête nationale) on the 14th of July. In Paris. However, I suspect that any day would feel like a holiday watching this triumph of creative storytelling.

Quatorze Juillet dwells in a silvery, stylized cosmos of exquisite coincidences and contrivances. Visual matches and quirky motifs catch the rhythms of city life. Gently-arcing high-angle shots look benevolently down on the destinies of outwardly ordinary people. A sweet flower girl falls in love with a gallant cab driver on the night before the 14th of July… then loses him to his old girlfriend. Misfortunes and mistakes tear them apart, but will fate bring them back together? The answer is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the journey.

Tempting though it is to label this a “feel-good movie,” Quatorze Juillet elegantly drifts through so many emotional tones. Wistful. Joyful. Silly. Tragic. Serendipitous. All of it clad in the stardust of Paris.

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Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)*

To quote one of my favorite film professors, “Relationships are hard.” He was quite correct, as usual. Relationships are hard to make a go of in real life and hard to make convincing and fresh on the screen. Heaven Can Wait, airy and buoyant as a waltz, understands the difficulty of relationships better than many hand-wringing, tear-stained dramas. I can’t conceive of a more tender valentine to marriage and its sublime challenge to human nature.

Frivolous playboy Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) wins and weds the woman of his dreams (Gene Tierney). That’s where most movies would stop, but Ernst Lubitsch probes the triumphs and frustrations of “happily ever after.” As Henry errs from his pledge to monogamy, his wife wonders whether the price of loving him might be too high, after all.

Shot in velvety, sensual Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait reminds us that lifelong commitment is the most quixotic of promises. Every gentle chuckle, every vibrant shade of purple (and there are many), every quarrel, and every kiss in the Van Cleaves’ marriage lead us to the conclusion that regrets, flaws, and death all make life worth living—and love worth loving.

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La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943)

As France was making a series of devil’s bargains with the Nazis, Maurice Tourneur directed this Faustian horror drama under the occupation. Morbidly comical and criss-crossed with foreboding shadows, La Main du Diable evokes the very modern risk of losing one’s soul.

Longing to be a great painter, bohemian loser Roland (Pierre Fresnay) exchanges his soul for artistic talent by way of a cursed hand passed down through a line of doomed men. When Roland regrets his decision, the devil arrives—in the person of a venal, bald-pated bureaucrat—and offers our hero the chance to buy back his soul… with interest, bien sûr. But can Roland afford it?

La Main du Diable made me wonder where the hell it had been all my life. Fresnay’s performance—one part bad boy, one part lost puppy—invested me deeply in Roland’s sad fate as he shambles into the devil’s path. And the film’s visual highlight, a fabulous carnival sequence, resurrects the former owners of the hand (and conjures visions of their misspent lives) by resurrecting the aesthetics of silent cinema.

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The Exile (Max Ophüls, 1947)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. paid conscious tribute to his charismatic swashbuckler father in this beguiling film—while displaying a streak of heroism and derring-do that was uniquely his. Returning to filmland after his service in WWII, the star produced and helped to write this elegant historical adventure about Charles II’s exile in Holland.

Charles’s wily grace and adaptability, honed through years of wandering, make him the only opponent who can defeat the sinister Roundheads, spookily reminiscent of the Third Reich. Max Ophüls’s traveling camera elevates fight scenes to ideological dance-offs: the sluggard brutality of totalitarianism versus the flexibility of constitutional monarchy.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948)

From the lurid, Mickey Spillane-ish title, you’d never guess that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands offers up one of the most sensitively-rendered relationships in the noir canon.

Bill Saunders, a traumatized American WWII vet in London (Burt Lancaster), accidentally kills a man in a barroom brawl. Running from the law, he hides out in the apartment of a kind but outspoken young hospital worker, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Jane helps Bill to rebuild his life and, bonded by vulnerability and loneliness, they fall in love. But can Bill control his rage? And will a greedy racketeer pull him away from his fragile chance at happiness?

Watch this movie for the chemistry between Lancaster and Fontaine. Watch it for the subtle commentary on a world struggling to heal itself after a devastating conflict. Watch it for the intoxicating cinematography by Russell Metty. Really. Do. Watch it.

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Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)*

Only two things can conquer death: art and love. As Portrait of Jennie suggests, perhaps those things can’t be separated from each other—or from death. This supernatural romance dares to dance with the great mysteries of life. Some critics have mistaken the film’s sincerity for sentimentality. Well, that’s their loss. One wonders, do they also snigger at sonnets and mock arias?

When an uninspired artist falls in love with a phantom, the movie lends us his eyes, slowly opening to the glories of his beloved, of winter in New York City, of the roiling sea, of the world in all of its palpitating aliveness. Only the ecstasy of loving and the agony of loss—for to love is to lose, since we are not built to withstand the forever we crave—can draw back the veil that hides the wonders all around us.

In the mystical contrasts of Jennie’s cinematography, you can feel the yearnings of the great poets to bridge the divide between the darkness and light of human existence. The delicate, petal-soft lace of Jennie’s dress showcases the onyx cameo profile of her face in shadow. The blinding white glare of the sun and the ice in Central Park illuminate Jennie’s silhouette as she glides towards the camera. Jennie comes running out of the mist to meet her mortal lover, and again she glows like a black angel of eternity. (I also saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show, which really made the film’s ethereal imagery sing.)

With its garden of marvels blooming out of the ordinary, Portrait of Jennie reminds me of another film that I consider truly enchanted: The Blue Bird (1918). Like the ghostly Jennie, the cinematographer of The Blue Bird, John van den Broek, drowned without realizing his radiant potential. Yet, he lives on. He speaks to me through the supernal beauty that his lense captured. Art, like love, is a legacy, a gift that awakens others. I think about The Blue Bird and Jennie often, and I am deeply grateful for the paradise-colored lens that those films hold before my eyes.

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Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

This allegorical noir transforms foggy, abstracted city sets on the Paramount backlot into a battleground for the forces of good and evil. Honest lawyer Joseph Foster (Grant Mitchell) struggles to convict a big-time gangster, until a tenebrous stranger Nick Beal (Ray Milland) shows up with the solution. Soon Foster succumbs to the insidious temptation of idealism, as Beal promises him the chance to clean up corruption—while corrupting Foster’s own soul.

His eyes glittering with the malice that Hitchcock would use so well in Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland oozes wicked suavity as Lucifer in a slick suit. His oily charm lulls us into almost trusting him and amplifies the shock of his occasional lapses into brutality. This prince of darkness is no gentleman. Audrey Totter captures the fear and pathos of her role as the devil’s unwilling accomplice: a wharf hooker given a satanic make-over by Beal and deployed to compromise Foster.

Rather than downplay the supernatural eeriness of the scenario, director John Farrow channels full-on cosmic dread. In this transplanted Medieval morality play of creeping camera movements, Satan himself literally dictates the dialogue at times. And a cigarette case, a bottle of rum, a pile of ashes all become signs not of mere mundane evil, but of Evil-with-a-capital-E.

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Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)

Bette Davis’s last contract film for Warner Brothers, a steamy, rural, noirish melodrama, is pretty darn difficult to get a hold of. That unavailability has sadly contributed to the film’s reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest. I braced myself for the worst—and found a passionate lamentation on the sorrows of being an ambitious, trapped woman. Director King Vidor endows the backwoods setting with an operatic grandeur suited to its heroine’s fiery longing and spectacular downfall. Think Hardy’s Return of the Native with an injection of Virginia Woolf. Plus a Maria Montez wig.

Though Bette Davis loathed the movie, she gives faded small-town temptress Rosa all her fury and cunning. She potently incarnates the feelings that good little post-war wives were supposed to sweep under the rug: boredom with domestic life, disgusted rejection of motherhood, grasping pursuit of money, and a desire for younger, exciting men. Even the oft-parodied “What a dump!” line expresses Rosa’s frustration with her petty existence.

Much of film noir is about thwarted women who turn to crime because they lack a socially-sanctioned way of getting what they want. Beyond the Forest refuses to sugar-coat that pill. Its prickly protagonist doesn’t soften her aspirations or pander to male fantasy with the silken, nubile glamor of the archetypal femme fatale. Her excess is intentional, in-your-face defiance. A refusal of all things passive, demure, acquiesced to silence. If that’s camp, please, spare me your earnestness.

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Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)*

Scary movies got me interested in film to begin with. Horror remains my favorite genre. So, when I tell you that Brides of Dracula has won a place in my top 10 favorite horror movies, that means a great deal to me.

This Gothic cautionary tale unfolds against a lush palette of Technicolor purples, reds, and golds and possesses a refinement matched by no other Hammer horror flick. The well-bred seductiveness of Brides mirrors the dandyish aura of its vampire: sorry, no, not Christopher Lee, but can I interest you in the subversively alluring David Peel?

To counter this bloodthirsty aesthete, Peter Cushing gives a dashing portrayal of Doctor Van Helsing—whose unspoken but palpable romantic rapport with the movie’s heroine subtly raises the stakes (pun intended). I wrote a nice long post about the wicked brilliance of this film. You know, if you’re into gratuitous Baudelaire quotes and gorgeous screenshots.

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Boom (Joseph Losey, 1968)

The TCM Classic Film Festival screened an eye-popping 35mm print of this notorious flop at the midnight hour. I laughed so hard I was genuinely afraid that I might cease breathing. (Proposed epitaph in the event that this does happen someday: Here lies one Nitrate Diva,/ She succumbed to movie fever.)

Starring a tipsy, resplendent Liz Taylor and a roaring, pretentious Richard Burton, Boom satisfies the gawking paparazzo lurking within each of us. Heiress Sissy Goforth rules her private Mediterranean island with a tyrant’s hand. When a poet with a reputation for visiting dying dowagers washes up on her shore, they engage in a tumultuous battle of wills and passions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my initial paroxysms of hilarity, I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Joseph Losey’s “failed art film,” to quote John Waters, who loves it even more than I do. Boom’s ostentatious incoherence calls to mind the authorial self-indulgence of many a successful art film. It forces its viewers to question their definitions of good and bad as applied to such an amorphous segment of cinema.

Boom examines what happens when celebrity self-absorption crashes into the grim inevitability of death. We get sunsets that look positively radioactive, cerulean waves, Beardsley-esque black and white costumes, all stirring and oddly pitiable in their magnificence. Tragedy seasoned with trashiness: consider it the love child of Jackie Collins and Euripides.

Brides of Dracula (1960): Dandy of the Damned

bridesofdracula_posterThe elegant man in gray stands on a high stone parapet, poised as if about to take a death leap. Suddenly, from the balcony above, a woman cries out to stop him. “No, don’t do that!”

And so the spirited but naïve Marianne first meets the dashing and dangerous Baron Meinster in Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula. Under other circumstances, it might be called a “meet cute.” In this case, it’s more like a meet deadly.

If this scene sounds familiar—even to those who haven’t seen Hammer’s underrated follow-up to Horror of Dracula (1958)—that’s because Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) brought its hero and heroine together in almost the exact same way. On the cliffs by the Mediterranean, Joan Fontaine’s nameless slip of a girl calls to Maxim de Winter, pulling him away from the edge… and plunging herself into a frightening love affair.

Perhaps this parallel is accidental. Perhaps not. In both films a young woman obsesses over pleasing a mysterious aristocrat and nearly pays with her life. However, whereas Rebecca rewards its self-effacing Cinderella with some semblance of happily ever after, Brides of Dracula drives a stake right through the heart of the Gothic fallacy—the myth of “I alone can save this misunderstood man.”

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I was lucky enough to discover Brides of Dracula in epic fashion: screened from a vivid 35mm print at the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York. The heady, luminous Technicolor cinematography of Jack Asher—awash in ripe burgundies, ominous grays, and borderline cadaverous shades of pastel violet—converted me to the glories of Hammer horror (with which I’d never previously felt much of an affinity).

Just to make sure it wasn’t the big-screen effect getting the better of me, though, I watched Brides on DVD shortly thereafter. Twice. In three days. It really is that good. If the Hammer films were burning and I could save only one, this would be the one.

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A sumptuous cautionary tale, Brides of Dracula seduces then shocks, revealing the rancid dysfunction festering beneath the surface of Gothic romanticism. As the title suggests, the film largely focuses on women, in particular the grave consequences of socially-sanctioned female fantasies. An integral mother-son relationship also gives the plot a Freudian depth of depravity and enhances its subtle critique of women enabling irredeemable, monstrous men.

Instead of simply resurrecting Dracula, this enclosed entry in the Hammer canon creates a daringly different kind of vampire, a disciple of the Count with his own shadowy backstory. As incarnated by David Peel, Baron Meinster is a spoiled, manipulative, sexually ambiguous rakehell who recognizes and ruthlessly exploits the images that women project onto him. He’s the Prince of Darkness in Prince Charming’s clothing.

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The Brides script went through a long and complicated development, yet it manages to clip along at an exciting pace, evoke a sense of familial tragedy, and include several memorably unsettling scenes of the dead rising and attacking. No small feat!

Traveling through the Carpathian Mountains for an appointment as a schoolteacher, lovely Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) ends up stranded at Castle Meinster. The sinister Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt, at her regal and unhinged best) tells the girl about her “mad” son, whom she keeps a virtual prisoner.

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Her Pandora instinct aroused, Marianne frees the apparently sane and and impossibly beautiful Baron Meinster. And, as you might imagine, all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, one of few actors who can ever make me root for the good guys) happens to be passing through the area to continue his mortal battle against vampirism.

From here on in, there be major spoilers, friends. 

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Newfangled Bad Boy

What could’ve been Brides of Dracula’s greatest weakness—the fact that the iconic vampire mentioned in the title doesn’t show up in the film—turns out to be its greatest asset. (No disrespect to Christopher Lee, whose Dracula performances all stand the test of time and chill me to the bone. I merely appreciate that Hammer took the vampire concept in an unusual direction here.)

The literal and figurative fair-haired boy of his noble family, Baron Meinster departs from the dark and brooding vampire paradigm set up by previous Draculas. On the most basic visual level, David Peel’s classically handsome Anglo-Saxon features and wig of frosted blond locks endow the Baron with an angelic aura.

Meinster lacks Dracula’s grand reach and authority, yet the intimate scope of his agenda and his stealth approach inspire a more relatable fear: mightn’t we all fall for such an ingratiating personification of evil? Beyond his imperative to stay alive, Meinster also displays a refined, psychological strain of sadism. Deceit isn’t a means to an end; it’s part of the thrill for Meinster. He can muster the disarming façade needed to deceive humans over a period of courtship.

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Christopher Lee played Dracula as “monarch of all vampires,” the title bestowed upon him by Brides’ prologue: somber, domineering, and attractive, certainly, but animalistic. Lugosi accentuated the seductive magnetism of the Count, but nevertheless exuded a debonair creepiness that initially prompts Mina to mock his accent and bearing.

In essence, Dracula is an outsider. You might be drawn to him, but you’d also be on your guard around him. Potential victims don’t tend to suspect that he’s a 500-year-old bloodsucking demon until it’s too late; then again, most don’t wholeheartedly welcome him into their lives either. Dracula makes no pretense of traditional courtship. He simply takes what he wants. The emotions of his prey are as meaningless to him as the squeaks of a field mouse to a hungry hawk.

The Gentle Art of Vampirism

By contrast, the Baron comes across as a dandy in the Baudelairean sense: “These creatures have no state of being other than cultivating the beautiful in their appearance, satisfying their passions, feeling, and thinking.”* Even the costuming choices confirm Meinster’s dandyism. No austere black cape for him—a dove gray cloak is so much more becoming.

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The Baron elevates his search for sustenance to an artistic pursuit, one that he goes about with the dedication of a collector. Referring to Marianne, he comments, “What a pity such beauty must fade… unless we preserve it.”

Meinster clearly derives pleasure from winning his victims’ trust, which makes his hunting technique inherently dandyish. As Baudelaire wrote, “Without ardor or caprice, it becomes a repugnant necessity.” Now, dear Charles was talking about love (and all that love implies), but substitute “blood” in there and you have Baron Meinster’s guiding maxim of vampirism.

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Our vampire dandy also displays a downright artful knack for beguiling any woman who crosses his path. He effortlessly presents himself as a wronged and tortured heir during his first face-to-face encounter with Marianne. The Baron drifts out of the shadows, strategically reveals his Adonis beauty, and sighs, “So, you’ve come to help me, have you? Well, no one can do that, mademoiselle.”

The viewer realizes the truth of his statement—there’s no cure for what Meinster is—but he knows that emphasizing the hopelessness of his case will only intensify Marianne’s desire to save him. Chained to the wall, Meinster draws Marianne nearer and nearer with his words, as the yearning violins of the musical score evoke the mood of a love scene.

By this point in the film, the intoxicating jewel tones of Castle Meinster and the delicate shadings of light and dark have swept the spectator into a mindset close to Marianne’s. Nevertheless, unlike Marianne, we know that we’re watching a vampire movie, so we can fill in the dramatic irony.

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Terence Fisher and company keep up a clever double game of dizzying romanticism and creeping dread. You’ll certainly notice some warning signs. Meinster stares just a few degrees south of Marianne’s face, and a crimson lampshade casts a baleful, blood-red glow on the wall over the Baron’s left shoulder.

However, only after Marianne darts off to rescue the dream boy in the tower do we get a close-up of his smug triumph. The cunning devil has ensnared his own Pandora and seems awfully pleased.

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Once the Baroness discovers that Marianne has stolen the key, the imposing dowager chases her frightened guest into the castle’s main hall. The girl barrels down a flight of stairs and runs straight into the Baron’s arms. The camera whirls into Meinster’s dreamy face with a flourish—portraying him as just the sort of romantic hero he wants Marianne to take him for.

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“There, there, don’t worry,” He coos to the terrified Marianne. “She can’t harm you now. You have nothing to fear.” A noted radio actor, David Peel drawls each line of Meinster’s double-talk as though he were tasting it, rolling it over his palate. I can’t think of any other vampire who would say such a thing, who would savor the irony of reassuring his intended victim.

Power Player

Every significant female character in Brides of Dracula fawns over Meinster. His mother admits that she encouraged “his wildness” and procured girls for him to drain even during his captivity. Meinster’s childhood nurse Greta essentially serves as his Renfield. She crouches over the grave of one of the brides, guiding the vampiress out of the ground like a midwife might coax a newborn out of the womb.

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The concept of vampirism as a kind of rebirth also connects Meinster’s sins with those of his mother. The script explains that the Baron harbored a cruel streak from childhood, indulged by the Baroness and brought to fullness by the wicked circle of friends he sought out. In other words, Meinster emerged from an interplay of nature and nurture. Yet, had his mother stood up to him, the film implies, this horror story would’ve ended in the home long ago.

Meinster perpetuates the vicious cycle of dysfunction that made him a monster (or failed to prevent him from becoming one) by creating new monsters—his children, in a sense. The product of a bad mother, Baron Meinster, in turn, becomes a bad mother… and in more ways than one.

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In addition to triggering misplaced maternal devotion in the Baroness and Greta, Meinster fits into the unhealthiest sort of romantic fantasy. Marianne’s student teacher colleague Gina develops an immediate crush on Meinster—he’s a Baron and he looks like Prince Charming, that’s enough for her. After learning of Marianne’s engagement, Gina envies her friend. All alone, following a congratulatory session of girl talk, she examines her face in a hand mirror and laments, “It should have been me.”

Then she feels a chill in the air and goes over to close the drapes. The icy blue of her peignoir against the orangey floral pattern of the curtains hits the eye like a danger signal. The audience knows that poor Gina is about to have her wish come true in a way she never bargained for.

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The brilliance of Brides lies in such varied examples of how women lose their identities by giving power to a man and making him the focus of their lives and goals. A mother becomes a ghoulish enabler and accomplice, a servant becomes a slave, and a young teacher becomes a mindless conquest. Meinster craves absolute interpersonal control and leaves wrecked people in his wake.

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In King Lear, Shakespeare wrote, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentlemen.” That observation suggests the outward urbanity of wickedness as well as the privileged social position occupied by the devil—both aspects of evil that Baron Meinster knows quite a bit about.

Not only does Meinster seek a degrading abject power over his victims, but he also exercises his drive to dominate in a more conventional class-bound way. When leaving the girls’ school where Marianne teaches, for instance, he can’t resist a threatening jab at the headmaster (a tenant of the Meinster estate), hinting that his underling had better show respect for his betters or he’ll be looking for a new home.

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The Baron wields his privileged status as another lure for potential mates. After all, what is the Gothic romance if not the Cinderella fantasy gone very, very wrong? Marianne traveled from Paris for her job as a schoolteacher… yet she’s ready to sacrifice it to become the new Baroness. Sounds shallow doesn’t it? But who among us isn’t swayed, to some degree, by rank and appearance? Especially women brought up on fairy tales featuring an aristocratic stranger who fixes everything and rewards the heroine with the honor of being his wife.

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Close-ups of the Baron, both in and out of vampire mode, abound and seem to magnify his power. He fills the screen, dominates even the camera. It’s as though the cinematography were bowing to his will in the way a 19th century portraitist might have.

For instance, shortly after he “saves” Marianne from the Baroness, he transforms from gallant and sensitive to cruel and incestuous in seconds. We get not one, not two, but three close-ups of Meinster’s beauty—like an exquisite mask with furious eyes burning through the holes—as he beckons the Baroness to her doom. “Come here, mother,” he purrs.

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The first sight of Meinster in full bloodthirsty form strikes the audience as all the more grotesque in comparison to his earlier handsomeness. Framed by a doorway in long shot, he hisses at Van Helsing. A jump cut amps up the horror by jolting us with a ghoulish close-up of the Baron, his cheeks contorted, his eyes bulging.

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Another such close-up signals Meinster’s most disturbing assault on a victim, one I could hardly believe at first. Having strangled Van Helsing unconscious, the Baron pounces on him like a bat, raising his cape over the prostrate man. We don’t see the bite… but Meinster’s head rises from the lower edge of the frame and his fangs glisten with fresh gouts of blood. To borrow Bram Stoker’s words, he wears “a grin of malice which would have held its own in the nethermost hell.” This savage bite scene left me rattled. Though tame as far as horror gore goes, it strikes at the audience’s deeply-held confidence and investment in Van Helsing as a recurring, beloved character who tends to hold the trump cards.

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Even Dracula himself never got that far with Van Helsing! And when the Count does come close to biting his nemesis during the Horror of Dracula showdown, he approaches Van Helsing’s neck with a more adversarial intensity, eager to deliver the coup de grâce. Dracula wears the sneer of victorious rival. He doesn’t exalt in the depraved pleasure of violating an enemy, like Meinster does.

Fortunately, Van Helsing knows how to purify himself and, in another stomach-churning turn of events, cauterizes the bite mark with a red-hot branding iron and some holy water. I can’t think of another actor who could make this as convincing (and badass) as Cushing does.

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Killing Van Helsing apparently wasn’t even Meinster’s immediate intent, though. He returns a few minutes later, dragging Marianne in tow, and taunts Van Helsing with the exhibitionistic prospect of forcing the good doctor to watch her “initiation.”

Interestingly enough, the Van Helsing of Brides acquires his own mantle of romanticism. Reading between the lines, one senses a bit more chemistry between the doctor and Marianne than expected from a vampire-hunter and a woman he’s trying to save. If you don’t believe me, watch Cushing’s face when he hears of Marianne’s engagement and asks, “Are you in love with him?”

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In other words, Meinster’s pursuit of Marianne satisfies another facet of his sadism; he’s tormenting Van Helsing through her. The Baron may not be the most ambitious vampire, but when he sets out to do damage, it’s on the most personal and vicious level. His violent attack on Van Helsing strips away the refinement of the Gothic hero, showing us the brute under the ascot. Brides confronts and crushes the oxymoron of a vampire romance.

Brides of Dracula is a subversive, rewatchable masterpiece of horror wrought from lavish jewel tones and Baroque shadows. (Never mind the plot holes. Or the awkwardly flapping bat. I find them endearing, frankly.) Its complex intermingling of social and sexual signifiers and its sheer amount of striking set pieces ensure that any post about the film has merely scratched the surface. I urge you to seek this movie out, whether you’re a Hammer fan or not—because you will be one by the time the credits roll.

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*Baudelaire, Le Peintre de la vie moderne.