Horror Express (1972): Cozy Terrors

horror_express_cover_artSo many underrated movies to recommend, so little time!

Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to share my thoughts about films I love without typing out long blog posts.

Since today marks the birthday of the late great Sir Christopher Lee and yesterday was Peter Cushing’s birthday, I want to sing the praises of a delightful, lesser-known film that the legendary pair made together.

A Spanish-British co-production, Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express compensates for its low budget with unfettered plot twists and an eerie, snowbound period atmosphere.

Plus it’s set on a train. If you set a movie on a train, I’m about 300% more likely to enjoy it.

However, what makes the film so charming is Cushing and Lee’s heartfelt chemistry. In this case, they both play good guys—rival paleontologists who reluctantly join forces to battle an ancient evil. The film even throws in the occasional cheeky nod to the actors’ Hammer horror legacy. For instance, when a fellow passenger insinuates that Cushing might actually be the film’s demonic creature, he’s utterly scandalized: “Monsters? We’re British, you know!”

This is basically my idea of a feel-good movie.

Rather than face a blank page, I decided that I’d just record my two cents about Horror Express on my iPhone. Listen here or download the file at the Internet Archive.

Consider this the pilot episode for something that might become regular… if enough people like it! Please let me know if you’d like to hear more of my ramblings.

Since Horror Express is in the public domain, you can watch it in many places around the internet. I’m embedding the best HD version that I’ve found on YouTube. It’s also available in a nice transfer on Fandor.

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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. And, unlike Dracula, he can muster the disarming façade needed to deceive.

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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 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 he had better show respect or he’ll be paying a higher rent.

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The Baron also 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. Watching Meinster triumph over the doctor overturns our sense of the genre’s rules and reminds us that, in real life, evil sometimes wins. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to cherished, recurring movie characters or to people we love, but they do.

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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 arguably confronts and crushes the oxymoron of a vampire romance before that idea even went mainstream.

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.