The Absent Groom: Vampirism in The Brides of Dracula (1960)

The female vampires featured in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) never kill adults. Their power is carefully mediated throughout the text, a tradition which continues in contemporary vampire cinema. It’s as though Stoker’s text is afraid of Dracula’s Brides, as Victor Frankenstein feared the Bride of Frankenstein. Each fear the power they could potentially hold, both as vampires/monsters and as women. The Brides might have comparable power to Dracula, but we don’t see that in the text, nor in later adaptations. They are nameless and interchangeable, as Dracula’s goal in these films is to create more wives, either replacing dead ones or using them to create chaos. The wives all become a seductive femme fatale, regardless of who they were before. Their memories are intact, but used solely to taunt men, as Lucy does to Arthur Holmwood. Film adaptations go further by combining the female characters from Stoker’s text. They take attributes from Lucy, Dracula’s other Brides, and Mina, and repurpose them into new hybrid characters. Why is this, and why do these works so often gender vampires? Better still, why call these women the Brides of Dracula; what purpose does this identity loss serve?

“Count Dracula, the monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world.”
The Bride of Dracula (1960)

The women in most Dracula and Dracula-adjacent films are present because of a male relationship, whether that be with Dracula, their husband/fiancée, or Van Helsing. They are likewise attacked because of that man, becoming a symbol for an ongoing masculine power struggle, usually between Van Helsing and Dracula. For instance, Jonathan Hawker is the reason Dracula targets Mina, and by proximity, Lucy. Dracula’s intention is to destroy these men’s household and power by taking their wives and perverting them. The women’s death and rebirth have little to do with them, although sometimes it’s related to their sinful behaviour before Dracula arrives, as though that makes them prone. Even films which focus on vampire women make it clear that their power comes from a figure like Dracula, who becomes the ultimate vampire that all others are related to. Take Dracula’s Daughter from 1936, which features a female vampire but assures the audience, even in the title, that she is Dracula’s daughter, rather than just a woman who is a vampire. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of this mediation is the way female vampires feed, or what prey these works provide. Stoker’s novel depicts the Brides eating a baby brought by Dracula, which means that they aren’t allowed to hunt, not in the same way, and only feed on the defenseless. This trend continues when Lucy becomes a vampire, as she only feeds on children, and not enough to kill them. Lucy is stopped before she can feed on her fiancée, Holmwood, just as Dracula stops his Brides from feasting of Hawker. The Brides do feed on Hawker once Dracula departs for England, but again, not enough to kill him, and certainly not enough to turn him. That power is reserved for Dracula, or any male vampire.

Whereas the novel requires a ceremony, where the victim drinks the vampire’s blood and begins to slowly change, that doesn’t appear in early vampire cinema, where anyone who is bitten will turn. That is largely because these early films don’t show the bite itself, and so there is no bloodshed in these movies, just some vague bitemark. Although Dracula feeds on both men and women, he is almost solely depicted feeding on women, whereas any male attacks, like on Renfield, are characterized as an attack rather than a sexual assault. I’ve mentioned this in a previous post on the classic 1931 Dracula, as we see Renfield before transformation and after, but not the bite itself. Studio executives allegedly believe vampire biting would be read sexually, and so they didn’t want to show a male vampire biting a male victim. That homophobia continued into later vampire cinema, despite gay vampires already existing in works like Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu from 1872. The Baron in The Bride of Dracula feeds on Van Helsing, and although brief and temporary, it’s one of the first male to male vampire bites shown in horror cinema, I believe. Usually, if a male vampire bites a man, the film fades to black just as the vampire approaches their standing male victim, as opposed to the nightgown wearing female victim who is reclined as the vampire stoops towards her. While both fade to black to avoid bloodshed, they’re staged with different intentions. Here, however, we see the bite.

“In the privacy of a girls’ school he sought his prey- turning innocent beauty into a thing of unspeakable horror!”
Tagline for The Bride of Dracula

Traditionally, only one woman survives a vampire film, any others are killed off. Those who transform are likewise not given the opportunity to become threats of their own. They’re more obstacles for the heroes to bypass or kill. Beyond this literal treatment, the very language used to describe women and vampire women implies that these early works are concerned about what a powerful woman could do, and thus try to contain those implications, the horror of what they represent. You’ll notice I said ‘early works’ here, as modern vampire films are changing this discussion, especially works like The Hunger (1983), and more recently, in Byzantium (2013) and Let the Right One In (2008). I’ll be talking about that next week, in a discussion on The Invitation (2022), which is a modern retelling of my topic for this week: The Brides of Dracula (1960).

Women in vampire films abide by two labels: wife and mother. They can alternatively be a wife-to-be or mother-to-be, but that’s it. Dracula’s presence, or whichever male vampire of the week gets featured, perverts these labels, and so the wife becomes a Bride, removing any long-term domesticity attached to the word wife, instead focusing on that before state, being a Bride. It’s always the night of a wedding for these Brides, hence their hyper sexualization. There’s no film called the ‘Wives of Dracula’ because there is too much permanence in that term. Dracula tends to abandon his Brides the moment they become vampires, as with Lucy, and so, they live in this never-ending wedding state, always dressed in white, waiting for their beloved to return. Being Brides additionally means that they are forever tied to the male vampire. They are married to him rather than just being transformed by him. It’s a perverted patriarchal household. That treatment continues into the other label: ‘mother’. Female vampires rarely turn other people into vampires, that’s reserved for Dracula. Instead, they feed on infants, rather than feeding infants as a mother, like this inversed suckling. It implies that the most frightening thing for Stoker’s era was the suggestion that women contained an evil self, something that was just waiting to rebel against these established labels. In that nightmare, however, women were still held to those labels. Dracula still calls them his Brides, they still feed on children. They don’t get to abandon these labels entirely, that would be far too frightening for a work like Stoker’s.

The possibility that a female vampires could regularly attack, kill, and spread vampirism beyond these ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ roles is horrifying, and why the male characters, even Dracula, are constantly managing these women. They are either commanding (as Dracula does) or killing them. Simply put, their existence proposes something monstrous, even before they act monstrous, making them far more horrific than a figure like Dracula.

We get these complex barriers to explain why the Brides behave in such a way, and often it comes down to blaming Dracula. It’s Dracula’s fault that they are bloodthirsty, and so it’s his fault that they behave in such a perverse way and threaten to be even more perverse. That removes responsibility from the women; it’s not her fault that she is behaving in such a way, it’s all Dracula. That removal of power, or rewording really, is well-established beyond fiction, as evil women throughout history have been characterized like this. I described something similar in my article on Häxan (1922) and the historic differences between Catholic and Protestant witches, as both faiths were concerned about giving women too much power, and so they justified that these women were evil, and deserved death, but that their power came from the Devil. It was never their power; they were just acting on behalf of the Devil due to their inherent weakness. It’s a flimsy argument, but one which vaguely justifies why women, who these cultures believed were lesser and passive by nature, could pose a threat. The same conversation continues in the 1960s with Brides of Dracula, which contains multiple female vampires, notably of varying ages.

“Why can’t she lie in peace, like all the rest?”
“Because she is not like all the rest!”

Dracula is not in Brides of Dracula; he is just mentioned briefly. He was supposed to make an appearance, but production got sidetracked with things like loosing expensive mechanical bats, hence the very cheesy one featured in the film. The film justifies its title by explaining that Dracula turned the film’s main vampire, Baron Meinster, before the events of the film, and so everything the Baron does technically belongs to Dracula. The women might not ever meet him, but they are his Brides. So is the Baron, but more on that later. According to the Baron’s mother, Baroness Meinster, her son was always a violent person, and the vampirism simply amplified what was already there. This is a crucial description, because each of the people turned in the film amplify behaviour they were already demonstrating. There is a degree to this in Stoker’s text, as Lucy is already a seductive character, one very self-aware of her role in society, and how to wield power. Mina is equally self-aware, as I discussed here, but she wields her power in a quieter way, which is why she survives the text.

That said, Lucy’s later sexualization is still tied to Dracula, as although she was flirtatious before, she never technically broke any social taboos, she was just more honest about things like love. Dracula is responsible for her later monstrosity as she wasn’t a monster before she met him. That is not the case in Brides of Dracula, namely because of the Baron and his mother, who are both terrible people even before they are turned. Once the Baron becomes a vampire, his mother locks him away in their castle, and tricks young women into visiting so she can feed them to her son. We never discover how many women she has tag-team murdered, but enough that the townsfolk suspect that she is murdering people. Even before the Baroness is turned, we see this perverted motherhood, as she is willing to do anything for her son, except kill him and free his soul.

“You locked him away? Your own son? Because he is…unholy?”

Sexualization gets a bit confusing in Brides of Dracula, mainly because there is so much the film doesn’t want to talk about, yet its plot is still gesturing to those topics simply by trying to avoid them. First, there’s the question of why the Baroness is picking young women instead of random townsfolk, as that implies that her son is making requests and refusing to feed off men, even though Dracula fed off him. That reading becomes more troublesome later when the Baron bites Van Helsing, and leaves before draining him, with the sole intention of turning him into a vampire, rather than just a meal. We are assuming the Baron has made this request, but what if the Baroness is purposefully picking women because the thought of her son biting a man is too horrific. A man biting a man started this whole venture, and Baroness doesn’t want that to happen again. Vampirism is being sexualized and gendered in this narrative, and possibly by non-vampire characters.

We see a different Bride in this film, as typically the intended victim meets the vampire because of their association with a male family member. Not so here, as Marianne visits the castle because of the Baron’s mother, making her a version of Hawker, as she is brought to a mysterious castle, with a trapped vampire, and is unknowingly in danger. That would make the Baroness Dracula, and her son, Dracula’s Bride. The opening thus reverses the Dracula story, and that continues later as Marianne/Hawker consults with Van Helsing. Noteworthy still is that Gina gets attacked and turned because she is Marianne’s friend, not because of a male relative, but a female friend. Gina is clearly jealous of Marianne’s sudden engagement to the Baron, and it’s implied that she might try to break them up. Each of the women turned in the film thus demonstrate unholy behaviour before the turning, as the Baroness and her servant Greta trap and murder women while Gina is jealous, which seems forgivable but remember this is a horror film, a genre where ‘bad women’ get murdered for being even a little sexual with an engaged/married man. The third vampire Bride featured in the film, meanwhile, remains nameless, identified only by her father post-mortem. While she isn’t on screen long enough to establish if she was unholy before transformation, her father refuses to listen to Van Helsing, which the film implies is reason enough for her to be evil. Out wandering in the woods at night with a foolish father. She is also the best example of the traditional interchangeable Bride, as here, we don’t even learn her name. I honestly forgot about her for most of the film, because there is more focus on Gina, the Baroness, and the threat against Marianne. She and Gina also look similar, the same black hair white dress combo, a look Marianne doesn’t have, subtly implying that she will not transform, even though she is only character who is technically engaged to the Baron.

Brides of Dracula argues that the only way to stop from turning into a vampire is baptism, as Van Helsing treats his bite wound by cauterizing and then sealing it with holy water. Mina is traditionally cured by Dracula’s death, and so I believe this is the only film to feature a cure like this. The implication is that Van Helsing is purifying his soul, not that it would take a lot as he has been nothing but honourable in the film. Not good, but honourable. He doesn’t try to save any of the women, they are all too far gone in more ways the one. Yes, all the bitten women he encounters are either dead or already vampires, but their behaviour and characterization in the film imply that this approach simply wouldn’t work, because they are not honourable to begin with. It would likely work on Marianne, except she is responsible for releasing the Baron, leading to multiple deaths.

“Then you know who I am?”
“I know who you were.”

There is one plot hole in Brides of Dracula which has disastrous consequences yet is never addressed: what happened to the Baron’s earlier victims? It’s established that anyone bitten by the Baron will transform, regardless of how long they were bitten for. We also know that the Baroness has brought multiple women to the Baron, and Marianne is the first he has successfully tricked. That would imply that each of these victims would turn into vampires, unless the Baroness or her servant Greta have properly destroyed the bodies, which doesn’t seem likely. It’s more than possible that the Baron has lied about how to kill a vampire in case they ever try to kill him. He also wants more vampires in the world, so feeding off a woman, having her body buried elsewhere by his mother, and then emerging is exactly what he wants. Vampirism would spread, all under his name, as they are his Brides. Except they aren’t, they are as the film’s title suggests, Dracula’s Brides, just as the Baron is.

We don’t see Dracula turn the Baron, all we know is that the Baron’s mother used to host wild parties for aristocrats, and the Baron made some sort of impression on Dracula, and so he turned him, but not the Mother, or any of the guests, that we know of. This singling out happens in every Dracula movie, but usually to women. The fact that the Baron is one of the first to bite a man on screen (I believe, don’t quote me on it) would be noteworthy here. Does the film imply that the Baron is gay? Not exactly, no. Are early vampire films terrified of their vampires being gay? Absolutely, there were whole memos about it. And yet, much like the fear of what a female vampire could do, these films are constantly referencing these fears simply by going out of their way to avoid or gloss over the implications. The Baron has been read as a queer character in several articles, with special attention to his lilac cape, versus Dracula’s traditional black cape. I do agree with this reading, especially given how unpopular it is with certain toxic fan boys, but mainly because it adds this whole other discussion to the film and what came before/after. Who is the Bride of Dracula given that only one person is actually bitten by Dracula in the film? What might that say about the film, its later reception, and the legacy of vampire Brides?

The Baron’s earlier victims never appear, although that would have been a very cool film. The abandoned Bride, with the groom still locked away. Does she return to him or strike her own reign of terror? No one other than Marianne tries to rescue the Baron, so the plot hole is never explained, but still. The film has this implication about powerful women, those who were victims and then became powerful, and it doesn’t pursue it. The lore might be different in Brides of Dracula, it might all take place in Transylvania (rather than England), and it might even inverse certain characters, but it refuses to develop more intrinsic issues.

“The Groom and his Bride will make their grand entrance tomorrow.”
The Invitation (2022)

I will be watching The Invitation next week, which is a remake of this 1960 film, one specifically told from a woman’s perspective, and not just the pale and passive schoolteacher featured in Bride of Dracula. Based solely on the trailer, the film seems to be about grief and family; or trying to find a place for yourself within your genetics and then discovering something far worse than alienation. Deep family secrets, maybe even deals you weren’t aware of, that regardless of you, define your genetics. Vampires and blood are already a combo, and so it figures that this film is talking about blood relations, and whether we define ourselves based on genetics/heritage or our actions, and if there can be a combination. Dracula is often read as perverted genetics, inserting his own blood into a system, and so I am excited to see how this features in a modern film. Again, this is just speculation, based on the family dynamic we see in Brides of Dracula. The Baroness is obligated to care for her son, even though her son is a vampire who wants to murder everyone. The film argues that she should have killed her son instead of killing a bunch of women, but she doesn’t. That is crucial, so is the fact that the Baron proposes to Marianne rather than just killing her as he does Gina. Why does a vampire have a Bride if they are dead and detached from religion and social order? Why do we still attach labels like these to someone that is no-longer human?

Vampires are inversed humans: they walk at night rather than day, they drink blood rather than having a pulse of their own, the list goes on. I suppose it’s because vampires are never just othered, the horror of them comes down to the way they pervert systems close to us, but to do so, they have to be opposite, and thus still tied to that terminology. It’s something every vampire film establishes different, and so I am looking forward to seeing how The Invitation reworks this older formula. They could have just marketed the film as a new vampire story, but no, it is a remake of this specific film. It’s also not just the concept of Dracula’s Brides, it’s this version, one where Dracula is not even present, and we get this inversing of characters. Will we see a Van Helsing, or will the leading lady deal with the infestation on her own? There are so many possibilities here, because most modern vampire films try to distance themselves from the Hammer Horror collection, and if they do reference it, they just make fun of it. For the first time in ages, a modern vampire film is going back to continue what many deem a cheesy and dismissible vampire film, and it’s refusing to evoke that reference quietly.

Gritty modern vampire films may occasionally reference Bela Lugosi, but rarely the strange 60s collection. That is reserved for late night horror programs like Svengoolie, which is where I first watched Brides of Dracula. That viewing environment asks you to make fun of the film, lovingly so, but still. The host teases it while listing trivia to encourage viewers to participate, both by laughing and paying attention to the making of and its role in broader horror cinema. They even hunt down better versions of these old films, whether clearer or with more scenes, so there are multiple episodes dedicated to different versions of the same film. That implies that each version is worthy of viewing. It’s easy to forget that these programs do both: laugh and educate. Rather than just dismissing films as cheesy, which is what most mainstream audiences do, this environment fosters them for new audiences, and I wonder how much The Invitation may reflect that given its return to this legacy.

“Only God has no fear.”
The Brides of Dracula

It’s important to place Brides of Dracula historically, because it is responding to vampire films which came before and influencing films which came after. Keep in mind, Brides of Dracula was billed with a film called The Leech Woman (1960), which is about a woman who learns about a ritual from Africa that will make a person young. All you have to do is sacrifice a man and use his pineal gland. I have not seen the film, but based on its description, the main woman, who takes the ritual back to America, begins rapidly aging when the ritual runs out, and so she begins hunting men, and is only defeated after trying to use a woman’s pineal glad, which fails and leaves her to die of old age. Pairing these film, Leech and Bride, implies that these evil women are comparable, even though the Leech Woman hunts while the Brides do not. The Leech Woman does so to maintain her power and beauty in society, versus perverting it as the Brides do. Both, however, feature the same system being inverted, killing for beauty and power, and by defeating these women in their respective films, theatre goers are told not to behave like this. To maintain these systems rather than dismantling, as the Brides do, or abusing them, as the Leech does.

There is no going back once a Bride has become a Bride. There’s no vampire divorce court, although maybe there should be, that would make another great film. Women in films like Brides of Dracula can only be good or evil, and the evil cannot become good. The best evil can do is allow themselves to be killed, as the Baroness does. They cannot break these systems, nor can they traverse back and forth. It’s a one-way street from good to evil. The Invitation promises to return to the Bride of Dracula to possibly change the way we view it by expanding the issues it refuses to develop, whether that’s sexism in the film or lore, or the broader discussion of female vampires as good or evil, powerful or manageable. And given the cheesy nature of the original, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

Author’s Note:

If you are interested in reading more about vampires and Dracula, I have written article on Bram Stoker’s text and the 1931 film, along with an article on the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. I have also discussed the Universal Horror collection at length, which you can read here. I may return to Hammer Horror later this year, it’s something I am just getting into. Let me know if there is a specific film you want me to check out, and I may end up writing about it!

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