“Transylvania, land of dark forests, dread mountains and black unfathomable lakes. Still the home of magic and devilry as the nineteenth century draws to its close. Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires is dead. But his disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world…”The Brides of Dracula (1960)

Though Hammer’s Dracula series would go on to have quite a sanguine run after 1958’s Dracula, which introduced the unequalled Christopher Lee as the titular undead menace, the studio’s immediate follow up was a fascinating experiment of another sort: imagining the world of vampires after the death of Dracula. It’s not an understatement to say that—despite the absence of Sir Lee, who initially neglected to return because he didn’t want to be typecast as a horror actor—The Brides of Dracula is every bit as good as Hammer’s first Dracula film and it remains one of the best horror films of the ‘60s. While it is generally considered part of Hammer’s Dracula series, it really shouldn’t be—neither he nor his brides are involved with the plot—and it makes more sense considered alongside the handful of other vampire films Hammer produced without the character of Dracula: a series of mostly unconnected films with aristocratic vampires that prey on the countryside that includes the Karnstein trilogy (The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971)), as well as the loose sequel to The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), which is a loose sequel among a few others.

The Brides of Dracula loosely establishes this formula. A beautiful French school mistress (Yvonne Monlaur) is traveling alone through the Transylvanian countryside to an academy for young girls where she has an appointment to teach. She stumbles across the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who bribes the populace to ignore the fact that she procures young girls for her vampiric son (David Peel), who is chained up in the castle to prevent him from spreading further evil. Marianne is intended to be one of these girls, but the young Baron convinces her he is being unjustly imprisoned and she impulsively frees him. Soon, he professes his love and they are engaged to be married. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who has been attempting to stamp out the “cult of the undead” since the death of Dracula, arrives in time to figure out that the young Baron is responsible for the deaths of local girls.

The sole overlapping factor between The Brides of Dracula and the Dracula series is Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, who is somehow even more charismatic in this film and it really feels like Cushing has come into his own with the character here. On the whole, it’s nice to have an entry that sort of serves as a separate adventure for Van Helsing and I wish there had been more of these. He actually doesn’t appear in the film until about 30 minutes in, but he steals it, utterly. His role is even more physically demanding than Dracula and involves hanging from a mill, cauterizing a vampire bite, and staking a fair few vamps: in this sense, The Brides of Dracula is an obvious predecessor to the later vampire action films released in the ‘90s and ‘00s. And of course Cushing’s Van Helseing kicks some serious ass, rescues the damsel in distress, and somehow remains 100% immune to any kind of feminine wiles.

He just does not have time for that kind of bullshit.

The Brides of Dracula is an effective sequel to Dracula in the sense that it furthers Hammer’s use of vampire mythology and is essentially a world building exercise. It presents vampirism as something of a satanic society for initiated aristocrats—a theme that would continue loosely in the Karnstein trilogy and more fully in The Kiss of the Vampire—and emphasizes more of the supernatural elements of vampirism than Dracula. Here, vampires can turn into bats, Meinster works to create a full brood of vampire wives, and possibly the film’s most effective scene shows a padlock eerily falling off the coffin of a woman who has become undead.

Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster, director Terence Fisher, and Cushing apparently all had a hand in re-working the script once it was clear that Lee wouldn’t return, and they worked hard to include a number of gruesome elements not present in Dracula. Not only is there the suggestion of incest—Meinster bites and transforms his mother and it is suggested that she took part in the revels responsible for turning him into a vampire in the first place—but this is also Hammer’s first use of lesbianism within a vampire film, a theme they would return to most enthusiastically a decade later with The Vampire Lovers. Marianne’s friend and fellow teacher Gina (Andree Melly) is turned into a vampire by the Baron and Gina returns and wants to embrace the unsuspecting Marianne, begging to kiss her.

As with The Kiss of the Vampire and The Vampire Lovers—as well as other non-Dracula Hammer films like the glorious Vampire Circus (1972) and the underrated Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter (1974)—there is the implication that Meinster’s immoral, hedonistic ways have led him down this dark path and it’s implied that Dracula himself may have transformed Meinster into a vampire. While The Brides of Dracula ultimately follows a predictable path in its final act (though I was clutching my pearls over that windmill scene), Hammer didn’t abandon the idea of a vampiric cult for its follow up, Don Sharp’s 1963 film, The Kiss of the Vampire. Conceived as a loose sequel to The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire is a strangely neglected, though very solid entry in Hammer’s vaguely connected series of non-Dracula vampire films and remains one of their finer efforts from the period.

The film follows newly married couple, Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne (Jennifer Daniel), honeymooning in the German countryside. When their car runs out of gas, they are forced to take refuge at a local inn. A nearby aristocratic family, led by the charming Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman), invites them for dinner and becomes particularly fond of Marianne. Unfortunately it turns out that Ravna and his brood are a cult of Satan worshipping vampires. They abduct Marianne, intending to initiate her, and try to convince the distraught Gerald that he is going mad and his wife never existed. He is forced to turn to a frequently drunk occultist, Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), for help.

Helmed by the underrated Don Sharp—who directed a number of Hammer films, some of the Fu Manchu series, and the wonderful Psychomania (1973)—and written by Hammer great Anthony Hinds, The Kiss of the Vampire further explores themes presented in The Brides of Dracula. Vampirism seems to be related to an aristocratic, debauched lifestyle and, like the Dracula films, the vampire mythology is kept purposefully vague. Ravna fortunately is not a Dracula figure, but he’s a riff on The Brides of Dracula’s charming but sinister Baron Meinster and is the charismatic leader of a Satanic cult. The incredible finale, originally meant for The Brides of Dracula, involves Dr. Zimmer banishing the vampires with a Satanic ritual that summons a massive swarm of bats from hell. Say it with me: a swarm of bats from hell.

This stylish, energetic horror film is one of the most interesting experiments in what I think could be loosely described as films about vampire families or even societies. Unlike the wonderful, though much later Near Dark (1987), this is not a group of throat-ripping blood slurpers. The Ravnas merely want to be fancy—for all eternity. There’s lovely cinematography from Alan Hume, who makes every frame seem poetic despite the seemingly cheap set. There are some key set pieces, including a wonderful, blackly comic opening scene where Zimmer—who has essentially become an alcoholic out of grief—crashes his daughter’s funeral and cuts her head off with a shovel while she is still in her coffin. There are plenty of stylish sequences at the Ravna’s castle, particularly a masquerade ball that seems like an obvious inspiration for Polanski’s horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers made only a few years later in 1967.

Though the film suffers from a lack of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing—and especially suffers from a lack of Peter Cushing slapping people—there’s a strong cast made up of a mishmash of lesser seen Hammer actors, including Clifford Evans from Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Edward de Souza from Phantom of the Opera (1962), and Noel Willman, who would later star in The Reptile (1966). The incredibly seductive but way underused Isobel Black, who appears as the innkeeper’s daughter who has been “adopted” by the Ravnas, would certainly have stolen the film if she were given more screen time. Sadly she only made a brief mark on British horror with films like Hammer’s Twins of Evil and 10 Rillington Place (1971).

And though Hammer would soon return to Dracula—resurrecting the Count and convincing Lee to again don his cape for 1966’s Dracula: Price of Darkness—ultimately culminating in a nine film series (if you count The Brides of Dracula), the studio didn’t altogether abandon this theme of the vampiric cult. By 1970, the studio was willing to embrace more sex, more violence, and more lurid plots, and The Vampire Lovers effectively spawned its own sexy trilogy that could be said to exist in the same universe as The Brides of Dracula and Kiss of the Vampire. My personal favorite of these later vampiric cult films, Vampire Circus, proved that the studio went out on a high note and were willing to compete with American revisionings of the vampire mythos like Count Yorga (1970) and Blacula (1972). Except, of course, that not even Robert Quarry would dare to prance around naked save for some tiger body paint.