Written by: Sheridan Le Fanu (story), Harry Fine, Tudor Gates, & Michael Style (adaptation), Tudor Gates (screenplay)
Directed by: Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, George Cole and Kate O'Mara
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThe trouble with this part of the world is that they have too many fairy tales."
Once the 1970s rolled around, the horror scene had spent a decade creeping away from gothic, restrained fare and moving towards more explicitly violent and realistic films, putting Hammer Films behind the curve for the first time in nearly fifteen years. Ironically, the studio that helped to usher in more graphic violence on the screen suddenly felt antiquated and even a little quaint. As a result, 70s Hammer often smacks of desperation, as the studio turned to gratuitous violence and titillation in an attempt to stay relevant.
They didnít totally abandon their style or content, though; in fact, they turned to something they knew best to help reinvigorate their brand: vampires. While their Dracula series labored into the new decade with forced attempts at relevance (like literally transporting Dracula to swinging London circa Ď72), Hammer also introduced the Karnstein Trilogy with 1970ís The Vampire Lovers. While it is certainly the lesser of the two Hammer vampire franchises, the Karnstein set (and especially its first entry) was a landmark for its explicit lesbian sensuality.
Itís working from one of literatureís most sensual texts in Joseph Sheridan le Fanuís Carmilla, the 19th century novella that introduced lesbian vampirism. It begins with a prologue involving Baron Hartogís (Douglas Wilmer) attempt to hunt down the vampires that killed his sister; he successfully lops off the head of a buxom bloodsucker (did they come in any other shape for Hammer?), presumably ending their threat. Some years later, however, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) receives a visit from a mysterious lady who ends up leaving her daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) in his care; Marcilla and the generalís daughter (Pippa Steel) become fast friends--and perhaps something more when it turns out Marcillaís there for love--and blood.
And thatís just like another extended prologue--eventually, these events are repeated verbatim, only Marcilla takes the Camilla moniker, moves in with Mr. Morton, and befriends (and eventually seduces) his daughter Emma (Madeline Smith). This bit of dťjŗ vu represents the bulk of the filmís plot, rendering The Vampire Lovers a little inert as we watch the same series of events play out in a more prolonged manner before everyone finally wises up. In the meanwhile, the film is a little oblique, perhaps even a little impressionist, as if Hammer were already attempting to tap into Jean Rollinís sensual, surreal vibe that heíd trademark over the next decade. Some recurring images--such as the appearance of a mysterious horseback Man in Black--are apropos of nothing and give The Vampire Lovers a slight nightmarish quality when it isnít just snoozing along in languid fashion. The adaptation is apparently quite faithful, so the obtuseness can perhaps be attributed to le Fanuís novella.
Even Camilla and her entourageís motivations are a bit unclear; the repeated schemes seem awfully complicated if the endgame is a warm body to drain of blood, so perhaps sheís actually lovelorn and is seeking a lover (as the title suggests). Pitt is certainly magnetic in the role and straddles between something predatory and sympathetic. She seems a little to old for the part sometimes and lends a cougar-like quality to Camilla, which makes sense in certain respects since the corruption of the nubile and the innocent is at the center here. The Vampire Lovers adds a lesbian dimension that wasnít completely unseen before since Draculaís Daughter hinted at it 24 years earlier; however, subtext becomes text--hell, supertext here since the eroticism is one of Hammerís selling points. One of the filmís money shots is the full-on breast-biting, an act that thoroughly perverts the purity of the snowy bosoms of Camillaís victims. One could probably read into the implications this here, such as the placement of a woman in a position of sexual power typically reserved for males (Camilla can even ďpenetrateĒ in her own way), but The Vampire Lovers isnít exactly mired in sexual politics, especially since it never escapes the male gaze.
Instead, itís just a Hammer movie, so very little is out of place. By this point, the formula had been so refined that Roy Ward Baker could have auto-piloted the film. A typically lush production with the typical gothic signposts--cobwebbed crypts, flowing nightgowns, and ominous castles chart the course, while the nudity and multiple decapitations serve as the calculated 70s flourishes to appeal to the more modern sensibility. Baker also harkens back to more classic imagery that recalls Murnauís Nosferatu when a shadowy arm creeps along a wall and stalks a victim. The performances are solid, including Cushingís, who is sadly underused and seemingly only re-appears because no one dared make a vampire movie at Hammer without his involvement. Pitt has some fun moments when the noose begins to tighten around her--thereís a funeral scene thatís hilariously inappropriate, and her general plan seems to be ďseduce anything that moves.Ē
This first Karnstein film (and you eventually discover who the Karnsteins are once all the pieces start falling together in the last act) is a solid enough opener. You can see Hammerís seams starting to fray a bit, as The Vampire Lovers seems like reheated leftovers with an added dollop of ketchup to give it more flavor. Itís threadbare, languidly paced, and Bakerís dream-like approach never quite takes hold like it should, so itís all a little forgettable outside of its obvious attempts to be provocative. Released as a B-side of one of MGMís Midnight Movie releases, the filmís lone DVD presentation is a pretty good one, complete with a nice anamorphic transfer and a serviceable mono soundtrack. The special features include the filmís theatrical trailer, some excerpts of Carmilla read by Pitt, and an audio commentary with Pitt, Baker, and Tudor Gates. Hammer fiends will certainly want to see the studioís transition into the Ď70s, but The Vampire Lovers is more like a harbinger of the studioís eventual death rattle. Rent it!
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