Written by: Tudor Gates (screenplay), Sheridan Le Fanu (story)
Directed by: Jimmy Sangster
Starring: Yutte Stensgaard, Michael Johnson, and Ralph Bates
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
A vampire's lust knows no boundaries...
Like any empire infused with the right amount of hubris at the height of their power, I suppose Hammer Films couldnít resist indulging itself during its apex. After a definitive run of horror in the 60s, the studio didnít just attempt to ease into the 70s--instead, they came out with guns blazing in an effort to keep up with the more lurid shockers of the day. As such, it wasnít enough to simply have one vampire roaming around in multiple films anymore; instead, they sought to forge another vampire franchise after the success of The Vampire Lovers to complement old man Dracula. The second installment of Hammerís Karnstein trilogy, Lust for a Vampire, is a dutiful follow-up indicative of many Hammer films of this era--it sort of looks and sounds like one of the studioís films, but it doesnít quite capture the stirring elegance and gothic overtones of its best work.
We start at some unspecified point after the events of the first film (which really seems to serve as a vague back story if anything). The Karnsteins are a local legend, having not been seen or heard from for decades, at least until the sacrifice of a girl (Kirsten Lindholm, once again on the wrong ends of things in this series) resurrects Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard), who promptly checks into a local girlsí boarding school under the name Mircalla. Meanwhile, horror novelist Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) has arrived at the local village to do research and becomes smitten with both Mircalla and the schoolís dance instructor (Suzanna Leigh). The latter starts to grow suspicious when girls begin to disappear and some of the schoolís employees turn up dead as Micalla begins her seductive reign of terror.
Unfolding on the same goth-erotic curve as its predecessor, Lust for a Vampire at least has a better momentum since it avoids the repetitive structure that plagued The Vampire Lovers. That said, itís often just as soggy and relies on a similar third act light bulb to finally rouse up the local villagers, who have apparently had enough of the Karnsteinsís shit and want to burn them to the ground via torchlight fumigation. Of course, the Karnsteins arenít all that concerned since they canít be burned to death anyway. The events during the interim arenít as interesting, though they might be even more amusing as Lestrange weasels his way into the girlsí school as a teacher to get close to both of the women in his life. Meanwhile, Mircalla explores 19th century life, where her only obstacle is her lack of knowledge about contemporary authors (her knowledge only extends to the previous century, when she was last alive)--itís enough to arouse suspicion, but not before she has some sultry encounters with a fellow classmate and a teacher (Ralph Bates).
However, the meat of the film--the strange love between Lestrange and Mircalla--is lifeless despite being responsible for the filmís conflict, as she charms him into protecting her. Her possible genuine love for him is an interesting turn that blunts the lesbian overtones of the first film, as Hammer consciously shed these from the sequel as a response to that filmís backlash. Midnight swims and massage sessions among roommates occur, but this is a mostly a return to hetero-normalcy that snuffs out whatever subversive spark the original film had, leaving us with ample gratuitous nudity and displays of schlock. A love-making sequence between the two lovers is scored by a bizarre pop tune (with the on-the-nose title ďStrange LoveĒ) and crescendos with Stensgaardís cross-eyed O-face, firmly carrying the film into unknowing campiness. Coming from the typically austere Hammer, it plays like a gentleman wearing a teenagerís clothes, which would be forgivable if Lust for a Vampire fully embraced it; instead, it feels like Hammerís traditionally quaint digs are still attempting to peek out from beneath.
Thereís also a real Hammer B-team vibe to the whole thing but with good reason. Jimmy Sangster, Hammerís ace screenwriter, had to take over directorial roles after Terence Fisher broke his leg, and the result is a dutiful enough effort to recreate the aesthetic that the house auteur defined. Foreboding castles, foggy landscapes, garishly red blood, and heaps of bosoms in both cleavage and bare form fill out the obligatory checklist. The gore is impressive, particularly during the opening ritual that resembles an updated version of Draculaís resurrection in Prince of Darkness, as Carmilla rises from the grave after being messily reformed from her bones. Speaking of Dracula, Mike Raven sneaks around the edges of the film as Count Karnstein, who comes off as a campier version of Hammerís more revered count, though the booming dub job from Valentine Dyall is a poor echo of Christopher Leeís tenor*. Leeís familiar foe, Peter Cushing, was also originally set to appear before being replaced by Ralph Bates in the role of the ill-fated and love-struck teacher. Imagining Cushing in this role as a chalky, wormy weirdo is maybe the most amusing thing Lust for a Vampire has to offer, but itís also indicative of how frustratingly close this film may have come to being a great Hammer film with he and Fisher aboard.
At any rate, Stensgaard is perhaps an improvement over Ingrid Pitt, a somewhat blasphemous admission but one thatís easy to swallow when you consider how forcefully the enchanting Danish actress presides over the film. Seemingly regarding it all with a haunting vacancy, her Carmilla is both domineering and vulnerable with a bombshell anatomy and a dollish face thatís incongruently disturbing when itís splattered with blood in one of the filmís most striking scenes. Sheís a fascinating presence thatís unfortunately treated with the reverence of a mannequin or a centerfold in the second chapter of a trilogy that has little use for any of its characters outside of their ability to shed blood or wield torches. Oddly enough, the rights for the Karnstein trilogy got dispersed over the years, so Anchor Bay handled the home video treatment for Lust for a Vampire over a decade ago as part of their Hammer Collection. The presentation holds up well enough--the transfer comes off as a little dull and dingy and spots, but it's mostly solid, as is the mono soundtrack. Typical promotional fluff (trailers, radio spots, posters, stills) and an audio commentary with Sangster, Leigh, and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn round out the disc, which is likely to earn a spot on any Hammer aficionado's shelf regardless of whatever words come at the end of this review. Rent it!
*Interestingly enough, Lee's eyes do make an appearance at one point via an insert close-up shot, thus allowing him to follow in the footsteps of predecessor Bela Lugosi, whose hypnotic gaze was similarly recycled in films he didn't feature in.
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