Written by: Tudor Gates (screenplay), Sheridan Le Fanu (characters created by)
Directed by: John Hough
Starring: Peter Cushing, Madeleine Collinson, Mary Collinson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Which is the Virgin? Which is the Vampire?
The third time was a necromantic charm for Hammer in their attempt to craft a Karnstein trilogy from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanuís Camilla, and the title character from that novella barely appears in Twins of Evil. Regardless, it is the best of this particular bunch, a film that roars on whatever fuel Hammer had left in its steadily emptying tank in 1971. Twins of Evil represents another effort to pillage contemporary trends, as it melds Hammerís moldy vampires with the eraís wariness of witch-hunting, zealotry-fuelled fanaticism (which peaked the same year with Ken Russellís The Devils). The result is a dark, sometimes seething effort presents a world where innocence attempts to escape both a fanged, libertine maw and the flames of false persecution.
In this iteration the Karnsteins are still very much alive, as Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) lords over the Central European Hamlet bearing his family name. An eccentric gentleman, he spends his days mostly holed up in his castle, attempting to recapture the glory of his forbearers by dabbling in black magic and Satanic rituals. A sacrifice of a local village girl ends up resurrecting Karnsteinís most famous relative, Carmilla (Katya Wyeth), who awakens long enough to make out with him and turn him into a vampire. Meanwhile, a local puritan leader (Peter Cushing) has been leading a crusade against the local contingent of witches, and his recently-orphaned twin nieces are drawn into the fray when they arrive in Karnstein.
What follows is a curious pseudo-retread of Hammerís own Taste the Blood of Dracula, as the flesh and souls of Maria and Frieda (Mary and Madeleine Collinson) are caught between the vampiric allure of Karnstein and the patriarchal strictness of their uncle (the true twins of evil). Frieda canít resist the former and plunges herself into an amoral, sexual abyss that mixes pleasure with pain, leaving her innocent sister to bear the brunt of her uncleís judgment. Cushing is unusually sinister and unrelenting as the witch-finder general, but he leaves some cracks in the foundation that allow some conflict and complexity peer through during the hack and slash climax.
Wisely, the film still doesnít let him (or just about anyone else) off the hook. Iíve hammered on the ill fitting clothes the studio put on during its 70s attempt to keep up with the times, but, whereas previous attempts in this series superficially added on heaps of gore and nudity to serve as updates, Twins of Evil dips into the decadeís groundswell of nihilism and moral ambiguity. When combined with the classical dream-like Hammer aesthetic that Hough faithfully replicates with precise, silken photography and a robust production design, it creates an odd tonal clash that subverts the fairy tale quality of the studioís earlier films. This feels like Hammerís pure blood being tainted by a streak of ambivalence, a welcome change from other 70s efforts that were content to merely toss on trashy clothes for faux-edginess.
Twins of Evil doesnít leave all of that behind--itís suitably ghoulish and tinged with a slight lesbianism this trilogy is somewhat infamous for, but itís all restrained within the confines of an intriguing set of characters and events. At the center are the two twins; thereís a running insistence throughout that no one can tell them apart, but astute viewers will quickly discern the difference between the reserved, meek Maria and the curious, tarty Frieda. The two make an admirable leap from Playboy centerfolds to the big screen; not only are the two among the most gorgeous in Hammerís deep stable, but Madeleine especially delivers a rich performance that sees her evolve from sexually inquisitive schoolgirl to a conniving, oversexed vampire. Her companion, Thomasís Karnstein, isnít as charismatic as Hammerís more famous count (who almost comes off as a kindly liberator for the kids in Taste the Blood of Dracula); instead, heís a little more preening and perverse, an insidious menace to complement Cushingís more overt antagonism.
Both are eventually offset by David Warbeckís schoolteacher who also doubles as a vampire expert, the sort of middle ground voice of reason caught between these two extremes. Along with Maria, he represents whatever goodness this world has to offer, but Twins of Evil mostly presents a bleak world full of dogmatic stake burnings and decapitations. Though Hough was a bit of a journeyman director whose 70s promise never amounted to much beyond the decade, his effort here outdoes two more accomplished names in Jimmy Sangster and Roy Ward Baker, whose Karnstein installments arenít even prerequisites for enjoying this one since this is the loosest of trilogies (in fact, Twins of Evil might actually be a prequel to those films).
The trilogy almost expanded with another film (announced as Vampire Hunters and Vampire Virgins), but it never came to fruition; a Karnstein did pop up in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter a couple of years later, and the brood was never heard from again. It wouldnít be the worst idea to see Hammer try to revive this franchise during their current revival, especially since the original trilogy amounts to one great film. Frustratingly enough, it wasnít even available on Region 1 media until a couple of weeks ago when Synapse brought it to DVD and Blu-ray in a stunning package that sees the film immaculately restored with a gorgeous, pristine transfer. If that werenít enough, Synapse packs in an 84 minute long documentary on the entire Karnstein Trilogy, a feature about Hammerís props, a still gallery, a deleted scene, a trailer, TV spots, and an isolated score track. The final Karnsteinsí outing proved to be their best, and Synapse has made it worth the wait for Hammer fiends dying to sink their teeth into one of the studioís last great efforts. Buy it!
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