(1970) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Tudor Gates; Adapted by Harry Fine, Tudor Gates and Michael Fine; Based on the story “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu; Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Pippa Steel, Dawn Adams, Madeline Smith and Peter Cushing; Available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming.
“…She has this extraordinary enigmatic quality… I could always see a sort of tragedy in her eyes as well, as if she doesn’t want to be a vampire.” – screenwriter Tudor Gates on Ingrid Pitt as Marcilla (from DVD commentary for The Vampire Lovers)
“It might have been shocking, but it wasn’t dirty… I thought the things I did in that film were wonderful. I loved it when I had nothing on.” – Ingrid Pitt on her role as Marcilla (from Hammer Glamour, by Marcus Hearn)
My semi-regular feature The Once Over Twice* is dedicated to films in my personal collection that slipped through the cracks and never quite got the respect they deserved. Some of them are a tougher sell than others, but I hope you’ll find at least a few titles that you like as much as I do. If not, ‘ya can’t blame me for trying. Today’s film du jour is a spicy little number by Hammer Films, The Vampire Lovers.
* Which gets its name from a song by the seminal L.A. punk band X. Hey, do I have to explain everything around here?
Film guides tend to discuss The Vampire Lovers more from a standpoint of what it represented, rather than the movie itself. The film’s release in 1970 marked a transitional phase. The Hammer brand of horror had carved a niche for itself in the late ‘50s, featuring high production values laced with ample doses of blood and heaving bosoms. What was once cutting edge a decade ago, however, seemed tame by the end of the ’60s. By that time, audiences were growing accustomed to more explicit content, and if Hammer intended to survive into the next decade, the company needed to keep up with the times. Because The Vampire Lovers ushered in a new era, many critics have chosen a somewhat condescending stance, acknowledging the film’s craftsmanship, but in the same breath deriding the more lurid aspects.
The Vampire Lovers was the first and best of a loose trilogy (all written by Tudor Gates), frequently referred to as the “Karnstein trilogy.” The disappointing Lust for a Vampire (1971) soon followed, with the surprisingly good Twins of Evil (1972) completing the trilogy. Polish-born actress Ingrid Pitt, a virtual unknown, was selected for the lead in the initial film. At the insistence of co-producer American International Pictures, Peter Cushing was added, to improve the film’s “bankability.” Cushing’s small but memorable role as The General adds a level of class to the proceedings. At the end of the day, however, it’s Pitt who steals the show. Despite a paltry budget of less than 170,000 pounds, director Roy Ward Baker displayed Hammer’s typical knack for turning out a quality project, with riveting performances, sumptuously detailed sets, colorful costumes and a suitably grand score by Harry Robertson.*
* Just don’t scrutinize things too closely. One brief exterior shot of an impressive period estate is marred by visible tennis courts in the background.
At the film’s center is Pitt’s* complex, star-making performance as the temptress Marcilla (really the undead Carmilla). Men and women are powerless to resist her formidable charms (No, I didn’t mean it THAT way. Get your mind out of the gutter.), which she employs to take whatever she wants. Her haunting, magnetic stare engages the audience from her first entrance. She’s a contradiction, taking joy in wrapping people around her finger, contrasted with ruminations of fatalism and despair. The ubiquitous Man in Black, played by John Forbes-Robertson,** lurks in the background, orchestrating Marcilla’s movements.
* Pitt, Baker and Gates all contributed to the insightful DVD commentary. Sadly, all three are no longer with us.
** According to the commentary, Robertson was Hammer’s back-up for the Dracula films, in case Christopher Lee was unavailable for the role. He finally got his chance to play the eponymous count in Hammer’s vampire/kung fu hybrid The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.
Madeline Smith is perfect as doe-eyed innocent, Emma Morton, who succumbs to Marcilla’s spell. Gates and Baker seem to suggest that the women who fall victim are at least partially complicit in Mircalla’s advances. In two brief dream sequences, Laura (Pippa Steel), followed by Emma, are visited by a giant gray cat. Their burgeoning sexuality manifests itself as a large, feral animal. The filmmakers use the period setting to great effect, to underscore the repressed atmosphere that prevents both young women from vocalizing their innermost, sublimated urges.
While the film’s overt lesbian themes and nudity were calculated to raise eyebrows, Baker and company find just the right tone. Compared to the excesses from Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin that followed in the early ‘70s, The Vampire Lovers displays commendable restraint, proving that less is indeed more. Over the years, my opinion of the film has evolved from guilty pleasure to unabashed fan. The Vampire Lovers is evocative of a bygone era when it was okay to have crooked yellow teeth (thanks, Blu-ray), and still be considered sexy. It’s also one of the finest Hammer vampire films, comparing favorably to the studio’s Dracula films, and even surpassing many of them.