(1971) Directed by John Hough; Written by: Tudor Gates; Based on characters created by Sheridan Le Fanu; Starring: Peter Cushing, Mary Collinson, Madeleine Collinson, Dennis Price, Isobel Black and Damien Thomas; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD
“As far as I was concerned, this was a picture about Peter Cushing’s character and the twins to me were a coincidental, but necessary part of the formula, the innocence to engage with the evil of the Count. We were trying to produce quality pictures and, as far as we were concerned, Peter Cushing was vital to that formula.” – Tudor Gates (from Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)
This is my second contribution to The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, co-hosted by Gill Jacob from Reallweegiemidget Reviews and me. Please check out the many other contributions from this three-day celebration.
Compared to the production company’s output from the late ‘50s through most of the ‘60s, Hammer horror films of the 70s have enjoyed a less than stellar reputation. While there’s some basis to this reputation, due to diminishing budgets, mediocre sequels to established franchises, and pandering to the changing tastes of theater-goers, some excellent titles have fallen through the cracks. There were clunkers, but also some notable films, including The Vampire Lovers, Vampire Circus, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (a personal favorite). Despite its potentially exploitive premise, Twins of Evil is another worthy title.
Since I’m doing a double submission for the Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, it seems appropriate that my Hammer entry would be 1971’s Twins of Evil, starring real-life twins. Hammer passed over several more experienced actresses in favor of casting Mary and Madeleine Collinson as Maria and Frieda Gelhorn.** Born in Malta, the former Playboy models didn’t speak fluent English, and were dubbed, which was common practice for the day. Armed with this built-in gimmick, the filmmakers could have placed them in diaphanous gowns and various states of undress and called it a day. There’s a difference, however, which distinguishes it from Hammer’s lesser efforts, thanks to capable direction by young director John Hough, a script from Tudor Gates, morally ambiguous themes, and a chilling performance by Peter Cushing.
* Fun Fact: Mary and Madeleine were the second pair of twins from their family. (Source: Hammer Glamour, by Marcus Hearn)
Twins of Evil (the title, uttered in a line of dialogue by Cushing, is a misnomer, since only one of the twins might be construed as evil) was the third film in the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy,” based loosely on Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “Carmilla.” While the first film, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers (reviewed here), followed the source material more closely than its sequels, it took many liberties. The sequels strayed further from the story, with Lust for a Vampire (1971) being the most problematic of the three. Twins of Evil continued on a different tangent from Le Fanu’s story, but with much more satisfying results than its direct predecessor. Only a few scraps of the original story remain, including Carmilla,* and the evil Karnstein family.
* Katya Wyeth plays Countess Mircalla, a role originated by Ingrid Pitt in the first film. Mircalla appears briefly in one scene, then vanishes. It’s easy to see why Pitt passed on reprising her role.
After their parents die, Maria and Frieda are sent to live with their stern, authoritarian uncle Gustav. When they arrive, he’s preoccupied with waging a holy war against anyone he deems to be possessed by the devil. Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) an avowed practitioner of black magic, stands in opposition to Gustav and his efforts, but remains untouchable, while under the protection of the emperor. Meanwhile, Maria and Frieda attempt to adjust to their new surroundings, but in contrast to each other. While the kind-hearted Maria wants to stay in Gustav’s good graces, Frieda is unhappy being under her uncle’s thumb. Frieda is seduced by Karnstein’s emphasis on following more hedonistic pursuits,* and isn’t above using her sister as a pawn.
* Another Fun Fact: On working with the twins, John Hough commented, “…they were actually like you see them in the film. Mary was very sweet and Madeleine was very forceful.” (from Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)
Peter Cushing appears in one of his most uncompromising performances as the pious witch hunter, Gustav Weil, who runs an ad-hoc tribunal with a group of men called The Brotherhood. They spend their nights persecuting young single women, burning them at the stake if they’re suspected of practicing witchcraft. Gustav uses his faith as a shield, to absolve himself of blame, believing he’s doing holy work. When questioned by the town’s schoolmaster, he rationalizes his actions by insisting the women he burned were not innocent, but in league with the devil. It’s a great, multi-faceted performance, all the more remarkable, because it was in the wake of personal tragedy. Cushing’s wife had died only two months prior to shooting, but he continued on, in a desire to immerse himself in work. Hough described Cushing as a “superb artist” who was “very gentle,” in stark opposition to the cruel character that he portrayed in the film. It’s a testament to Cushing’s acting prowess that we don’t hate Gustav. Even at his darkest, we see the humanity within, as moments of self-doubt break through.
* According to Gates, Cushing would have conversations with his deceased wife in his dressing room, which served as a sort of coping mechanism, and helped him to focus on his work. (from Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)
Another standout is Damien Thomas as Gustav’s nemesis, the sadistic, arrogant Baron Karnstein. His primary motivation is not out of malice, but boredom. He has no allegiance to anyone except himself, and taunts Gustav with his decadent lifestyle. Although both men are adversaries, Twins of Evil refuses to let the audience off the hook by picking sides. Which is worse: someone shrouded under the pretense of righteousness who does terrible things, or someone who wears their bad intentions on their sleeve? Both kill for their own selfish ends. One believes he is doing right, while the other satisfies his insatiable desires. In the end, both are responsible for murdering innocent people. With neither side being paragons of virtue, our moral center rests with schoolmaster Anton Hoffer (David Warbeck) calling out the hypocrisy in Gustav and the mob mentality of the Brotherhood.
Twins of Evil subverts Hammer’s typical formula by blurring the lines between good and bad. In addition to the moral ambiguity, the message about female sexuality within the milieu of the film, is clear. There is no equality in this patriarchal society. Under the leadership of Gustav, a group of men serve as judge, jury and executioner to people (especially women) who deviate from the norm. Expression of sexuality beyond the boundary of marriage frightens the men, challenging the status quo.
Much like The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil is an underrated, unfairly maligned, example of 1970s Hammer, with more depth than one would suspect. Twins of Evil is a novel spin on tired tropes, proving an old dog is capable of learning new tricks. With a built-in concept of casting real-life twins that were easy on the eyes, the filmmakers could have been lazy, coasting on our expectations of titillation and gore, but it turns the classic Hammer story of good and evil on its head. As with many Hammer horror films, good ultimately triumphs over evil, but not without a terrible price. It’s not simply a battle between opposing theological sides, but compassion and reason versus unbridled fealty to mob rule.