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The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Dir: Roy Ward Baker


Stiria, Europe.
Baron von Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) is taking just revenge (for the death of his family) on the hated line of Vampires known as The Karnsteins.
As he carries out his task a shroud draped Vampyric shape appears.
Taking the form of a voluptuous young woman (Kirsten Lindholm) the Vampire tries to seduce the Baron…but simply ends up losing its head.
But Hartog fails to find the tomb of the last Karnstein…Mircalla,

Years past and in the grand house of General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) the guests dance and laugh, and the General’s daughter, Laura (Pippa Steel), dances with her love, the dashing Carl Ebhardt (Jon Finch) and all seems perfect.
Just then The Countess (Dawn Adams) enters with her striking daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) and asks The General if he would please look after Marcilla for her while she goes away.
The General agrees and soon Marcilla and Laura become firm friends.

But Laura begins to have horrible nightmares and becomes terribly weak.
Only the presence of the mysterious Marcilla seems to comfort her and The General becomes suspicious.
Laura dies soon after and two puncture marks are found on her breast by the Doctor (Ferdy Mayne). Marcilla though has vanished.

Into the home of businessman Roger Morton (George Cole) comes a beautiful young woman who calls herself Mircalla. She soon befriends Morton’s innocent young daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) and under the caring gaze of the Governess, Mme. Perrodot (Kate O'Mara), Emma and Mircalla become inseparable.

But Mircalla is Marcilla…and Mircalla is of course a Karnstein.
And soon, as the Vampire ensnares the Morton household, Emma is suffering from dreadful nightmares and becoming terribly weak…..

 

Roughly based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic tale “Carmilla”, “The Vampire Lovers” is a landmark film for ‘Hammer’. As the 1970’s opened and as the public’s taste changed (and censorship became less stringent) ‘Hammer’ were able to use sexuality, nudity and increased bloodshed to accent their otherwise rather polite, costume, Gothic Horror movies.
And with the strikingly seductive Polish actress Ingrid Pitt to work with, as well as a bevy of other busty lovelies, ‘Hammer’ had the perfect ingredients to make this change in content work so well.

The adaptation and screenplay (by Harry Fine,  Tudor Gates  and Michael Style) may make the very lightly alluded to Lesbian aspects of La Fanu’s novella far more explicit, but it still manages to depict these aspects in a very sophisticated and even innocent way and this is becomes one of the movie’s main strengths.
The scenes of Mircalla seducing Emma and Mme. Perrodot (both by opening up those oppressed feelings within her victims as well as with a spot of supernatural mesmerism) are playful, coy and languid and as such they become genuinely erotic.

The virtually silent sequence on the landing of Mircalla ensnaring O’Mara’s Mme. Perrodot is one of the most effective and bitingly erotic things ‘Hammer’ ever filmed. Pitt’s sweetly seductive gaze that leads, as effectively as any leash, Perrodot into her bedroom is a classic moment in Vampire cinema and ends in a wonderful, silhouetted, de-frocking by Pitt in front of O’Mara’s hungry gaze that rounds off this beautifully crafted bit of Vampyric sexuality brilliantly.
But Pitt’s scenes with the delightfully sweet Madeline Smith (“Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell”) also work perfectly on a far more innocent level. Remove the predatory Vampire aspect and what you have left is actually a beautifully essayed spot of open sexuality as the more experienced lover opens up (in more ways than one) her virginal partner to the possibilities of pleasure.
Smith may not be the best actress in the world, but her doe-eyed innocence is amazingly appealing and likeable and you honestly can’t imagine anyone else playing Emma in these seduction scenes.

Smith and Pitt (especially Pitt thanks to the recent ‘MGM’ DVD that restores her brief full frontal shot) provide the bulk of the movie’s nudity and both look luscious. But as this is prime ’Hammer’ we also have some of those essential translucent nightgowns and lots of cleavage displaying dresses to ensure as many lovely female forms are there to enjoy. O’Mara especially looks striking in her low cut gowns.

The gore shown here is also a big step up from what ‘Hammer’ had shown before. And it adds a very welcome jolt to the proceedings and is used very cleverly to accent proceedings. We have some messy staking scenes, a few bloodied throats and a couple of pretty well done and explicit decapitations (something of a first for the Vampire film). And blood is used really effectively on Hartog’s flashback tale to his destruction of the slumbering Karnstein’s. The sight of a crimson streaked, physically, mentally and spiritually drained Baron Hartog ramming down the blood dripping stake one last time is a brutally powerful image and really brings home the butchery involved in such a task.

But there is more to “The Vampire Lovers” than it’s myriad female charms and extra blood. The sets are gorgeous and detailed and although the outdoor set-ups are very stage bound in their look (in the same was as the old ‘Shaw Bros’ martial arts films) they work wonderfully in creating that essential Gothic atmosphere. The pre-credit Hartog sequence is especially good as the grey shrouded Undead (with well utilised slow motion) creeps around the fog bound cemetery as The baron looks on from the ruined castle.

As well as the lyrical and erotically charged Lesbian aspects the film also gives us, thanks to uniformly good acting and a well honed script, some deeper than normal characterisations. Mircalla is indeed an evil, manipulative creature but her relationship with Emma has obviously opened something up in her.
Her drinking of Emma’s blood (and as such, life) seems to be taking far longer than it did with Laura and in fact we see Mircalla kill two other women (those delightfully clean and fresh ’Hammer’ peasant girls) during her stay. Almost as if she is taking nourishment from anyone other than Emma when possible. Mircalla also treats Emma in an almost loving fashion (drinking her blood aside that is!) and even opens up to her showing us that Mircalla has an almost self-loathing attitude to what she is and what she must do. A superb sequence where the funeral procession of one of her victims passes by, as a Priest chants a prayer, sees Mircalla break down in front of Emma as she is confronted by death. Not only that which she has caused, but that which she is denied.
Cushing’s General (basically not much more than a cameo, quickly shoe-horned in to add more box office appeal, though he has a defining moment during the finale) and Baron Hartog are also given slightly more complex personalities than is normal in such movies due to them both being wounded by the loss of their families while still keeping themselves strong to fight that which ripped apart their lives.

And from Cushing, to Jon Finch (“Frenzy”), to Ferdy Mayne (“Dance of the Vampires”), to Harvey Hall as the Morton's Butler (with the world's most sinister arched eyebrows, and who would appear in all three Karnstain films as different characters) and to the ever welcome George Cole (“Fright”) we have some essential strong male actors to play off the more prominent female leads.

The screenplay also mixes some powerful dialogue with more tongue in cheek moments of black humour. Mircalla’s Lesbian tendencies are wonderfully and subtly introduced via Carl’s line to Laura after she says Mircalla is looking across at him, “Nonsense, she’s looking at you”.
There is also a highly memorable moment, as Laura is passing away with her still hopeful Father at her side, when Mircalla (seemingly angered at what she has done) brutally declares to the General; “You may open the curtains, it is daylight now…She is dead”!
A lighter touch of the macabre though comes from the wonderful Ferdy Mayne, as the initially sceptical Doctor, about Laura’s worsening condition; “Put some blood back into her”!

‘Hammer’s adaptation of the Karnstein’s history and lineage (not just here but in fact in the entire ‘Karnstein’ trilogy) is basically unfathomable though.
If Mircalla is the last Karnstein who is The Countess? She is certainly involved in the evil deeds but she is never shown as being a Vampire!
And more importantly who is the ‘Man in Black’ who seems to almost control The Countess and Mircalla (and who also pops up in the next film “Lust for a Vampire“)?
Here he is played by John Forbes-Robertson (the generally hated Dracula from “Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires”) and basically sits on a horse watching events unfold. Is he Count Karnstein, but if so why is he never mentioned as still being ‘alive’?
“Lust for a Vampire” has him appear reviving Mircalla then doing nothing.
Twins of Evil” would see a Count Karnstein appear but an initially non-Vampyric version who Mircalla turns into a Vampire after being re-incarnated again.
And it will all be turned on it’s head again by the Karnstein’s cameo in the otherwise non-Karnstein movie “Captain Kronos”.
It’s all very complicated and probably better not studied too hard!

All in all “The Vampire Lovers” is not only ‘Hammer’s’ launch pad into their most underrated period but also a fine example of how damn good ‘Hammer‘ can be, when fine scriptwriters, actors and a director (wonderful and well paced work here by the generally hit and miss Roy Ward Baker) get together with top technicians to create a finely crafted Horror treat.
Essential viewing.

Note: despite the novella being called "Carmilla" (as is the lead character of course), "The Vampire Lovers" never uses that name. Pitt's character is never addressed as Carmilla and even on her coffin the name is 'Mircalla'. But it is a common misconception (just read most reviews on-line) that 'Hammer' used the 'Carmilla' name for the film when they didn't.