The Vampire Lovers
Ah, the Karnstein Trilogy; infamous for upping Hammer’s naughtiness significantly in a slightly unsavoury, if perfectly understandable, desperation to be profitable as the seventies dawned. It had been thirteen years since the Curse of Frankenstein, and a whole pile of films later, they were running out of bankable franchises. But then the British film censors decided that you had to be 18 to see an X certificated film, and not 16 as had been the case before. I’m willing to bet a cigar or two fell from Hammer Producers’ mouths when they discovered they had been thrown a lifeline in their hour of need. You see, if the minimum age for an X certificate film was 18, then you would be able to see something you couldn’t before; something that may well save their studio - boobs.
It was a different time alright, and back then more nudity meant bigger box office. This simple mathematical equation saw Hammer losing ground to sleazy European horror films (those blasted Europeans and their relaxed attitude to sex). But with the X certificate ruling came Hammer’s chance to compete, and so the Karnstein Trilogy was born. Unfortunately, Lust for a Vampire is just straight up terrible, and though Twins of Evil definitely has its moments, the stench of desperation results in nobody involved taking the story very seriously and so it ends up being a little silly. But with the very first film of the trilogy, The Vampire Lovers, you’d have to say they nearly pull it off.
Because it has everything that makes a great Hammer film. There’s terrific atmosphere, like the crumbling vampire’s castle littered with smoking graves. There’s people being eaten when they feel at their safest, like sleeping in bed or taking a slash out the back of the pub. There is, of course, Peter Cushing, here in resplendent military get-up, dancing with baronesses and driving stakes into vampire hearts. There’s even a charismatic early performance by a British TV actor, in this case George Cole out of Minder. And there’s some glorious gore including not one, but two decapitations that bookend the movie.
And of course, there’s a lot of Hammer glamour; in the Vampire Lovers we have two of their finest examples. There’s Ingrid Pitt, the Polish actress, as Carmilla the lesbian vampire who seems capable of seducing and eating absolutely anyone she fancies. Although Ingrid does something in this film that male vampires never did, she falls in love with the women she seduces. She tortures herself, and them, with her longing for something that can never be given, but only ever taken. She may be the evil seductress, but evil never looked this sad before. And then there’s Madeline Smith, the English rose, whose beauty is such that even though she might as well be saying things like ‘aren’t butterflies nice?’ and ‘I like sunshine!’, has the power to unsettle the seasoned Carmilla with the sort of wide-eyed goodness that only exists in movies set in the age of uncomfortable clothing and the inability to vote. The evil seductress and the innocent rose are two Hammer staples alright, but to have them fall in love with each other is a pretty neat idea that very nearly makes this a great movie.
Unfortunately, we eventually must come to the real reason the Karnstein trilogy sank. God, I don’t even want to say his name again. The writer, we should just refer to him as the writer as I’m getting sick of slandering the poor dead sod, the writer of the whole trilogy has absolutely no talent at all. Anything that works in The Vampire Lovers can only be down to the novella it’s based on. But it’s full of Tudor Gates (Damn, I said it) classics; for example, there’s a scene where the Doctor gets upset at the butler for bringing garlic flowers to the victim. This is a problem that will be solved by medical science not silly superstitions he says, and we all understand that scene right? Except this is Gates (Damn!) we’re talking about here, so in the same scene (without even waiting for another scene!) the Doctor commands more garlic be brought in and then, for a kicker, takes a cross out of a jewelry box and hangs it around the victim’s neck! Why the change of heart? No bloody reason at all, the entire character of the Doctor is changed in an instant, literally while you are looking at him, because that’s what needs to happen and who needs explanations.
Unfortunately the ‘no explanations’ policy leaves too many unsatisfying things for The Vampire Lovers to be truly great. The butler is such a great character, but his strength and savvy are stripped from him without a fight just because the plot needs to move forward. There’s some idea of Ingrid turning into a giant pussy cat to seduce and drink her beautiful victims, which if that seems to you to be worthy of exploration, the writer disagrees. And what the hell is with the bloke on the horse, always sitting outside cackling with his big vampire teeth every time Ingrid takes a bite out of someone? Do you want to know? Tough.
But if you take a deep breath, and ignore the Tudor stench, then the Vampire Lovers is actually a pretty good movie. It’s tense, well-acted, and different, and I can see how they felt they had unearthed another franchise. If only they’d kept the parts that worked, like Ingrid, and launched the parts that didn’t, like the writer, into space. Then they could have gone on to do great things in this brand new franchise. They could have started with having the butler live, cos the butler and the maid were pretty good together. The two of them would have made a great undercover servant team, dropping in on castles across Europe and bringing down the aristocratic vampires from within in revolutionary acts of righteousness. I only wish I had been around to tell them that one. It’s nice to be able to share good ideas when you have them. Speaking of which…