The Vampire Lovers (1970) [31 Days of Hammer Horror Review]

Jules picks up where he left off in October by running through some of the choice horror offerings from the fantastic Hammer back catalogue.You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of Hammer” by CLICKING HERE.

Released: 1970
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Madeline Smith
Director: Roy Ward Baker

The first film in Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy, based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella Carmilla, The Vampire Lovers is something of a watershed film for the studio, laying down a marker for the new decade ahead with a focus on nudity and eroticism on a level nothing quite like they had done before.

It’s story told over several decades, The Vampire Lovers introduces the bloodsucking family of the Karnstein’s when a Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) wipes them out for killing his sister, all except the unknown Mircalla, who’s crypt he could not find.

Years later, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) encounters mysterious Countess (Dawn Addams) and her niece Carmilla (Ingrid Pitt) at his party and ends up inviting the younger woman to stay with his family when her aunt is called away.

The General’s daughter Laura (Pippa Steel) forms a strong bond with Carmilla, but soon starts wasting away, while suffering nightmares of being attacked not a great cat.

After she dies, Carmilla reappears again in another house, this time going by the name Marcilla and latching on to the young Emma (Madeline Smith) as the cycle begins again. This time though, the vampire seems to have genuine feelings for her young victim, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t feeding…

Well this is a real tonal shift from what had come before. For all it’s reputation as being full of “Hammer glamour”, the studios output up until now had been comparatively chaste. A heaving bosom here, a suggestive look there. Hell, the first exposed breast was a quick shot only the year before in Taste The Blood Of Dracula and was noticeable mainly for its incongruity.

Now though, a decision had clearly been made that they were going to push all the boundaries as far as they would go. Smartly though, as gratuitous as it is at times, it does fit with the story and ends up working perfectly.

Carmilla is a different kind of vampire lead than we’ve seen before, focusing on the seductive side of the monster rather than the animalistic. She’s not living in a crypt like a creature of the night, she can even move around by day (if in the shade) and weave her way into the highest of society.

Make no mistake, Ingrid Pitt is simply magnificent here. Alluring and full of sex appeal yes, but she puts in a marvellous performance as the Sapphic vampire falling in love with her young victim. At times cold and predatory, others warm and very human. It’s a great turn in a role lesser actresses would have played on one level. Her screen presence is remarkable too, as she steals every scene she is in, even when she’s not doing much.

Madeline Smith is appealing too, perfectly cast as the innocent and naive Emma, while Kate O’Mara puts in a fine shift as Emma’s buttoned-up governess, all repressed sexual tension waiting for a release, which comes when she becomes a thrall to Carmilla, obviously. Her panic and desperation when she realises she’s being abandoned is one of the best scenes in the film.

The great Peter Cushing isn’t a huge part of The Vampire Lovers, but he makes the absolute most of what little he has to do. His anguish at his daughter’s death early on is completely believable, while his final act of justice on Carmilla is meted out with steely resolve.

Director Roy Ward Baker shows a lot of that eye for atmosphere we saw him display on Quatermass And The Pit, with some beautifully shot scenes of Carmilla gliding around the misty woods after feeding, while the regular nightmares of her victims as she does so are realised with quick-cutting and over-exposed black and white photographs, giving them a woozy, disturbing quality. It’s lovely stuff.

While still having all the hallmarks of Hammer’s gothic horrors firmly in place, this feels like a new direction for the studio, but it’s still a very effective one and comes highly recommended.

Rating: 4/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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