A vampire's lust knows no boundaries.
At their best Hammer Studios was capable of producing such thoughtful and chilling gems as Plague of the Zombies or The Devil Rides Out; at their worst they would unleash something like Lust for a Vampire. The middle film in their bisexual vampire series, Lust for a Vampire arrives on DVD in a spiffy, semi-special edition from Anchor Bay.
Facts of the Case
Loosely based on characters created in Sheridan Le Fanu's 1871 novella, "Carmilla," Lust for a Vampire this time features Yutte Stensgaard as the beautiful vampire Carmilla. Using the blood of a local virgin, this ancient evil is resurrected by the devious Count Karnstein (Mike Raven), and the Countess Herritzen (Barbara Jefford). Carmilla, now called Mircalla, is quickly entered in an exclusive all-girl boarding school. All that encounter her, including the school's history teacher and a traveling writer of the occult, fall under her hypnotic spell.
A short time passes and the deaths begin to pile up. The questions and the fears begin to grow and it almost goes without saying that a frightened village is going to be heard from in the form of an angry mob. In this regard, Lust for a Vampire does not disappoint. So, with torches burning and tempers running high, who is going to live and who is going to die from the Lust for a Vampire?
Like Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, Lust for a Vampire was something of a cursed production for Hammer. Original director Terence Fisher had to back out because of a broken leg, and longtime Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was called into duty with little to no prep time. On top of that, Peter Cushing pulled out almost literally the day before shooting, with Ralph Bates leaping in to help out. It is too bad writer Tudor Gates didn't develop a wicked case of carpal tunnel syndrome around that time as well so then maybe this thing would never had been written. But I digress.
Things to like about Lust for a Vampire are slim pickings at best. Speaking as a red-blooded heterosexual male, half-naked beautiful women running around is almost never a bad thing, but when that is just about the only good thing I can think of; well Houston, we have a problem.
As the lead vampire, Yutte Stensgaard really is a stunning woman and in a limited, bland way she sort of works as Mircalla/Carmilla Karnstein. It was that kind of "I'm really not an actress" kind of performance that has a certain innocence to it that helped carry her through her screen time. She is really not bad, but she certainly isn't very good either. Come to think it, that's pretty much how I felt about Sophia Coppola's turn in The Godfather III as well; and please don't ask where that segue came from.
To be honest, the best performances are both given by the beautiful women who kept their clothes decidedly on. Noted British stage actress Barbara Jefford adds a touch of class as the Countess Herritzen but just a touch. She is hardly onscreen enough to make much of a difference, while Suzanna Leigh shows great restraint and some degree of subtly as the aptly named gym teacher, Janet Playfair.
Otherwise, it is strictly a smelly bag affair. Late minute replacement Ralph Bates gives his usual earnest, if overly mannered performance as the doomed Giles Barton. Playing the love struck Richard Lestrange, Michael Johnson gets to utter some of the clunkiest dialogue ever written, and Mike Raven brings the house down as Count Karnstein. Talk about no respect for Mr. Raven. This guy was a radio DJ in England, so what do the producers do in post production? They dub his voice. On top of that he was cast because of his resemblance to Christopher Lee, so what do the producers do to the close-ups of his eyes? You guessed it. They cut in close-ups of Mr. Lee's famous bloodshot contacts. I wonder is Christopher Lee's eyes got paid scale?
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, Lust for a Vampire is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and it looks pretty good. In fact, I watched this back-to-back with Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and the image for Lust for a Vampire blew the good doctor away. Colors are sharp, blacks solid, and flesh tones (so important for a movie that features so many bared breasts) appear life like and natural. I would even use the word supple, but I don't want to be accused of bad taste. Grain is held to a minimum while edge enhancement is also unobtrusive.
Sound for Lust for a Vampire is of the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono variety and it is a clean sounding mix with little in the way of background distortion. Everything is mixed well together and there is little in the way of sonic muddle. There is a certain thinness on the top end and it certainly does not posses the fullness of a modern sound field but its serviceable where it needs to be.
As a disc Anchor Bay has done their usual justice to Hammer. Extras include the movie's American theatrical trailer, radio spots, some nice talent bios and a poster and still gallery. The highlight though is the disc's commentary track with Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, director Jimmy Sangster, and actor Suzanna Leigh. Now, there are two kinds of commentary tracks for really bad movies. There is the kind of track where those involved refuse to admit the movie reeks and speak of it as if it were the second coming of Citizen Kane, while the second style is the track where those speaking realize the movie is not so good but are just happy to hang out with people they like and reminisce. Happily, the latter is in full force here. All three are willing participants and the discussion is lively and wide-ranging. Gaps are short and lots of nice tidbits are revealed about Hammer and life in the British film industry in general. It's also nice to hear Jimmy Sangster admit that he was a better writer than director. It is the kind of candor one rarely hears on these things, or anywhere else for that matter. Another solid effort from Anchor Bay.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When you watch a lot of movies like I do, you begin to notice little tell tale signs that signal if its going to be a good movie or a colossal waste of time. With Lust for a Vampire, that sign comes right as the credits begin to roll. The sign that I'm talking about are the credits themselves. Said credits, you see, are in hot pink. Now, I don't want to offend anyone who loves the color pink…well, maybe I do, but pink credits for a horror movie? That might work for something like The Barbie and Ken Massacre but Lust for a Vampire?
If Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were to decide to "put on a show…a horror show!" in one of those old MGM musicals, then this is what it would look like. The costumes look great (especially the sheer, see-through ones), the township is very clean, and the lawns perfectly manicured, but in the end, this is an empty headed and soulless movie. In keeping with that theme, I should mention that Lust for a Vampire also has one of the worst songs in screen history within its running time. Called "Strange Love," it plays underneath the lovemaking session of the vampire and the living man who is obsessed with her. Man, that is some weird, whacked out strange love…get it? Too bad the song was not a doctor then we could make a great antiwar, black comedy out of it. Seriously though, this song is so truly bad I was even more embarrassed than when I first heard the William Shatner/Leonard Nimoy singing albums from a couple of decades ago. Yes Virginia, it is that bad.
As a film, Lust for a Vampire has no tension, no horror, no forward momentum and no intelligence. It's hard to believe that the same writer came up with all three movies in this trilogy. This is bottom barrel Hammer and watching it makes it easy to understand why the British film industry tanked so badly in the early '70s.
Now we arrive at the semi-usual spot where I note Anchor Bay once more does not provide close captions or subtitles for their discs. Granted, the less said the better, but when is Anchor Bay going to realize this needs to be a standard part of every release and not just the limited edition ones?
Its too bad Buffy wasn't around to do us all a favor and stake these vamps in the first reel. The Hammer virgin or just about anyone else who likes well made films are recommended to stay away from Lust for a Vampire. Although to its credit there are a lot of nubile, half naked girls running around, but a good dose of bootleg Playboy Channel can solve that problem just as nicely. Plus, watching fuzzy, illegal cable is a lot more entertaining to view than almost anything during Lust for a Vampire.
Bottom line. Wait for MGM to release Vampire Lovers and Anchor Bay to put out the third part, Twins of Evil, both scheduled for next year. Otherwise, wear your cross and stay away from beautiful blondes who are several centuries old.
Need I really pronounce Lust for a Vampire guilty? Okay. Lust for a Vampire is guilty. This is one Hammer production where they should have just burned the castle down at the beginning of the movie and been done with it. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Director Jimmy Sangster, Actor Suzanna Leigh, and Hammer Films Historian Marcus Hearn
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