Appellate Judge Tom Becker learned the hard way that ordering Vampire Livers and Onion can only lead to gastronomic grief.
If you dare…taste the deadly passion of the BLOOD-NYMPHS!
Based on the 1872 novella Carmilla—as was Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses—The Vampire Lovers introduces us to the Karnstein family, and its most significant member, the young and beautiful Karnstein daughter. Known as Carmilla, Mircalla, and Marcilla, this lovely lady of the night noshes her way through all comers, but her unstaked heart seems to belong only to the beautiful and virginal daughters of the gentry.
The Karnstein films, along with a few more Dracula entries and the occasional oddity, like Vampire Circus, kept Hammer afloat in the early '70s, and upped the nudity and gore quotients from implied to explicit, effectively transitioning Hammer Horror from safe, Saturday matinee fare like Dracula Has Risen From the Grave to R-rated "adult" movies.
The Vampire Lovers was preceded by the adult-skewing Taste the Blood of Dracula by a couple of months; that film, originally rated PG, was re-rated years later as an R. The Vampire Lovers, though, is generally regarded as the first real "Boobs and Bats" Hammer entry.
Facts of the Case
A beautiful, buxom (and beautifully buxom) young vampiress (Ingrid Pitt, The Wicker Man) cuts a bloody, erotic swath across a 19th Century village.
Not having seen Lust for a Vampire, I only have Twins of Evil to use for comparison purposes concerning the Karnstein trilogy. I feel free saying that Twins of Evil is by the superior film. Its plot is far more complex and intriguing than The Vampire Lovers, the production values are higher, the acting more assured—in fact, virtually every aspect of that production is better than what we find in The Vampire Lovers. Perhaps, since this was the first—and really, the first Hammer film to offer this much nudity and sexual undercurrent—the creators were really experimenting with the formula and working out the kinks.
The plot is fairly simple. General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing, Horror Express) hosts a ball to honor the engagement of his niece, Laura (Pippa Steel, Young Winston) to Carl Ebhardt (Jon Finch, Frenzy). A mysterious countess (Dawn Addams, The Moon Is Blue) arrives with her daughter, Marcilla (Pitt). Soon after, a strange man in black arrives and whispers something to the countess; she makes her apologies to the General, saying she has to make a long trip to see a dying friend. The General offers to look after Marcilla while the countess is away.
Laura and Marcilla become close. Then Laura starts having nightmares of being stalked by an animal (a cat), and she becomes ill. It's Laura who provides the film's first bared bosom—at around the 24-minute mark—but it's hardly erotic; the bared bosom reveals puncture wounds! Yes, Laura's been the victim of a vampire!
Marcilla disappears (literally), and sometime later, turns up as the guest of another well-to-do family with another nubile young lady, the lovely Emma (Madeline Smith, Theater of Blood). Now calling herself Carmilla, the Sapphic underpinnings that hallmarked her time with Laura boil over in this new setting; the girls engage in a bit of topless wrestling (after Carmilla has taken a fully-frontally nude bath), many hugs and kisses, and Carmilla's flat-out disdain for the idea of meeting and falling in love with a young man.
Of course, we eventually find out that Marcilla/Carmilla is actually Mircalla Karnstein, the last surviving member of a family of vampires. While we get some Karnstein backstory courtesy of a secondary character, we're never quite sure who the countess is, or why the scary man in black is always around.
Strong storytelling isn't really the forte of The Vampire Lovers. Some plot points seem to come out of nowhere, and are occasionally unresolved. It's often a bit too talky, and the erotic scenes can be a bit silly.
But the film is wonderfully atmospheric and subtly lyrical, filled with lovely sets and costumes; it's quite beautifully shot, and contains a few satisfyingly gruesome kills. The big draw, of course, is the erotic lesbian angle; while The Vampire Lovers wasn't the first such film, it was one of the earliest English-language entries that featured nudity and explicit scenes. It also sets its own rules about vampire lore: crosses and garlic, bad; sunlight and mirrors, no problem.
One of the great strengths of The Vampire Lovers is the lovely and voluptuous Ingrid Ptt. Along with Barbaras Steele and Shelley, Pitt is one of the best-remembered horror beauties of the '60s and '70s. She's really miscast here: Carmilla is supposed to be a teen ager, and Pitt was well into her 30s when she made this. She's also supposed to be a quietly manipulative seductress, but frankly, in her quiet moments, she seems a bit lost, as though she's waiting for her next cue. None of these problems matter, though; besides her energetic nudity, Pitt had presence, a star quality that the younger women in the film just seem to miss.
While she's clearly the villain of the piece, Pitt's Carmilla is a sympathetic character. Sure, she's a centuries-old bloodsucker preying on nubile beauties, but she's no happy libertine. There's a sense of doom about Carmilla, and perhaps understandably, an air of frustration. Rather than fearsome, she's ultimately a pitiful creature, and Pitt makes her quite touching. Despite a rather brief appearance by the great Cushing, this is Pitt's show, and her complex performance and mesmerizing sexuality carry this into something both ethereal and shocking.
While clearly made as an adult horror film, The Vampire Lovers ultimately transcends its genre roots, hewing closer to an art film than a traditional shocker. Thanks to Pitt's melancholic erotic performance, The Vampire Lovers invites an emotional investment too often missing from films of this nature.
The Vampire Lovers (Blu-ray) comes to us from Shout! Factory's Scream Factory division, a label I appreciate more with each new release.
The 1.78:1/1080p transfer is a mixed bag; it's not the tech triumph that the Synapse Hammer releases have been, but it's not terrible by any means. The source print contains a number of scratches and flecks; it's far from pristine. On the other hand, colors are solid, there's nice detail, and contrast is good. Since many of my recollections of Hammer Horror are of watching the (less-racy) films on TV, I don't mind the imperfections so much. Audio is a nice, clean DTS-HD mono track.
The reversible cover features the spectacularly lurid U.S. poster art on one side, and the Italian poster art on the other. Shout!/Scream Factory offers up a very satisfying slate of supplements. Ported from a 2003 release is a commentary with Ingrid Pitt, writer Tudor Gates, and director Roy Ward Baker. In addition to being an excellent listen, this track is a bit poignant, since all three participants have since died (Gates in 2007, Pitt and Baker in 2010). Also ported is Pitt reading an excerpt from Carmilla over images from the film.
The new stuff kicks off with "Feminine Fantastique: Resurrecting the Vampire Lovers," an excellent 10-minute retrospective documentary on the film featuring input and observations from Hammer historians. A 20-minute interview, "Madeline Smith: Vampire Lover!" features the actress, who plays one of Pitt's victims, talking about her career and about the production. Rounding out the set are a photo gallery, radio spot, and a trailer.
This is an overall excellent set, and while it might be a notch or two below Synapse, it's still a great disc, competitively priced, and well worth it. The film itself might be lesser Hammer, but it's a whole lot of fun, and Ingrid Pitt's cult-star making role is worth the price of admission. Highly recommended.
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Studio: Shout! Factory
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