A countess and her daughter attend a ball held by General Spielsdorf. The countess is called away after the death of a friend and her daughter, Marcilla, is allowed to stay with the General and his daughter until she returns. Soon afterwards, the General’s daughter starts to suffer from nightmares, growing weaker by the day and eventually dying from vampire bites. Marcilla disappears and lodges in with Roger Morton and his daughter. Soon the same mysterious illness begins to strike Morton’s daughter, Emma. It turns out that Marcilla is actually Carmilla, a descendant of the Karnstein vampire clan, who have returned to quench their thirst for blood.
The Vampire Lovers was made at a time of change for Hammer. New faces were being brought in behind-the-scenes to replace the established old guard and with them came a new wave of horror films, more commercially-aware and which slowly ditched the restrained Gothic pieces of old, replacing them with heaving and more often than not exposed bosoms and greater quantities of bright red blood. The exploitative change in direction was a response to the more shocking European horrors that were beginning to emerge and many consider this the beginning of the end for the studio, which wouldn’t live to see out the rest of the decade. It was ironic that the studio which originally pushed the boundaries of the genre further than they had ever gone in the late 50s and early 60s was now being left behind and made to look out-dated just as they had done to their rivals. That being said, it’s during this period that Hammer produced some of their most interesting work. Proving that there was life in the vampire sub-genre away from Dracula, Hammer loosely adapted the 1872 novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (a novel which pre-dates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some time) and managed to milk it into a trilogy. The Vampire Lovers is the first of this bold new wave of Hammer films, sleazier and more gratuitous than ever before.
All I can say is…..phew! I needed a cold shower after this one. The Vampire Lovers is arguably the steamiest film Hammer ever produced. Compare the sexually-deviant vampires in this one with Christopher Lee’s now-stuffy (at the time) Dracula and the difference in tone is amazing within the space of a few years. Though the exploitative elements look tame by today’s standards, I can only imagine the outcry at such explicit sights of lesbian vampires back in the 70s. Nubile, innocent young women wear flimsy nightgowns, take them off for the camera and cavort and fondle each other in vampiric desire. At times the lesbian elements seem to overwhelm the film and with all of the cheap titillation, the viewer can forget that there is meant to be a serious horror film in here somewhere.
The subject matter lends itself to these exploitative elements but make no mistake about it, this is a Hammer film and their visual prowess was still here in force: mysterious mountain-top castles, fog-shrouded cemeteries, creaky mansions and superstitious villages. Costumes are bang on the money for the time period being portrayed and the film still has that Gothic gloss in everything it portrays. It’s just that this time there’s a whole load of saucy lesbianism running rampant throughout! The Technicolour horror elements are still as charming as ever, with fake fangs, neck bites and a rather weak nightmare sequence clearly stamping the date on the proceedings. But there are also a couple of great beheadings and a nasty staking too for good measure, which upped the ante for what the studio usually got away with.
The Vampire Lovers also introduces the horror world to Ingrid Pitt, who would go on to become one of the genre’s most noted actresses with the brief number of appearances she made in the genre. Ms Pitt’s thick Polish accent gives her character a nice exotic European charm to add to the Gothic vibe of the film and she manages to convey predatory evil and being sympathetically sexy at the same time. It’s her other, ahem, attributes that the film makes best use of it. There’s no denying that the late Ms Pitt had an amazing body and the film is happy to show it off at every opportunity. But the character is a tragic one, wanting to be with her young girl lover forever, only to give in to her primal urges and destroy that things she craves the most – love. Pitt’s sad dialogue after she has witnessed the funeral cortege pass by is as good as anything Hammer ever put to the screen.
All-round acting legend Peter Cushing gets top billing but his time was passing for Hammer and his role is more secondary than anything. Cushing is still on top vampire slaying form when he does show up, showing that he’s lost none of his touch when it comes to staking or beheading the creatures of the night. He’s just grossly underused and bookended into the prologue and finale, with little to do in between. Also of mention is the pretty and chaste Madeline Smith, who plays one of the objects of Marcilla’s affections. Smith has this ridiculous English rose natural beauty and quickly became one of my favourite Hammer girls in her few appearances with the studio.
The Vampire Lovers is one of Hammer’s most daring films and definitely their most sensual and erotic work, infecting the narrative with an almost dream-like quality. Though the frequently-naked ladies detract from the more serious moments, there is no question that the well-developed characters and progressive themes for the time (a lesbian vampire, there’s one for the feminists!) make this Gothic horror at its finest.