Traditional horror occupied a curious space in the 1950s. Monsters from space and beasts born of radiation had taken over the genre. Yet the vampires, werewolves, and mad labs lived on in television and at the midnight Spook Show. Small-time Hammer Films turned their eye to scary movies and started a full-fledged Gothic revival. They began by imitating Universal, with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) borrowing much from James Whale’s 1931 classic and Horror of Dracula (1958) bringing to the forefront the sexual themes of Bram Stoker’s famous novel. However, from the beginning a house style was evident: bright red blood, lavish period costumes, reused sets and locations, overwrought music, theatrical acting, décolletage, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and, increasingly, gore and sex. Hammer built the connection between the more elegant horrors of the past and the more visceral fear-films of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Last Halloween we reviewed how Hammer horror started. This year, with the studio rising from the grave, we’re going to see how they ended, that first time around.

THE GENERAL:The enemies I sought were no ordinary mortals. They were murderers from beyond the grave!

EMMA: Don’t you wish you had a young man in your life?
CARMILLA: No. Neither do you, I hope.

Cast and Crew

Written by Roy Ward Baker and
Written by Harry Fine, Tudor Gates, and Michael Style, from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu‘s Carmilla.

Ingrid Pitt as Marcilla/ Carmilla/ Mircalla
Madeline Smith as Emma
Pippa Steel as Laura
Peter Cushing as the General
Kate O’Mara as the Governess
George Cole as Morton
Douglas Wilmer as Baron Joachim von Hartog
Jon Finch as Carl Ebhardt
Harvey Hall as Renton
Ferdy Mayne as Doctor
Janet Key as Gretchen
Kirsten Betts as First Vampire
John Forbes-Robertson as the Man in Black

Full credits available at the imdb

The film is available from Amazon, packaged with Hammer’s Countess Dracula.

Premise:

A female vampire travels from wealthy estate to wealthy estate, preying upon the beautiful daughters of the aristocracy.

High Points:

Ingrid Pitt played a key role in the revival and popularization of the vampire genre in the early 1970s. Her sensual demeanor rises above an occasionally shlocky script, and prevents the film’s lesbian subtext and nudity from becoming pure exploitation.

Low Points:

1. We can draw our own conclusions about the Countess. I suspect she’s one of Marcilla’s thralls, a female Renfield, whom she uses so to help get her into the various houses. What to make, however, of the mysterious Man in Black? Dressed like a Regency Johnny Cash and vampirically befanged, he appears in various scenes to gloat over the action, without ever interfering. Is he another surviving Karnstein vampire? The ghost of a vampire? He serves no purpose, and should have been left on the cutting room floor.

2. The stark cheesiness of Emma’s dream, which she relates to Carmilla. There’s a cat lying across her, fur in her mouth. The cat then turns into Carmilla. “And then,” Emma says to her new friend, “you embrace me and kiss me.”

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 Hammer adapted this film from a novella, and invested it with all the established elements of their house style, pushed to their acceptable 1970 limit. In the process, they created, arguably, a sub-sub-genre, the Lesbian Vampire Film.

Effects: 5/6 Minimal but serviceable.

Story: 4/6 The beginning gives away too much; the story that follows meanders in places, but should keep fans of the genre interested.

Acting: 5/6 Hammer loved old-fashioned stylized acting, but most of their performers could handle that approach. If you’re not used to the theatrical approach, compare this film to its third sequel (see below), and you’ll understand, at least, the difference between the style done fairly well, and performed poorly.

Production: 5/6. The film features impressive period costumes and sets.

Emotional Response: 4/6 By this point, Hammer’s films had more to do with moody atmosphere than horror. It has its fearful moments, but nothing to compare to most contemporary horror titles.

Overall: 4/6. The female characters engage in a good deal of bosom-heaving, fitful sleeping, and non-platonic cuddling. The men become concerned about the girls’ friendships. Emma dreams about a cat in her mouth, which turns into her seductive vampire friend. And, of course, in a turn that I hope seems dated to most current viewers, Emma turns straight again after she’s saved from the vamp. Sheesh. How did anyone ever miss the film’s subtext?

Vampire Lovers receives 30/42

Final Comments

The film birthed two inferior sequels, sort of, creating Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy. Lust for a Vampire (1971) features a resurrected Mircalla (now played by Yutte Stensgaard) up to her old tricks in 1830. The film has a campier feel and, of course, blood and nudity. Twins of Evil (also marketed as Daughters of Dracula), perhaps the weakest of the series, takes place before the other films. It stars Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson (though other actors dubbed their voices) as orphaned twins sent to live with their Puritan uncle. The girls find themselves involved with the evil Count Karnstein, witches, witch-hunters, and vampires, including the Count’s famous ancestor, Mircalla, here played by Katya Wyeth.

By then it was over for Hammer. Their films began to fail, and a 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes brought them near bankruptcy. After a short-lived horror anthology series in 1980, they ceased production. Only in 2010 has the company returned, set on making horror for the new millennium.