Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate O’Mara, Peter Cushing, Madeline Smith
Screenplay: Tudor Gates
91 mins. Rated R.
I love when I watch a new movie for the first time and then learn that there’s an entire mythology with sequels that I didn’t know about. To be honest, I was pretty sure that The Vampire Lovers was somehow tangentially connected to Hammer’s Dracula series, and then I came to learn of the Karnstein trilogy which began with this film and led to Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. This was new territory to me, someone who only really learned of this movie when discovering that Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember, Asylum) had also directed Vault of Horror, the sequel to the original Tales from the Crypt film. Tonight, we’re going to break down this Hammer horror romp and see what it really has to offer.
The Vampire Lovers is the story of the Karnstein family, particularly Carmilla (Ingrid Pitt, The Wicker Man, Doctor Zhivago), a beautiful vampire seductress who feeds on the rich and powerful, seemingly preferring female flesh. As she finds a new target in Emma Morton (Madeline Smith, Live and Let Die, Theatre of Blood), daughter of the wealthy and connected patriarch Mr. Roger Morton (George Cole, Cleopatra, Henry V), she also comes across immense danger when her knotted web of lies begins to untangle in front of her. As the bodies pile up, Carmilla has amassed a number of enemies, all now in search of her…with vengeance in tow!
There’s an obvious exploitation feeling to The Vampire Lovers. It’s a sexy and sometimes silly movie that uses more nudity than it needs simply because the censorship for films had relaxed substantially in the time before it was made. The producers of the film supposedly pushed for more nudity and more sexiness throughout the entire production with the notion that its what people want to see. I’ll say that some of the nude scenes seemed to add to the tone and story, and a good chunk of it was entirely unneeded. This film could have been made without any of it, and I think it would have been fine, but some of the nudity added to the film, and some simply didn’t. For example, do we need a sequence in which the two attractive lead females frolic around in the nude giggling and laughing? Probably not. Some of it was eye-rollingly obvious, but that’s the film they wanted to make as well. Director Baker seemed to understand the potential uncomfortable nature of the production, and he aided his cast as much as was able, having a closed set when needed (that even kept the producers out), and ensuring that everyone was as comfortable as possible, receiving high praise from Ingrid Pitt.
The script is nothing too special in terms of the dialogue, but I found the film to have an interesting and captivating amount of mythology. The story itself was rather strong, even if some of the scenes just didn’t move the plot very much. I was very curious to learn more of Carmilla and the Karnstein family, and this is where Hammer does it’s best work. It’s in the mythology, the visuals, the actors who very much understand the material and movie they are in, and the tone. This is where Hammer lives, and it is particularly noticeable in The Vampire Lovers.
As far as the performers, we are treated to some pretty strong work, most notably from Pitt and the always entertaining Peter Cushing (Star Wars: A New Hope, Top Secret!), though no one in the lead cast takes the film down. There’s a certain level of schlock to Hammer, but if it is treated respectfully, it creates a rather powerful piece of cinema. The Vampire Lovers is a mostly successful film in these respects.
The Vampire Lovers is Hammer at its most exploitative, but a rich mythology, a sexy aesthetic, and strong character performances (even if the characters are written a little wooden) seem to aid this first installment of the Karnstein trilogy. I’m very interested to see where this story goes in the follow-ups. I’ve missed out on a lot of Hammer Horror in my years, but this is an unmistakable hidden gem of their catalog.
-Kyle A. Goethe