Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Madeline Smith, Jon Finch, Douglas Wilmer, Kate O'Mara
A Baron stalks a beautiful vampire through a graveyard and kills her. Elsewhere, a mysterious Countess and her daughter, the beautiful Marcilla, arrive at the estate of General von Spielsdorf during a party. Due to an emergency, the Countess leaves Marcilla in the General's care. She becomes close friends with the General's daughter, who soon takes ill and dies just as Marcilla strangely disappears. The same Countess and her daughter, now called Mircalla, later have a carriage accident and the Countess leaves Mircalla at the home of the General’s friend Mr. Morton, who will care for the girl along with the help of his daughter Emma. History predictably repeats itself and Emma soon falls ill. Mr. Morton crosses paths with the General, but can they figure out Mircalla's evil intentions and save Emma in time?
If memory serves me correctly, The Vampire Lovers was the first Hammer film I had the fortune to see, well over a decade ago at this point. It’s considered one of the studio’s classics for a good reason — and not just because it ushered in a wave of lesbian vampire films. Over the years I’ve heard a variety of complaints from some horror fans that Hammer is too reliant on staid costume dramas heavy on the cleavage and light on the violence, but if The Vampire Lovers is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. It doesn’t hurt that it’s based on the work of one of my favorite horror authors: Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu’s excellent novel Carmilla, which also comes highly recommended and was originally included in his collection In a Glass Darkly.
The film concerns the dreaded Karnstein family, vampires intent on spreading their bloody legacy throughout Europe. This is a reasonably faithful adaptation of his story, which is unusual for Hammer, and it would become the first in their “Karnstein Trilogy,” which includes Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971), about the further adventures of Carmilla and her kin. The Vampire Lovers can also be linked to other Hammer films like The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire, and Vampire Circus, where aristocratic vampires plague the countryside, generally preying upon buxom, innocent young ladies.
Famous for its use of lesbianism and casual nudity, this is actually a pretty restrained film and implies far more than it actually shows. Star Ingrid Pitt — who would go on to become one of Hammer’s most recognizable and beautiful faces — absolutely gushes sexuality and even though some of the scenes between she and Madeleine Smith (Emma) feel a bit forced, she's the perfect Carmilla. Aside from Pitt’s huge contribution to the horror films of the '60s and '70s, she led an incredible life. Born in Poland as Ingoushka Petrov, she spent her formative years in a concentration camp. After marrying and moving to the U.S., she eventually landed roles in Hollywood, but made her career with Hammer, which is where she will always be remembered. Her dark looks and exotic accent made an indelible stamp on the cinematic female vampire.
It is also an unusually female-centric film. Though men do save the day in the end, namely Peter Cushing, most of the film is concerned with the interactions between Carmilla, Emma, and the governess (the vaguely threatening Kate O’Mara), who are left alone in the house when Mr. Morton goes away on business. This is an unusual angle for Hammer, but the women's chemistry and lack of overt heterosexual romantic subplot works in the film's favor. The only really random element in The Vampire Lovers is the inclusion of a weird vampire in black who rides around the countryside on horseback doing nothing other than baring his slimy fangs and observing. Sinisterly, of course.
The Vampire Lovers comes highly recommended and if nothing else I've said attracts your attention, it's absolutely lovely to look at. There are beautifully atmospheric shots of the crumbling Karnstein castle and cemetery, night-time strolls, and the Germanic woods. There is an excellent use of color, costumes, and cinematography, though that is business as usual for Hammer. There are a number of solid performances — such as small roles from Peter Cushing and the underrated Jon Finch — it really belongs to Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith.
I'm reviewing the great MGM Midnite Movies release, which is a double feature with Countess Dracula, another Pitt vehicle. The commentary was a bit long winded and occasionally dull, but is worth a listen for the wonderful sections with Pitt, who enthusiastically relates her experience on the film. In the special features section she also narrates part of Carmilla. You can also pick it up on Blu-ray, though I have yet to check out that print.