Tuesday, December 8, 2015


John Hough, 1971
Starring: Peter Cushing, Mary Collinson, Madeleine Collinson, Dennis Price

The final film in Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy focuses on the town of Karnstein, the new home to orphaned twins Maria and Frieda, who have arrived to live with their puritanical Uncle Gustav. Gustav and his friends are witch hunters and persecute local women that are deemed too immoral — or simply too beautiful — often burning them at the stake for vague crimes against the “Brotherhood.” Frieda, desperate for a break from her stern uncle, finds her way into the arms and castle of Count Karnstein, a libertine and vampire. Frieda becomes part of his undead cult, but Gustav is unsure which girl is the evil twin.

Though this was made towards the end of Hammer’s reign of terror — and it’s the conclusion to the trilogy — it’s one of Hammer’s better vampire films and includes some of the best of what the studio had to offer: lush settings, debauched aristocrats, sex and nudity, blood and gore, and more than a few campy moments. The film is surprisingly gory — though it’s something of a teaser for the more extreme nudity and gore in the admittedly superior Vampire Circus, with which it shares set pieces and themes — and expertly uses Playboy’s first twin Playmates, the lovely Mary and Madeleine Collinson. In these later years, the studio often made misguided bids to restore their former glory (The Horror of Frankenstein and Countess Dracula, here’s looking at you), but in this case they were dead on.

The twins perfectly represent the overriding themes of sexual repression and good vs. evil, the latter of which is handled in a surprisingly complex fashion. From it’s grim opening sequence, where a young woman is burned alive, it’s clear that Twins of Evil has no real hero or happy ending. Between Karnstein and the Brotherhood, no young, reasonably attractive woman in the general area is safe, and the film’s only “hero” is the milquetoast Anton (David Warbeck, whose acting is really put to the test in The Beyond), who has the bad taste to fall madly in love with the corrupt Frieda, even though he’s loved by the innocent Maria.

The grief-stricken Peter Cushing, whose wife had just passed away, was apparently supposed to play Count Karnstein, but fortunately took the role of Gustav Weil, a character that is uniquely protagonist and villain. He is so obsessed with stamping out evil that he is completely misguided. He’s a particularly well-written, complex character in the loose “diabolical witch hunter” subgenre, and he’s hollow yet driven, sadistic yet sympathetic. It helps that Cushing looks particularly unlike himself here; within a few short years, he seemed to age considerably and his face looks exceptionally gaunt and haunted. The dichotomy of good and evil that exists within Weil is even more literally present in the twins themselves, one of whom is sweet and innocent (Maria) and the other of whom is wanton and undead.

Hammer would occasionally change up the rules of vampirism over the years — for example, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave really goes out on a limb — and here there is no attempt at continuity whatsoever. Like Lust for a Vampire, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and a few others in the series, the film assumes that if you perform a Satanic ritual and pour blood over a vampire’s remains, it will arise. In addition, daylight doesn’t bother the vampires in the slightest and for a human to be transformed, they must be inherently wicked, part of the Satanic cult seen in The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire, and Vampire Circus. 

Count Karnstein, who begins as merely a libertine with economic and political protection like characters in The Brides of Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and The Kiss of the Vampire, does exactly this: he enacts a Satanic ritual that raises his ancestor, Mircalla Karnstein, from her grave and it is she who turns him into a vampire. This is one of the film’s best Gothic horror sequences, with plenty of shadowy crypts, fog, and ritual paraphernalia, but disappointingly Mircalla is not heard from again. In turn, Karnstein is able to transform Frieda because she is inherently wicked. And the joke is on the puritans, who burn women they believe to be immoral, which doesn’t work on the vampires at all. And though I love films like Witchfinder General and Mark of the Devil, I tend to prefer this sort of plot that pits witch hunters against the supernatural. The previous year’s Cry of the Banshee, with Vincent Price, is another solid, if lesser seen example.

Of course Twins of Evil comes recommended. There’s a clever trade where the Count switches an imprisoned, doomed Frieda with the innocent Maria, and a bloody conclusion sequence where Weil and Anton team up to fight the Count, involving a beheading and a vicious axe wound. The highly underrated John Hough (The Watcher in the Woods, Witch Mountain, The Legend of Hell House) assuredly handles the proceedings and has a special way with woodland shots, giving this sort of a fairytale feel that contrasts perfectly with the violent, sexual subject matter. Pick it up on Blu-ray from Synapse.

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