Directors: Roy Ward Baker ; Jimmy Sangster ; John Hough
By Roderick Heath
Ingrid Pitt’s death this week at age 73, old but still too young, sent all us horror movie buffs into mourning. Pitt was a legendary emblem of the saucy edge of early ’70s cinema: there she was in all the old genre books and fan magazines, usually with fangs and rotund breasts protruding as the very image of the unleashed and voracious feminine libido. The Polish-born Pitt, real name Ignouskha Petrova, was actually an affecting and intelligent actress, one who had made her stage debut playing in Brecht, and who could bring both emotional integrity and a spry good humour to her roles. She made a breakthrough in 1968’s neo-swashbuckler Where Eagles Dare, a film that was, ironically, uncomfortable for her to make because as a child, she had survived incarceration in a concentration camp, and the proliferation of German uniforms on the set brought back hideous memories for her. Her part as Heidi, a German barmaid who’s actually a British agent, was nominally empowering (if not nearly as much as costar Mary Ure’s role as a full-on action chick) as she rendered Nazi opponents and Allied helpmates equally delirious at the sight of her overflowing décolletage. It was a small part, but an eye-catching one, and almost inevitably Pitt, with her nonspecific accent and mature, fleshy beauty, seemed born to be a star for Hammer Studios. She was chosen to play the leading role in their adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s legendary novella Carmilla, which was entitled The Vampire Lovers upon release in 1970.
Pitt’s time as a horror star was actually very brief: the success of The Vampire Lovers made her a name for a moment, but after the following year’s Countess Dracula and The House That Dripped Blood, all that was over. Countess Dracula would seem her best showcase. Her brave performance in a difficult role as a character who blends the cruellest narcissism with fretful anxiety works excellently as a metaphor for diva stardom itself as she desperately tries to soak up the vitality of those around her to sustain her waning youth and beauty. But Countess Dracula is an extremely uneven film, and the director, Peter Sasdy, had Pitt’s voice dubbed over by another actress, an act which incensed Pitt sufficiently to make her shove Sasdy into a swimming pool at a party. It’s still easy to admire Pitt in that film, but her most unsullied vehicle remains The Vampire Lovers, a work that momentarily reenergised Hammer’s waning clout as makers of horror movies and which immediately spawned two pseudo-sequels, Lust For A Vampire and Twins of Evil. The three films form the loose “Karnstein trilogy.” I finally caught up with Lust For A Vampire, in which Swedish actress Yutte Stensgaard took over Pitt’s role as Carmilla, only a couple of days before hearing of Pitt’s death.
The Karnstein trilogy is often smirkingly recalled as an epitome of a cheerful, campy brand of horror. These entries awkwardly grafted a resolutely soft-core eroticism, already close to being corny in 1970, onto the standard tropes of Hammer’s gothic brand, treading close to artless pastiche that occasionally resembles the strained naughtiness of the Carry On films, all tits and sharp teeth. This reputation is correct to some extent, for the three films strain and often fall to pieces trying to reconcile the crisp classicism for which Hammer was best known and the pasted-on naughty bits. It’s impossible not to chortle at the gauche moments of supposedly off-hand but contrived nudity, and dumb metaphors like that in Twins of Evil, when, during a sex scene, Carmilla strokes a phallic candle. Compared with the continental works of directors like Jésus Franco, Jean Rollin, and Harry Kuemel, with which Hammer seemed to be trying to compete, they remained happy to clumsily engender hot collars rather than assault sensibilities, and failed to synthesise the erotic and the oneiric into a satisfying whole.
The Vampire Lovers took on the Euro trashmeisters by stealing their sexy shenanigans and smothering them with solid British production values. Would-be impresarios of a new, cheeky brand of Hammer horror were producers Harry Fine and Michael Style, who hired seasoned professional Roy Ward Baker (who died just a few weeks before Pitt) to give the film class and seriousness. But straightlaced Baker clashed repeatedly with Style, whose affectations of the hipster roué extended to reading porn mags around the set. That conflict is all too obvious in the damnably awkward film they made, which sticks pretty close to LeFanu’s novel, but lacks all trace of LeFanu’s almost mystically light frost of sensuality and tragedy, except for a memorably atmospheric, if barely relevant, opening sequence in which Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), a self-appointed vampire killer, lies in wait to dispatch a disconcertingly angelic-looking bloodsucker. Pitt’s performance imbues her Carmilla with a tragic edge of corrosive guilt, even as she’s compelled to consume everyone and everything in her path, enjoying the gentle days she spends with her victim-lovers before the inevitable reckoning in plaguelike decimation, and her own flight in the search of new pastures. Carmilla, also variously called Mircalla (her birth name) and Marcilla depending on what guise she’s adopting, moves from family to family in the hazily Germanic province of Styria with the aid of acolyte Countess Herritzen (Dawn Addams). She first victimises Laura (Pippa Steele), daughter of the stern Junker General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), and then, by similar contrivance, moves into the house of British expatriate Morton (George Cole) and commences bewitching his daughter Emma (Madeleine Smith).
LeFanu’s book is something of a landmark in Western literature for detailing a lesbian romance, if in veiled and disturbing terms. In their way, for all their lack of dexterity in treating the theme, the Hammer Karnstein films also deserve that bit of recognition for bringing a distinctly anguished, but admirably unveiled and declarative alternate sexuality (as well as the more familiar kind) onto mainstream English-language cinema screens. Pitt, indeed, always celebrated this aspect of the films in the face of some condemnation. The notion that Pitt becomes the practical auteur of The Vampire Lovers is hard to resist, as she depicts an exhausting, self-crucifying sexual prerogative over and above the crudities of the film. But whilst Pitt throws herself into it without hesitation, her romancing the wishy-washy Smith falls a distant second to the scene in which Pitt seduces the household governess (Kate O’Mara) with lividly lustful looks, and Pitt handles the moments when Carmilla reveals her monstrous side with equal effect. She incurs the viciously repressive wrath of the Victorian patriarchs when they catch wind of what’s going on, with Spielsdorf hacking off her head when he, Morton, and Hartog finally track her down to her family crypt. Whilst essayed with a relative elegance and formal beauty, The Vampire Lovers is badly hampered by a flat, diffuse screenplay, as well as tonal uncertainty. Ward’s stately direction doesn’t draw out the air of forbidden sexuality and generate necessary hysteria—indeed, his good taste gets in the way.
All three films were written by one Tudor Gates, which makes their wild swings in unity and quality all the harder to account for, although the clashes of the many cooks behind the cameras does explain a lot. Lust For A Vampire commences with Countess Herritzen (now played by Barbara Jefford) and a heretofore unseen Count Karnstein (Mike Raven, doing his best Christopher Lee impression), who may be the black-clad horseman who followed Carmilla about in the previous film, resurrecting their progeny with the blood of a Styrian milkmaid, justifying why Carmilla is now incarnated by Stensgaard’s younger, blonder, sportier model. Herritzen then plants her in a perfect new feeding ground—a finishing school for British girls run by the uptight Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) and her weedy partner Giles Barton (Ralph Bates). Carmilla quickly seduces and then murders a serving girl from a local tavern and fellow student Susan (Pippa Steele again). Rakish author Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson), on a continental tour, visits the castle, where he’s freaked out by a number of the schoolgirls he mistakes for the revived Karnsteins. Seeing a henhouse, Lestrange appoints himself fox, getting a job at the school and developing a desperate passion for Carmilla, a passion shared by Barton, who, uncovering her true identity, prostrates himself before in begging to be her slave. In an exceptionally good sequence, Carmilla teasingly bites Barton, giving this repressed rodent a tiny moment of sensual delight before abandoning him to bleed pitifully to death.
Lust For A Vampire’s shoot was as contentious as the first film’s, with Sangster, formerly Hammer’s scripting whiz, pressed into directing after Terence Fisher dropped out, and likewise conflicting with Style. As a director, Sangster brought a cool tone, a good touch with the actors, and a more cunning sense of Carmilla as pansexual predator to the film’s first half. He pitches her as a kind of female, antiheroic James Bond who steadily sleeps with and kills many of the people around her. This aspect builds to a scene in which Lestrange, having become her lover, bangs furiously on the door to her room where she’s cheerfully draining the blood of a fellow student she’s bedded, her female lover’s ecstatic agony all too obvious. Stensgaard lacks Pitt’s pathos, but retains a kind of cold dignity in the part that’s right for this conception. Unfortunately, the attempt to give Carmilla another tragic dimension, in her yearning a normal sex life with Lestrange, but forced to maintain her predatory habits by the remote control of the other Karnsteins, comes to no effect as the second half slides rapidly downhill and becomes a total mess through sloppy story development and clumsier action, and time out for a godawful song, “Strange Love,” over a montage of sexy bits.
Lust For A Vampire leaves the fate of Count Karnstein and Countess Herritzen ambiguous, an ambiguity not dealt with at all in the third film, Twins of Evil, which seems to be nominally a prequel, but is perhaps better regarded as a fantasia on the traditional Hammer horror themes. The title suggests a double entendre, considering all the low-cut bodices on display. Cobbled together to take advantage of the fame of Mary and Madeleine Collinson, twin sisters who had been Playmates of the Month, the script does everything obvious with such a gimmick—and it’s all the better for it. Twins of Evil appears to be set in a more distant past in which a coterie of Puritan thugs led by Gustav Weil (Cushing again) freely snatch and burn at the stake any women they suspect of being devilish agents, which, of course, are the youngest and prettiest. The Karnsteins are here represented by a living scion (Damien Thomas) who’s dedicated himself to worshipping Satan and evil. His efforts are rewarded when, having killed a peasant girl in a black mass, he revives Mircalla (now on to her third incarnation, Katya Wyeth). She vampirises him before departing back to the nether regions. Meanwhile, Weil finds himself and his wife (Kathleen Byron) saddled with the twin daughters of Weil’s dead brother. Maria (Mary C.) and Frieda (Madeleine C.) are two fashionable young ladies whose Venetian upbringing has rendered them poor fits for their uncle’s severe regime and provincial boredom. Frieda, the flirtier, dirtier twin, ventures out into the night in search of excitement and finds it in the arms and fangs of the newly crepuscular Count.
Cushing’s capacity to project cast-iron morality is pushed to an extreme, his Weil presented as mere equal and opposite in grossly violent repression to the Count’s insatiable, parasitic sensuality. Each of them grinds soul and flesh apart, perversion the offspring of suppression, with the good and bad twins trapped between, embodying the basic Manichean split in total polarisation. Local teacher and choirmaster Anton Hoffer (David Warbeck) is the voice of rationalism, resisting Weil’s cabal of Puritans. When his sister, fellow teacher Ingrid (Isobel Black), leaves the village to avoid Weil’s threats, she turns up later killed by the Count, and exhibited with punitive relish by Weil. Of course, there’s the climactic moment in which one twin is swapped for the other, and Weil nearly burns Maria at the stake, only to be averted when Anton is attacked by Frieda, pretending to be her sister.
Anton leads the Puritans in war against the Count: having repeatedly dressed down the Puritans for their conveniently misogynistic marauding, he implores them with the pointed line, “Seek out the evil you fear where it really is, in the castle on the hill!” Director Hough’s grip on the film, unlike Baker and Sangster, only strengthens as it goes on, full of well-orchestrated action and atmosphere, and the climactic scenes are some of the best Hammer ever offered, particularly Weil’s brutal decapitation of Frieda. Twins of Evil is nowhere near a perfect film, filled, like its predecessors, with odd, unexplained story leaps (for example, who exactly was attacking the villagers before Mircalla’s visitation) and stricken with a jerky, opportunistic rhythm. But it’s by far the best of the trilogy, and one of the finest later Hammer films. The sexy stuff here is, as mentioned earlier, often silly: lesbian action is restrained to Frieda biting one of the Count’s imprisoned courtesans on the breast, and there’s a later, risible moment in which Anton pinions Frieda by dropping a crucifix on her conveniently displayed body.
But Hough’s decrepit castle interiors and foggy forests give the film a lushness that’s more incipiently erotic. Especially good is Mircalla’s resurrection, a ghostly, shrouded figure that seems morbidly malevolent rising from the grave and confronting the terrified Count, but then reaching out with a finely feminine hand to stroke his face. The Collinsons were a bit bovine, and both were dubbed, but otherwise the acting’s largely good, particularly from Cushing and Byron, whose terrified hausfrau works up the guts to give her husband a tongue-lashing when he goes too far. Dennis Price is in here, too, looking distressingly ill in one of his last roles. Oddly enough, the only actor to appear in all three films is Harvey Hall, who played, respectively, a conscientious, but weak-fleshed butler; an inquisitive, but doomed police inspector; and one of Weil’s religious thugs. In any event, even if the Karnstein trilogy as a whole fails to cohere, the films are still dashing good fun.