The Vampire Lovers (1970)
“You must die! Everybody must die!”
On November 23rd 2010, two days after her 73rd birthday, Ingrid Pitt left this world.
She has worn the crown of Queen of vampires for 40 years despite having only played two true vampire characters. Her first vampire role, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, not only made her an instant horror icon but also set the bar for the subsequent sequels.
In 1968, Ingrid was cast in the WW2 actioner Where Eagles Dare opposite Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. It was this film that caught the attention of Hammer head James Carreras who cast her as the lead in Vampire Lovers.
The famous novel Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu was the basis for the film and it remains quite faithful to the source material. The film opens with the Baron Hartog, a vampire hunter, witnessing the rising of a white shrouded vampire, as he watches the graveyard from the dilapidated Castle Karnstein. The vampire, still cloaked, heads towards town in search of a fresh victim. In the meantime, The Baron heads down to the cemetery to retrieve the burial shroud of the vampire for without this, it cannot return to the grave.
Finding that The Baron has taken it’s much needed shroud, the creature heads into the castle and confronts him, in human form. The vampire appears as a beautiful blonde in a shear white gown, its breasts aptly exposed. The Baron is of course taken with her, we men, are, as you know, simple creatures and easily derailed by flesh. The seduction is short lived however, as her breast is seared by the Baron’s crucifix. He snaps back to reality and grabbing her by the hair, he pulls his sword and decapitates her.
After the credits the film jumps ahead a couple of decades to a fine ball at the Estate of Army General Spielsdorf, played by the ultimate British gentleman, Peter Cushing. Amongst the guests, we are introduced to Marcilla (Pitt), who is captivating every man in the room. While enjoying the ball amongst guests, the General is approached by friend, The Countess Herritzen. They share a moment before a mysterious man on horseback arrives with a message. A dear friend of the countess is ill and she
Regrettably, she asks the General if he would allow her daughter Marcilla to stay with him so she may travel on. He, of course, says yes and with terrible results. His own niece soon falls ill and dies. As her fiancé and the General examine the body, they find vampire bite marks on her breast. They call for Marcilla, who disappears into the mist covered graveyard of Karnstein Castle.
Sometime later, we again find The Countess in peril. Her carriage has thrown a wheel on route to her dying brother’s bed side. Once it is fixed, Mr. Roger Morton, a rich nobleman who has assisted them, insists that her daughter stay with them so that The Countess can continue unhindered. Enter Marcilla, now going by the name Carmilla, sitting back in the carriage looking vulnerable and innocent. The mysterious Man in Black again appears, watching vigilantly. Carmilla integrates herself into this new family and again takes control of the women, though this time she may be cutting it a little close to home.
This film benefits greatly from beautiful sets and unparalleled atmosphere. Mist covered graveyards haunted by specters and gorgeous undead women are in short supply, even today. In the land of Karnstein, the moon is always full, the women are in a constant state of undress and the men are dashing and take charge. The film takes time to build its story and keeps you invested with a fine blend of sex, and beautifully gothic sets. The rules are set up with time and conviction so that when we see a familiar action we are aware of the intention.
Casting was crucial for this Hammer production as they intended to push nudity and sexuality to the limit of British censorship. Originally, Shirley Eaton was considered, but at the age of 32, was thought too old for the role. Interestingly, Ingrid was 33 years old at the time but was sold as being 25. Her presence is commanding and forceful and well makes the case for her status as horror royalty.
Each of the women Marcilla seduces becomes deathly entranced by her and there is a heart breaking look in their eyes as they are rejected. This is usually demonstrated with male rejection of female characters, but interestingly enough, with a female in the traditionally male role as object of female obsession, a deeper truth and believability comes across on screen.
The rest of the cast is equally fine. Madeline Smith as Emma is captivatingly innocent. We get a sense of her child like views early on and it’s a delight to watch her turn those traits on their ear. Kate O’Mara, who also appeared in Horror of Frankenstein, is strong and fairly tragic as Emma’s Governess. Though she played a similarly opinionated role in ‘Frankenstein, she is given much more to work with here and as the choice pays off. Peter Cushing, Hammer’s ultimate vampire killer, adds class to the film in his small, but juicy part as the General.
In 1970, the X Certificate was changed from prohibiting anyone less than 16 years of age to anyone less than 18 years of age. This allowed Hammer to push the envelope in regards to onscreen sex and violence, creating a film that is more erotic and visceral than ever before. Director Roy Ward Baker was constantly fighting the push towards more sexually charged scenes in order to keep the integrity of the source material.
The Vampire Lovers is not a darkly lit film, but a rather bright film in contrast to many others in its genre, interestingly; in contrast, the subtext is darker than most in this genre. It holds up well to any vampire film made today and is more believably seductive (perhaps because its central vampire is old enough to understand sexuality). This is a vampire film that belongs in every collection and shouldn’t be looked at as a fine “Lesbian” vampire film, but a fine vampire film that well deserves its reputation as one of the great horror films of the gothic era.
Lust for a Vampire (1971)
“Welcome to the finishing school where they really do finish you”
The following year Hammer films returned with a second Karnstein film, though to considerably less success both in front and behind the camera. The first blow came when famed director Terrence Fisher, who had vividly brought Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy to the screen, bowed out due to illness and censorship issues with the script. In steps Jimmy Sangster, who hated the script, but thought he would give it his all. Then, Peter Cushing left the production to care for his then ill wife, replaced by Ralph Bates, who was being groomed as Hammers star of the future. The final crippling blow was the exit of ‘Lovers star Ingrid Pitt, who was already doing The House That Dripped Blood for Amicus Studios and also felt the script was moronic and childish.
Enter Yutte Stensgaard, who excitedly took on the lead role for the film, Lust for a Vampire. Interestingly, I wonder how Ingrid would have fit in since Mircalla is attending a finishing school for young girls and Ingrid is clearly an adult. The film opens 40 years after Vampire Lovers in a small village by Karnstein Castle. The Man in Black returns and reveals himself as Count Karnstein, kidnapping a young village girl, slitting her throat and using her young blood to revive Mircalla Karnstein. With Mircalla and The Countess both at his side, the Count sets out on a reign of terror.
We are then introduced to Richard Lestrange, a horror writer staying in town. He is a roughish ladies man, arrogant, and self assured. After hearing the Karnstein legend, he becomes obsessed and travels to the castle to investigate. There he is surrounded by three beautiful cloaked women, who appear to be vampires. Just as he fears he is done for, they are called to by their History teacher Giles Barton (Bates), it turns out that the girls are merely students at the nearby Finishing School. Intrigued by the idea of a whole school of hot young girls for him to conquer, Lestrange heads for the school and offers his services as an English teacher.
While there he encounters The Countess Herritzen and the newly reborn blonde Mircalla, who casts her spell on his unsuspecting heart. After integrating himself into the school, Lestrange begins his courtship of the seductive Mircalla, while she begins her courtship of the entire student body. From this point, girls are killed, bodies are disposed of, and Mircalla’s charade is tested.
This film has a universally bad reputation that is undeserved. I think I may well be the first person trying to defend this film. Is it good…no. But it is not horribly, gut wrenchingly awful, as many suggest.The film suffered in its day from being released hot on the heels of The Vampire Lovers and not containing any of the actors from the previous film in the familiar roles. Yutte Stensgaard gets a bad rap here. She is beautiful and does what she can with the script that is more about naked girls than actual characters. Her lack of acting chops is often sited but I doubt anyone could have brought much to the underwritten part. In the end, I believe she suffers from what I call the sophomore recasting curse. When you have a successful first film with an actor that strikes a chord and then you replace that actor, the audience never judges the performance on its own merits. Another thing is (and I’m gonna call this one a universal constant) is that people tend to judge a film on what they want it to be instead of what it’s trying to be. I promise you that if you would go into a movie with a clean and open slate, you would get more enjoyment from film.
The rest of the cast is fine. Ralph Bates makes the character of Giles Barton his own and manages to bring some pathos to the small role. Barbara Jefford is seductive and possesses enough presence as Countess Herritzen. Suzanna Leigh as our heroine Janet Mayfair, is given little to do but does make the character a memorable one. As for Michael Johnson (Richard Lestrange), well I was invested in him. He is far better than some of the male leads in the later Hammer Dracula films and I would have liked to see more of his womanizing adventures.
The score is adequate, nothing more. Then there is…that song. Hammer made a deal with EMI to release a pop song on the soundtrack and release the single at the same time as the film. Director Jimmy Sangster was not consulted on this topic and was not present during the editing of the film. The song “Strange Love” plays over the love scene between Lestrange and Mircalla and then 5 minutes later during a dream sequence. The song breaks with Hammer tradition and with period film tradition in general, but is far from a travesty. Someone watching the film today for the first time would not even notice it since it plays so seamlessly and let’s face it, every movie since the 1980’s has at least one pop song in it. Not making an excuse, just pointing out a fact. The song, like the film, bombed.
I don’t recommend watching this film directly after The Vampire Lovers, or directly before The Twins of Evil (the final and far superior film). It is best watched for the first time on its own so that it can be experienced on its own terms rather than an unplanned middle child not properly nurtured or given a chance in this world.
Twins of Evil (1971)
“They practice the Black Arts, they worship the devil, they’re all slaves to Count Karnstein, and he is their evil master”
On the heels of Lust for a Vampire came Twins of Evil, released in October of 1971. Instead of picking up where Lust for a Vampire left off or perhaps 40 years from that point, the film takes place 100 years in the past and serves as an unrelentingly dark prequel to the previous films.
The film opens up with a typical busty hammer wench being hounded by The Brotherhood, a group made up not of vampires, but of God fearing puritans, lead by Peter Cushing’s Gustav Weil. The girl is caught and burned at the stake as a witch while Gustav and his “Brothers” look on. The following morning Gustav’s twin nieces, Maria and Frieda Gellhorn arrive, having come to live with him after the death of their parents. Gustav disgusted that they are not still in mourning, leaves to a meeting of The Brotherhood.
The Puritans have another target tonight, Gerta, a young woman who lives in a woodland cottage. Upon their arrival they find that she has company, Count Karnstein. Due to the Count’s close ties with the King, he is untouchable and The Brotherhood leaves.
The Count is decadent and dabbles in Satanism and black magic with the help of his friend, Dietrich, who supplies him with nubile young women. On one such occasion he tires of the lack luster results of his satanic cohorts and pleads to Satan to grant him power, offering a virgin girl as a sacrifice. His prayers are answered in the form of his beautiful ancestor…Mircalla. She materializes from the body of the dead virgin girl to offer him the power he seeks, as a vampire.
Mircalla makes love to him then turns him willingly into one of the undead, then is gone. His prayer answered, The Count wanders about town, eventually meeting the restless and mischievous Frieda. Gustav happens upon them and forbids Frieda from speaking with him. By now, though, we know that Frieda doesn’t do what she’s told, as she sneaks out in the night to rendezvous with the count at Castle Karnstein. While having dinner, The Count sends Dietrich away and decides that Gerta needs to be taught a lesson for suggesting that she go too. Frieda encourages him to be cruel and with that, The Count makes his decision to turn her into his vampiric companion. While Frieda is out indulging herself, Maria stays at home, the good sister, and covers for her best she can, even enduring their Uncle’s stern punishments. Once Frieda’s vampirism is found out, all bets are off as Gustav and The Brotherhood set out to burn the evil twin.
As I said, Twins of Evil is a dark film. There are no real heroes in this Hammer outing, just victims and villains. The Twins move to their Uncle’s home sends their life into a downward spiral from which they can’t possibly recover.
Peter Cushing as Gustav Weil is possibly more evil than ever before. This could be because he is not the main protagonist as he is in the Frankenstein films; therefore we are not asked to identify with him. His fanaticism leads him to kill young woman after young woman believing that they are witches, and when he discovers his niece has joined the ranks of the undead, he makes little bones about burning her as well.
As the title characters, Mary and Madeline Collinson are up to the tasks that they are given to perform. Madeline as Frieda is delightfully shallow and wicked with a fair amount of kink in her eyes, while Mary plays Maria as angelic and concerned without slipping into parody. They have gotten some flak for their acting over the years and I truly believe that, like in the case of Lust for a Vampires’ Yutte Stensgaard, that they were not judged on their own merits, but compared to Ingrid Pitt at every turn.
Damien Thomas chews some scenery as Count Karnstein (The Man in Black). He is decadent and self absorbed, relishing the role with echoes of Dorian Gray. At first you want to root for the young Count, as Gustav is so evil, only to learn that he is just as evil, only in a different way.
Mircalla makes an appearance, as I stated, but it is just that, an appearance. She is merely present to set the stage for The Counts decent into darkness. With so little screen time, Katya Wyeth’s performance cannot be compared to Ingrid’s or Yutte’s and thankfully can stand on its own, even if it is for just a moment.
Last but not least we have David Warbeck as Anton Hoffer. He is a far cry from the hero he plays in Lucio Fulchi’s The Beyond, simply because he is given so little to do. As the typical Hammer male hero, he is dwarfed by Thomas’s vampiric Count, Cushing’s maniacal Puritan executioner, and a pair of hot and occasionally naked twins. Really, do we care about the straight and narrow choir master? I don’t think so.
Following Twins of Evil, Hammer had set up a fourth Karnstein film; “The Vampire Virgins”. A 14 page treatment was written and the film attached Peter Cushing to the project as…Count Karnstein!?! It would have been a joy to see Peter Cushing as a Hammer Vampire, and he was given so much to do.
The story began with The Count, in one of his parapets overlooking the graveyard as his Karnstein vampires rise from their graves. Without warning, two vampire hunters, Kurt and Johann, reveal themselves and decapitate the rising undead, rounding up their severed heads. The Count rushes to the graveyard but is fended off by a large crucifix. Knowing his power, they flee with heads they’ve taken. The Count stands in the bloody graveyard and vows revenge.
What follows would have been an exciting and bloody film with Count Karnstein turning four of the villagers’ daughters into virgin vampires and sending them back into town as his agents of death.
This project fell victim to the financial woes of the falling studio and was never made. You can read a more complete synopsis here:
So here ends our look at Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy, three films that changed the way we look at the vampire film and the course of films that followed by such directors as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin as well as the music of Glenn Danzig and Rob Zombie. Please give these films a look as they are soaked in atmosphere and perfect for trip down horror’s superior Memory Lane.
For those of you who dare watch the trilogy in one sitting, I propose the Karnstein Trilogy drinking game:
Many of Hammer’s talent pool played multiple roles in this trilogy. Here is a breakdown that you can use;
The General (Vampire Lovers)
Gustav Weil (Twins of Evil)
Renton (Vampire Lovers)
Inspector Heinrich (Lust for a Vampire)
Franz (Twins of Evil)
Laura (Vampire Lovers)
Susan Pelley (Lust for a Vampire)
House Keeper (Vampire Lovers)
Lady in coach (Twins of Evil)
Amanda (Lust for a Vampire)
Woodsman’s Daughter (Twins of Evil)
Trudi (Lust for a Vampire)
Gerta (Twins of Evil)
Kirstin Betts Lindholm:
1st vampire (Vampire Lovers)
Peasant Girl (Lust for a Vampire)
Young Girl at the Stake (Twins of Evil)
Now for the rules (SERIOUS DRINKERS ONLY! AMATURES WON’T LAST!)
Take one drink:
Every time a new actor appears as a previously seen character (exp. Mircalla/Carmilla is played by a different actress in each film. You would drink when she first appears in each film).
When bite marks are found on a breast
For every Girl on Girl scene (standing naked together does not count)
One drink every time an actor appears in multiple roles (exp. Harvey Hall appears in all three films as different characters, so you would drink whenever he is introduced as a new character.
Whenever a random village girl is killed
Every time a crucifix is used to repel a vampire
For every stake through the heart
Every topless scene
Whenever someone takes a drink
Take two drinks:
When there is a male/female love scene
Whenever a villager is killed by a fellow human being (i.e. non vampire)
Super fun adult rules:
Every time there is a Girl on Girl kiss, kiss the girl to your right
Whenever there is a topless scene, everyone must flash
During male/female love scenes, girls must make out with the man to your right
One last thing…You’re welcome!