It’s Hammer Time again, and I always feel like I’m playing gothic whack-a-mole; finish one and another pops up begging for my attention. This brings us to Lust for a Vampire (1971), the second film in the “Karnstein trilogy” of which I’ve now seen a total of one. I will see the rest, as is my sworn duty, and because I’ve heard this entertaining chapter to not be the best of the bunch.
That’s the word on the streets anyway, with top honours going to The Vampire Lovers (1970), the preceding effort based on the story Carmilla and enough of a hit to warrant a follow-up. (And a follow-up to this entitled Twins of Evil .) However the rest play out for this viewer, I can attest that despite some issues, Lust for a Vampire works as a decent Hammer and an effective take on vampiric eroticism.
Originally called To Love a Vampire , the title change wasn’t all that plagued the production; legendary Hammer director Terence Fisher ( Horror of Dracula ) had to step down due to a broken leg at the last minute, so the producers hurried in go-to Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster (also Horror of Dracula ). Not to ignore the front of the house, Peter Cushing had to drop out due to his wife’s illness, so Ralph Bates ( Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde ) rushed in to portray devious school teacher Giles Barton. As the script, by the wonderfully named Tudor Gates (one of many writers on Barbarella ) was already locked in and the cast struck, Sangster had little choice but to make do with what he was given.
Let’s see what that was, shall we? We open on a young Austrian miss in 1830, as she heads home from the village through a field. A stagecoach approaches, the door opens, and she enters. Much to her dismay, alas, as she lets out a bloodcurdling scream before the door slams shut and heads off for Karnstein castle. Once the carriage arrives, Count Karnstein (assayed here by I, Monster ’s Mike Raven, although dubbed by Valentine Dyall) cuts the throat of the poor virgin over the remains of Carmilla Karnstein (Yutte Stensgaard taking over for Ingrid Pitt), who in a spectacular sequence is reborn in her coffin amidst light and smoke.
Well, what’s a newly rejuvenated vampire gal to do? Enrol in the nearby all girls’ finishing school of course, under the guise of an aristocrat’s daughter by the name of Mircalla; she certainly fits in among the entirely lovely student body - a group of practically mythical sirens, filled with overdrawn salaciousness. They’re also horny. Into this mix comes Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson - Homebodies ), world renowned supernatural author and randy dandy; he’s interested in not only the legend of the Karnsteins, but becomes instantly smitten by the school’s newest student as well.
After Lestrange finagles his way into a teaching position, he and Mircalla start a torrid romance even as she works her way through faculty and friends to feed her insatiable lust for blood, leaving more than enough room for gratuitous imagery and the occasional kink in the neck. Can Lestrange and Mircalla find happiness in a time of vampire hunts and cholera, probably?
If You Want Lust, You Got It; a true mission statement that capitalizes on the new found freedom of Britain’s loosening cultural garters, and a direction that Hammer was happy to take. The killings become weightier, titles change from Love to Lust , bodices become rippier and ultimately, unnecessary. This is a film that only flirts with filth; I mean it’s still early ‘70s Britain, not Baltimore. There are a lot of breasts paraded about (in pairs, even) in between and sometimes during the moments of mayhem, of which the middle is certainly lacking in vampire violence. This thing turns into a straight up lover’s lament as our species-crossed lovers consummate to the syrupy strains of “Strange Love," a pop song written specifically for the film that is closer to something made for a movie starring Doris Day.
But when the film does engage in the horror Hammer mode, it shines. Not shines, exactly; Sangster scrubs away a bit of the Technicolor to arrive at a more naturalistic look in tune with the times, and while he doesn’t have quite the grace of Fisher, he manages to emulate the Hammer aesthetic right down to every foggy bank and extreme close-up, albeit in a more brute form befitting a new decade of permissiveness. A pity he only directed a few other things; his grounded approach to fantastical storytelling is interesting.
The only real issue is the imbalance between the merely sinful and the sinfully evil; if you’re going to make horror fans choose sex over violence, we’ll pick the latter every time. (No disrespect to sex, though; it’s pretty neat.) Lust for a Vampire ultimately works better as lascivious melodrama rather than full blown horror, and that’s partially because everyone is so damn pretty; well, the ladies anyway, although I suppose Johnson’s Lestrange acts as the audience surrogate for appreciating all the beauty.
It is the ladies who have the best roles, especially Stensgaard as Mircalla/Carmilla, whose breathtaking visage is offset by a sinister smile waiting to strike; she’s terrific, as is Suzanna Leigh as Janet Playfair (Bond, anyone?), the school marm’s assistant. Everyone is solid, really; as harried as the production was, it’s still Hammer and some standards are upheld, dammit.
Lust for a Vampire finds Hammer trying to find their way in a new era, adapting to the wanton ways while still trying to cling to a speck of decorum. That they pull it off well enough is a testament to their fortitude, talent, and ability to ensure the curtain stays up no matter the disarray behind it. Bodices down, sure; but luckily the curtain would hold for a few more blessed years.
Lust for a Vampire is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: PARENTS (1989)