The 1970’s were the end of an era for the beloved Hammer Studios, to the chagrin of a legion of fans the world over. Gothic castles and the supernatural in horror films were slowly giving way to more realistic horrors with the introduction of films like Psycho, Blood and Black Lace, and Rosemary’s Baby.
The Vampire Lovers came near the end of the line for Hammer Studios, yet the film was a success, proving that the old formula still had some strength in the ever-changing culture. Somewhat hampered by a hopelessly old fashioned script, the film manages to stay current with its lesbian overtones, that even today would be titillating in certain circles.
Ingrid Pitt stars as the age old temptress Carmilla Karnstein, whom along with her family, the Karnsteins, have torn a path of destruction through Europe murdering wealthy families for generations. Over the course of Carmilla’s hunt, she meets a young girl, Emma (Madeline Smith) who challenges her ability to destroy what she claims to love. It is this central relationship that forms the basis of the plot of the film. Peter Cushing also shows up to bookend the film as “The General” a local man of import to the community who is also the father of Carmilla’s first victim. Baron Hartog, played by Douglas Vilmer, is a Van Helsing-type who is devoted to tracking down this murderous clan and doing away with them for good.
Pitt as the romantic lead is all breasts and dramatic facial gestures as she attempts to coyly seduce every person she comes across, only to show her true colors when it’s too late for her prey. Her performance isn’t bad by any stretch, but Fanu’s source material has Carmilla as a teenager, and the dynamic between Pitt and Smith would have been more interesting were the younger woman the one to seduce the older. Madeline Smith, in the secondary female lead is the greatest strength in the film. You simply can’t help but fall in love with her, and the camera adores her. Hammer stalwart Cushing is as credible as ever, changing costumes as often as he can to create more character out of a sadly underdeveloped role.
Being a Hammer/AIP co-production, it’s an interesting blend of the strengths of both houses. The film oozes with the feeling of an old Hammer film, yet AIP’s modern sensibility is indelible, with the sexual mores of the times creeping in. Roy Ward Baker, a staple of British Horror in this period, guides the film with a confident, if not at times workmanlike hand. Along with the cinematographer, Moray Grant, the two create some beautiful images, especially when the film moves outside into natural environments. The intentionally old fashioned script and aesthetic move along at a rather glacial pace unfortunately, as there is too little story to warrant a feature length film.
This is one of the less glossy releases Shout! Factory has unleashed in their current slate of horror films. They’ve become the Criterion of the genre; their dedication to quality is second to none really. Most likely the best source material out there, and the film shows its age during many scenes. The film grain is welcome, as it appears natural, but nothing color wise really leaps out at you the way I’m assuming the original prints looked upon release. Still, detail is impressive at times, and colors never seem shift or waver. Surprisingly there isn’t a whole lot of night here, and it all looks a bit blue, which appears intentional. On the audio side of things, it’s a serviceable track. The dialogue and score are clean, and I didn’t notice anything drowned out by music or effects.
There’s a decent amount of supplemental features included on the disc. Roy Ward Baker provides a commentary, and he’s an interesting listen. Next, is a short piece about the influence and a bit about the making of the film with various scholars and fans of Hammer and this film in particular. My favorite feature here is the interview with Madeline Smith, which appears recent. Her candor and admiration for the project are most endearing. Ingrid Pitt reading bits of Fanu’s story, Carmilla are up next, and well, it’s a bit silly to be honest. A photo gallery, radio spot, and trailer wrap things up.
With Hammer stars Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt in prominent roles, The Vampire Lovers made quite a splash with its release, and has gone on to enjoy its status as the film that birthed the "Lesbian Vampire" sub genre. Cushing and Pitt aside, it is Madeline Smith who really runs away with the film and her charm is undeniable. In an age of True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and the more recent, Fanu-inspired The Moth Diaries, it's interesting to see an earlier gothic version of a sexy vampire tale. I can't recommend it as anything more than a curiosity, but it's a fun one at that. There is no doubt that this is a film that every horror fan should see.
Film Score: 3/5 Disc Score: 3.5/5