The Lady Is A Vamp
The Vampire Lovers
UK 1970 Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Hammer Films/MGM Midnite Movies Region 1
I wonder if, when Sheridan Le Fanu wrote his short vampire story Carmilla back in 1872, the writer had any idea of the influence and shadow his character would have in the years following its publication. Pre-dating Bram Stokers vastly popular character by a good 25 years, it was obviously one (of a few) influences on the novel Dracula and, while spawning nowhere near the number of movie adaptations and explorations as Stoker’s fanged fiend, Le Fanu’s story has had more than its fair share of movie adaptations over the years... starting with Dreyer’s take on the material and other stories which were published in the same collection as Carmilla, right up until the present day.
I’ve seen a few fair of these myself but I’d never seen the Hammer take on Le Fanu’s tale of Carmilla and her... ooh, ancestor Countess Marcilla Karnstein... or is there something more sinister going on here? ;-) Vampires tend to “live” a long time I guess. Certainly the Hammer Karnstein Trilogy comprising The Vampire Lovers, Lust For A Vampire and Twins of Evil (and actually Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter if you really want to get into it) is one of the more high profile versions of this story. So I finally purchased the old MGM Midnite Movies double bill of The Vampire Lovers (backed with Countess Dracula) and put it on not expecting very much either way from it, to be honest.
Now I’ve read some of Le Fanu’s work (thanks to a cost effective Wordsworth Classics Edition collected edition of his stories... check out their website here) which includes Carmilla and I have to say that, having read it, I don’t think it’s a particularly easy story to adapt into another medium and certainly less cinematic than I would expect of something which has been inspirational source material to dozens of directors over the decades. It’s certainly a style of storytelling which is big on atmosphere and low on action and so, as I said in my previous paragraph... I wasn’t expecting much from it either way.
I’m happy to report however, that The Vampire Lovers is a great success as both an artistic experience and an entertainment. It’s certainly one of the best films that I’ve seen riding out of the Hammer stable and I’ve seen a fair few of them,.
There are some obvious attractions for the full, red-blooded male (if such a creature exists) to be found in the movie in the form of the phenomenal Ingrid Pitt in fine form as Carmilla, but also in the bevy of buxom beauties used to decorate the shot compositions with such budding flowers as the lovely Kate O’Mara and Madeline Smith... there’s a lot of softcore nudity in this film which doesn’t balk at pushing the, perhaps a tad more subtle, lesbian tinted overtones of the original text even further into the foreground with various actresses sharing nude scenes together and I believe that this was a very conscious and deliberate move by Hammer at this time. I’m certainly not complaining about that though (well that’s a surprise then) as I’m quite partial to the aforementioned young thespians draping themselves over each other in various states of undress... but there are other, just as potent pleasures to be found in this little gem of a movie.
For starters, the male cast of the movie are all very good, including the three main male protagonists played by Peter Cushing, George Cole and Jon Finch (Mr. Jerry Cornelius himself). With a cast like that it’s kinda hard to go wrong, to be honest.
Then, of course, there’s the atmosphere. The Vampire Lovers had me enthralled right from the opening of the movie in a pre-credits sequence that conjures up an atmosphere of gothic chills so thick you could cut it with a knife. The scene where a vampire rises from her grave wearing a white shroud is actually quite fascinating to watch and helps to set up a genuine sense of unease in the viewer. This is heady stuff and I didn’t anticipate catching anything quite this potent by Hammer. Admittedly the decapitation effects are nothing less than laughable and unconvincing but what this movie lacks in special effects it more than makes up for in its quite haunting cinematography.
Then too there is Harry Robinson’s score which features some of the more romantic and melodic music written for a Hammer movie. This gorgeous, lush sound is compromised only once where, for reasons known only to the composer or the director (I suspect) the end, winding down part of the shower murder music from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score is blatantly and quite surprisingly aped by the composer when, really, this movie didn’t need this kind of homage.
Probably the most surprising thing to me though is the way Hammer have managed to tease out the original Carmilla source material in such a way that it does not compromise the memory of the original and manages to stick quite faithfully to Le Fanu’s source elements without bringing in too much in the way of extra meat to flesh out the narrative where it might be expected to sag a little. On the contrary in fact, I would say that Hammer have managed to produce a movie that is actually quite startingly respectful of the original tale... so much so that I only remembered certain sequences from the story on their appearance in the Hammer movie... such as one of the character’s “dreams” of being troubled by something big and cat-like in her sleep. To see what could have been a tawdry dream sequence handled so well and in a “fairly” understated fashion was actually very instructional for me... I was expecting a bit more flash and bang from a studio who have, on occasion, been a lot less subtle in the past.
The Vampire Lovers is definitely a keeper and a spinner in terms of future DVD commitment, boasting a stunningly attractive cast, effective atmosphere, evocative score and more than competent performances, not least from stand outs Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing. This one will definitely go in my top-ten Hammer movies list and I am now faced with the somewhat harder challenge of finding copies of the two sequels in their correct aspect ratios... something which I understand is not as easy a prospect as I might at first have expected.