“IF YOU DARE… taste the bloody passion of the BLOOD NYMPHS!”
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate O’Mara, Peter Cushing and Dawn Addams
A young aristocrat, Baron Hartog, decapitates a beautiful vampire, one of the last of the Karnsteins. Years later, a mysterious countess (Addams, in an unnamed role with a handful of speaking lines) leaves her daughter Marcilla (Pitt) in the care of General von Spielsdorf (Cushing) and his daughter, Laura (Pippa Steel). Laura becomes consumed by her friendship with Marcilla and her fear of a great cat that smothers her in her dreams. Then she dies and Marcilla vanishes.
Soon after, Laura’s friend Emma (Madeline Smith) and her father, Mr Norton (Cole) meet a mysterious countess, who entrusts to their care her niece, Carmilla (Pitt). Emma falls into the same fears and fascinations as Laura, and when her father is away Carmilla seduces and then murders the Governess (O’Mara) and the butler, as well as killing the doctor (who gets no action first).
At last, the now aged Hartog leads Morton, the General, and Laura’s fiance to Karnstein Castle to uncover the tomb of the last Karnstein, Mircalla, and destroy her.
What’s wrong with it?
The Vampire Lovers is the first of the Hammer Horror ‘Karnstein’ trilogy, followed by Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. The trilogy is characterised by swooping necklines, breakaway gowns, quasi-sapphic titillation and abject stupidity. All of the above are in evidence here.
Ingrid Pitt provides most of the actual nudity, as well as her exotic (Polish) accent. In order to keep their leads innocent, Kate O’Mara is roped in for a fairly gratuitous lesbian sizzle scene (by 1970s standards of sizzle at least). Hammer claimed that the lesbianism was unavoidable, as it was in Sheridan le Fanu’s short story, but I really don’t think they were agonising over it.
Mircalla is not super smart, but outwits the other characters with contemptuous ease. The butler is especially egregious, working out that he is dealing with a vampire but getting so focused on the enthralled governess that he completely overlooks the stranger in the house whose arrival coincided with the start of the trouble to the day.
What’s right with it?
By the standards of the Karnstein trilogy, this is the bizniz. It is a pretty faithful adaptation of the source material (which also means that the ‘obvious’ vampire aliases are only totally obvious in the same way that Paparazzo’s name in La Dolce Vita is a signpost of his profession looking back from a world in which paparazzi has been adopted from the film).
The cast is also pretty superb.
How bad is it really?
I think that the worst you can really say of the film is that it is of its time, and as such manages to be simultaneously tawdry and tame.
Best bit (if such there is)?
At the end of the film, after Mircalla is destroyed, her portrait transforms into a decaying skeleton. It’s very nicely done.
What’s up with…?
- Horse guy? There’s a man in black on a horse watching over Mircalla the whole time. He is never explained.
Production values – The period detail of the piece isn’t precise, but the dresses are – while plunging – at least solid enough to stay on. The landscapes and interiors are lovely, and the ruins of Karnstein Castle wonderfully atmospheric. 4
Dialogue and performances – The cast are all very good. Cushing is an old hand, and Pitt, Cole and O’Mara total pros. The dialogue is nothing special, but neither is it anything terrible. 10
Plot and execution – The plot draws pretty much straight from the original short story, and as a result is a clean and tight narrative. 4
Randomness – The film does take a couple of detours from the source, in particular the throwaway seduction of the governess and butler, and the horseman in black is… weird. 12
Waste of potential – The Vampire Lovers is possibly the classiest sapphic vampire flick made before 1990. 3