Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Pippa Steel, Madeline Smith 
Rated R

“This is a silly story.”

The first film in Hammer’s infamous boobs n’ blood soaked lesbian vampire trilogy, The Vampire Lovers is based on Carmilla, a novel by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The film – like its loosely-connected follow-ups, 1971’s Lust for a Vampire and 1972’s Twins of Evil, follows the be-fanged antics of the cursed Karnstein clan, a family of beautiful, busty vampire girls. The Vampire Lovers was Ingrid Pitt’s first film for Hammer, and along with 1971’s Countess Dracula, it propelled her into cult-horror stardom, and she remained a very active and popular figure in vampire film-lore until she died in 2010 at the age of 73. Directed by Roy Ward Baker (who also died in 2010, at the very ripe age of 93), who had previously made the creepy sci-fi flick Quatermass and the Pit for Hammer, The Vampire Lovers established the tone and intensity that the company would return to again and again for the rest of the decade, mixing steamy sex and graphic violence with pitch-black humor and a palpable sense of dread. It was a winning formula that made millions for Hammer, and many of the company’s signature flourishes started here.

Vampire Lovers boasts an awesomely cheeseball pre-credit sequence wherein a velvet-draped, middle-aged fop with deplorable haircut prowls around his cobweb-choked cardboard castle keeping a stoney eye out for the latest ghoul from the Karnstein clan to show up. After a very Scooby Doo-esque dance in the cemetery outside the castle walls, the shrouded apparition heads into town where he, she, or it chomps down on a local outside a busy tavern.

Then the Karnstein creep zooms back over to Hartog’s place. Our man is momentarily disarmed when the monster reveals itself, and turns out to be a gorgeous young blonde (Danish actress Kirsten Lindholm). As the toothy beauty attempts to embrace the transfixed Hartog, her heaving bosom touches the crucifix around his neck. Naturally, being a vampire, she recoils and sprouts fangs. Hartog responds by pulling out a sword and graphically cutting her fuckin’ head off. Roll credits!

Laura (the awesomely named Pippa Steel) is a wealthy young socialite, engaged to the dashing Carl (Jon Finch). We meet the young couple at Laura’s lavish birthday party, hosted by her uncle, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing). There’s all sorts of dancing and twirling and sipping of beverages, and then The Countess (Dawn Addams) shows up - that’s her official name on the credits, btw, “The Countess – with her daughter, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Apparently, they’ve just moved into the neighborhood. All the men are immediately drawn to Marcilla, except for Carl. He’s already got her sussed out.

Suddenly, some bone-white freak shows up at the party and whispers something into the Countess’s ear. She dismisses him and then tells the General she’s got to split, because a friend of hers is dying. She asks the General to look after Marcilla until she gets back. He agrees. He thinks she’ll get along good with Laura. Oh brother, will she ever, General!

Marcilla and the ashen weirdo exchange fiendish grins as he gallops off, leaving her in the care of the general.

The next day, Laura and Marcilla share a warm, cozy moment in the garden. Laura clearly forgot to turn on her gaydar. That night, Laura dreams about a giant cat and wakes up screaming. She screams for a really, really long time. Kind of an overreaction to a nightmare, if you ask me. Or maybe not, because Laura never recovers. She grows weaker everyday, and refuses to see anyone but Marcilla. The doctor things she’s anemic. And he’s totally right. Anyway, after a couple of days, she dies. The doc shows up, pulls out her boob, and listens to it with his ear-horn, just to make sure. That’s when he notices the bite marks. Can it be? Was Laura bitten by…a vampire?

Why yes, she was. And if you haven’t figured that out yet, they show you a close-up of Marcilla’s gravestone.

Meanwhile, somewhere nearby, a bosomy young woman saunters though a graveyard late at night, clutching a basket. This seems like an unwise thing to do in lesbian vamp-land. She doesn’t last long out there. There's a huntress on the prowl!

Emma (gorgeous 70’s scream queen Madeline Smith) was Laura’s best bud. She happens to be out for a horse ride in the woods with her dad when a carriage crashes in front of them. Long story short, the Countess and Marcilla – who the Countess now refers to as Carmilla – are in the carriage. The Countess pulls the same routine on Emma and her dad, and they fall for it. He insists they take Carmilla home while the Countess attends to her sick brother or whoever. She splits, and Carmilla suddenly has a sexy new plaything.

Things get a little crazy from there. Carmilla takes a bath and then Emma gets naked too, and they start chasing each other around the room. They become best buds after that.

Things are going pretty good until Emma starts having scary dreams, just like Laura did. Big cats and what have you. She starts feeling sick, just like Laura did, as well. Also like Laura, she doesn’t appear to pick up on any of Carmilla’s subtle sexual come-ons.

After awhile, you start to wonder if Emma might be retarded, because she just doesn’t get anything. Her recurring dreams about giant cats and getting fur in her mouth, and then kissing Carmilla and feeling “pin-pricks of pain” – I mean, what the fuck, Emma? You’re best friend is a vampire, dummy. A lesbian vampire!

So anyway, after Emma goes on and on about her dreams, Carmilla makes sweet lesbian vampire love to her, although Emma looks hypnotized through the whole thing, so it might be consensual. Also, immediately afterwards, Carmilla seduces Emma’s foxy governess, Mademoiselle Perrodot (Kate O’Mara, Dynasty). Unlike Emma, Mademoiselle understands girl-on-girl passion. By the way, there’s full-frontal happening in this scene. 1970 was fucking crazy.

Emma’s dad is away on business while all these sexy hijinks are going down, so he calls on Carl to head over there and make sure everything’s ok. Only by now, Mademoiselle is under Carmilla’s sway, so she shoos him away.

Emma, at this point, is at death’s door. Her dad’s butler, Renton, suggests they call the doctor, but Mademoiselle tells him she doesn’t think it’s necessary. So fuck it, he goes to the tavern to get loaded. While there, he starts blabbing about the goings-on at the house, and the barkeep suggests he may have bigger trouble than he imagines. Vampire trouble!

So fuck it, Renton calls a doctor-slash-vampire slayer, and he comes by to help out. He puts a crucifix around Emma’s neck, and Renton spruces the room up with garlic flowers. This works wonders for repelling both Carmilla and Mademoiselle. The doctor, on the other hand, is not so lucky. Carmilla hunts him down on his way home. You think he’d have stuffed some of that garlic in his pockets before he left. So really, there’s only one thing left to do. The General and Emma’s dad meet up with old man Hartog to end this lunacy.

The fellas head out to Karnstein castle while, back at the house, Renton bangs a gong. Not sure why. It’s possible that vampires don’t like gongs. Or maybe they do, because the next thing you know, he’s making out with Carmilla. Don’t fall for it Renton, she’s not into dudes!

Too late, Renton’s evil now. Unless something happens soon, Emma’s done for! Meanwhile, back at the castle, the senior citizen vampire killer brigade has located Carmilla’s grave, but not her coffin. If they can find it, they can just wait until she returns, and then blammo – stake through the heart.

Also meanwhile, Carmilla drags sickly Emma out of bed and tells her she’s taking her home. Mademoiselle wants to go too, but Carmilla’s finished with her already.

But just then, Carl shows up. With a sword, no less! Of course, it’s going to take more than that to end Carmilla’s reign of terror. It’s going to take…well, it’s going to take the usual bullshit, really.

Growing up as tyke in the 70’s, I remember seeing this and many other Hammer films on TV, during the Saturday afternoon “Creature Double Features”. Of course, those versions were chopped to bits, cutting out anything remotely salacious. Because of this, I spent a good amount of my adult life thinking Hammer horrors were boring and bloodless, since all I really remembered about them were British accents and pilgrim hats. Seeing them as 30 years later in their uncut and uncensored form, however, is an entirely different experience. Clearly, these were adult films, packed wall-to-wall with bare skin and grisly mayhem, and The Vampire Lovers delivers both in meaty fistfuls.

Although she was clearly ten years too old for the role, I can’t think of a more perfect actress than Ingrid Pitt to portray Camilla, the sad and horny vampire with the adorably unsophisticated Polish accent. Like every man and woman in this film, I was inexorably drawn to her, and it’s easy to see why she became a horror legend shortly after this was released. The lesbian vampire film is one of cinema’s greatest gift to hardcore girl-watchers, and the template for hundreds of girl-on-girl fangfests started here. Bloody, sexy, funny, shocking, and delightfully campy, The Vampire Lovers is a masterpiece of over-the-top horror. Highly recommended.

- Ken McIntyre


  1. Hands down my favorite Hammer flick. It blew my mind when I first saw it, and I was an adult.

  2. I never heard of this film but it does seem like my type of movie. Lol. I was won over by the "Scooby Doo-esque dance in the cemetery". And also the trailer wasn't that bad, it has that campy feel to it which is always awesome. :)

    Great recommendation, I'm definitely going to check it out! And also come here more often to get great recommendations.


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