All right! We are back talking about that most glorious of the stars in the night sky of horror cinema, Ingrid Pitt!
And this time around, I bring the goods. Behold! The Vampire Lovers!
Now, I’m gonna assume that most people reading this are like me and first discovered Ingrid when she had fangs of some sort. This wasn’t the first Ingrid for me, and I can’t wait to talk about that one, but this is a great place to start.
Now I’m gonna talk this movie into the ground and there will be spoilers. Quite a bit has been made of this movie and I have opinions. Let’s start at the beginning.
We’re in Austria and a dude named Hartog is in a castle telling us about his dead sister and the creatures who killed her. The castle is decrepit and obviously abandoned, so it’s no surprise when the fog thickens and a figure draped in a shroud emerges. Hartog knows that these creatures can’t sleep during the day if they don’t have their burial shroud so he has taken this thing’s shroud and uses it to lure the creature to him. Once he’s facing it, we see that it’s a beautiful woman. She approaches and we have a nice close up of her tits (because that’s what this film is about) as the cross Hartog is wearing touches them and she flips out, fangs bear. He grabs her hair and cuts her head off.
Cut to a ball at the estate of General Spielsdorf (a gratuitously cast Peter Cushing, though I’d be much happier with the world if Peter Cushing has been gratuitously cast in everything). The Countess (the gloriously cast Dawn Addams) shows up with her daughter, Marcilla (our girl Ingrid). As soon as Marcilla enters everyone is looking at her (because duh) but she is looking at Laura (Pippa Steel), the General’s niece and ward. The Countess then pleads hardship, she has to leave, like, NOW, would the General be so good as to take care of Marcilla for awhile? The General agrees.
Things go downhill from there. The Countess never comes back for her daughter and Laura slowly sickens as she has a series of nightmares about being attacked by a large cat. She dies and Marcilla disappears. The General knows Marcilla is responsible and immediately leaves to find Hartog.
Soon after, Morton and his daughter Emma (George Cole and Madeline Smith) are riding in the forest when they see a carriage have an accident. Out steps The Countess, claiming hardship. She has to keep going, but her niece, Carmilla (Ingrid again for those who haven’t guessed), is so unwell, would Morton be so good as to take care of her until the Countess sends for her? Apparently this was a thing you did in Austria back in the day because Morton doesn’t hesitate to say yes. The Morton household has two women in it, Emma and her tutor Madamoiselle Perrodot (Kate O’Mara). Carmilla comes on pretty strong with Emma, and we watch Carmilla seduce her, which was just glossed over with Laura. This involves Ingrid being nude a lot and a solid familiarity with Madeline Smith’s breasts as well. As Emma sickens, Carmilla sets her sights on Perrodot as well. We don’t actually see much of that since, while Kate O’Mara is a good looking woman, she doesn’t have that saccharine innocence that Smith does.
Renton (Harvey Hall), the Morton’s butler, knows something bad is happening, but wrongly places it on the shoulders of Perrodot, who has been become very domineering while being manipulated by Carmilla. He goes behind her back and calls the doctor after a bartender warns him about vampirism. The doctor recognizes the bites on Emma as those he saw on Laura and agrees with the precautions against vampirism Renton has taken (garlic flowers, crosses, y’all know the drill). Renton has secretly sent for Morton as well. But Carmilla, knowing that her time in the Morton house is running out, seduces Renton and gets him to reverse all his precautions (by this point I felt really sorry for Gretchen the servant girl. Just give her one set of directions to follow and stop yelling at her!). She grabs Emma, meaning to take her away but is interrupted by an equally sick Perrodot pleading with Carmilla to take her as well. Carmilla stops to kill her and the interruption costs her the time she had to get away. The keeper of the General’s estate (who also happened to be in love with Laura, useless subplot) shows up and attacks Carmilla, causing her to disappear.
While this has been going on, Hartog, the General and Morton (heretofore known as “the group of old dudes”) are at the rundown castle, which we now know to be Castle Karnstein, searching for the tomb of Mircalla (Marcilla/Carmilla/Mircalla – see what they did there? Clever!) to find her burial shroud. Truth to tell, I literally just finished watching the movie and I can’t remember if they found it or not, but whether they did or not Carmilla ends up in her coffin after having run back to the castle. The General claims right of revenge, stakes her, cuts her head off and that’s that.
A lot has been made of this movie for a couple reasons. One of them is the blatant lesbianism. Another is the sheer amount of boobs and blood in this movie.
I’m going to discuss the latter first and everyone reading needs to be aware that I am female and that informs my opinion of this movie A LOT.
I like this film. I actually really do. But it, and the resulting Karnstein Trilogy, represent everything that is wrong with Hammer in the 70’s and why the studio ended up shuttering. I have never hid my dislike of 70’s Hammer. Hammer Studios could have trademarked the concept of boobs and blood as far as I’m concerned. But in the 50’s and 60’s, they skirted the line. They skirted the line in a way that fed the story and added the required romance to their Gothic fare. Sometimes, this was done out of necessity, to avoid censorship, possibly even for budgetary reasons from time to time.
Hammer started the 70’s with Taste The Blood Of Dracula, which amped up the boobs, but didn’t go too far. I haven’t seen Scars of Dracula yet, so that one may be skeezy, but it can’t be as skeezy as The Vampire Lovers, because with this movie, Hammer crossed the line they’d been skirting so far they were suddenly skirting the line of porno. This led to a movie with a great deal of potential being actually kinda gross.
I’m going to jump to the other reason people talk about this movie because my discussion of that ties in with what I’ve already said.
I sincerely hope lesbians do not watch this movie looking for something understanding of their sexuality. I hope they don’t look to this movie seeking empowerment of any kind. This movie has an extremely negative view of lesbianism as only viewing women’s sexuality through the lense of religion can create. Carmilla embraces her sexuality (as the way she expresses her vampirism) but she doesn’t understand it. Her sexuality is perverse and it destroys people. It pulls impressionable young girls away from father, uncle and lover and kills them. Carmilla is childlike in the way she expresses herself, meaning she lacks the maturity to understand that she is taking the girls away from the pure, right-thinking men in their lives. Carmilla must be destroyed and the men must be the ones to do it because the women are too weak and fall for Carmilla irresistibly.
But not before we get a bunch of scenes of women making out and biting each other on the tits.
This is where we get to the crux of the problem with this movie: It was made by and for the male gaze. The male gaze, which allows the double standard of giving men enjoyment by letting them watching the naughtiness, and then the enjoyment of being the ones to put the world right by destroying that naughtiness and keeping women in their submissive place.
The problem with this movie, and all the 70’s Hammer and in particular the Karnstein Trilogy (I’m not gonna lie, they are among the very, very few Hammer films I actively hate and you will not hear me say a good word about the other two), is not the boobs and blood, it’s that what little respect the studio harbored for its female characters fled in anguish after seeing the script for this movie.
When I think of women in Hammer films, the first thing that always jumps to mind is Hazel Court in Curse of Frankenstein. Now, make no mistake, she was still the chick in the movie so she screamed and fainted and got carried off by the monster, but she was also bold and assertive and when The Baron told her not to do something she did it anyway. It’s the typical meddling women, but it’s also a woman who was trying to be part of her husband’s life when in any other movie, the women in her position would have been sitting on the settee weeping. Hammer had a way of casting authoritative women in roles that were pretty stereotypical, but also had a strong edge to them, something Universal never did (even Countess Marya in Dracula’s Daughter was the victim even though she was the title freaking character).
That was noticeably different in Taste the Blood of Dracula, and by The Vampire Lovers it’s done a complete 180, just giving up the effort and giving in to the skeez.
The Karnstein Trilogy, in different hands, could have been a towering monument to female and lesbian empowerment expressed with fangs. Instead, it was yet another example of men having their cake and putting a stake in it too.
Okay, I’m gonna get off the soapbox and talk about the film itself and not all the conceptual stuff now.
Roy Ward Baker directed this and that is fairly obvious. It is a well directed film. And, he was very good at framing the intimate scenes. I didn’t care much for the dream sequences though. Those were a little weird.
The art direction was lackluster for a Hammer film though. Some guy who reviewed it for the New York Times said it was opulently staged and I had to do a double take. That is opulent? Wait until that guy sees Kiss of the Vampire, or Captain Clegg, or Phantom of the Opera. His mind will be BLOWN!
However, there is some good use of color in this film, in particular, of course, red. You’ll notice that in the second part of the film, the part that focuses on Laura, the sicker she gets, the more red velvet pops up in her room. And of course we have to comment on the ball sequence, the first and best use of color in the movie. Everyone, with the exception of the General, wears a drag color that blends in while they dance. There’s a gold lame dress in there and you can barely tell. Then The Countess arrives in black velvet and beside her Carmilla in blood red. Suddenly we have a focal point, and when Carmilla is dancing, you can find her anywhere in crowd (a similar trick was used in the ball scene of The Fearless Vampire Killers a few years earlier, though I can’t say if that inspired this). Likewise, as the film progresses, everyone tends to wear drab colors, except Carmilla who is always wearing something vibrant: Aqua blue, lime green, navy blue and, of course, that rather well known white nighty.
But that is about the extent of compliment I can give to the costume department. I would bet money that guy has never had to dress women before. The lack of imagination is really really disappointing. The General’s uniform is super spangly and has all the fancy bits and bobs on it and all the women in the movie wear the same damn dress. It’s the same pattern with just a bit of lace here and there or a pattern that is monochrome and you can’t actually see it anyway. Oh! The Countess’s dress at the ball scene as TRIM! She must be rich!
Also, that discussion about how Emma needs to take off her bodice because the dress won’t fit right with a bodice. Yeah, a bunch of dudes wrote that. I’ve worn those dresses. If you wear them without a bodice you’re taking your modesty (and possibly your back muscles) into your own hands.
Okay, I just looked up Brian Cox, the guy who did the wardrobes, and he is also responsible for the costumes in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which means he’s responsible for the drop in quality of Vulnavia’s costumes too! Now I really hate this guy.
Anyway, there were actors in this movie so lets talk about them.
Peter Cushing is Peter Cushing he was great in this (beer bottle breaks against counter. “Say otherwise! I dare you!”) and I actually rather liked Douglas Wilmer as Hartog. He perfectly manifested that dead eyed, “I’ve seen too much and done bad things for a good reason but that doesn’t make it okay I hope to God you’re never me” look. I really felt sorry for him and he ever told me what to do to kill a vampire, I’d sure as shit listen. I feel like the other men were really just kind of throw away characters, so they were good enough, really.
Kate O’Mara didn’t have much to do, but she was good. Again, this movie was about women being victims and it doesn’t take much ability to lay in bed, writhe and whine.
That’s where we come to the sticking point in this movie for me. Now, I mean no disrespect, but I really dislike the way Hammer used Madeline Smith in every movie they cast her in. This one included. She’s very pretty, but she’s pretty in this big-eyes anime character, angelic way that means no writer ever thought to put any depth to her characters, they only thought to have her blink a lot, pucker her lips and be cheese-grater-on-my-last-good-nerve naieve. I’m sure Miss Smith is a wonderful woman, I have heard that she isn’t exactly pleased with her time at Hammer and I completely understand why. Every Hammer film I’ve seen her in, I want to slap her character. The Vampire Lovers is no exception.
Now, lets talk about Ingrid. Ingrid struggled a bit here. As much as I adore her, she has certain things she does well (which you will hear me gush about copiously when we discuss Countess Dracula), but her range isn’t that great. Ingrid has a certain power behind her performances, which means when she tries to play vulnerable, it almost feels like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She actually has to play vulnerable here quite a bit. The character of Carmilla is a tragic figure who just wants to love and be loved and doesn’t understand why that doesn’t work. When Ingrid tries to convey that vulnerability, it feels off and makes it all the more jarring when she flies into a rage.
The thing is, that actually kinda works for the character. It gives Carmilla a kind of wild, childlike, “I don’t know what I’m feel or how to express it but I’m FEELING!” edge that makes the character even more dangerous. Children don’t know that their actions can break things and don’t always understand what happened when their actions do break things, which makes Carmilla’s little meltdowns and the need to be coddled by her victims make sense.
And this might be the explanation for an intriguing plot hole in the movie.
The Karnsteins have been destroyed except for Mircalla. So who is the Countess and The Man In Black that follows them around on the horse? We don’t know about the Countess, but The Man In Black is clearly a vampire, we see fangs. It seems they have a well adapted system of dumping Mircalla off in places so she can feed and then collecting her when she’s done to do it all over again.
My theory is this: Mircalla was born into eastern European nobility, so she probably grew up being coddled and told she could do whatever cruel, nasty thing she wanted. She also seems to have grown up emotionally stunted, either because of a mental disorder or bad parenting, which means she couldn’t be left to fend for herself. She’s too unstable and would get caught. What if the Karnsteins had friends who were vampires or possibly even family abroad when Hartog did his deed? What if they came back and found Mircalla alone and realized they had to take care of her and this movie is them doing that? This would fit snugly into an expansion of the Karnstein world suggested by Captain Kronos.
A few little tweaks and this movie could have been truly great, and it is one of my biggest Hammer regrets that they played it off for the skeez. That’s and the rest of the 70’s.