There is validity to the argument that, by the mid 1960’s, the golden age of Hammer Horror had already passed. The horror film market had become much more saturated and Hammer Film Productions was fighting to maintain its niche. Sad to say but the tried and true formulas and mainstays at Hammer were struggling to compete with more modern fare offered from both American studios and elsewhere. It was only logical that Hammer tweak its product. One such tweak was to accentuate the eroticism that has always been present in vampire legends. In 1970-1971, this resulted in the films known collectively as the Karnstein Trilogy. The first of these films was The Vampire Lovers (1970).
WARNING: Spoilers abound
The Vampire Lovers opens with the Baron Joachim von Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) narrating what he describes as the end of his dealings with the vampires of the Karnstein family. The scene can easily be misinterpreted as part of a framing device for a film to be told in flashback. But, don’t let the good Baron confuse you. He may think this is the end of the story but it is only the beginning of the tale we are to be told.
Baron Hartog is on a hunt for “murderers from beyond the grave” so that he may avenge the death of his sister. His stake out of Karnstein Castle (no less gloomy and majestic for being depicted in a matte painting) soon bears fruit as he witnesses a shrouded spirit rise from a tomb and head into town to seek a victim. Surprisingly, Hartog does not prevent the attack on a man whose only crime is public urination. Instead Hartog uses the time to steal the vampire’s interment shroud as he is aware (how is never explained) that vampires cannot return to their resting place without their shroud. You would think the vampire would be more careful with such a critical item, but Hartog finds it abandoned beside the grave.
When the vampire returns, Hartog taunts it with the shroud in order to force an altercation. It is during the brief battle that the vampire’s human form is revealed to be that of Kirsten Lindholm.
Smitten with this comely apparition, Hartog is momentarily transfixed. He is only saved when the vampire’s embrace causes the cross he wears to press against her chest and she recoils with fangs exposed. His trance broke, Hartog attacks with his sword and the opening credits play over the vampire’s discarded head.
Now it is time for some festivities. General von Spielsdorf (Hammer regular and consummate actor, Peter Cushing) is hosting a fancy birthday party for his niece, Laura (Pippa Steel). Arriving late to the party, and conveniently just missing Laura’s friend Emma and her father, are the Countess (Dawn Addams) and her daughter, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Marcilla garners a lot of attention from all the males in the room and is practically dragged out to the dance floor by one bold young man. Marcilla’s attention, however, is focused on birthday girl Laura and her boyfriend Carl prompting Laura to comment, “I do believe she would like to take you away from me.” To which Carl responds, “Nonsense. She’s looking at you.”
Carl’s revelation is quite astute and touches on a key element of the film. The Vampire Lovers is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the 1872 Gothic novella, Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. As such, the story focuses on lesbian vampirism. While not opposed to seducing a man to achieve a goal, our lady vampire prefers female companionship and victims. There is an obvious association between religious morality and sexual morality and thus you may well assume that homosexuality is treated as both evil and a threat. The film, however, does not play out in this manner and, in fact, the vampire’s affection and attraction to her female victims is her most humanizing trait. And while the lesbianism is certainly approached as titillation, it is handled in such a naïve and innocent manner as to evoke minimal offense.
Back to our film, and a family emergency requires the Countess to suddenly leave not only the party but the region. She asks whether the General would look after Marcilla in her absence. The General, being a proper gentleman, immediately agrees and thus Marcilla comes to live with him and Laura. We later learn from her grave site that Marcilla died at the age of twenty-four, so her requiring a sitter may strike modern viewers as a little odd. Considering that Pitt was in her thirties when she portrayed the character (and only seven years younger than the Countess) further accentuates the peculiarity of the request. The film does promote the common notion that women require men folk to protect and save them, although that is appropriate for the era in which the story takes place. Given what is about to transpire, I prefer to look at it as a cautionary tale advising that we not underestimate the fairer sex.
Laura and Marcilla get along fabulously (Laura comments that they are already good friends one day after they meet). But as Marcilla’s visit continues, Laura’s health deteriorates. She is listless, tired, and seems to spend a lot of time in bed. At the same time, she is not sleeping well at night as she has vivid nightmares in which a large cat attacks her. The General sends for help but the doctor doesn’t bother to examine Laura. He does, however, provide an incredibly insensitive and sexist diagnosis. “Anemia. They don’t eat. Only think of their figures. Common with young girls, sir. I assure you.” Despite the doctor’s lack of concern, Laura continues to falter. The only thing that seems to brighten Laura’s spirits is Marcilla’s company and Laura insists on keeping Marcilla close by.
Before long, Laura passes away. Only then does the doctor decide to examine her (needlessly exposing her in front of her uncle and her boyfriend) and notices the two bite marks above her left breast. At that moment, Marcilla vanishes from the home. She reappears briefly at Castle Karnstein and we catch a glimpse of a tomb inscribed with “Mircalla Karnstein, 1522 – 1546”. This is not the stonemason equivalent of a typo. We will soon learn that the vampire goes by several names, all of which are anagrams of Mircalla.
The story shifts again to Emma (Madeline Smith), who we saw briefly at Laura’s party. Out riding with her father one day, they witness an accident when a carriage gets a wheel stuck in a rut. Stopping to see if anyone was hurt, who should they meet but the Countess and Marcilla, now calling herself Carmilla, as they rush to yet another family emergency. For the second time, the Countess manages to secure an invitation for Carmilla to become a guest at a stranger’s home. I suppose it is a successful tactic but it seems unnecessarily complicated. It also holds the risk that someone will recognize them. If Emma and her father had stayed at Laura’s party just a few minutes longer, they would have seen both the Countess and Marcilla/Carmilla. They have also been visited by Laura’s boyfriend, Carl, who has told them of Laura’s passing, although it is unclear how much of the details he shared.
So, the seduction of a young girl by Carmilla/Marcilla starts anew. Her task is made a little easier this time around by the need for Emma’s father to leave on a business trip. On the other hand, Emma has her governess, Mademoiselle Perrodot, and the head of the servants, Mr. Renton, looking out for her. If Carmilla was fond of Laura, she is completely enamoured of Emma. At first Carmilla’s interest in Emma may appear to be solely physical as one of their earliest interactions ends in a near-naked, playful game of tag (in the movie’s most exploitive scene). Not long after, however, Carmilla becomes very jealous when Emma talks about ‘handsome young men’. She declares her love for Emma in an honest and somewhat sad manner, expresses the fear that someone will take Emma from her, and eventually seduces Emma.
Perhaps it is a desire not to harm Emma that causes Carmilla to leave the house and go out hunting at night for other victims. But if her intent is not to prey on Emma, she ultimately fails. Emma starts having her own nightmares about a giant cat and grows very weak. When bite marks above Emma’s breast make Mlle Perrodot (Kate O’Mara) suspicious, Carmilla briefly turns her attention towards the governess. Compared to the gentle, coaching allurement of Emma, Perrodot’s seduction is straightforward and quick and leaves her in a Renfield-like state of tortured devotion.
With her governess having failed her, Emma’s fate seems entirely in the hands of Mr. Renton, the head butler. Despite barely being in the film up until this point, it does appear that Renton is to be the hero. Against Mlle Perrodot’s orders, he brings in the doctor (the same inept doctor that failed Laura), sends for Emma’s father, and fills Emma’s room with garlic flowers. The doctor upon seeing Emma’s bite marks supports Renton’s actions, places a cross around Emma’s neck, and orders that one of the maids is to sit up with her all night.
The problem is that Renton has the details wrong. It is Mademoiselle Perrodot that he suspects of vampirism and responsibility for Emma’s decline. In his defense, she is acting oddly and reacts very negatively to the garlic. Thus he allows his guard to fall when talking with Carmilla. She easily seduces/hypnotizes him and he has the cross and garlic flowers removed. As soon as he has served his purpose, Carmilla dispatches of Renton with a vicious bite to the neck.
All would seem lost, but fortunately the General returns from a quest to locate Baron Hartog from the opening scene. Together, the General, the Baron, Emma’s father, and Laura’s boyfriend, Carl, save Emma and rid the world of Mircalla/Carmilla/Marcilla. Yes, the men who have been largely absent for the duration of the film charge in at the last minute to save the day and easily destroy the wicked female.
Thus we come to the end of our tale of The Vampire Lovers. Despite seeing the ‘Man in Black’ one final time as the men return Mircalla to her tomb, we never learn his identity or his interest in the story. Even stranger we never discover who the Countess was and why she was helping Mircalla. Geography is also a bit of a problem in the film. Laura and Emma seem to live some distance apart which explains partially how Mircalla can use the same scheme twice. And yet the local village is the same for both houses. Castle Karnstein must also be close to both homes as Mircalla returns to the castle from time to time on foot. There is a hint or two that she may be able to travel via some supernatural ability but she is always shown strolling into the castle grounds.
What is more interesting than picking at flaws, however, is admiring what the film brings to its audience. It is a beautiful period piece which one comes to expect from a Hammer production. It also plays with the vampire mythos in interesting ways. Although Mircalla admits to preferring the shade as the light bothers her eyes, she does walk around in the daylight without any adverse effects. She also appears to eat and drink although not a lot and not with much interest. She even goes so far as to contradict Dracula’s famous line by asking for red wine. The vampires, and their menials, are repelled by crosses and garlic but the aversion seems to be limited rather than a full blown loathing and repulsion.
Where The Vampire Lovers really shines, the attitudes and roles of the men in the film notwithstanding, is in the development of a complex and interesting female lead. Is Mircalla a strong female character? She is certainly powerful and wields that power throughout most of the film. But she is also taken down without much trouble by the men…once they get their act together. I believe what is preferable to a weak or strong female character is a layered female character. Mircalla could have easily been a one-dimensional evil being. She isn’t. She shows clear affection, loneliness, jealously, and remorse for her actions. In one scene, a funeral procession carrying the body of one her victims goes past Mircalla and Emma. Mircalla becomes very distraught yelling that, “Everybody must die!” and asking Emma to hold her.
Mircalla professes her love for Emma, promises to always keep her safe, and seems sincere (although some may interpret the fact that she made some of those same promises to Laura as an indication that she is merely playing them). When finally cornered, Mircalla’s initial reaction is not merely to flee but to take Emma with her and, when she realizes that is not possible, she pauses to look sadly at Emma with real emotion in her eyes. A monster she might be but, like many of the great horror characters, she is a tragic monster.
The Vampire Lovers (1970) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Harry Fine, Tudor Gates, & Michael Style; Based on the novella Camilla by Sheridan Le Fanu; Starring Ingrid Pitt, Pippa Steel, Madeline Smith, Douglas Wilmer, Harvey Hall, George Cole, Kate O’Mara, Peter Cushing, & Dawn Addams; Available on Blu-Ray from Shout Factory.
This is the first of my two contributions to The Second Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon. My other article can be found here. My cohort on this blog has also written an article for the blogathon here. Please check out some of the other contributors to the blogathon by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for hosting what is a great idea and accepting the contributions of a blog that is only getting started.