THE GENERAL:The enemies I sought were no ordinary mortals. They were murderers from beyond the grave!
EMMA: Don't you wish you had a young man in your life?
CARMILLA: No. Neither do you, I hope.
With Universal's monsters living on in television and horror big business with the young folks, small-time Hammer Films turned their eye to scary movies and started a full-fledged Gothic revival. They began by imitating Universal, with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) borrowing much from James Whale’s 1931 classic, and Horror of Dracula (1958) bringing to the forefront the sexual themes of Bram Stoker's famous novel. However, from the beginning a house style was evident: bright red blood, lavish period costumes, reused sets and venerable locations, overwrought music, theatrical acting, décolletage, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and, increasingly, gore and sex. Hammer built the link between the older, more elegant horrors of the past and the more visceral fear-films of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
In the final years of Hammer Horror, the studio found it necessary to stretch their boundaries to draw in audiences. The most famous and lasting result is 1970's The Vampire Lovers, an adaptation of J. Sheridan LaFenu's "Carmilla." In the process, they invented a lasting sub-sub-genre: the Lesbian Vampire Film.
The Vampire Lovers remains relatively faithful to its source. A female vampire travels, under an assortment of names, with her supposed guardian, a Countess. Varying reasons develop for why she must stay behind in various English manor homes, which contain beautiful but naïve young women. Our young-seeming vampire gets friendly with these ingénues and seduces them; anemia and death follows.
The lesbian element proves problematic. Arguably, a mainstream film could not have handled lesbianism so overtly in this period, and I'm told the film has a certain gay-positive cult following, along with its expected popularity among vampire fans and voyeurs. However, it's a problematic representation. Carmilla enters a home. After fitful sleeps and much heaving of bosoms, hitherto heterosexual woman are enthralled and under her power. Young Emma, relates an hilariously obvious dream to Carmilla, in which she has a cat in her mouth, which turns into Carmilla, who then "embrace[s]" and "kiss[es]" her. The men make disproving noises about the new friendship and plot against it. When free of the vamp's power, the young women, of course, return to stalwart heterosexuality.
A broad assortment of well-dressed Hammer character types appear, including a vampire hunter played by Cushing, who at least in this film has a name other than Van Helsing. The film belongs, however, to Ingrid Pitt, whose performance brings the script a level or two above mere exploitation. She would leave a lasting impression; the early 1970s vampire revival owes a substantial debt to her.
We can draw our own conclusions about Carmilla's guardian, the Countess. I suspect she's one of the vampire's thralls, a female Renfield whom she uses so to help get her into the various houses. What to make, however, of the mysterious Man in Black? Dressed like a Regency Johnny Cash and vampirically befanged, he appears in various scenes to gloat over the action, without ever becoming involved. Is he another surviving Karnstein vampire? The ghost of a vampire? The devil? The quasi-legendary Man in Black of popular occult lore? He serves no purpose, and should have been left on the cutting room floor.
The film birthed two inferior sequels, sort of, creating Hammer's Karnstein Trilogy. Lust for a Vampire (1971) features a resurrected Mircalla/Carmilla (now played by Yutte Stensgaard) up to her old tricks in 1830. The film has a campier feel and, of course, far more blood and nudity. Twins of Evil (also marketed as Daughters of Dracula), perhaps the weakest of the series, takes place before the other films. It stars Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson (though other actors dubbed their voices) as orphaned twins sent to live with their Puritan uncle. The girls find themselves involved with the evil Count Karnstein, witches, witch-hunters, and vampires, including the Count's famous ancestor, Mircalla/Carmilla, here played by Katya Wyeth.
By then it was over for Hammer horror. Revenues dwindled with successive movies. Their final fear-film, a 1979 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, was a financial disaster and, after a short lived (thirteen episodes) horror anthology series in 1980, the studio ceased production. Only in 2010 did the company return, set on making horror for the new millennium.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Written by Harry Fine, Tudor Gates, and Michael Style, from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla."
Ingrid Pitt as Marcilla/Carmilla/Mircalla
Madeline Smith as Emma
Pippa Steele as Laura
Peter Cushing as the General
Kate O'Mara as the Governess
George Cole as Morton
Douglas Wilmer as Baron Joachim von Hartog
Jon Finch as Carl Ebhardt
Harvey Hall as Renton
Dawn Adams as the Countess
Ferdy Mayne as Doctor
Janet Key as Gretchen
Kirsten Betts as First Vampire
John Forbes-Robertson as the Man in Black