After a rather horrible experience with what turned out to be The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula, it was a pleasure to finally view a true Hammer horror masterpiece. Almost every Hammer fan I've ran into ranks The Vampire Lovers somewhere on their top list of all-time Hammer films. Still entering in I was a little weary that I might once again be the odd man out in a cult film that receives quite a bit of love, but I must say that The Vampire Lovers is the best Hammer film I've witnessed thus far.
The Vampire Lovers begins the Hammer series known as the Karnstein trilogy. The Karnsteins were a family of vampires that preyed on the inhabitants of the province of Styria. One evening a Baron, whose sister was killed by one of the vampires, took it upon himself to put an end to their reign of terror. He waited for one of them to awake, lured it into the castled and removed it's head from it's body. Then preceded to exhume the remaining graves and destroy the bodies while they slept, unfortunately for everyone else he missed one.
Many years later the remaining Karnstein vampire returns ushered around as the daughter of an exotic Countess, and closely watched over by a mysterious man in black. Due to an emergency the Countess leaves her daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) under the supervision of General Speilsdorf (Peter Cushing). All seems well until the General's niece begins to grow terribly weak and eventually dies, bite marks are discovered on her neck and Marcilla mysteriously disappears. But she soon turns up in another area of the providence again accompanied by the Countess this time under the name Carmilla. Once again she is welcomed into the home of an Englishman with a beautiful daughter named Emma, who also mysteriously begins to grow weak soon after Carmilla's arrival.
Carmilla's true identity is Mircalla Karnstein, the last of the Karnstein family. Like every vampire she has an unending need for blood which she frequently acquires from those around her. She also has an unusual passion for a certain type of victim, young beautiful females with whom she seduces and slowly drains them of their blood, allowing them to slowly die as she has her way with them. After the General's niece dies the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place and the inhabitants of the province begin to realize that Emma (who is now experiencing similar symptoms may be in dire trouble, now the identity of the vampire responsible (Mircalla) must be revealed and her resting place discovered so she may be destroyed.
The Vampire Lovers is based on a novella entitled Carmilla, originally published in the magazine The Dark Blue between December 1871 and March 1872 predating Bram Stoker's Dracula by twenty-five years. The story was considerably "tarted up" as one writer said, with a blend of lesbianism and gore that was at the time regarded as quite explicit and unthinkable prior to its release. Casting of the lead role was difficult and it was at one point recommended that Shirley Eaton (the gold painted girl of Goldfinger fame) be cast, but some thought her to be too old at the age of thirty-two so eventually a younger Polish actress by the name of Ingrid Pitt was cast in the role that made her a Hammer icon.
The Vampire Lovers is my first real taste of a true Hammer horror period piece, there's no corny kung fu or Chinese Dracula here, only authentic vampire horror at its best. This film does a great job of mixing outstanding sets, locations and costumes with a story that's more entertaining and interesting than any of the Hammer films I've seen thus far. Never once was I bored as Ingrid Pitt, manages to flawlessly play a seductive vampire who toys with her prey or simply goes for a jugular. After viewing this it's quite clear why she is thought of by many as one of Hammer's top icons.
But the film is most known for its lesbian tendanices, which for the time were quite explicit. Compared to the sleaze Hollywood churns out today it would probably be considered quite tame now. Aside from a few scenes of nudity there really is no overly sexually explicit scenes and the lesbian tones of the film are for the most part exposed by the main character Mircalla's speech and body language towards her female victims, actual acts are never shown to an extreme extent although it is inferred that they occur.
Overall, I enjoyed The Vampire Lovers, it's the first Hammer film I've viewed that has a high consistency to its acting, story and production, whereas so many of the Hammer films I've watched thus far seem to fail horribly in at least one of those important catagories. I wouldn't go as far to say the film is perfect, since I've only barely taken a nibble from the filmography of Hammer horror, buts it's definitely a worthy addition to the franchise and one worth checking out.