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This MGM Midnite Movies Double Feature is a Hammer film fan's dream, despite the fact that neither feature is a particularly good horror film. Both star the short-lived scream queen Ingrid Pitt, a husky-voiced Eastern-European beauty who over the years has become an icon for Hammer fans and one of the genre's most attention-getting sex symbols.
Both pictures were made at a time when Hammer was in decline, along with most of the rest of the British film industry. With their Gothic horrors losing international appeal, Hammer crossed the censor barrier and introduced nudity into their product. Since the U.S. horror audience was mostly a kiddie-show staple, the move to more sex and nudity didn't help Hammer's fortunes. Countess Dracula was cut and released as a PG, and The Vampire Lovers was heavily cut, but still saddled with an R rating. Ads promoting the sex angle kept the kids away, but adults looking for kinky thrills were infuriated by obvious cuts that trimmed what they had bought their tickets to see.
In big studios, restoring cult films is not the highest of priorities, but both of these titles on DVD are uncut and in beautiful original versions. In the case of The Vampire Lovers, fans are beholden to a labor of love by some dutiful MGM restoration specialists. More on them below.
Countess Dracula is actually a better production than many of Hammer's late-60s efforts, but iit remains an uninvolving and predictable show kept alive in fan circles mainly by the participation of sexy Ingrid Pitt. She acts in wrinkly old-age makeup for much of the running time, emerging as her younger self after dips in the female blood bath. Pitt is okay in the acting department, showing a wider emotional range, but she can do little with a role audiences had seen many times before in fun, campy pictures like The Leech Woman and The Wasp Woman: middle-aged female (actually young actress in makeup) finds a fountain of youth (glandular secretions, wasp venom) and becomes addicted to brief spurts of rejuvenation on the way to a quick and gory death.
The feudal setup in Countess Dracula is sparse (this is a kingdom with a very small population) but handsomely presented. The camerawork is careful and precise and director Peter Sasdy indeed shows more finesse than other Hammer directors around this time. But little of interest seems to happen, and even the climax doesn't excite. Sasdy lacks a feel for horror movie thrills, something his less-talented competitors at least aspire to. Hammer may have thought Terence Fisher was old-fashioned, but he still directed rings around these guys.
The script does allow a good stint for Nigel Green, a great talent in memorable supporting roles: Zulu, The Ipcress File, The Ruling Class. Green adores the Countess and does her bidding, but gets plenty of opportunities to flash his wicked, baleful stare when she runs away to be with other lovers.
Sandor Elès is a quiet nobleman pretty-boy in the Timothy Dalton mold.Not given much to do, he looks good in stills. More eye-catching than the leading lady is Lesley-Anne Down as the Countess'es inconvenient daughter. In retrospect Down seems a natural, but the role got her little attention in 1970.
MGM's DVD of Countess Dracula is in stunning condition, with the brief glimpses of nudity trimmed for its US release cleanly restored. Color values are fine but the transfer on view has not been anamorphically enhanced. It is matted at the technically correct AR of 1:66, which will make a very small but vocal fan base happy. On a large monitor, the lack of enhancement makes this picture pale beside its co-feature.
The film is graced with a commentary with Ingrid Pitt, director Sasdy and screenwriter Jeremy Paul. Pitt has not been in good health and sounds weak, yet has plenty of enthusiasm for the show. Her memories and comments are strongly felt and not very analytical. We get plenty of analysis from Sasdy and Paul, prime creatives on the show who cover most of the bases and come off as thoughtful and committed filmmakers. Pitt was reportedly furious at Sasdy for dubbing her throughout the film. Their presence together on the track is a tribute to the diplomacy of commentary producer Jonathan Sothcott, or proves that the row has since subsided.
That non-celebrity filmmakers are given a podium on DVD commentaries is a positive step for film academia. MGM's DVD commentaries with directors like Gordon Hessler and Val Guest provide a needed oral history that will surely be appreciated in the future.
Only fitfully involving as a vampire story, The Vampire Lovers wastes a substantial gathering of talent on a film which could have marked the revival of the Hammer tradition. With free rein finally given to raise the sex content to the level seen in European films, the studio had the opportunity to take Horror in new directions. Censor demands gutted a potential Hammer classic back in 1960, when the BBFC stripped The Brides of Dracula of its original, reportedly superior script. But ten years later, the 'new freedom of the screen' seems to have inspired little creative innovation beyond showing women's breasts.
The script relegates top talent Peter Cushing in only a minor role as one of three vampire hunters. He goes into action for the gory conclusion, while familiar thesp Douglas Wilmer does the honors in the atmospheric prologue. In concocting global theories for Hammer's output, some critics have overstated the older males in this film as some kind of repressive posse, punishing the sensual excesses of the younger generation with puritan zeal. The theme is there, but it isn't anything that comes to mind while watching the show.
Director Roy Ward Baker came to Hammer at the end of a sterling career in British film. His direction of Quatermass and the Pit showed some budget crimping, but is inspired in comparison to his undistinguished work here. Whether a fault of production or script, no clear tone is created. The ethereal feeling of the opening scenes (admittedly, a flashback) never returns, and the majority of the film has an arbitrary, un-directed look to it.
Baker knows how to put oomph into his vampire attacks, but too much of the story remains vague. The vampires can dematerialize or become invisible (take your pick), but never use that ability when in danger. Who exactly is The Countess, or for that matter, the Man in Black? They're too literal and unexciting to be mysterious phantoms, and clutter up the story with unexplained loose ends. Carmilla does her wicked business first in one household, and then moves on to repeat the same thing at another. The vampire attacks / seductions quickly become repetitious, even with the added spice of the nudity.
And what about the nudity? It's straightforward skin-magazine stuff, as if the makers' only previous exposure to sensuality were Playboy centerfolds. The various caressing and fondling is so tame, Carmilla hardly seems a threat as a vampire or as a Lesbian. 2 Because Ingrid Pitt naked looks healthier and more relaxed than anybody else in the picture, she's not very vampiric in any traditional sense. One can imagine a vampire story where the Undead are a new form of liberated beautiful people, but The Vampire Lovers is a traditional Gothic story. Ingrid is able to go about her business, and nobody even notices. Only closer to the climax, with Kate O'Mara going nuts on one side and Jon Finch (Roman Polanski's MacBeth) closing in on the other, does Carmilla loses control of events. Then we see her in a more feral mode.
Savant is probably a prude, but he reacts more strongly to hints and teases of nudity, than the 'stand up and show 'em' displays here. The bits of flesh in Mill of the Stone Women and The Fearless Vampire Killers have a stronger erotic charge, and the dramatic process of those shows isn't disrupted by a peep show.
This new disc release of The Vampire Lovers is a major film restoration. This was the subject of one of Savant's first articles in 1998, the timidly-titled Restoring Prime Hammer Horror - Nudes and Gore Galore! Fans had long wailed about the fact that all prints had been raggedly censored, even though glimpses of the trimmed scenes had shown up in various TV docus. An A.I.P./Hammer co-production, Vampire Lovers was heavily censored for both England and the United States, leaving big continuity gaps in both the opening and the closing scenes. Savant's article lauded the work of MGM Technical Services 'team member' James Owsley for a film restoration that required research to find uncut elements in England. Owsley first discovered the cuts when better optical track elements didn't match AIP's printing negatives, and researcher Gary Teetzel brought forth documentation to support fan claims that the opening and closing sword beheadings were heavily censored. There was also an uncut bathtub scene with full frontal nudity that fans had seen excerpted in English docus, along with claims of a docu showing another brief angle in the first beheading. A final scene, a shot of a female vampire biting a bloody breast, is a rumor that nobody has actually claimed to have seen cut into the film.
In 1998, only the violent bookends were restored, but to prepare for the DVD, Owsley went back for the missing nude scene, the absence of which had raised howls of protest in magazines like Dick Klemensen's Little Shoppe of Horrors. Again, MGM Tech Services supported going back into the original unreleased-version elements in England, and everything has been restored that can be restored. The breast-biting and extra decapitation shots may be apocryphal, or they may have been in some earlier cut that did not make it to finish.(spoilers)
The restored decapitations, already seen on VHS, look great on DVD. The head of the busty first vampire (Kirsten Betts) is sliced off with a mighty whack, and now serves as a background for the main title without A.I.P.'s customary tinting nonsense. The main title credits are now a different color, and easier to read over the cluttered map background. At the other end of the picture, the final decapitation of the vampiress in her bier is greatly improved. Peter Cushing now leans heavily on the pike as he impales Carmilla, and holds the severed head, bloody neck and all, in plain view. The old, "Wha - what happened? Hey, it's over?" feeling of A.I.P.'s cut is gone forever.
The much-discussed restored bath nudity is just a brief flash of Pitt's nether-regions previously covered with a quick cutaway to Pippa Steele. It will doubtless thrill the fans that buy these shows to glom the girl flesh. Well, good for them and for Ingrid's ego too. The film was meant to have it, so it's a proper restoration.
MGM's DVD of The Vampire Lovers looks more attractive than ever in a new and dazzling enhanced transfer. Orion's flat VHS and laser versions were grainy, with blah hues that made the interiors look as if they were shot under fluorescent lights. The film is still no prizewinner for cinematography, but color, texture, detail and fleshtones are all mightily improved. It's time to pack away all those old copies.
The commentary this time around has director Roy Ward Baker (sounding rather frail), Ms. Ingrid again (still sounding ill) and screenwriter Tudor Gates, who is in fine voice. Unbilled on the disc packaging, Jonathan Sothcott moderates the conversation and does a good job prompting faded memories. MGM producer Greg Carson organized some excerpts of Ingrid Pitt reading from the novella Carmilla, and has put together a pleasing photo montage to accompany it.1
Both films have original trailers, closed captioning, and subs in French, Spanish and English. The packaging is attractive and has small reproductions on the back of original ads. I have the Vampire Lovers one sheet, possibly the trashiest-looking artwork A.I.P. ever put out. It stayed on the wall just one day before coming down.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Countess Dracula rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Vampire Lovers rates:
1. Tudor Gates, writer of the entire Hammer 'Karnstein trilogy' of femme vampire films, is also one of the writers of Mario Bava's Diabolik; I hope he's been interviewed by Tim Lucas for the upcoming Bava book, because he communicates well and has a lot to say here.
2. The old saw that Vampirism in literature is a substitute for 'aberrant' sex is fully supported by the Le Fanu Carmilla novella. Part of the dullness of Hammer's New Screen Freedom is the conservative insinuation that Lesbians are sexual predators and destructive man-haters.