Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
With 1970's The Vampire Lovers, the Hammer House of Horror took a turn toward softcore exploitation. It stars the short-lived but long admired 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.
The Vampire Lovers was made at a time when Hammer was in decline, as was 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 a large part of the U.S. horror audience had appealed to kids, the move to more sex and nudity didn't help Hammer's fortunes. The Vampire Lovers was heavily cut for the states, yet still saddled with an "R" rating. Ads promoting the sex angle ruled out matinee crowds, and adults patrons were infuriated by obvious cuts that excised the promised erotic thrills.
In the late 1990s concerned film asset management specialists at MGM took special care to restore The Vampire Lovers to the longest original cut possible. Fifteen years later, it emerges once again on Blu-ray, on license to Shout Factory's subsidiary Scream Factory.
Tudor Gates' screenplay jams a lot of skin and too many characters into an adaptation (by Gates, Michael Style and producer Harry Fine) of Sheridan le Fanu's seminal horror tale Carmilla. Using different names -- Marcilla, Carmilla, Mircalla -- a lesbian vampire of the Karnstein line (Ingrid Pitt) decimates two noble families one virgin at a time. Brought for a visit by The Countess (Dawn Addams), Carmilla seduces and possesses Laura (Pippa Steele) while confounding the family doctor (Ferdy Mayne) and other male visitors like Carl Ebhardt (Jon Finch). As her circle of influence grows, it becomes apparent that both Carmilla and The Countess do the bidding of a mysterious Man in Black (John Forbes-Robertson), often seen waiting in the woods. But when the religious family patriarchs General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) and Baron von Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) discover what is happening, a ruthless campaign of extermination begins.
Only fitfully involving as a vampire story, The Vampire Lovers wastes a substantial gathering of acting talent on a story 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 an opportunity to take the genre in new directions. The British Censors had given Hammer grief from the beginning of their success. The BBFC emasculated a potential Hammer classic when it stripped 1960's The Brides of Dracula of its more daring, reportedly superior screenplay. 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 to a minor role as one of three vampire hunters. He goes into action for the gory conclusion, while one of his peers does the honors in the atmospheric prologue, beheading a silken-shrouded vampire woman (Kirsten Lindholm). In analyzing Hammer's Karnstein series, critics have characterized the older males as a kind of repressive posse, punishing the sensual excesses of the younger generation with puritan zeal. That theme doesn't really come to mind while watching the show: the choice of shots always makes sure we have a view of the celebrated Hammer breastworks.
Director Roy Ward Baker came to Hammer near the end of a sterling career in British film. His direction of Quatermass and the Pit shows 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 prologue (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? Too literal and unexciting to be mysterious phantoms, they are mainly unrewarding, unexplained loose ends. Carmilla does her wicked business first in one household, and then moves on to repeat the same thing in 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. Because the naked Ingrid Pitt looks more relaxed and frankly healthier than anybody else in the picture, she's not particularly vampiric in any traditional sense. Newer vampire stories chasing a younger audience have envisioned the Undead as a new form of liberated beautiful people, but the Twilight movies haven't done the genre any favors. The Vampire Lovers is firmly rooted in the traditions of the Gothic story, but with the nudity throwing everything off balance. The icily physical, highly suspect Ingrid is able to go about her business and nobody even notices. Only closer to the climax does Carmilla loses control of events, when Kate O'Mara goes hysterical and Jon Finch (Roman Polanski's MacBeth) fails to fall for the old 'love me and die' routine. Then we see Carmilla in a more feral mode.
In narrative films hints and teases of nudity generally have a more erotic effect than the 'stand up and show 'em' displays here. The fleeting glimpses of skin in Ferroni's haunting Mill of the Stone Women and Polanski's creepy/comedic The Fearless Vampire Killers carry a stronger erotic charge, and the dramatic process of those shows isn't disrupted by a peep show. However, this reviewer will admit that for many Hammer fans this picture is the perfect mix of sex, blood, fangs and breasts.
The film restoration of The Vampire Lovers 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 raggedly censored film prints and DVDs. An American-International Pictures/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 film restoration work of MGM Technical Services 'team member' James Owsley, that required research to find uncut elements in England. Owsley first discovered the conflicting versions when the best available optical track elements didn't match A.I.P.'s printing negatives. 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 TV docus, along with claims of a 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. In preparing the 2003 DVD, Owsley went after the missing nude scene, the absence of which had raised howls of protest in Dick Klemensen's excellent Hammer-phlie magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors. Again, the directors in MGM Tech Services supported returning to England for the original elements for the uncut, unreleased-version. At the time MGM was convinced that everything was restored that could be restored. It is possible that the breast-biting and extra decapitation shots are apocryphal, or that they were in an earlier cut that did not make it to finish.
It's now probable that most fans of The Vampire Lovers have never seen A.I.P.'s bowdlerized theatrical recut. The restored decapitations are a big improvement. The head of the busty first vampire 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, "Wha - what happened? Is it all over?" disappointment of A.I.P.'s old cut is gone forever.
The much-discussed restored bath nudity is just a brief flash of Pitt's nether regions previously covered by a quick cutaway to another actress. It will doubtless thrill the fans that buy these shows to glom the girl flesh. Well, good for them and for Ingrid's ego as well. The film was meant to have it, so it's a proper restoration. 1
Shout/Scream Factory's Blu-ray of The Vampire Lovers presents an older MGM HD transfer that nevertheless displays this popular Hammer feature in a very attractive presentation. The added detail and contrast helps even out the movie's flat, unimpressive cinematography. Interiors are still over-lit and most exteriors tend toward the murky side. Even if the film is no prizewinner for cinematography, its color, texture, detail and flesh tones are improved. The added detail and brightness reveals the overall cheapness of the costumes, and reveals rather careless details. As coaches arrive at the General's party we get a better look past his mansion, and see what look like modern fencing around a grassy area. It may even be the U.K. equivalent of chain link fencing. Was this shot meant to be printed darker?
Also more easily admired in this Blu-ray edition is the dramatic music score by Harry Robertson, billed as Harry Robinson. He scored a lot of kids' shows in addition to all three of the Hammer Karnstein films.
Scream Factory's extras are quite good; the disc's tone is set when the first thing we see is a card from the poster reading: "Caution - Not for the Mentally Immature." Recycled from the older MGM DVD is a commentary with director Roy Ward Baker (sounding rather frail), screenwriter Tudor Gates, who is in fine voice, and Ms. Ingrid, who was genuinely ill but insisted on contributing. An unbilled Jonathan Sothcott moderates the conversation and does a fine job prompting faded memories. A 2003 audio excerpt of Ingrid Pitt reading from the novella Carmilla has been improved with a better still montage.
The featurette Femme Fantastique: Resurrecting The Vampire Lovers is producer-director Daniel Griffith's best making-of piece to date. The show has a clear through line and avoids unnecessary visual embellishment. The contributions of the expert contributors - Kim Newman, David J. Skal, Ted Newsom - offer an interesting analysis of the film. Director Baker is quoted as saying that he read Le Fanu's story twice, and never got the lesbian angle -- does this explain the film's girly-show limitations? Kim Newman ventures the notion that Ingrid Pitt is grossly miscast: as originally conceived she's supposed to be a teenager no older than her initial victims. That's how I remember the novella Carmilla -- like a Victorian sleepover party with an almost passive vampiress as the hungry guest. Another contributor points out that Hammer has reversed the novella's sexual politics. In the novella The Man in Black was not the vampire ringleader; just the servant of the all-commanding Carmilla. I guess the Hammer boys believed in the FVGC: Female Vampire Glass Ceiling.
A second new featurette produced by Greg Carson gives us some welcome input from one of the actresses featured in The Vampire Lovers. Whenever Little Shoppe of Horrors interviewed a 'Hammer Girl' from this period, the conversation eventually turned to the same subject: the gents at Hammer (or their outside producers) would almost without fail inform their actresses that the role would require nudity only just prior to filming. Interviewer Laurel Parker covers that topic in a separate interview with actress Madeleine Smith, who shared several nude scenes with Ingrid Pitt. The congenial Ms. Smith candidly explains that she also was told of the full nature of her role only after signing. The refreshing angle here is that Smith has no accusations to make -- she was an actress at a specific time in films, and she accepted that that's how things were done.
A.I.P.'s original trailer is a pretty good one, as the feature has more than enough sensational non-nude imagery to exploit. An animated "V" for "V"ampire flies onto the screen several times, just as in the trailer for the previous year's The "V"alley of Gwangi. Most of the trailer timing is darker than the feature itself, which makes some of its visuals look a bit richer.
The cover illustration is American-International's Vampire Lovers one sheet (color by Movielab!), possibly the trashiest-looking horror artwork A.I.P. ever put out for a movie not filmed in the Philippines. My copy stayed on the wall just one day before coming down.
1. For all its championing of things Hammer the Little Shoppe of Horrors magazine wasn't very kind to MGM's restorers. There is indeed an extra shot from the opening decapitation that was seen years ago on British TV's The South Banks Show. It's an extra second or two of the severed head hitting the ground. The magazine dismissed MGM's film work as worthless because they didn't find that one shot in either the original neg or Hammer's seps.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson
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