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Prime Hammer Horror:

Nudes and Gore Galore!
MGM undertakes the restoration of The Vampire Lovers

In July 1997 MGM acquired the Orion Pictures library, which includes the filmic output of the long-dormant American-International studio. For over a year, MGM Technical Services has been evaluating vaults full of film and video and compiling their inventories. Much to the delight of AIP fans, the first of hopefully many restoration jobs is underway, on the classic English horror film The Vampire Lovers starring Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt.

Carmilla/Mircalla in attack mode.

Background on the film: In 1970 The Vampire Lovers was one of the first Hammer films to openly add female nudity to the studio's house blend of lurid Gothic horror and gore. Even as their relative quality stayed high, the once-shocking Hammer films were beginning to look tame alongside continental exploitation fare, or even Yankee offerings like Night of the Living Dead. With a new MPAA R rating, and relaxed standards in England, mainstream studios began experimenting with previously taboo content. Hammer films had always been considered adult 'certificate X' subject matter in the UK, but in the US were distributed as general audience fare, delightfully bloody as they were (my first was The Mummy in 1959, at age seven - what a thrill!). Unfortunately, even with their R ratings, the '70's Hammers tended to be heavily edited in America. One might see some monster stills in Famous Monsters of Filmland, some nudes in pictorials in Playboy, and then find that, R rating or not, the releases themselves were censored. This crippled Hammer's potential box office in the States: children could no longer see them, and adults felt cheated when the supposedly sexy films were riddled with frustrating censor cuts.

Ingrid Pitt & Madeline Smith, Girlie-mag bath scene.

Hammer had previously joined in coproduction deals with major American studios like 20th Fox and Warners-Seven Arts. The Vampire Lovers was an official Hammer / American-International co-production, an arrangement that was never repeated. Since they were both established leaders in horror and exploitation films in their respective countries, the teaming must have looked ideal on paper. A.I.P. files reveal that the partnership was in some ways not particularly harmonious; A.I.P.'s Louis Heyward insisted that Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee be engaged for the film. With their continued success with Vincent Price, A.I.P. had learned to respect the value of horror stars. Producer Harry Fine disagreed. He thought Ingrid Pitt, presently being built up as a hot starlet in the big MGM production Where Eagles Dare was draw enough. It seems Christopher Lee was approached for the minor but iconographic role of the Man in Black, but turned the part down.

The Vampire Lovers did good business in England but didn't fare particularly well anywhere else. After a decade of success culminating in the Queen's Award for Industry, The House of Hammer would only a few years later be doing downmarket coproductions with the Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong, struggling just to stay afloat.

John Forbes-Robertson as 'The Man in Black'

When A.I.P. and Hammer aficionado Gary Teetzel learned that MGM was beginning work on a new transfer of The Vampire Lovers, he called Technical Services team member James Owsley's attention to rumors of a longer, more graphic British version. Using reference books and publications like Video Watchdog as a guide, Teetzel provided Owsley with a list of deletions apparently made by A.I.P. to the American version of the film. Normally a film curator uses whatever printing elements that lab records indicate are in the best shape, but James decided to see if there were longer cuts available, either in America or back in England. The records on file were discouraging and vague; a Nicholson memo ordering all outs and trims for The Vampire Lovers to be destroyed; another memo instructing A.I.P. to use the 'English censored version' as a cutting guide. This caused Gary and James to wonder if an English 'Uncensored' version even existed to be found.

Now, the truth of maintaining film libraries is that unless a big, famous or prestigious title like Rocky or Raging Bull is involved, it's unlikely that extraordinary restoration efforts are employed. In other words, horror fans should be grateful to Owsley's persistence, and to MGM for giving permission for the work that needed to be done. When the original negative proved to be the standard American cut, James tracked down 35mm separations in England made from the original negative, and ordered a quick video transfer as a way of checking content. The tapes confirmed that the separations were uncut; and it could be seen that the added footage was materially identical to most of the 'educated guesses' reported in Video Watchdog. "Tim Lucas and his correspondents pretty much nailed it", said Gary.

Prologue vampire woman's decapitation (not censored)

According to Gary, the decapitation of the sexy vampire woman in the prologue, and its flashback recap, now have restored frames of the actual graphic neck-slicing. In the prologue the scene will now play out in full color, showing the head on the ground and Baron Hartzog's bloody sabre, instead of switching to the solarized screen that washes the image in crimson but makes it largely indecipherable. And at the climax, there are several cuts reinstated of Peter Cushing (as 'the General') going through an extended staking and decapitation of Carmilla herself. Gary was impressed by Cushing's typically expressive mime of forcing the stake deeper into Ingrid Pitt's body; likewise new angles where Cushing holds the decapitated, dripping head. The cut version is very dissatisfying here, censored to remove any glimpse of the actual severed part of Pitt's neck and making the whole action look garbled and anticlimactic. It also has some very crude sound edits, a tip-off that the scene had been the victim of a chop-job.

There were references in print to two other censored sex-oriented scenes that were not found to be different. In the bathing scene there is a cutaway from a shot of Ingrid Pitt to avoid full frontal nudity that was reported to have been a censor job. And in a vampire sex scene between Pitt and Madeleine Smith, there were rumored to be more explicit shots of intimate action, including a shot of O'Mara's vampire teeth biting into a breast. But neither of these were found.

Gary theorizes that perhaps Hammer delivered the film to A.I.P. before it was submitted to the British censors. Therefore, the 'English censored version' would be the English release version; the 'uncensored' version would have been the original cut that was probably never exhibited anywhere. When Hammer wrote telling A.I.P. to 'follow the English version' it might be fair to speculate that they were in effect saying, 'We had the same problems with our censors here; here's how we dealt with it.'

Edgy stuff: Pitt seduces Smith.

As of this writing, the separations (along with original, uncut sound masters) are being employed to 'restore the gore' to the original 35mm negative. And future video versions of The Vampire Lovers should look better than any previous, because the new transfer element will be made straight from the original negative. Perhaps now we'll be able to read the incredibly unclear title sequence, the one superimposed over a map!

The restored emphasis on gore should rebalance The Vampire Lovers back into prime Hammer territory. And thanks to the perseverance of studio personnel that care, more overlooked and neglected A.I.P. titles will get the attention they deserve.

Gary Teetzel wishes to acknowledge reference information from Dennis Meikle's book
A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of Hammer (Scarecrow Press, 1996).

Text © Copyright 1998 Glenn Erickson.

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