By the dawn of the 1970s, Hammer Films had been horror cinema’s leading brand name for 13 years. But times were changing rapidly and in the new decade, the studio sometimes gave the impression that it was flailing around like a vampire in a shaft of sunlight.
Somehow, though, Hammer did manage to get a new horror franchise off the ground for the first time since the start of its Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy cycles. This was the so-called ‘Karnstein trilogy’.
Producer Harry Fine had come up with the idea of adapting Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871-72 vampire novel Carmilla and turning its lesbian undertones into overtones. Together with producing partner Michael Style and writer Tudor Gates, he formed Fantale Films and sold Hammer on The Vampire Lovers. Gates summed up their sensitive approach to the subject: “I deliberately threw in the nudes and the lesbians and all the rest of it.”
The Vampire Lovers (1970) has the young Mircalla (Ingrid Pitt) staying at the house of the kindly General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) while secretly drinking the blood of his daughter Laura (Pippa Steele). After Laura dies, Mircalla moves onto another country home, now calling herself Carmilla. There, she seduces another chaste young woman, Emma (Madeline Smith), and is about to make the girl’s governess (Kate O’Mara) her next victim when Spielsdorf tracks her down, having realised she is part of the infamous Karnstein family of vampires.
The film was the first partnership of Hammer and its American counterpart American International Pictures. According to director Roy Ward Baker, AIP got cold feet about the lesbian elements, and tried to get them taken out as shooting was starting. But it’s clear Baker himself was not entirely in tune with the permissive society. He later claimed to have told Ingrid Pitt: “Look Ingrid, I am not in the business to make fun of people who are less fortunate than I, whether it may be lesbians, lunatics, cripples, homosexuals or whatever … as far as I’m concerned any character has got his own rights.”
The Vampire Lovers looks beautiful, moves along smartly, and Baker doesn’t put a foot wrong at the key moments, including Carmilla’s graphic demise hands of Cushing’s Spielsdorf. Yet the script delivers too few surprises – and worse, it surrounds Pitt’s character in confusion. Sometimes she seems to be a tragic figure who is genuinely in love with her victims, yet at others she is a predatory monster. It is an entertaining film in which Baker creates a memorable dream-like atmosphere, and yet it fails to make sense.
The second Karnstein film, Lust for a Vampire (1971), has been pretty widely maligned, not least by some of those who made it. Ralph Bates, brought in to play a role vacated by Peter Cushing when the star’s wife was taken ill, later said: “I consider it to be one of the worst films ever made.” Director Jimmy Sangster, hired at short notice when original choice Terence Fisher broke his leg, recalled: “All I really did was direct traffic.”
The action takes place in a 19th century girls’ boarding school – an ideal setting for a film which deals in romantic yearning and repressed passion. A new pupil, Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard), is the reincarnation of the vampire Carmilla . She seduces and kills two of the girls and, despite the love of a young writer, Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson), is eventually pursued to a burning castle where we know things will not end happily.
Tudor Gates’s script is stronger here, and Sangster’s contribution is more significant than the director himself acknowledged. Unlike the first film, this one delivers some genuine surprises: Lestrange’s first visit to Karnstein Castle is a very clever suspense sequence with a comic pay-off, whilst Bates, as a spineless school tutor, turns from bookish professor to a snivelling disciple of evil. There are several nice instances of black comedy, too.
The title originally proposed for the film was To Love a Vampire, which would have been appropriate, since this movie is about love as much as lust. Mircalla in this film is a haunted, tragic figure, who is almost redeemed by her love for Lestrange, but too late. Stensgaard, who had risen from obscurity and was soon to return there, may not be very dynamic, but her air of passivity works for the film, creating the impression of an innocent character surprised by the passions she arouses in others. Far from being a disaster, this is possibly the best of the trilogy.
For the second sequel (or prequel, since it’s set in the 16th century), Fantale changed the formula. Twins of Evil (1971) has the novelty of two identical stars, played by Playboy’s first centrefold twins, Madeleine and Mary Collinson, and it has elements of Witchfinder General, with Peter Cushing as a distinctly nasty, vampire-hunting Puritan, Gustav Weil.
Damien Thomas plays Count Karnstein, who turns one of Weil’s twin nieces into a vampire before being dispatched by the young hero Anton (David Warbeck).
Gates’s script sets up some fascinating variations on conventional horror movie morality. We have a Christian vampire-hunter (Cushing) who spends much of his time burning innocent women at the stake. Pitted against him is young Anton, who, in defending the innocent, is also protecting the vampire aristocrat Count Karnstein. We have a good and a bad twin – and the bad one, Frieda (Madeleine Collinson) has only fallen under Karnstein’s influence after hearing one of Cushing’s righteous tirades against him. (It’s tempting to think that the film is sending up the censorious attitudes about horror films which only make young people more interested in them.)
All this is very clever, but unfortunately the film doesn’t follow through on its promise. The somewhat bungled resolution has Cushing’s Gustav Weil redeeming himself unconvincingly, while the good twin, Maria (Mary Collinson) is almost burned at the stake without uttering a word of protest. What’s more, Mircalla (here played by Katya Wyeth) is revived for no very good reason, and disappears from the story again straight away.
Director John Hough just about manages to save the day with a violent, audience-pleasing ending, but we’re left unsatisfied. Time and again, the Karnstein trilogy promises to transcend its exploitative origins to achieve something beautiful and distinctive, but it never quite does so consistently.