Halloween Endurance Test: the Vampire Lovers (1970)
[When I first decided to watch a horror movie everyday through the month of October, I honestly had no idea what I was getting into. I just had a dream, made to myself, tons of free time, and a (much-needed) double-shot of Hammer Studio-produced “lesbian vampire films.” As you may or may not have noticed, this is a certain subsection of the genre that I haven’t returned to since.]
My first venture into Hammer‘s “lesbian vampire films” was Countess Dracula, which, truth be told, didn’t have much by the way of “lesbians,” “Dracula,” or even “vampires.” Luckily for my budding endeavor, however, tonight’s film, the Vampire Lovers, does involve both vampires and lesbianism. As well as a healthy doses of filmmaking’s three “C”‘s: Cleavage, Peter Cushing, and reCycled sets.
The cleavage is supplied by Countess Dracula herself, Ingrid Pitt, who puts her ample bosom and her thick Polish accent on full display. Perversely, Ms. Pitt gets top billing over even genre star Peter Cushing.
Wisely, this one eschews any overt Dracula connection, instead settling on a revenge format. Not a bad choice, as the title already tells us what kind of supernatural creature we’ll be encountering. As a revenge flick, there’s practically no need for establishing a backstory!
This is a definite bonus, as the actual story is confusing; especially when you consider how the film was trying to distance itself from Dracula’s legacy. Ingrid Pitt’s name is Marcilla, which, vampire scholars will note, is the title of Farnu’s famous vampirism tale Carmilla; just with two letters transposed
Not to mention even the transposition doesn’t truly work; as there’s at least one scene where Pitt is referred to as “Carmilla” instead of “Marcilla.” Daughter Emma, recounting how in her recurring nightmare, “It [the family cat] lies across me. Warm and heavy. And I feel its fur in my mouth… It turns into you, Carmilla. Now obviously Hammer was hoping the audience would be so caught up in the lesbian subtext to completely ignore the fact that Emma got the name wrong.
Misnomers aside, the Vampire Lover’s story has clearly been inspired by Bram Stoker’s more popular tale. Baron Hartog’s family is massacred by vampires wearing funeral shrouds. Their rising from their tombs immediately brings to mind Todd Browning’s own staging in Dracula. Though Hartog manages to one-up Van Helsing in the vampire hunter department with a decidedly more physical approach.
We’re talking full-on pretend hypnotism here, with Hartog acting as if he’s trapped under the vampire’s spell. He waits for the vampire to move in for the kill, get stunned by the crucifix hidden under his shirt, yank the vampire’s hair (as vampiric lovers, all the vampires have long, flowing hair) as Hartog slits their throat. Such sequences, beautiful as they are in their flawless choreography, also highlight Hammer’s final secret weapon: the Vampire Lovers’ color.
Hammer’s films stood out almost as much for their vibrant blood reds as they did for the 60s relaxed film-code standards. When a character was bitten, the screen lit up! Lugosi never had a chance to play with this kind of stuff!
Such an innovation was also a double-edged sword though, as the bright hues used to enhance the horror could just as easily detract. The opening vampire crypt scene might not have been such a blatant Browning crib if the colors didn’t highlight the tomb’s artificiality.
The dinner scene also evokes the spirit of Dracula with its dialogue:
“Red or white,” asks the waiter holding up two wine bottles.
“Red,” Marcilla knowingly answers.
One can only imagine Universal’s lawyers throwing a fit about that reworking of their iconic “I never drink… wine” line.
The only thing really holding this film back is its reliance on unbelievable amounts of viewer disbelief. We’re supposed to accept that the General von Spielsdorf’s family doesn’t know that Marcilla is a vampire; though all indications obviously point to that conclusion.
First we have Marcilla’s servant, who is pale as a ghost. Now I know Hammer was a British studio, and I also recognize that the British are known the world over for their politeness. I understand said Britons were acting as Germans, but really? No one picks up on this incongruity? Everyone else has a healthy tan, except the servant, who looks as if she’s never seen the sun? All while there’s a vampire threat hanging over the family?
I don’t know, maybe I’m being too picky here. Since I also don’t understand the vampiric infection’s timeline. As daughter Emma’s transformation takes place over a number of nights, a la, Dracula’s Lucy, while Marcilla just up and hypnotizes Mademoiselle Perrodot before taking her. And, by “taking,” I, of course, mean stripping naked for the victim. This is, after all, still a lesbian vampire film through and though.