The first Hammer movie I saw was late one night at my grandparents’ house, back when horror double bills were a Friday night TV staple. Mostly these were old Universal flicks, but occasionally if I was lucky there’d be a couple of Hammer horrors. I found these much more exciting than their earlier American counterparts, in fact I still do; vivid colour, actual gore, and an undercurrent of sex that provoked definite interest in young Dave. Also, better acting (there, I said it) and none of those awful Hollywood cockney coppers, gor bloimey Guv’nor. From then on, I was predisposed to see any Hammer film that came along, but this was pre-DVD (it was even pre-VHS, which makes me feel very old) so opportunities were limited. A few years and one wonderful technical revolution later, I discovered a video tape in Dad’s not-too-secret ‘special’ pile. It was Countess Dracula, not exactly a typical Hammer film, but it introduced me to the vision of loveliness that was Ingrid Pitt. More importantly it introduced me to Ingrid Pitt’s boobs. That was it; I was lost.
There’s a fun little anecdote told by Pitt about how she secured the lead role in The Vampire Lovers, her first film for Hammer, by chatting up the company’s president Sir James Carreras at a party. I’ll admit that if I were Sir James, I’d have given her the part as well; hell, I’d have cast her as Dracula if she’d asked me nicely enough. And yet the fact that she was alive to be at the party in the first place is truly remarkable. Born Ingoushka Petrov in Warsaw in 1937, her German father was a scientist who boldly refused to work on the Nazis’ rocket programme. For this transgression he and his family were sent to different concentration camps, with Ingrid spending three years imprisoned at Stutthof. Ingrid and her mother (a Polish Jew) managed to escape, apparently running away while being led into the forest to be shot, and were rescued by partisans. Ingrid’s father also survived the war and they were eventually reunited by the Red Cross.
Ingrid was resettled in East Berlin, where she studied acting and joined Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. However she was outspoken about the regime and was forced to flee for her life once again. She escaped in 1962, swimming the river Spree before the Volkpolitzei could get their hands on her. Once in the West she married an American G.I., Laud Roland Pitt Jr. and adopted his surname. They relocated to the US and Ingrid had a child. However her attempts to break into acting faltered, and when the marriage followed suit, Ingrid returned to Europe to pursue her career. After a striking supporting role in Where Eagles Dare, she found herself at that party with Sir James.
The Vampire Lovers tells the story of the evil Karnsteins, a clan of vampires living (or I guess that should be un-living) in 19th-century Europe. The family, including one particularly hot blonde vampire girl (Kirsten Lindholm, who would cameo in all three Karnstein movies), were all but wiped out by Baron Joachim von Hartog (Douglas Wilmer, Jason and the Argonauts) as vengeance for the death of his sister. But Hartog failed to find the grave of Mircalla Karnstein (Pitt), who continues to prey on hot teenage girls throughout the aristocratic houses of Europe. Having killed Laura (Pippa Steele, Lust for a Vampire), daughter of the venerable General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), she moves on to Laura’s friend Emma (Madeleine Smith, Silent Night, Deadly Night). Posing as Carmilla, the child of a well-to-do family in the midst of various domestic crises, the vampire takes a particular liking to Emma and drinks from her every night.
Emma’s father, English businessman Roger Morton (George Cole, Scrooge), can’t understand why his daughter is becoming increasingly weak and sickly. He seeks help from Baron Hartog and General Spielsdorf to unravel the mystery of Carmilla’s identity. But the vampire is devious, even seducing members of Morton’s staff like governess Mme. Perrodot (Kate O’Mara, The Horror of Frankenstein), and turning them to her cause. It falls to the trio of old guys, with able assistance from Laura’s former fiancee Carl (Jon Finch, Macbeth), to save Emma.
The Vampire Lovers came at a difficult time for Hammer. The company had just lost two of its most reliable and talented producers, Anthony Nelson-Keys and Tony Hinds. Both had been at Hammer since the early days – Hinds’ father, the music hall comedian Will ‘Hammer’ Hinds, founded the company and gave it its name. They had shepherded many of Hammer’s best films into being, but now Keys wanted to try something else. Hinds meanwhile had a bad experience working on the joint Hammer/Fox TV series Journey to the Unknown, and was getting increasingly fed up with other aspects of the company. He hated the cheap ‘tits-and-bums’ TV comedy adaptations Hammer was turning towards to generate a fast buck, thus showing that he was indeed a man of impeccable taste – even as a Hammer fanatic and completist I find Love Thy Neighbour and the On The Buses films unwatchable. Hinds had also been accused of plagiarising the script of Taste the Blood of Dracula from a spec treatment submitted by Kevin Francis, who strangely enough he’d later work with on Legend of the Werewolf. He was still upset that Hammer had upped sticks and moved from their spiritual home Bray Studios to Elstree, and was disillusioned with the increasing reliance on sex and nudity in the horror genre. Apart from the occasional freelance job, Hinds retired, and to all intents and purposes took the heart of Hammer with him. As director Don Sharp put it, “Tony Hinds was Hammer.”
With the loss of these two old hands, Sir James Carreras decided he needed a new, er, old hand to steady the ship, and reached out to his son Michael. The younger Carreras and his father had a stormy relationship, which had resulted in Michael leaving the family firm in a huff some years earlier. Michael, who didn’t have much interest in horror films, had been responsible for a few classic Hammer films, but several of their absolute worst as well. As the 70s progressed, he would take control of the company from his father, and then oversee it’s ruination and collapse. But a rant about the general shitness of Michael Carreras will have to be a subject for another review, since it hasn’t got a great deal to do with The Vampire Lovers (you can read more about the subject in Keith’s excellent review of Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter). Essentially the last two vitriolic paragraphs are there because 1) Michael Carreras gets my dander up and 2) it goes some way to explaining why latter-day Hammer films often used freelance producers from outside the company.
Which is what happened with The Vampire Lovers (and the sequels Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil). The project was brought to the company by Harry Fine and Michael Style, independent producers who ran a small company named Fantale Films. Fantale’s third partner was writer Tudor Gates, who had previously contributed to the screenplays of Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik. Fine saw some old photos of a stage production of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and thought it might make an interesting film. Tracking down the original novella, Fine took note of the strong lesbian overtones in the story, and asked Gates to come up with a treatment (I like to think there was the traditional light bulb going ‘ping!’ over Fine’s head at this point). The Fantale guys took their idea to James Carreras, who took one look at the title and commissioned it more or less on the spot. Censorship was relaxing slightly in the UK, though it still remained fairly draconian up until the start of the 21st century. Even so, the change of the ‘X’ certificate to permit only viewers over 18 gave Carreras the freedom to make something in line with sexy European imports like Roger Vadim’s Et Mourir de Plaisir (itself loosely based on Carmilla) and Jean Rollin’s Le Viol du Vampire.
Carreras secured backing from US company American International Pictures, who were a far cry from the major studios Hammer had once partnered with. Still, AIP had a successful line of period horrors under their belt, going back to the Hammer-inspired Poe films of Roger Corman. AIP stipulated that the movie needed a traditional horror star they could sell in America. Since the leads were either unknowns or unknowns-outside-Britain, this meant Peter Cushing being hastily press-ganged into the role of the General. Cushing at this time was working less to spend more time with his ailing wife Helen. AIP also had some issues with the script; they didn’t mind all the tits, but they were concerned about how the lesbianism would be received in the American market. Fine and Style wanted to charge ahead with as much gore and sex as they possibly could, but veteran director Roy Ward Baker was determined to make something that still had artistic merit. Typically, James Carreras didn’t give a tin shit what the film was like as long as it made money.
As latter-day Hammer films go, The Vampire Lovers is an entertaining, sexy romp. It relies less on the hammy scare tactics of the later Dracula series (which by this time was looking extremely tired, even quaint) and more on the audience’s assumptions. To us it’s obvious that Carmilla is a vampire, but it isn’t explicitly stated with shots of Pitt in fangs until late on in the film. Instead the movie shows the good guys trying to figure things out while Carmilla manages to keep one step ahead each time. The movie’s biggest asset is Pitt, who looks an absolute knockout, her husky Polish accent adding a welcome dash of the exotic. There are a few amusing nods to her vampiric nature, such as a preference for red wine, and refusing breakfast because she isn’t hungry having spent the night feasting on Emma’s blood. Tudor Gates adapts the novella reasonably closely, certainly nearer than Hammer’s adaptations of other literary classics. I’ve heard some criticism of Carmilla’s alias ‘Mircalla,’ one of those clunky Dracula/Alucard deals. It’s Le Fanu’s fault rather than Gates’s as it does indeed appear in the source text.
One thing I liked is the reworking of a few rules of vampirism, such as a vamp needing to be wrapped in their death shroud in order to rest in the grave. Roy Ward Baker, a Hammer semi-regular, creates a pleasing fairytale atmosphere, especially the scenes of enshrouded vampires wafting about surrounded by mist. His results certainly aren’t hurt by most of the female cast getting naked and making out from time to time. In fact Pitt heard that the crew were so downcast over the set being closed for one scene, she gave them a full-frontal flash on the Elstree backlot. The cast other than Pitt are a mixed bunch; the young actresses playing Carmilla’s victims are quite bland, including the lovely Maddie Smith, while the old guard of Wilmer, Cole and Cushing are reliably good. Kate O’Mara is memorable as the sexy governess but sadly keeps her clothes on throughout. John Forbes-Robertson, the Über-lame Dracula from The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, crops up as a mysterious ‘man in black’ (and who mainly seems to be there to set up the sequel), but thankfully doesn’t say anything.
There are other issue with the film. Hammer relied on production designers who could get the most out of tiny budgets. For most of their existence this had been the extraordinary Bernard Robinson, a genius at making the Bray backlot look like anything from Dracula’s castle to the docks of Hong Kong (often in the same week). After Robinson’s sudden death in 1970 that task fell to Scott Macgregor. Though talented, Mac didn’t have Robinson’s skill and thus the later Hammer productions have a cheaper look about them. Here it’s typified by some threadbare-looking sets (mostly recycled from Taste the Blood of Dracula) and painfully obvious painted backdrops. There are also a few problems with the location work; Moor Park Golf Club stands in for the exterior of the General’s house, but the modern steel-fenced tennis courts next door are certainly not period accurate. The script is not without its problems either. The biggest hole is the existence of the Man in Black and Carmilla’s alleged mother Countess Karnstein (Dawn Addams, The Vault of Horror). Where did they come from if Hartog killed the entire family except Mircalla? I guess she could have turned them later, but the inference is they are superior in some way.
In spite of the various flaws (and much as it pains me to admit it, even the best Hammer films aren’t perfect) The Vampire Lovers is one of their most enjoyable latter-day films. It secured Ingrid Pitt’s reputation as Hammer’s sex queen despite her only appearing in one other movie for them. We can be thankful it wasn’t the sequel to this one, Lust for a Vampire. James Carreras was so sure of Lovers that the follow-up was in production while this one was still shooting, and the results could be charitably described as catastrophic.