Amidst the various Dracula films that Hammer released throughout the years, would come a new series of films which would come to be known as the Karnstein Trilogy. Each one would be loosely tied together by featuring a member of the Karnstein family, which for the most part would be a woman named Mircalla. Unlike most vampire movies of the time, the lead role would fall to a woman who would feed upon both sexes indiscriminately, not caring where the blood came from, though for the most part in this film, it would be women. What would also be different for The Vampire Lovers is that our leading lady and villain would romance another woman, something that was definitely not seen very often on film for fear of never making it past the censors, horror film or not. Romance should be used in the loosest term possible though, for it is unknown if Mircalla could truly feel anything for anyone, living or dead. The film was a bold move for Hammer which paid off as it spawned sequels and bolstered the presence of vampires at the box office.
Ingrid Pitt is the star of the show, stealing the spotlight and outshining everyone as the lead and the vampire in question. Pitt is a gorgeous woman and the writers obviously wrote the role for someone like her in mind. So it is that Pitt as Mircalla, or Marcilla or Carmilla, would use those looks to beguile both man and woman alike to further her needs. Throughout the film, she seduces various young ladies in her search for sustenance and killing those who would stop her. During the latter half of the film, she meets Emma, a young woman whom it seems she wishes to make a companion of. It is during this part of the movie where Pitt steps up her game and Mircalla’s true nature begins to show, becoming far more conniving and treacherous. The only thing that really held Pitt back, and most of our performers, was the dialogue. At times it seemed a little stunted and others a little forced. If the writing had been just a bit stronger, it would be interesting to think of what Pitt or the rest of the cast would have been able to do with it. When all was said and done, Pitt does give an excellent and believable performance, drawing your eye throughout the whole movie much like Christopher Lee did in Dracula.
Other than Pitt, there is no leading man or hero of the film, as it was split up between the many supporting characters which included Peter Cushing, George Cole, Douglas Wilimer and Jon Finch. Each man would come to oppose Mircalla throughout the film, until her eventual demise at their hands, but none of them would be in the picture for very long as the focus was squarely upon Mircalla and her doings. It was interesting to see the picture focus around the villainess and a nice change of pace for a Hammer film to do so. Cushing was fantastic as always, this time playing a General and father to one of the victims. It was fitting that he be the one to end the film the way it did, calling forth shades of his character Van Helsing in doing so. While there were many beautiful women in the film including Kate O’Mara, Kirsten Kindholm, and Pippa Steel, it would be Madeleine Smith who would stand out, mainly because she was the focus of Mircalla’s attention more so than anyone else. If there was one thing other than horror films, Cushing or Lee that Hammer was known for, it was the casting of young and beautiful women to star in their movies.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the film offers beauty and seduction, suspense and action, and all beneath the Gothic horror banner. Containing elements of exploitation and lesbianism, the film was somewhat different from Hammer’s normal fair, and yet seemed to fit right in with everything they were doing at the time. Come the 1970s, Hammer was trying new things and this movie, and its two sequels would be a part of that. Vampires were obviously nothing new, to film or to Hammer, but they had grown a little stale by this point and so something was needed to shake things up. Having a strong, female-led movie was also nothing new to the studio but a vampire movie led by a woman was something that had not been done very often in film and it would lead to Countess Dracula the next year and two more sequels to this picture. When one thinks of Hammer, it is usually of Dracula, but these pictures should not be overlooked as, despite their small problems, they offer a lot and really make for an enjoyable way to pass the time.
4 out of 5