Thursday, October 27, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 22: The Vampire Lovers (1970)

While Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, set the stage for most of what we think of when it comes to modern vampire stories, it was not remotely the first influential vampire story. While there are probably even earlier examples, that honor goes to Carmilla--a novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu published as a serial from 1871-1872.

It's also easily the genesis of all lesbian vampire stories that we now know and love, as its titular vampire seduces and feeds upon young women. So it's only fitting that an adaptation of the film would be at the forefront of the lesbian vampire sub-genre's sudden boom in 1970.

Styria, a state of Austria, in 1794 has a bit of a vampire problem, specifically a family of vampires known as the Karnsteins. Baron von Hartog (Doulas Wilmer) narrates his tale for us, as we watch him waiting in the Karnstein castle in the hours before dawn. His sister was killed by one of the Karnsteins, and he has come to settle the score. he has taken a burial shroud from the grave of the vampire, knowing the creature cannot rest until it is returned.

[As a side note, I love how the vampires in this film don't really follow the traditional Hammer vampire rules, as we'll see]

Well, when the ghostly vampire returns to find its shroud gone, Hartog waves the shroud out the castle window like a flag, calling the vampire out. To his surprise, when the vampire comes inside, she is a beautiful blonde (Kirsten Lindholm) who mesmerizes him briefly so she can move to bite him--only for the cross around his neck to brand the bare flesh of her exposed cleavage. The spell having been broken, Hartog lops her head off with his sword.

Pretty sure this is basically how Donald Trump views all women.
Well, after our opening credits we're going to find that that opening is not going to relevant again for a while. We'll later learn he spent the rest of his time digging up and killing the remaining Karnsteins, but it seems he missed a few.

Many years later, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing!) is holding a ball at his estate. During all the dancing, one guest arrives late, a countess (Dawn Addams), who introduces her lovely daughter, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt!). Everyone is quite fond of the girl at once, especially the men, and that everyone includes Spielsdrof's daughter, Laura (Pippa Lee). When Laura points Marcilla out to her dance partner, Carl Gebhart (John Finch), however, he easily assures Laura that he only has eyes for her. Laura says that Marcilla keeps looking at Carl, but Carl astutely points out that actually, she's looking at Laura.

Suddenly, a mysterious man (John Forbes-Robertson) we'll see throughout the film rushes in, decked out in a fancy cloak that screams vampire to any viewer. He has a message for the countess, which is that a relative of hers is dying and she must leave at once to see to them. However, as she makes her apologies to Spielsdorf for her untimely departure, she must ask him for a huge favor: since it would be much too arduous a journey for Marcilla, could he be troubled to take her in until the countess returns?

Spielsdorf happily accepts and Laura is overjoyed. Naturally, we know there is something sinister afoot almost immediately, but it will be some time before anyone in the film realizes it. As far as Laura knows, she has a great new friend. A loving friend, who is very intimate with her.

The down side of all those Snapchat filters is that they tend to attract lesbian vampires.
However, one night Laura is troubled by a fitful sleep that brings a nightmare. She becomes convinced an enormous, gray cat is in her room. Now, most films that needed a huge cat but didn't have the budget for it might splice in stock footage of a panther or some other big predatory cat. They might have a person dress up in a cat costume that they very carefully kept out of sight. This film does not go either of those routes. Instead, we see close-ups on a still image of a cat's face superimposed over Laura and then what is plainly someone underneath a furry blanket crawls on top of Laura.

It's wise, then, that the film keeps the cat business to very short sequences because it utterly ruins any sense of horror by being utterly hilarious in its ineptness.

Laura also dreams that the cat became Marcilla, but naturally Marcilla helps the girl's family and servants to gaslight the girl into believing its all in her head. However, she is getting noticeably sick and weak. The doctor (Ferdy Mayne) diagnoses it as a harmless bit of anemia and suggests making sure the girl ingests lots of iron-rich foods to get her blood up. Spielsdorf fears it's something more sinister and he's right. The next morning, as Spielsdorf watches helplessly, Marcilla stands beside Laura's bed and tells him it's too late, for the girl has died with the first light of the sun. When the doctor comes in to check her, just too late, he discovers two small punctures on the girl's bare breast--and then Spielsdorf realizes Marcilla has vanished.

A short time later, we catch up with a recent English immigrant named Roger Morton (George Cole) and his daughter, Emma (Madeleine Smith), who had been close friends with Laura. However, both had left the ball before Marcilla arrived. So, Morton is riding with Emma near his estate and they come upon a carriage that has broken a wheel, they do not recognize its passengers: the mysterious countess and a very familiar girl she introduces as her niece, Carmilla. The countess is in a hurry to get to a dying relative, but fears her daughter has been much shaken up by the crash.

Emma pleads with her father to accept Carmilla as a guest, and naturally he relents at once. When Emma gleefully tells Carmilla she'll be staying with them, the slow predatory smile that crosses her face is delightful.

Carmilla has barely arrived before we already see her enjoying a bath when Emma walks into her room. After happily standing naked and walking to the vanity in front of Emma--who is not actually shocked by this--Emma asks if she can try on some of Carmilla's beautiful dresses. Carmilla assures her she can, but she has to take everything off first because it's the latest style in the city to be naked under your dress. Emma goes along with that, to Carmilla's delight, and even goes along witht he playful half-naked chase around the bedroom and gentle, romantic lounging in Carmilla's bed.

"Oh, it's absolutely all the rage in the city! All the young ladies practice scissoring now!"
Of course, while Carmilla is putting the moves on Emma already and Morton's departure for business elsewhere gives her ample freedom to do so, her new target has a few more people in her household that are close to her than Laura did. Aside from estate manager, Renton (Harvey Hall), she has a French governess named Madame Perrodot (Kate O'Mara), who is trying to teach the poor girl German. Carmilla is glad to help, of course, ingratiating herself to all around her--though Renton remains somewhat aloof to her charms.

At night, however, Carmilla is very busy. Not only is she prepping to give Emma the same treatment as Laura, but she satiates her hunger by hunting down peasant girls in the local village and draining them of all their blood. Then she begins the cat treatment on Emma, but this time there's a convenient scapegoat as the house has a large gray ca named Gustav, and Perrodot assures Emma that's what she's been seeing.

However, Emma knows Gustav can't be responsible for the bite on her breast--but Carmilla helpfuly appears to assure Perrodot that Emma was careless with a sharp broach that Carmilla gave her, and then shows it to Perrodot to demonstrate its two sharp points before sliding it onto her breast. Perrodot is suitably convinced, leaving Emma rather distraught that nobody is taking her seriously. Perrodot still has some doubts, so Carmilla decides her best bet is to seduce Perrodot, too.

I'm definitely with Carmilla on this one.
Well, after a tasteful seduction scene, Perrodot has become Carmilla's Renfield. Renton begins to suspect something is off when the governess won't let him send for the doctor as Emma begins to fall ill. When he complains about Perrodot's behavior in a local pub, he casually calls her vampire--and when everyone in the pub goes silent and turns to stare at him, Renton discovers that vampires are no joke in these parts. Upon hearing of the dead girls in the village, Renton begins to suspect he might have been right in calling Perrodot a vampire after all and begins scheming against her to protect Emma. Naturally, this means he is overlooking the true menace right under his nose...

Hammer knew that you simply don't cast Peter Cushing in your vampire film if he isn't going to stake something.
In the 1950s and well into the 1960s, Hammer was known for pushing the envelope. Their films were bloodier and sexier than almost anything else on the market and they stretched the boundaries of decency until they got away with more and more.

However, the problem with social boundaries is that they have a tendency to shift over time or all at once. By the late 1960s, movies could have full on nudity and more excessive gore than the previous decade dreamed of. So by the early 1970s, Hammer was already beginning to seem quaint because now they were trying to catch up to the envelope that they had been pushing.

The Vampire Lovers is a clear example of this, of course. While more extreme examples of the genre like Vampyres and Daughters of Darkness were still a ways away--and even efforts like Vampyros Lesbos and The Velvet Vampire aren't really any more lurid by comparison--this is a lesbian vampire movie that feels oddly chaste. Oh, there's plenty of nudity and even some kissing between Carmilla and her victims, and the desire Carmilla has for them is clear, but there's a clear reluctance to truly embrace its own conceit.

That doesn't mean I think the movie is a failure because it's not sleazy enough, mind you. It is a clear indicator of the trouble Hammer was soon going to have in keeping up with the new genre cinema of the 1970s, however.

Looking beyond that aspect of the film, however, there are definitely some unfortunate flaws of this film. For one thing, Baron Hartog does reappear in the film because his experience with the Karnsteins is crucial to defeating Carmilla. However, he has not been seen since the beginning and the filmmakers decide we need to have another character explain the opening of the film all over again, including showing us most of the sequence, in order to refresh our memories. For another, the mysterious male vampire we see throughout the film observing the various things Carmilla does with great delight is a completely unnecessary character who does nothing but leave us wondering why he's even there. Lastly, Madeleine Smith is a very lovely woman and a fine actress, but she has been made to play the wide-eyed ingenue to such an extreme degree that it becomes parody. She literally never seems to not have her eyes open as wide as they can possible go, and to appear as naive and doe-like as is humanly possible at all times.

I get that she needed to be innocent and helpless before Carmilla's charms, but come on. It especially hurts the film because you begin to wonder why Carmilla is after Emma when she has so much more chemistry with Perrodot.

However, the rest of the cast is not saddled with having to deliver such a ridiculous performance. Ingrid Pitt is asked to play a much younger character than she actually is, but I doubt anyone really notices because she is electrifying in the role. Kate O'Mara is great as Perrodot, effortlessly switching from playing the helpful governess, to the obstinate pawn of the vampire, and finally the desperately jealous servant begging to be kept in her mistress's good graces. She is also damn gorgeous, and I have a weakness for women who smirk the way she does so frequently.

And of course, Peter Cushing is awesome, as always.

This is definitely not the best of Hammer's output, but it is a very enjoyable film all the same. Even with its clear weaknesses, the amazing central performance by Ingrid Pitt is able to get it over the bumps--and the terrible vampire cat blanket.

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