I’ve made no secret, or tried for that matter, of the fact that my favorite horror movies as a rule were made in the ’50s and ’60s by Hammer Films of Britain. They were known for their mid-to-low budget Gothic stories, complete with period costumes, Bavarian-style settings, young lasses with heaving bosoms, and lots of Day-Glo blood (known as “Kensington Gore”). During this period of time, the studio produced dozens of vampire pictures and many involving Christopher Lee’s nearly-mute version of Dracula. However, by the late-’60s, the studio’s popularity was fading, as horror became grittier and the gore more explicit. Knowing they couldn’t compete with that level of grue, they decided to drastically heighten the other reason people watched their movies: all the attractive, big-breasted women. The first of their new nudity-filled horror shows came in 1970 with The Vampire Lovers.
Yes, they certainly went full-bore with this new kind of adult horror. Based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s pre-Dracula vampire story Carmilla, The Vampire Lovers became the first of a very loose trilogy surrounding the immortal and evil Karnstein clan and their young and voluptuous daughter, Mircalla, alternately known as Carmilla or Marcilla, depending on what guise she feels like going under that day. She uses her feminine and underworldly wiles to get what she truly wants: nubile young women that she preys upon slowly, having them fall deeper and deeper under her sapphic spell. She’s a lesbian, is what I’m trying to say, but she has no compunctions about wooing stupid men in order to get them out of the way of her prizes.
At the beginning of the film, a Baron (Douglas Wilmer) tells us how his sister had been killed by the Karnsteins and how he sought to dispose of them once and for all. He staked and decapitated them all, but couldn’t find the crypt of Mircalla. We then cut to several decades later and General von Spielsdorf (the great Peter Cushing) is having a party for his daughter Laura (Pippa Steel). Of the many people who come to this gathering are a mysterious Countess (Dawn Addams) and her niece Carmilla (Ingrid Pitt). The Countess is called away suddenly and the General offers for Carmilla to stay at his estate and spend time with Laura. This proves to be a bad thing as Laura slowly begins to get sicker and sicker, as though her blood is being drained (Uh, doy!) and she begins having shrieking nightmares about being attacked by a cat. Soon enough, she dies and Carmilla disappears.
Not far away, the rich Mr. Morton happens upon a broken-down coach and finds the Countess inside. The Countess says her niece, Marcilla, is ill and wonders if they might take her back to Morton’s huge house for the night. This delights Morton’s naive teenage daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) who looks forward to having a friend other than her buttoned-up governess (Kate O’Mara). The cycle begins to happen again, with Marcilla slowly putting Emma under her spell, however the vampire seems to have more feelings for Emma besides simply carnal and sanguine. But, as Emma gets sick, can her father figure out the true nature of the Karnsteins before it’s too late?
The film follows the basic formula of Hammer’s vampire movies, with a young girl being slowly brought under the creature of the night’s spell while her family and/or handsome young suitor have remain ignorant for awhile until it’s time for the movie to end. They’d made quite a lot of films about bloodsuckers and the basics are all their and wouldn’t have made this any special. What IS different, though, is the blatant depiction of lesbianism, which would have been super rare for 1970, especially in the U.S. and U.K. The sexuality is as overt as you can get without actually having any real love scenes. There’s plenty of the ladies kissing and some toplessness, of course.
Mircalla/Carmilla/Marcilla is quite an interesting character in horror. She’s supposed to have died in her early 20s, though Pitt is very clearly in her 30s, and became a sort of beguiling sexpot of a vampire. There’s no real reason given for her attraction to women, but there kind of doesn’t need to be. We’re led to believe that she has actually fallen in love with Emma and is intensely jealous when the young doe-eyed maiden talks about wishing a big handsome man would take her away somewhere. Emma, being quite gormless, sees nothing out of the ordinary in her new friend’s affection until the end.
Marcilla doesn’t have any problem putting men under her spell either, though it’s much more evident she only does so for practical purposes. When Emma gets sick, the local doctor comes to see her and, with the help of the Mortons’ manservant, fills the room with garlic plants and puts a cross around the young girl’s neck, which of course angers the vampire. She finds and kills the doctor, but decides to make the manservant subject to her and so bites him while they’re in the throes of whatever. Emma’s governess, we quickly find out, seems to be a fan of women herself, given how she turns away a young man checking up on the sick girl. Marcilla doesn’t need to try very hard to get the governess to fall under her spell and at the end of the film, when Marcilla attempts to take Emma back to her crypt, the governess begins pleading for it to be her instead, which leads to Marcilla killing her.
There’s some interesting stuff going on in the film besides all the rampant girl-on-girl stuff, which is somehow simultaneously tame and salacious by today’s standards. The direction was done by veteran film and TV director Roy Ward Baker, who was also one of Hammer’s go-to captains. He lends a very steady hand to the affair and gets good performances out of everyone and doesn’t seem to overplay the sex angle, even if that’s what people were likely going to the movie to see. He’s able to make scenes like the victims’ weird dreams (about a giant cat, for some reason) work by using quick-cutting and over-exposed black and white photography to hide the fact that the “cat” was really just a piece of fur.
Ultimately, the film works because it’s not played for titillation purposes alone and actually attempts to be a new take on the now quite-worn vampire formula that had become Hammer’s bread and butter. While the lesbian angle is probably what is most memorable about the film, it’s justified within the story and especially within its very complicated and half-sympathetic villain. Plus, any time you can get Peter Cushing in there to do some vampire-slaying, it’s going to be a win in my book.