Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lust for a Vampire (1971): or, a Hunk of Burnin' Vampire Love

Have you ever heard that saying, "An old friend you've only just met"? Usually people use it to describe a new acquaintance with whom, for some strange, almost mystical and inexplicable reason, you just have an immediate connection with, a feeling of kinship usually reserved for people you've known and loved for years. It's also used by happy-hour Lotharios who want nothing more than to establish a long-lasting connection in the subject's pants.

Lust for a Vampire and I are like that. On both counts.

Allow me to explain: back when I was just a TV altar boy, in the days before cable, before the internet, even before VCRs (I know it's hard to imagine, kids, but it's true), there were two ways a horror-obsessed lad like me could find out about the mad mad movies I craved. One way was to scour the TV guide every week and stay up late on Fridays for the Weekend Fright Fest, which was usually some boring crappy z-movie from the 60s but was occasionally something spectacular like A Bucket of Blood or Taste the Blood of Dracula. The other way was to go to the local public library and check out all the books they had on horror movies. I did both, and as a result I knew about a lot of films long before I ever got a chance to see them, still images in living color and glorious black and white burned into my impressionable brain.

It was in one of these books--a tome whose title I've forgotten but which I remember was a study of the evolution of the vampire film from Nosferatu to Frank Langella's Dracula (which was a fairly new flick at the time, to give you an idea of the Vicar's age), that I happened upon the picture below:

That woman made a man outta me.

Now, I don't know how many of you have ever been a pubescent boy in the age before the internet, but let me tell you, in those days images like this were hard to come by. You couldn't just Google "outrageously hot Swedish chick with blood all over her boobs" and satisfy your youthful curiosity. To me at that time, this was just a little bit short of a miracle. You just didn't see things like this every day.

Well, unless you could get to the library before I rechecked said book for the 20th time. And you couldn't. People tried.

So now, after all these years, I've finally met my old friend, Lust for a Vampire for the first time. And I must say I'm very pleased to make its acquaintance. Generally considered one of the lesser flicks of the Hammer vampire cycle (though I'm not at all in agreement with that assessment), this movie has everything I could have asked for from it: beautiful photography, gorgeous period costumes, heart-breakingly gorgeous women, and some genuinely perverse and disturbing set-pieces, all tinged with that trademark almost-but-not-quite-camp feel that's so common to the Hammer brand.

And it has that image. Praise be to the Lord of the Undead!

"Cranberry juice? CRANBERRY JUICE?"

The movie opens in a German village in the age of chesty barmaids who dressed like the St. Pauli Girl and were not too particular about taking rides from strangers driving funereal black coaches. Before you can say "Eurobabe Abduction!" one such wench finds herself in the clutches of a mysterious couple in long satin robes, who take her back to a ruined castle and perform a devil-worshipping resurrection ceremony. The male of the couple is played by the wonderfully named Mike Raven (if he didn't have a porn career, it wasn't his name's fault!), who is a perfect Poor Man's Christopher Lee, right down to the sonorous voice, the spear-point widow's peak, and the impossibly bloodshot eyes. He and his lovely assistant sacrifice the barmaid and spill her blood on a dessicated skeleton in the crypt, leading to a wonderful effects scene as the body glows and reconstitutes itself under a white sheet stained with the blood. When the vampire rises, it is revealed to be the Hot Swedish Countess of my youth, Yutte Stensgaard, in all her bloody, tit-hanging-out glory.

We then go back to the village, where novelist and outsider Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson, whose costume and bearing make him look like a very passable Timelord understudy) is macking on the remaining barmaids and alienating the townsfolk by laughing at their silly superstitions about the vampires in the castle on the hill, who seem to come back every 40 years like clockwork to feast on the blood of Eurobabes. After a stern reproof from the pub owner, Lestrange proposes to prove what a bunch of backwards rubes they all are by heading up to the castle himself to show the vamps don't exist. Once in the crypt, however, he encounters a strange gentlemen and three strangely silent women in pastel, see-through gowns. (Zang.) Is he to be the prey of the Legion of Undead Hawtness?

"Who's There?"


As it turns out, the crew is NOT a gaggle of vampires, but a teacher and three young women on a field trip from a nearby girls' school! Lestrange goes back to the school with them, where he meets the Mrs. Garrett-esque headmistress and watches the student body take their daily exercise in "Roman Dancing," each of the girls in see-through togas and all of them HAWT. Unsurprisingly Richard offers his services as English instructor, a position he gains after a little underhanded dealing sends the original prof to Vienna. One of the female teachers, Janet Playfair (played by the beautiful but slightly strange-looking Suzanna Leigh) marks him approvingly.

Of course according to Chekhov's principles of drama you can't introduce a girls' school in a horror movie and NOT have gratuitous nudity and lesbianism, and that's just what we get as enigmatic new girl Mircalla (Stensgaard) and her classmates share a wanton basin-bath scene before Mircalla and her roomate engage in some out-of-nowhere massage and necking. (Ziggity-zang.) The girl goes missing, and the school is in turmoil. The headmistress resists calling the cops because she abhors scandal, and in the meantime the nerdy, Stephen King-like history professor recognizes Mircalla as the spitting image of Carmilla Karnstein, one of the notorious family of vampires said to haunt the nearby castle. Lestrange has fallen hard for Mircalla in the meantime, despite the fact that Janet Playfair is totally crushing on him. More folks die, Count and Countess Karnstein reappear, Richard is torn between his hypnotic slavery to Mircalla and his genuine love for Janet, and the villagers are getting restless and stockpiling torches in preparation for the castle-storming finale.

There's a lot of really great stuff here, so much I hardly know where to begin. For one thing, the movie is gorgeous to look at. The sets, the costumes, the colors, the mise en scene, all top notch, especially in the blood-spilling scenes. One thing you can always count on a Hammer film to deliver is a great visual experience, and Lust for a Vampire is no exception. There are also some great Bava-esque color filters used during a couple of weird dream sequences, and the sex scenes are well-shot and quite arousing all around.

The Vibro-Stake 3000™ had many interesting uses.

The acting is all pretty great as well. Michael Johnson does well as the gadabout skeptical novelist drawn into the world of the supernatural, seduced by the forces of darkness. Stensgaard (who was also a standout in recent Mad Mad Mad Mad Movie discovery Zeta One) is great as the seductive, slightly reluctant vampire woman, and her parents are both delightfully evil and menacing. And the character actors in bit parts also demand notice, from the intense, surly bartender to the ill-fated police inspector who almost blows the lid off the case before being chucked down a well by his quarry. Suzanna Leigh is good as the strong, educated woman who tries to win Lestrange back to the side of good, and Ralph Bates as Giles Barton does fantastic work as the history nerd who longs to join the ranks of the undead. And David Healy as one of the missing students' father determined to find out what happened to his daughter gives a strong, memorable performance as well.

There's a little bit of hilarity too, as when during Lestrange's first trip to the castle we get some clumsy voice-over flashbacks to events that happened less than five minutes before. And the only drawback to Richard and Mircalla's otherwise completely zang-worthy love scenes is the painfully earnest song that plays over them, "Strange Love," which sounds like a Burt Bacharach nightmare and which we get to hear in its entirety not once but TWICE. Brutal.

The vampires are kind of unusual too in that they don't mind coming out in the daylight, seemingly returning to their coffins at night in an strange inversion of the legend, and aren't at all bothered by the prospect of being burned up in their castle by the mob since "Fire holds no death for us!" and they can just reboot the whole enterprise in another forty years. The ending is pretty wild, with an out-of-nowhere cardinal appearance and the mob's blatant disregard of his instructions, and Lestrange having to be rescued by Healy from the burning mansion just as Mircalla meets an accidental and somewhat grody fate.

Suzanna Leigh does a spot-on impression of a Picasso.

In fact, there's so much going on here (I've barely touched on some of the great wry humor of the script, which gave me many pleasant chuckles throughout), that I can't really describe it all. suffice to say it's a lot of fun, very entertaining and even a little scary, and certainly one of the better of the Hammer vampire flicks in my book.

I should also point out that this is the second in a loose "Karnstein Trilogy" that Hammer did, inspired like so many others by the novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, which I guess I'm going to have to break down and read some day. (The other two films are 1970's The Vampire Lovers and 1972's Twins of Evil, both of which are now on my must-be-seen list.) If this is indeed the least of the three as many critics claim, the other two must be fantastic.

I have been handing out a lot of high scores lately, and it's bound to fall off sooner or later, but I can't in good conscience give Lust for a Vampire anything less than 3 Enthusiastic Thumbs. Seek it out, ye fans of blood and boobs. I promise you will not be disappointed.



Karswell said...

I definitely wouldn't call this the worst of the Karnstein trilogy as it's not fair to refer to any of them in this manner. I think it's equally as great as The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil (and Countess Dracula '71.) Can't wait to hear what you think of the others.

Jo said...

Ok, so I laughed a little too much while reading that [hey, I'm a slacker and lurking your blog while at work- oops!]

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Oh this was so much fun to read!
That poster is super cool- on the other hand, that last screen cap- is that a shot of her nostrils from below? rofl :D

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