Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Vampire Lovers (1970): or, Love is the Pitts

As a long-time aficionado and part-time scholar of that rarefied subgenre, the Lesbian Vampire movie (it was actually my minor in VHS Seminary), I have by now seen many, many movies based on the original literary Lesbian Vampire tale, Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (which if you haven't read, you can--and should--download for free here). It's really a brilliant and surprisingly modern tale of vampirism as metaphor for human (specifically female) sexuality, psychologically well ahead of its time when it was written in 1872, and a refreshing counterpoint to the Stoker-based, rapaciously phallocentric vampire lore most of us are more familiar with.

Therefore, as a student of all things lesbo-vampo, I've seen dozens of movies that take Le Fanu's text as either a primary or (more commonly) secondary or tertiary source, among them the previously reviewed Christopher Lee chiller Crypt of Horror, the yet to be Vicarized Daughters of Darkness, and the much-geeked over mmmmmasterpiece The Blood-Spattered Bride. But leave it to the equal parts literary-and-titterary Hammer Films circa 1970 to bring us perhaps the definitive movie adaptation of Carmilla, Roy Ward Baker's entirely excellent The Vampire Lovers.

"When you say 'Bite Me,' you'd better mean it!"

The initial flick in Hammer's loose "Karnstein Trilogy" (followed by the almost equally excellent Lust for a Vampire and the soon-to-be-Vicar-viewed Twins of Evil, both 1971), The Vampire Lovers stays remarkably faithful to Le Fanu's story of a mysterious woman who contrives to push her "niece" off on well-meaning aristocratic hosts who little realize that by offering the girl shelter, they are inviting a monster into their midsts. Baker and his trio of writers (including the wonderfully named and prolific Tudor Gates, who also scripted the other Hammer Karnstein flicks as well as a little something called Danger: Diabolik) also manage to take the simmering sensuality of Le Fanu's tale and bring it to a full rolling boil, aided in no small part by the exotic scorching hawtness of Horror Royalty Ingrid Pitt as the sexy undead.

The movie opens with a voice-over narrated flashback in which vampire hunter Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) recounts his experience ridding the local village of a clan of vampires years ago. This sequence really sets the tone for the rest of the movie, as Hartog watches the vampire rise from her grave, completely shrouded in diaphanous purple silk (one HELL of an image, let me tell you) and creep slowly through the thick, eerie fog toward the village for her meal. The visuals just drip Gothic awesomeness, and the excellent score by Harry Robertson hits all the right notes (ba-dump-bump). When the vampire returns, sated, and reveals herself a gorgeous femme fatale, it's all Hartog can do to raise his sword and behead her--one of the only two ways to kill a vampire, as we all know.

Love Bites

Next we're whisked away to a gala ball thrown by General von Spielsdorf, assayed by the inestimable Peter Cushing. (Nota bene: Pete was BORN to wear the Nutcracker-style Prussian military dress uniform.) Crashing the party is a mysterious Countess (Dawn Addams) and her gorgeous, standoffish niece, Marcilla (Pitt), who catches the eye of the General's daughter Laura (Pippa Steel). When Laura jokes with her lover Carl Ebhardt (a *very* Oliver-Reedish Jon Finch) that, the way Marcilla keeps staring at him, "I think she'd like to steal you away from me!" Carl replies significantly, "Nonsense--she's looking at you!" I think we can all see where this is heading.

When the Countess is called away on urgent, mysterious business by her equally mysterious servant (a creepy John Forbes-Robertson, credited here only as Man in Black), the General graciously offers to allow Mircalla to stay with them until her aunt can return. Before long Laura and Mircalla are the best of friends, and Laura starts having terrible nighmares (done in stylish black-and-white) of a huge gray cat smothering her in her bed. His daughter's health deteriorating, the General starts to suspect her attachment to Mircalla is something "unnatural," and hopes to get rid of his mysterious guest. Sadly he's too right, too late, as after an OMG SMOKIN' HAWT supernatural makeout session with Mircalla, Laura expires, drained of life and love. With no reason to stay, Mircalla vanishes as if she were never there.

As you've come to expect from Hammer films of this period, The Vampire Lovers is just absolutely GORGEOUS. The costumes and sets are nothing short of stunning, with wonderful gigantic manor houses and creepy dilapidated graveyards to spare. (From my while-I-watched tweet-log: "How much more Gothic could Vampire Lovers be? The answer is: none. None more Gothic.") The score is almost a character, really amping up the creepiness where appropriate and making the action scenes that much more thrilling, but also lending an eerie, sensuous aural eroticism to Marcilla's seduction of Laura. Add some great camera work--through-wall dissolves, slow-mo corpse-walks, sexy compositions and eerie, effective lighting--and really, there's nothing left wanting. An absolute treat.

"I should like to inquire once again: Who's Bad?"

A few days later, some miles down the road (a not-insignificant distance in these days), gentleman Roger Morton (George Cole) is out riding when he witnesses an amazing carriage catastrophe that dumps a familiar bruised but unbeaten Countess in his lap. This time her story goes that she's rushing to another town because of a family emergency; the wrack of the carriage has knocked her niece Carmilla (Pitt's new alias) unconscious, and while she can't hang around longer than it takes to put the wheel back on the cart, the Countess worries about moving her injured relative. Being a kind soul Morton immediately offers to take Carmilla back to his estate so she can recuperate, where the Countess can pick her up on her return journey in a few weeks. Since Morton has a young daughter of his own, Emma (wide-eyes slice of hawtness Madeline Smith), it'll even be fun--after all, girls love sleepovers.

Carmilla quickly becomes Emma's BFF, much to the consternation of also uber-hott governess Madmoiselle Perrodot, played by the cat-like Kate O'Mara. (Really, there are so many super-gorgeous Eurobabes in this movie, it's a challenge to keep track of them all--you may want to open a spreadsheet.) Early in her stay, Carmilla invites Emma into her room while she's in the middle of a nice HAWT bath, then coaxes her into dropping her petticoats to try on some of Carmilla's fancy dresses. This leads to an all-girl game of "Chase Me Nude Around the Room" that is enough to make anyone's loins reach Ludicrous Speed. When Emma finally wrestles her way into one of her friend's super-slinky dresses, she's shocked at her own sexiness. "What will my father say?" she wonders. "Oh, he will appreciate it," Carmilla says, archly. "Like *all* men."

The Spielsdorf Pattern continues to repeat when Emma also starts having nightmares about a large gray cat. "The cat lies across me," Emma tells Carmilla in horror, "Warm and heavy...and I feel its fur in my mouth!" Well, I don't think we need to consult the Dream Dictionary on this one, do you?

"I mean, it was a cat, and I was eating it! Really hungry for it, you know? WHAT COULD IT POSSIBLY MEAN?"

Here as in Le Fanu's book and other of the better adaptations, the character of Carmilla is a very different kind of vampire than those viewers weaned on Stoker, Lugosi, and Lee are used to. She has no trouble moving around in daylight, and furthermore seems a bit conflicted about her undead state. In a strangely powerful scene Carmilla sees a funeral procession going by the estate, she freaks out. "I hate funerals! You must die! Everybody must die!" she weeps to Emma, holding her close against her heaving bosoms. Obviously being hott and immortal has its drawbacks; Carmilla is very lonely, and doesn't really want to destroy Emma with her hunger for blood. "I want you to love me for all your life!" she says, almost pleads--but of course Emma doesn't know how short a span that's likely to be.

In fact, one of the really interesting thing about Le Fanu's book and this adaptation is the juxtaposition of Carmilla's passionate, destructive love for her victims with the more traditional, heterosexual, phallocentric society that must destroy her. Carmilla wants nothing more than to love and be loved forever in an explicitly lesbian relationship. It's significant that the people who are most threatened and spurred to action by her predations are not the girls--who are largely complicit in their seduction, if admittedly overpowered by Carmilla's supernatural magnetism (when Madmoiselle Perrodot falls under Carmilla's sway as well, she becomes not a passive victim but a jealous lover intent on supplanting Emma from Carmilla's side)--but their fathers, aristocrats all, whose wealth and continued affluence depend upon marrying their daughters off to good, upstanding, manly men like Carl. It is their power structure that Carmilla's "unnatural" love threatens, and while some might point to her fatal kiss as evidence of the cultural bias against lesbianism, an argument could also be made that this too is a metaphor for what happens to girls who buck the phallocentric system. (See also Alucarda, The Blood-Spattered Bride, etc.)

Once Pa Morton becomes really worried about Emma's failing health and her too-close relationship with their houseguest, as if by fate he runs into General Spielsdorf returning from Vienna with an aged but still vamp-hating Baron Hartog in tow. Hartog recaps the opening flashback and fills in a few more unsavory details, including the fact that while he staked most of the Karnstein clan back in the day, he failed to find one grave--that of Carmilla. He's come back with Spiesldorf to finish the job, and Morton's report on the situation back home only adds urgency to their quest.

"Don't worry, baby--we'll work it out."

There are lots of high points in this last half-hour of the film, including Carmilla's hostile takeover of the Morton estate (she bites both Perrodot and manservant Renton--Harvey Hall in an excellent bit part--into subservience), a nosy doctor's prescription of garlic flowers and Carmilla's beast-like vengeance upon him, Perrodot's aforementioned jealous rage and Carmilla's cold shunning of her, and of course the exciting climax (ooer!) with Carl racing to save Emma while Hartog, Morton, and Spielsdorf search the ruins of Karnstein Castle for Carmilla's tomb.

The acting here is mostly excellent, with the notable exception of Madeline Smith as Emma, whose perpetually wide-eyed stare and breathless line readings would really grate on you if she didn't also offer lots of distracting and frankly excellent boobage. Hall is great as the loyal but eventually corrupted Renton, and Finch adds a level of rugged manliness to his glorified walk-on as the de facto young hero. Cushing is great as always, bringing a level of class to the proceedings that only a legend of his stature can--while Hartog is really the Van Helsing in this story, Cushing hangs around to give the vamp hunt an extra level of gravitas and to finish off the last of the Karnsteins himself--because really, who else do you want wielding the stake and hammer?

But of course this is Ingrid Pitt's movie, and she owns it from the first time she's on screen all the way through to her tragic demise. Far from a one-note, bloodthirsty vamp, Pitt plays Carmilla through a wide range of conflicting emotions--beast-like hunger, morbid depression, passionate love, fear, regret--she pulls it all together and makes it work. No wonder this role became one of her best-loved and remembered, even if like many of the famous vampire actors before her she later betrayed a certain reticence about her association with the role. (Apparently at one time Pitt had a bit of a problem with the "Lesbian Vampire" label, claiming that her characters weren't lesbians because vampires and humans were different species--why she thought interspecies beastiality was better than lesbianism is anyone's guess. And thanks to Tenebrous Kate for that little tidbit of information! ;) ) And this is to say nothing of her lip-smacking gorgeousness here--about which there's plenty to be said, believe it.

Pitt Don't Spitt

Of course the Forces of Good prevail as expected, with a group of three aristocratic men forcing their way into Carmilla's secret sanctum sanctorum, stripping her breast bare, and piercing her sensitive organs with a long hard shaft of sharpened wood--and if you don't think that's sexual by this point, you haven't been paying attention. Thus vanquished by the act of penetration, Carmilla's unnatural love is conquered and Emma recovers, presumably to marry young and live a long life pumping out babies for some earl or duke. Happy ending? You make the call.

Obviously I LOVE THIS MOVIE, so it should come as no suprise that it gets an easy 3+ thumbs from me. Probably the best, most faithful adaptation of Le Fanu's seminal (ha!) work of vampire literature, it should definitely be seen by anyone who loves horror, whether you're a fan of the classics or not. And would it kill you to read a book now and then? No, it wouldn't. Get thee to a library!



Anonymous said...

They may be lesbian vampires, but they've got a damn fine-looking man chained to the wall there.

The Duke of DVD said...

An all-girl game of Chase Me Nude Around the Room you say? Consider me sold on this one, dearest Vicar. I gather from your most excellent review that they spared no expense with this movie, what with all the fancy camera work and lavish sets, not to mention the copious use of petticoats, an expense I'm personally trying to cut back on.

Bravo to you, sir, on the most excellent review. I do look forward to giving this one The Official Duke of DVD Award For Excellent Lesbian Vampire Make-outs Captured On Film.

Tenebrous Kate said...

As someone who's enthusiastically in favor of unnatural love, I find Carmilla's death to be tragic in all of her cinematic incarnations. Even though I'm fairly certain that LeFanu and a majority of the filmmakers who built from his source novella intended their message to be one of titillation mixed with a warning against the inversion of sexual desires, Carmilla is such a vivid creature. Death surrounds her, but she fears and loathes the destruction she brings, as you've so rightly observed. She's a reluctant femme fatale with a powerful need to be adored, and I always feel a little bad for the gal who eludes her clutches at the end. I mean--what a HELL of a way to go, really!

Really great work, sir.

Pee Ess: Are you trying to score dates with feminists or what? "Phallocentric" indeed ;D

Anonymous said...

A student of lesbo-vampires...

That's a new one on me.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@jm-kaye--Indeed! Sadly, however, that scene does not appear in the movie itself. In fact, the whole poster is somewhat misleading--still, better that the Floating Heads that make up most of our modern movie sheets!

@Duke of DVD--the first step to overcoming your petticoat problem is admitting you have a problem. ;) As for the make-outs in this movie, they're perhaps not on a level with Rollin's fur-bed, but they're right up there.

@Tenebrous Kate--"a reluctant femme fatale with a powerful need to be adored," eh? Well-put. Sounds like many of the women I knew in my pre-ecclesiastical days. ;) And to answer your question, all the broads dig my phallocentric talk.

@S.V.K.--thanks for stopping by! If you're interested in pursuing a degree in Lesbo-Vampo studies, I'd suggest you start here. Happy hunting!

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