The Vampire Lovers (1970)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writers: Harry Fine, Tudor Gates, and Michael Style
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate O’Mara, and Peter Cushing

The Plot: The Vampire Lovers tells the slightly episodic story of a powerful female vampire (Ingrid Pitt) who wanders into the homes of affluent families along the Styria countryside. We are first introduced to this stunning young woman when she assumes the name Marcilla and moves into the home of General von Spielsdorf (played by genre great Peter Cushing). Unknown to those surrounding her, Marcilla is sneaking away during most nights and is siphening the life away from the General’s daughter. Although Spielsdorf does eventually try to get his daughter some help, he proves to be too late and Marcilla kills the girl before vanishing into the night. We quickly catch back up with Marcilla and find that she has assumed a new identity, that of a young woman named Carmilla. After manipulating the destruction of her carriage, Carmilla presses her way into the Morton household. Once again, this is an affluent family that has another young daughter named Emma (played by Madeline Smith) who begins to show the same symptoms that afflicted the Spielsdorf girl. Mr. Morton is a bit more proactive, however, and starts searching for anyone who can help him discover what plague is causing his daughter’s illness. Will he be able to stop Carmilla before it is too late?

The Review
While not a film studio that I am an expert on, I wholly respect the Hammer horror tradition. With the films that I have seen, I have felt within them a sense of obvious respect for the genre that has long been missing from the cinematic landscape. Unpretentious, dedicated to legitimate scares, and involved in all traditional facets of horror cinema, Hammer horror movies can be delightfully refreshing despite their “retro” status. Even in a relatively late-era Hammer title like The Vampire Lovers, which splashes the screen with eroticism and gore, the film is still one that perpetuates the traditional mythos of vampire lore. At the time that it was made, it becomes easy to imagine some viewers may have felt that these traditions needed to be spiced up and perhaps hoped that traditional vampire stories could have been told in a way that might seem more fresh. Yet, in our modern era, where vampires have become sparkling creatures who bare little resemblance to the creepy monsters of old, contemporary viewers might be swayed more to a vision of these creatures that is more in tune with the work of Bram Stoker. While The Vampire Lovers, which was made in conjunction with the notable exploitation studio American International Pictures, may be a bit sensational at times, it captures all of the perfect elements from the period that it was made. This is a post-Wild Bunch horror film that doesn’t shy away from the gore, but the horror genre hasn’t forgotten its “spooky” intentions. In this regard, the movie plays like a breath of fresh air.

With a title like The Vampire Lovers, and being based upon the famed novella Carmilla, audiences are apt to expect a great deal of eroticism being put on display within the film. Amongst the Hammer library, it (along with its Karnstein Trilogy compatriots Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil) is well known for its pervasive sexuality. Dealing with lesbian erotica in a subdued-but-obvious fashion, the movie is rather daring for what it does show onscreen. The Hammer studio was well known for its casting of voluptuous and beautiful women, but the films were always shot with a level of prestige that stopped short of being mere cinematic cheesecake. The Vampire Lovers isn’t filled to the brim with sex, but there is an air of sexuality that can be felt throughout the movie. Taking the heightened sexuality found in many vampire stories, Vampire Lovers finds the tipping point between general horror and pure eroticism, and then dances upon it with glee. Famed Hammer doll Ingrid Pitt is the main deliverer of tantalization, but she isn’t alone in scorching the screen. Pippa Steel, Madeline Smith, and Kirsten Lindholm all get some time to tease the audience, each woman showing varying degrees of skin. Yet, after everything is said and done, it is Pitt who manages to ravish the screen with her smoldering sexuality in what was certainly a career-defining role.

The strength of The Vampire Lovers is partly its weakness. While its traditionalist view of horror and scares can be quite appealing, some viewers will be turned off by the familiarity of the plot. Indeed, the Carmilla story has been brought to the screen numerous times throughout the years. The Blood Splattered Bride is only one example of this story being adapted for the silver screen, but The Vampire Lovers has to be one of the most successful adaptations of this particular novella. Yet, with its episodic plot and familiar seduce-then-kill narrative, it is easy to see how some modern audiences will find the story lacking a certain… dare I say it… bite (yes, I went there). This is a legitimate issue within the film and one that might hold some viewers back. However, I am rather familiar with the film and have seen it a few times throughout the years. Yet, seeing it on this latest Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, I was reminded of just how much I do enjoy the film. Capturing both the innocence of a classic horror story, but mixing in the new exploitative elements that were becoming popularized during the seventies, The Vampire Lovers provides a unique viewing experience that I can’t help but adore.

The strongest moments within The Vampire Lovers comes near its end. As the tensions begin to rise and Carmilla begins to take over the household, it’s easy to find yourself wrapped up in the events happening onscreen. The sequences following Carmilla’s attempts to remove the garlic and crucifixes from Emma’s room are some of the best in the film. Director Roy Ward Baker and his editor do a great job in building an incredible amount of suspense during this sequence. With a horseman traveling through the woods, on an express mission to make it to the castle where Carmilla is apparently nearing her goal of hurting Emma, the movie becomes a high risk game to see who will reach their goal first. Despite the fact that viewers may have a vague inclination that ultimately good will assuredly triumph over evil, there’s a vague hint of ambiguity within the film. After all, with this being a Hammer film that features bloody decapitations and more nudity than the average… What rule is there to say that Carmilla won’t kill off the young Emma before her reign of evil is shut down? It is a film that capitalizes on its old and new aesthetics, and it works brilliantly because of it.

The Conclusion
While bordering upon being trashy, The Vampire Lovers retains that same alluring Hammer prestige. It is beautiful to look at and delivers all of the beats that anyone would expect from the famed studio, and then some! There are numerous things to be said about the sexual dynamics within the film, but even taking it at face-value as a mere horror title: The Vampire Lovers stands up. I give it a honorable four out of five. I think it should be a welcome addition to the collection of any horror fan. The special features on the Blu-ray are enough to ensure that. With select readings by Ingrid Pitt from the original Carmilla novel and a very intriguing interview with Madeline Smith, this one isn’t to be passed by.

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