The Vampire Lovers
U.K. / 1970
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Ingrid Pitt
Kate O'Mara
Peter Cushing
Color / 91 Minutes / R
Format: DVD
Double Feature Disc / R1 - NTSC

MGM Home Entertainment
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New Blu-ray edition (April 2013)
Review by
Brian Lindsey
    9   10 = Highest Rating  
Under the auspices of its Midnite Movies line, MGM has just released a double feature DVD of two long-awaited Hammer titles, Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers. Both were filmed in 1970 and star the voluptuous Polish-born Ingrid Pitt in lead roles. Rather than cover both movies in a single review Eccentric Cinema will take a look at each individually. First up: Side B's The Vampire Lovers, which is marginally the superior of the two.
    With the advent of H.G. Lewis' drive-in bloodbaths and Romero's Night of the Living Dead, English language horror films had entered a new era of permissiveness by the late 1960s. As in the '90s, established studios stampeded to tailor their product to the evolving (some would say "devolving") tastes of audiences, tastes whetted by the more daring, sensational fare served up by the bargain basement indies. So it was with Hammer Studios, the venerable British production company that had successfully resurrected gothic horror in movie theaters 'round the world beginning with Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Only now, with the dawn of the swinging '70s, a little extra blood and a lower-cut bodice were not enough. Hammer would continue churning out gothic horror films for a few more years, but its product would be pumped up with a higher gore quotient and outright nudity. The Vampire Lovers which was successful enough to spawn two sequels, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil is a perfect example of this game plan in action.
    A pre-titles prologue set in the 1790s opens the film. In a narrated flashback, Styrian nobleman Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer, The Brides of Fu Manchu) recounts his destruction of the Karnsteins an aristocratic family of vampires who've been preying on the local populace. His own sister among their victims, the vengeful Baron lies in wait at Karnstein Castle to end their reign of terror. One of the undead, a beautiful blond woman, almost puts the bite on Hartog but he decapitates her with a sword. (Hey... did that 18th Century vampire babe have dental fillings?)
    After the opening titles, the story jumps forward 20 years or so. A grand ball is being held at the estate of prestigious Hapsburg army officer Gen. Spielsdorf (Hammer vet Peter Cushing). A noblewoman of Spielsdorf's acquaintance, identified only as "the Countess" (Dawn Addams), appears at the ball with her beautiful daughter Marcilla. Almost immediately a mysterious horseman in black arrives with a message for the Countess. "A dear friend of mine is dying," she explains to her host. Could the general accommodate Marcilla as a guest until her return? The gracious officer accepts soon to his regret. Within days, Spielsdorf's pretty blond niece Laura (Pippa Steele) falls ill with a strange malady, developing anemia and suffering terrible nightmares. She's also become obsessively enamored of her newfound friend, enigmatic house guest Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Uncomprehending, the general can only watch as Laura dies. Marcilla, in the meantime, mysteriously disappears. A short time later George Morton, a rich Englishman living in Styria, chances upon the Countess, whose coach has thrown a wheel. Due to important business, the Countess simply must continue her journey... Could Herr Morton look after her daughter Carmilla until she returns?
    Carmilla is actually Marcilla, whose real name is Mircalla Karnstein (or is it the other way 'round? Hard to keep all these aliases straight!), set to prey upon another fair maiden from a wealthy family. It's not long before Morton's young daughter, the waifish Emma (Madeline Smith), is completely under the alluring vampire's spell. When Morton leaves on a business trip, Carmilla takes advantage of his absence to assert control over the household. In the best of the film's erotic scenes, she wordlessly seduces Mademoiselle Paridot (Kate O'Mara), Emma's protective governess (who's a closet lesbian, apparently). Things don't go quite as planned for the naughty nosferatu, however, as Morton's butler Renton (Harvey Hall) and the local doctor (The Fearless Vampire Killers' Ferdy Mayne) grow suspicious. Spielsdorf too seeks answers to his own recent tragedy, and to this end he seeks out his old friend Baron Hartog...
    The Vampire Lovers should please most Hammer devotees. It's got a fog-shrouded castle, moldy crypts and attractive, nubile young women who spend much of the time in diaphanous nightgowns only this time they actually doff them on screen. Director Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass and the Pit) keeps the pace brisker than usual, employing a more mobile camera than is customary for Hammer flicks. The few gore effects on display (decapitations which barely merit a Blood 'n' Guts icon) are effective. And as always, anything with Peter Cushing in it is worth a look.
    But all is not well in darkest Styria. Production values look threadbare in spots. A whirling cyclorama with trees painted on it to simulate horseback riding during close-ups of the actors is laughably phony. The musical score is either completely forgettable or stridently irritating. A recurring character, the mysterious "Man in Black" a Dracula-type figure who appears numerous times to no real purpose is never adequately explained. Pitt, despite her obvious physical charms, is about 10 years too old for the part of Carmilla; according to a grave marker, her character is supposed to have died at the age of 24. And could someone please tell me where women got false eyelashes during the Napoleonic era?
    Okay, okay, maybe I'm quibbling here... Actually, my impression of the film has improved somewhat with the viewing of this DVD edition, which finally allows me to see it in its proper widescreen format. Pitt, O'Mara (Horror of Frankenstein) and Smith are sexy and beguiling, giving good performances. Ingrid Pitt, despite being in her 30s, is alluring and mysterious enough to carry the film, ably potraying the evil yet sympathetic Carmilla character. Baker's direction and the yeoman cast imbues what is essentially an exploitation film with a welcome touch of class.

The Countess Dracula/Vampire Lovers combo disc is an absolutely terrific value: two Hammer horrors, looking and sounding better than they ever have on home video, accentuated with worthwhile bonus features... and all for less than 14 bucks! Folks, you just can't beat that with a stake... er, stick. (Note: EC's DVD rating of 9 factors in the total value of this double feature package.) Vampire Lovers is presented totally uncut in 1.85:1 widescreen, anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 TVs. The unblemished print looks marvelous, while the disc's mono audio track is clear, crisp, and strong. As for extras, Side B offers the original theatrical trailer and a still gallery accompanied by Ingrid Pitt reading selections from Sheridan Le Fanu's original Carmilla story in her thickly-accented voice. An audio commentary (moderated by Jonathan Sothcott) features Pitt, Roy Ward Baker and screenwriter Tudor Gates. Their chat gets pretty dry (and lapses into complete silence for almost five minutes midway through the film) but may still interest Hammerheads. 8/30/03
UPDATE In April 2013 Shout! Factory is releasing a remastered Blu-ray edition of The Vampire Lovers, containing the extras described above in addition to new bonus material.