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The Vampire Lovers (German Blu-Ray Review)

Regardless of how you feel about the film, there is no denying The Vampire Lovers marked an important change in direction for Hammer; the film being one of the first to usher in a fresh, sexually charged era for the studio. What remains downright criminal is the fact that the significance of the film has been sorely overlooked by some fairly weighty commentators in the field. There tends to exist this divide for purists who view the “classic” and “seventies” periods as being disparate in quality; with the latter being judged as cheaper by its association with nudity and violence and therefore low brow in some sense. This is a position that does the film,and many of its peers that followed, a severe injustice on many levels.

Following the film’s release, two more sequels were commissioned, to eventually form the “Karnstein Trilogy” (if you ignore the fourth “unofficial sequel, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, 1974) — Lust for a Vampire (1970), and The Twins of Evil (1971) — but it was this first installment that helped kicked off Hammer’s early seventies experimental period when it blended sapphic lust with female sexual power.

The film has already been released on blu-ray in both the US and UK. Now Anolis Entertainment steps up with their new German release, which, predictably, brims with extra features that go beyond its predecessors, and provides the most complete version of the film to date, (more on that later).

The Vampire Lovers didn’t only refresh the studio’s tired old formula — which had become fixated on Bram Stoker’s legend — but it reinstated Gothic in a distinctly feminine domain in line with true tradition. Tudor Gate’s script is one that continues to remain one of the most faithful adaptations of Sheridan Le Fanu’s original 1872 novella Carmilla (predating Stoker’s Dracula by a full 26 years). And although it is true that the exploits of Polidori’s The Vampyre, Lord Ruthven, preceded them both (1819), if you go back even further the first origins of the literary vampire can be found in Coleridge’s Christabel (1816) and Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth (1797). Stories that owe a debt to ancient myths such as Lilith — the first wife of Adam — and the demonic succubus: all of which are founded on the notion of woman as sexual predator. This idea contrasts with the Byronic anti-heroes of Polidori and Stoker which created the vampire as a male sexual predator styled in some part on Milton’s Romantic Satan (and in some part of Lord Byron himself). Yet, when it came to cinema, somehow these feminine origins were overlooked for many years.

The seventies was an interesting time for the female vampire. Widely absent from most of cinematic history with a few notable exceptions — Dracula’s Daughter (1936); alongside two early adaptations of Carmilla: Blood and Roses (1960) and Camillo Mastrocinque’s The Crypt of the Vampire (1964) — cinema welded the concept of the vampire to male power. This started with Universal’s Dracula (1931), and then Hammer’s Dracula (1958); thus making icons of the two leads, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Hammer, always keen to follow a profitable formula, turned out no less than eight sequels in their Dracula line alone. Yet women were often relegated to mindless minions, or fainting ingénues in need of crosses and the likes of Professor Van Helsing, or a host of dashing young heroes, to rescue them. Then came Ingrid Pitt as The Vampire Lover’s Carmilla Karnstein… and everything changed. This didn’t just have an impact on Hammer’s output, but arguably Gothic cinema across the board, as an entire army of female vampires followed in her wake.

Even though there had been previous incarnations of Carmilla before The Vampire Lovers, and even though in mainland Europe other directors were already experimenting with the vampiric form as distinctly female — this is especially true of Jean Rollin — Pitt’s incarnation of Le Fanu’s legend was a force to be reckoned with, the likes which hadn’t really been seen before. Although it should be noted Hammer had dabbled in the theme prior to this — hints of lesbianism in The Brides of Dracula (1960); Isobel Black’s wild carnality in The Kiss of the Vampire (1963); Barbara Shelley’s bodice bustice libidinal energy in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). Taking her cue from Lee’s sexually potent Dracula, Ingrid Pitt redefined the female vampire as a totem of female power. Following Le Fanu’s novella, with a rejigging of characters — adding in a few new ones, but keeping the same basic concept — the age old vampire Carmilla Karnstein (using various pseudonyms) tricks her way into family homes, using seduction to prey on vulnerable young women, penetrating their dreams, drinking their blood as they sleep. Co-stars Pitt and Madeline Smith — Smith stars as Carmilla’s second and main victim Emma Morton — have both been on record numerous times stating they were unaware of the lesbian context of the original story. Despite this, the subtext left between Le Fanu’s original lines is carved out in no uncertain terms here. Nudie bathing scenes and breast biting aside, director Roy Ward Baker was nothing but faithful to the literary predecessor, putting on onus on the obsessional love story that underpins Le Fanu’s text. Within these limits all kinds of beautiful subtext arises for deeper reading; such as a loneliness of immortality, the need to feel connection, the need to feel love; as well as linking back to traditional female Gothic that explored fears of the time, like the importance of the mother figure within the home (absent here, therefore making the family weak) and the perils of female isolation within the home.

Pitt plays the role with some pathos, breaking the original idea that Carmilla was supposed to appear as a flirty young maiden — the actress was 33 when she took the part — to instead focus on an intensity and passion that comes with the confidence of age. However it is for the sense of exotic eroticism and wild sexually free spirit that she projects, that she will always be remembered in the role. Meanwhile, Madeline Smith was fairly inexperienced when she came to her role as Emma — she had previously worked in television, as well as having a handful of small roles in feature films; including a non-speaking role as a prostitute in Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1968) — but her obvious innocence works perfectly with the part. Joined by Pitt and Smith are a host of recognisable faces amongst which is the inimitable Peter Cushing — who has no more than about ten minutes of screentime in total, but still gets to rush in a play hero — and Hammer glamour icon Kate O Mara.

In 1971 alone there were a whole host of films that followed similar themes or created entirely new ones of their own, finally allowing the female vampire to bask in the rays of the sun; a place where their male counterparts had never dared to tread. Films like Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness and The Velvet Vampire. The film also established Ingrid Pitt as one of the few female icons in classic genre films — alongside Barbara Steele and Soledad Miranda; although Miranda is hardly known outside of niche cult circles — placing her shoulder to shoulder with male peers Cushing, Lee and Price, or their forefathers Lugosi and Karloff. And therefore, if anything The Vampire Lovers demands reconsideration, as a forerunner, as a reflection of female power, and as one of Hammer’s best films of their innovative ‘70s period.

Anolis Entertainment seems to have accessed the same MGM HD master of The Vampire Lovers that served as the foundation for both the Shout Factory (US) release, and the Final Cut (UK) release, minus Final Cut’s additional restoration efforts. What’s unique about the Anolis release is the restoration of a shot of Kirsten Betts’s decapitated head falling on the floor with a thud, in the film’s prologue. In all other versions that shot is cut. The restored edit feels more natural, and while most casual viewers may not notice the difference, for knowledgeable collectors this is a goldmine. Other than that, the viewing experience feels very filmic, with natural film grain underpinning but never intruding on the organic-looking texture. There is no visible DNR or edge sharpening, yet the image looks slightly sharper than Shout’s release. There are some occasional flaws and tiny specs in the film print, but they are of no consequence; in fact they add to the welcome impression that one is watching a film on celluloid. No issues with the soundtrack either, which is full and clear, just like on the previous releases. We are given the original English track and also the German-dubbed track.

For extras, Anolis ports over Daniel Griffith’s 10-minute featurette, Feminine Fantastique – Resurrecting The Vampire Lovers, which appeared on the Shout Factory release. It provides background and context on both the literary Carmilla, and on the film, featuring a lineup of the usual Hammer experts.

Anolis also ports over the original English-language DVD commentary with Jonathan Sothcott, Roy Ward Baker, Ingrid Pitt, and Tudor Gates. This is one of the better “original filmmaker” commentaries, with lots of film industry information and discussion of the film at hand. Ingrid was ill at the time, and doesn’t sound at her best, but that hardly matters. We also get a new German-language commentary from film historians, Dr. Rolf Giesen und Volker Kronz.

Also included is  a 20-minute interview with Madeline Smith, where she discusses her career and the filming of The Vampire Lovers; a 12-minute reading of excerpts from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla by Ingrid Pitt herself; an original theatrical English-language trailer, as well as a German trailer; traversals through the original US press book, the British double-feature press book, and the German press book. Finally, a photo gallery full of international stills, posters, and lobby cards, which are very well reproduced.

The Vampire Lovers is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the genre, and the new Anolis release excels over previous releases with their restored pre-credit sequence. It’s a small, but important restoration, and many collectors will want it in their library. Now if Anolis can get their hands on Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire, we will have the entire Karnstein Trilogy on BD!

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief of Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness podcast. Her writing has appeared in the pages of Fangoria, Scream Magazine (UK) and Gothic culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. She has recently worked a number of liner notes for cult home video label Arrow Films, as well as appearing on camera for them, written for Senses of Cinema and is currently working on a book on Daughters of Darkness (1971) for the Devil's Advocates Series (Auteur).

One comment

  1. Dear Katt, before MGM restored this film in the early 2000s I wrote to them regarding the decapitation shot. They wrote back and denied its existence. Later they came under fire for not restoring the full frontal, and after complaints…well, you know the story. It was funny being told that the decap was my fantasy, but this is and always will be my favourite film and I know it backwards! I was fortunate enough to hit the record button on the VHS the night SBS played their South Bank special re Dracula. That is where the shot has been lifted and it was an extra on the German DVD. The quality of my recording is so much better than that extra, and improved by the application of a noise filtre. In any case at least Anolis has been listening and after your review I instantly coughed up the near $60 for an ‘official’ version in HD.
    A couple if years ago I wrote my own adaptation which one can find on fanfiction.net as Hammer Horror The Vampire Lovers. Thank you for your kind review of my most treasured cinematic moment.
    Don.

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