Sheridan Le Fanu’s Tragic Vampire Finally Gets the Film She Deserves.
Unfortunately, trends have a habit of becoming played out, and by the close of the 1960s, the Hammer horror films that had been so shocking and revolutionary found the tables had been turned. Audiences were tired of Dracula and Frankenstein. The release of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 was the first tolling of the bell for Hammer’s style of period piece horror film (Polanski had himself written and starred in a darkly comic spoof of Hammer style vampire films, The Fearless Vampire Killers, in 1967). In defiance of changing tastes, Hammer Dracula films came and went, all to the dissatisfaction of Christopher Lee, who complained about them as often as he appeared in them. Hammer cranked out so many Dracula films, that eventually they had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed “once and for all” more times than anyone could remember. So in 1970, as the company was entering its downward-spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. Distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970, Peter Sasdy) has the count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed, usually by someone other than Dracula. It’s a very good movie, but Dracula himself is even more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films.
The count would limp on through a couple more features, including the sadistic Scars of Dracula (1970, Roy Ward Baker) and the utterly loony, utterly delightful “Dracula among the mods” Dracula AD 1972 (1972, Alan Gibson). At the end of things, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973, Alan Gibson), although entertaining in a very Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula way, put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature but with a rational, scientific explanation into a supernatural demon steeped in religion, and, ultimately, into a spy movie style supervillain. All Drac lacked in The Satanic Rites of Dracula was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
As Hammer entered the 1970s, it wasn’t just Dracula that was faltering. The entire British film industry was once again in free fall. Hammer suffered from a dearth of ideas for new movies that would keep their product fresh in the face of general opinion that, with Rosemary’s Baby out there now, Hammer films were simply outdated and old-fashioned.
Behind the scenes, Hammer was rudderless and without strong leadership or an idea of where the company was going. The old guard had retired or died, and the new blood was flailing, desperately trying to find the direction that would right the once-mighty production house. Everyone felt like they needed to update their image, but no one actually knew how.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: vampire films unrelated to Dracula. Casting around for material, something more daring than another Dracula movie, screenwriter Tudor Gates, who was brought into Hammer along with frequent Avengers screenwriter Brian Clemens in hopes that they might liven up the joint, was handed Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Once again, ten years after Roger Vadim brought her to life (or afterlife), Carmilla would find her way to the screen; and for the first time, the cinematic adaptation would be a faithful retelling of Le Fanu’s haunting classic.
Roger Vadim’s Carmilla film, Blood and Roses, was one of the first French reactions to Hammer Horror. A decade later, Hammer found themselves turning to the same source material as their answer to the decline in their fortunes. One would not think that Hammer Horror, drenched as it was in bright red blood and visceral shocks, would prove to be a suitable style for a story as dreamlike and delicate as Carmilla. And yet Tudor Gates — whose film credit immediately before he set about adapting Carmilla happened to be on Vadim’s Barbarella — found the perfect balance between the gory shock of the Hammer house style and the more romantic, poetic style of Carmilla. Titled The Vampire Lovers and directed by Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker,it was the first straight-forward adaptation of Le Fanu’s story, maintaining the time and place of Carmilla and sticking very closely to its plot. The presence of Peter Cushing adds a sense of continuity with Hammer’s past, but as would be obvious to anyone who had read Carmilla, the most important thing about the film would be who was cast as Carmilla. Before Hammer cast Polish-born Ingoushka Petrov in the role, very few people knew who she was. After she was cast, everyone knew her by her screen name: Ingrid Pitt.
Her early life was harrowing. A Polish Jew born in 1937, she and her family were imprisoned in a concentration camp after the Nazi invasion. Against all odds, young Ingoushka survived. After the war, she found herself in the divided city of Berlin and pursued a career in acting and, like many young hopefuls, worked as a waitress. Still, she managed a few parts here and there, thanks primarily to her stage work with the Berliner Ensemble theater company founded by playwright Bertolt Brecht and actress-director Helene Weigel. Weigel took Pitt under her wing and, in 1965, Pitt made her film debut, a small part in the epic Doctor Zhivago. In 1968, she scored her first major role, in the World War II adventure Where Eagles Dare, alongside Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. On the strength of that performance, she secured the part of the tragic vampire Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers — a part Hammer was finding difficult to cast because of the nudity they intended the role to demand. Pitt shrugged off the controversy, stating that nudity was perfectly natural and that she was more than willing to be Hammer’s first all-nude leading lady.
By 1970, nudity was nothing out of the ordinary in film. Hammer star Oliver Reed provided audiences their first glimpse of full-frontal male nudity in 1969, albeit not in a Hammer film. Indeed many subsequent reviews of The Vampire Lovers made the joke that Hammer finally caught up with the 1960s in the 1970s. What remained controversial, at least to members of the British Board of Film Censors was the lesbianism. Hammer was determined that their film would be faithful to Carmilla and took a stand against chief censor John Trevelyan — ostensibly for the sake of artistic integrity but also because they reckoned lesbianism would sell more tickets. When Trevelyan expressed his inevitable misgivings about the erotic content, Hammer shrugged and claimed there was nothing they could do; after all, it was right there in Le Fanu’s original, written over a hundred years ago. In the end, the BBFC relented, and Hammer was permitted to overtly depict their two female leads locked in loving, lusty embrace.
As she had been with the nudity, Ingrid Pitt handled the lesbian scenes with a shrug and a smirk. Her co-star, Kate O’Mara, was substantially more uncomfortable with such scenes. Even the violence didn’t phase the endlessly game Pitt — and Hammer certainly took advantage of more liberal attitudes toward gore the same as they did nudity. Although possessed of a lush, dreamy atmosphere, The Vampire Lovers still revels in Hammer’s signature bright red blood. Later, Pitt recalled humorously the task of explaining to her relatives movie stills of Peter Cushing brandishing her severed head.
Cushing appears as General von Spielsdorf of Styria, whose niece Laura (Pippa Steel, who also starred in Lust for a Vampire, Hammer’s lackluster follow-up to The Vampire Lovers) befriends a young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) who has been left in their care by her mysterious mother. Shortly after their friendship develops, Laura begins to suffer from nightmares and grows increasingly weak until, finally, she dies of unknown causes. At that same time, Marcilla vanishes. These events, presented in the film’s prologue, are alluded to at the beginning of Le Fanu’s Carmilla and later explained fully in much the same way as they play out in The Vampire Lovers. Other than this slight reshuffling of chronology, The Vampire Lovers hews very closely to Carmilla — an honor Hammer certainly had not done when they adapted Le Fanu’s fellow Dubliner, Bram Stoker.
Marcilla changes her name to Carmilla and, after a staged carriage accident, she is once again deposited by her mother upon an unsuspecting family. Here she befriends a beautiful, lonely young woman, Emma Morton (Madeline Smith, who also appeared in Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, as well as American International Picture’s Theatre of Blood). None of the “is she really a vampire, or is it all psychological?” vagueness of Vadim’s Blood and Roses is present here. Carmilla is most definitely a vampire, feeding upon Emma even as the two women fall in love and Carmilla’s horrible past, in the form of vengeful General von Spielsdorf, threatens to expose her true nature.
Like Le Fanu’s original story, Hammer’s adaptation is notorious for its sexy aspects. And there’s not much point in denying that Ingrid Pitt is a sight to behold and that the film is more than happy to have us behold all of her. But also as with Carmilla, this reduction of the film’s erotic content to juvenile schoolboy tittering misses the fact that The Vampire Lovers is a remarkable, emotional film, and that its saucier moments are handled in a way that balances a beautiful, open sexuality with the desire to shock and titillate. The relationship between Carmilla and Emma is as sweetly and tragically portrayed here as it was in Le Fanu’s story, and the relationship that grows between the two is presented in a believable, touching fashion. Pitt is wonderful, communicating Carmilla’s romanticism, her lust, her vulnerability, and the savage animalistic nature of her curse. Audiences could cheer when Van Helsing finally staked Dracula, even if they loved Dracula, but that’s not the case with Carmilla. When Carmilla finally meets her inevitable fate, it is not a moment of monster-slaying catharsis or triumph. Instead, it is the melancholy culmination of a story full of tragedy. And it is this that makes The Vampire Lovers the definitive Carmilla adaptation, then and still to this day.
The Children of Carmilla
The Vampire Lovers was a success for Hammer at a time when the company was badly in need of some good news. True to form, and as they’d done previously with Dracula and Frankenstein, Hammer rushed sequels into production, creating what became known as the “Karnstein Trilogy.” Lust for a Vampire (1971, directed by Hammer’s long-time screenwriter Jimmy Sangster) stars Yutte Stensgaard as Carmilla. Her co-star, Ralph Bates, called it “one of the worst films ever made.” That same year, Hammer produced the much better Twins of Evil, starring Katya Wyeth as Countess Mircalla, Peter Cushing as a vicious Puritan, and identical twin Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson as the objects of the Karnsteins affections. Twins of Evil, at least, is a worthy successor to The Vampire Lovers and a logical extension of the themes of seduction and duality present in Carmilla. It also features Hammer’s most complex handling of the “vampire hunter,” with Cushing’s fanatic Gustav Weil serving as an indictment of religious zealotry.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save Hammer, and Hammer never seemed to have faith in new ideas — even as they demanded them. By 1972, Dracula was back, hassling groovy teens in swingin’ London. By 1976, with the release of To the Devil…A Daughter (Hammer’s belated answer to Rosemary’s Baby), it was all over. Sleazy, poorly written, poorly acted, and cinematically boring, To the Devil…A Daughter was the final stake through Hammer’s heart…at least until someone bought a vial of their blood, Taste the Blood of Dracula style, and revived them in the 21st Century.
Carmilla, however, lived on and continues still to appear, either as a character or as a pop culture reference. Ingrid Pitt appeared in the Doctor Who serial “The Time Monster” opposite Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, and Doctor Who would later have its own Carmilla in the Fourth Doctor Tom Baker serial, “State of Decay.” In it, Rachel Davies stars as Camilla, a vampire who terrorizes the Doctor’s hapless sidekick, Adric, while attempting to seduce the Doctor’s companion, Romana (Lalla Ward, who also starred in the late-era Hammer vampire film Vampire Circus).
In 1972, Spanish director Vicente Aranda wrote and directed his own Carmilla adaptation, La novia ensangrentada, aka The Blood-Spattered Bride, starring British actress Alexandra Bastedo as Mircalla Karnstein. Aranda intended to use the framework of Carmilla, updated like Vadim’s Blood and Roses to the modern era, as a way to criticize Spain’s fascist Francisco Franco regime and the grotesque caricature of “might makes right” machismo that flourished in Spain at the time. Carmilla is indeed an excellent story in which to explore the concepts of sexism and male domination. Unfortunately, whatever intentions Aranda might have had are lost in the film’s gleefully nihilistic sleaziness. For much of the film’s runtime, viewers are forced to watch actress Maribel Martín subjected to vicious degradation at the hands of her abusive husband, including rape and assault, filmed with an artlessly-leering grubbiness. Like a string of “rape-revenge” movies released around the same time, The Blood-Spattered Bride is an ugly film whose dedication to lasciviousness undermines whatever message it might have hoped to convey. It may achieve a certain “shower after you watch it” success as trash cinema, but as an indictment of male power fantasies…less so.
But Carmilla was able to survive even that foray. She has since been played on television, in 1989, by American actress Meg Tilly. She had her named dropped as the wife of Dracula in the 2005 animated film Batman vs. Dracula. Multiple stage adaptations of the story have been produced, and just about every Goth rock and black metal band ever has mentioned Carmilla at least once. Author Anne Rice cited Le Fanu’s story as her inspiration to write Interview with a Vampire, which came to dominate vampire fiction throughout the 1980s and ’90s. In Japan, which has frequently flirted with Western-style vampire tales, there is a series of novels that pits two high school vampire gangs against one another: the Tepes, which champion a patriarchal structure for vampire society, and the Carmillas, who think a matriarchy would work better. There was even a comedic college kid Carmilla webseries on YouTube.
She is the wellspring from which flows any story involving a vampire queen and, frankly, any story in which the vampire is portrayed not as a gleeful Lord Ruthven style destroyer, but as a romantic and tragic victim of its curse. Carmilla endures because the core themes are endlessly adaptable. It is a story of outsiders, of lonely people who find one another but are doomed. The lesbianism is neither exploitative nor present to be condemned. It is a story of seduction, but unlike Polidori’s The Vampyre or Stoker’s Dracula, the point of the seduction is not to ruin innocence. In Carmilla, and later in The Vampire Lovers, Carmilla is as motivated by loneliness as she is her supernatural hunger, and her love for Emma is true even though it will inevitably destroy the object of her affection.
Whether adapted for the modern era, as it was in Blood and Roses, or set in Le Fanu’s designated time and place as in The Vampire Lovers, or simply present as a shadowy inspiration somewhere in the background, as was the case when Carl Dreyer sat down to create Vampyr in 1930, Carmilla remains with us — as poignant, as eerie, and as relevant as she was when Le Fanu created her nearly 150 years ago. Neither changing tastes nor decapitation nor stake through the heart will end her immortal appeal.
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