Wednesday, January 19, 2022

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) Blu-ray Review

The Vampire Lovers (1970) d. Roy Ward Baker (UK) (88 min)

In the late 18th Century, in the Austrian province of Styria, General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) holds a ball celebrating the birthday of his daughter Laura (Pippa Steele), who is engaged to the handsome Carl (Jon Finch). He is pleasantly surprised to see his old friend the Countess (Dawn Addams) along with her daughter, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt), in attendance. When the Countess is called away to attend to a sick friend, Spielsdorf and Laura agree to care for Marcilla, with the two young ladies growing deeply attached. Sadly, Laura immediately falls ill to a wasting disease, punctuated by nightmares of being smothered by a large gray cat, and dies shortly thereafter, with Marcilla disappearing mysteriously into the night. Spielsdorf’s distant neighbor, Roger Morton (George Cole), comes across the aftermath of a carriage accident and takes in the passenger, Carmilla… who uncannily resembles Marcilla. Soon, Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) is also under the exotic young woman’s spell and begins to experience the same nightmares and diminishing health. Meanwhile, the General, through his friend Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), learns of the Karnsteins, an ancient family of vampires, and begins to put two and two (fangs) together….

Predating Bram Stoker’s publication of Dracula by 25 years, Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 vampire novella Carmilla unfolds the Gothic yarn of the infamous Countess Karnstein, an ancient and beguiling bloodsucker who preys almost exclusively on young females, inspiring the entire lesbian vampire subgenre in the process. Fanu’s story was subsequently adapted for the screen as early as Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), with other adaptations such as Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960) and the Italian/Spanish co-production Crypt of the Vampire (coincidentally starring Christopher Lee) to follow. But it was Hammer’s bold and brazen approach, complete with (gasp!) female nudity in the mix, that emerged as the most faithful and successful screen version to date, thanks in no small part to the electrifying presence of Polish actress Pitt in the lead role.

1970 was an interesting year for Hammer. A dozen years into their reign as England’s leading purveyor of genre thrills and chills, they were beginning to exhibit signs of fatigue, laboring to hold the attentions of filmgoers hungry for sexier, flashier, and grittier flavors of horror. Two years prior, their American counterparts had delivered two tremendous shocks to the system from both ends of the economic spectrum: Paramount had released a major, big-budget studio effort in the form of Rosemary’s Baby (directed by Roman Polanski) while George A. Romero’s black-and-white flesh-eating sensation Night of the Living Dead had so disturbed the populace that it helped inspire a new ratings board for general audiences. The UK followed suit in 1970 with an updating of their “X” certificate, bumped from 16 years of age to 18 so as to allow for more adult content, and it was into this “age of permissiveness” that The Vampire Lovers was born. (According to Bruce Lanier Wright, in his book Nightwalkers, The Vampire Lovers was the first horror film to receive an “R” rating under the new MPAA rating system in the U.S.)

While still adhering to their tried-and-true Gothic formula, releasing not one, but two Christopher Lee Dracula films that year (Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula a few months later), as well as a comedic spin on their other classic property, Horror of Frankenstein, featuring a younger, more impertinent version of the beloved baron (played by Ralph Bates), Hammer decided to dip their toe into the sexploitation pool. Having built a reputation as an industry leader and audience favorite by pushing the boundaries of “good taste” for over a decade, their glamorous actresses adorned with all manner of plunging necklines, diaphanous gowns, and fur bikinis, it was time for the struggling studio to see what dispensing with wardrobe altogether would yield.

Producers Harry Fine and Michael Style and screenwriter Tudor Gates, who made up Fantale Productions, approached Hammer’s top man James Carreras with the concept of adapting Fanu’s story, pointing to the opportunity for racier moments. Carreras, who had made a career out of his liking for the ladies, warmed instantly to the idea, and secured a co-production deal with American International Pictures, who had enjoyed much success in the 1960s aping Hammer’s Gothic style with Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films starring Vincent Price. A seeming marriage made in heaven was struck, although AIP insisted on having at least one familiar Hammer face in the mix; Cushing’s agent was quickly called and the ever-pleasant veteran was soon contracted. The rest of the cast was comprised of relative genre newcomers, with Carreras personally securing Pitt’s talents after seeing her in the Richard Burton/Clint Eastwood WWII action piece, Where Eagles Dare (1968). (Goldfinger’s Shirley Eaton was briefly considered before being dismissed as “too old” at 32… the same age as Pitt.)

With production designer Scott MacGregor taking the reins from the legendary Bernard Robinson, repurposing sets like a pro (that’s the same castle from Scars of Dracula in the opening prologue), and Moray Grant, longtime camera operator on numerous Hammer productions throughout the 1960s before being elevated to cinematographer for this film (as well as Horror of Frankenstein, Scars of Dracula, and Vampire Circus), handsomely capturing the proceedings, The Vampire Lovers is a stately affair to behold, recalling the studio’s classic productions. Baker, who had already helmed Quatermass and the Pit, The Anniversary, and Moon Zero Two for Hammer, was tapped to steer the ship in its brave new direction and while he voiced distaste for Gates’ “tarted up storyline” and the insistence on bare boobs and bottoms, he manages to walk a fine line between the regal and the racy.

The old guard of Cushing, Cole, Wilmer, and Ferdy Mayne, the latter of whom having ironically just appeared in Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, lend some much-needed gravitas, while Steele and Smith do their best with underwritten eye-candy characters. Smith is particularly awkward, all doll eyes and little girl voice (which was dubbed by another actress, according to Hammer historian Marcus Hearn), creating such a vacuous presence that it’s hard to muster much investment in her fate.

Busy TV actress Kate O’Mara, who would go on to play the scene-stealing Alys in The Horror of Frankenstein for Jimmy Sangster, fares much better as Emma’s governess and Carmilla’s bewitched consort, Mme. Perrodot, and Kirsten Betts makes a strong impression as our fetching blonde bloodsucker in the opening prologue. (Interestingly, Smith is not even billed alongside Pitt, Cole, Cushing, and O’Mara in the opening titles, but receives third billing to Pitt and Steele, with O’Mara following Cushing and Cole, in the end credits.)

Finch, who would play the title role for Polanski (him again!) in Macbeth as well as the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate feature, Frenzy, is a solid young heroic ingenue presence, although he’s given surprisingly little to do except ride to the rescue of Emma in the final reel and is left completely out of Carmilla’s ultimate fate at the hands of the elder stake club. (Fun fact: Finch was originally tapped to succeed Sean Connery as 007, but declined the role, leaving the door open for Roger Moore. He was also supposed to play Kane in Alien, but had to bow out for health reasons, ceding the insta-iconic chest-burster duties to John Hurt.)

At the end of the day, however, the reason for the film’s enduring popularity is Pitt’s stunning showcase lead turn. It’s fair to say that no one could have anticipated the impact this free-spirited and supremely confident actress would have on the public, but it’s the perfect match of performer and role, with Pitt overshadowing her co-stars in every scene with sheer charisma and sexual energy.

While much is made of the film’s nudity (and she certainly has a doozy of a bathtub scene that sears itself into the minds and hearts of those who behold it), she only doffs her duds on two occasions and spends the rest of the time delivering some impressive emotional scenes, flicking from flirtation to sorrow to rage to animal bloodlust with equal alacrity. With her husky, accented voice, distinctive features, and womanly curves, it’s easy to believe that everyone who comes within Carmilla’s sphere is immediately held sway. Pitt later played the title role in Countess Dracula for Hammer, as well as supporting parts in Amicus’ The House That Dripped Blood and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, but she never again got to shine as brightly as she does here.

The critical and commercial success of Vampire Lovers helped inspire a wave of “erotic female vampire movies” of the 1970s, a surge of sensuality that inspired such notable efforts as Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and The Bare Breasted Contessa (aka Female Vampire) (1973), Jean Rollin’s The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), Vincente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) (in which Mircalla Karstein also shows up), and Jose Larraz’s Vampyres (1974). To be fair, Rollin had beaten Hammer to the punch with The Rape of the Vampire in 1968 and The Nude Vampire in 1970, but lacking the same worldwide brand appeal as the venerable studio, they did not exude much influence.

It’s worth commenting that Gates (Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik), who penned the follow-ups Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil (both 1971) for Hammer, creating what is commonly recognized as “The Karnstein Trilogy,” does venture some daring tweaks on established vampire tropes. Carmilla is able to roam about in daylight (though she prefers the shade), drinks wine, and casts a reflection, although she is still repelled by garlic and crosses. She has the ability to dematerialize at will (magic!) and her victims don’t automatically return from the dead as fellow vampires. (They just, well, die.) Carmilla also has the saucy habit of biting and feeding from her favorite female companions’ breasts when she wants to prolong the relationship, whereas she heads straight for the jugular of the commonplace victim. (Her capable canines are used primarily to feed off women and murder men.) Also introduced is the novel notion of a vampire being unable to return to its grave if its burial shroud has been stolen.

That’s not to say that everything goes down as smoothly. We are frequently shown a mysterious Man in Black (John Forbes-Robertson, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) who seems to follow Carmilla about, lurking at the fringes of the story, laughing maniacally and flashing fangs without any discernible impact on the plot. There’s also the slight issue of the second act basically repeating the action of the first, with Emma’s weakening state mirroring that of Laura’s, allowing the audience to get ahead of the characters and the action. Problematic for a different reason is a climax that features a band of old white men, ostensibly our heroes, marshaling forces to put down this uprising of sexually free young women exhibiting “deviant” behavior.

An important moment in Hammer’s legacy, The Vampire Lovers remains probably the best-loved non-Dracula vampire effort in their estimable canon. While the rest of the 1970s were a rocky ride that would eventually lead to the studio’s doors being shuttered a few years later, here is a brief moment of optimism which introduced the world to the wonder that is Ingrid Pitt. Kudos to Shout! Factory for its new Blu-ray package, updating and improving their 2013 hi-def release (and leaving your old MGM Midnite Movies double feature with Countess Dracula in the dust), which includes three commentary tracks and a bounty of interviews new and old, including one with Smith where she recounts the delightful if improbable tale of how she went from flat-chested to va-va-voom in a matter of weeks by gorging on farm-fresh yogurt!


NEW 4K scan from the original camera negative
NEW Audio Commentary with Film Historian/Author Dr. Steve Haberman and Film Historian/Filmmaker Constantine Nasr
Audio Commentary with Director Roy Ward Baker, Actress Ingrid Pitt, and Screenwriter Tudor Gates
Audio Commentary with Film Historians Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby

NEW The Rapture Of Cruelty: Carmilla In Classic Cinema – An Audio Essay read by Madeline Smith
NEW To Love A Vampire – An Introduction by Madeline Smith
NEW Carnal Crimson – Film Historian/Author Kim Newman on the “Carmilla” legend
NEW Fangs For The Memories – Film Historian/Author Jonathan Rigby Remembers THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
Feminine Fantastique – Resurrecting THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
New Blood: Hammer Enters The 70s – Film Historians Discuss Hammer Films
Madeline Smith: Vampire Lover – An Interview with Madeline Smith
Reading of “Carmilla” by Ingrid Pitt
Deleted Shot of The Opening Beheading
Trailers From Hell: Mick Garris on THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
Theatrical Trailer
Radio Spots
Photo Galleries – Movie Stills, Behind-The-Scenes Stills, Posters, and Lobby Cards
NEW cover art by Mark Maddox


Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat and I sat down this week to talk about the film on the YouTubes! Check out our conversation HERE:

The Vampire Lovers is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:



  1. GREAT review, Dr.AC! Always loved this one.


    1. Thanks, Big Swifty! Great to see you chiming in over here. Hope you enjoy looking around!