Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla
Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla, at the ball where she meets Laura (Pippa Steele) (Hammer Films)

A Tale of Two Carmillas- part 2: The Vampire Lovers (1970)

The second film in this analysis of two film adaptions of the gothic vampire novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu.

The first part of this article dealt with a little known French adaption of the classic short story (if you haven’t already- read Part 1 here). Next, we will look at the more widely released The Vampire Lovers, British studio Hammer’s take on the story. Although their source material is the same, Et Mourir de Plaisir and The Vampire Lovers are very different films in terms of tone, style and execution.

Setting and atmosphere:

Et Mourir changed the novella’s setting to modern day Italy. The Vampire Lovers sticks much closer to the source material by keeping Styria as the setting. 

Visually, The Vampire Lovers is a more traditional horror movie in that it remains true to the style characteristic of Hammer Horror productions. This is evident in the very opening scene- gothic castle in the dead of night, a vampire hunter hiding in the shadows, the thick white mist and a shrouded vampire creeping through the graveyard. It is a joy to watch for any fan of the studio’s work.

Hammer regular Peter Cushing as The General.

Hammer had become firmly established as a studio making visually stunning and atmospheric horror films throughout the 50s and early 60s- such as Dracula (1958), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Mummy (1959), The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). However in the late 60s and early 70s they found themselves having to compete with more explicit horror films from Europe.

Although Hammer films did not shy away from gore (The Vampire Lovers features two brief beheadings and the obligatory stake in the heart), this was never the mainstay or attraction of their films. The appeal of their productions remains the atmospherics, the roster of regular supporting actors and, increasingly, the attraction of a series of beautiful actresses (Hammer lowered necklines and raised bosoms). The British studio also came up with increasingly kooky and unusual plots (and sometimes not so good scripts) with varying success. A particularly bizarre combination would be that of vampires and kung-fu, as seen in 1974’s Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires!

Portraying the Vampire:

At first glance, The Vampire Lovers seems as if it should be a film which exploits the lesbian aspect of the story- however, as has been mentioned in other critiques, this is not the case. There are three main reasons for this.

Carmilla and Laura
Carmilla and Laura (Pippa Steele)

The first reason is Ingrid Pitt’s multi-faceted performance. Pitt’s portrayal of Carmilla as a tragic seductress allows the audience to feel sympathy with the character. Although Carmilla starts out as a vampire with a powerful hold over her victims, there is a vulnerable desperation with which she disposes those who seek to part her from Emma.

Although she moves on quickly from Laura, she becomes jealously possessive of Emma- even if Emma does not understand her new acquaintance’s feelings at first. Within Carmilla’s exclamations of her feelings towards Emma there is a sense of sadness in both her voice and facial expression. Depending on how deeply you wish to read into the film, Carmilla is aware of her nature as a vampire and also of the impermanence of her relationship with Emma. She is caught in a vicious circle- the women she loves dies because of her and to avoid being discovered she has to escape to yet another unsuspecting household (as in the novella, with the aid of a mysterious countess).

Emma (Madeline Smith) under the vampire’s spell.

Secondly, although this is a film that contains brief nude scenes of the principal characters, it is the male characters who serve as props and the female characters who are the most well developed. Very little characterisation is given to the male characters in the film- Emma’s betrothed is nothing more than an avatar- he is given no real personality. Even when he rushes to her bedside towards the end of the film, it is Carmilla who is still very much on Emma’s mind. Even Hammer regular Peter Cushing is given little to do as Laura’s avenging father, The General, until the final scene (he brings gravitas to the role regardless).

Kate O'Mara as The Governess in The Vampire Lovers
Laura’s Governess’s (Kate O’Mara) attraction to Carmilla is evident in her lingering looks from their first meeting.

Thirdly, the romantic scenes that are in the film are tastefully shot- most of the attraction is conveyed through lingering glances. An especially well done scene is where Carmilla seduces Emma’s Governess (Kate O’Mara). The scene focusses on the longing looks exchanged between the two as the governess follows Carmilla into her room. The music builds to a romantic crescendo as Carmilla undresses and the Governess looks upon her body, thrown into shadow by the darkened room.

Conclusion:

Less serious than Et Mourir de Plaisir, The Vampire Lovers is an entertaining film, saved from occasional cheesy dialogue by some good performances and a wonderful gothic atmosphere. It is widely available on DVD and Bluray in both the US and the UK (The DVD versions being cheaper).

Post Author: RetroRobin

RetroRobin

Into The Retroscope’s founder. RetroRobin enjoys pecking out the forgotten classics and little knowns of yesteryear- specialising in cult Japanese films, 1960s Bollywood cabaret songs, British thrillers and old school adventure games.

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