Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wendigo Meets THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)

Wendigo doesn't remember when exactly he first saw Roy Ward Baker's Hammer production. The earliest viewing he can remember was an unusual broadcast on our local PBS station on a Saturday night -- unusual for showing the film, if not uncut, than without the nudity cut out. He's unashamed to admit that the nudity, which he had heard of from his monster mags, was a major draw. He was also intrigued by the idea of a whole series of Hammer films he hadn't yet seen, dealing with the evil Karnstein clan. He knew the Karnstein name from the two unofficial tie-ins Hammer made, Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. The actual trilogy -- Vampire Lovers was followed by Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil -- was hard to find back in the Eighties. By the time Wendigo saw the first film, he had read its inspiration, Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla. The movie proved surprisingly faithful, especially compared to adaptations both of us have seen subsequently. The nudity was no shock for him, since the underaged Wendigo had seen Old Dracula at least a decade earlier at one of the last local grindhouse theaters -- he hadn't expected that to be a nudie film, nor did the grandmother who brought him there, but he took it in stride.

What was new, to him, in The Vampire Lovers was the blatant lesbian angle. As he puts it, that element slapped him in the face in a way he'd never experienced before, having seen Dracula's Daughter long before he could infer anything salacious from the title character's conduct toward her female victim. He'd seen it in print, of course, and knew from history how the Elizabeth Bathory legend had influenced Le Fanu. So lesbianism doesn't strike him as an alien implant in vampire cinema. As an "unnatural" act, as it was perceived by the genre pioneers, it was probably a natural fit. Homosexuality in general as a "sterile" relationship defined exclusively in sensuous terms seemed analogous to the victim's romance with the vampire, and the lesbian angle plays on male fears of both the seductive succubus and the romantic friendships of 19th century women. Wendigo suggests that the lesbian seductress archetype has over time transformed the image of the male vampire from rapist to sensual seducer in his own right. On the other side of the equation, feminine weakness seemed to make a female victimized by another female a natural horror subject. There's a misogynist aspect to the archetype, a presumption of omnivorous female sexuality, that's probably still there even when guys consider lesbianism cool. But there's also a fantasy of female empowerment involved, though whether that's a guy's or gal's fantasy is unclear.

Kate O'Mara and Ingrid Pitt are positively glowing after their encounter upstairs.

Wendigo readily admits that he was turned on by The Vampire Lovers, and especially by its star, the late Ingrid Pitt, at the head of a cast of Hammer hotties. They may all be a few years too old for their roles -- Pitt is about a decade too old for hers -- but they leave Wendigo in a forgiving mood. He regards Pitt as one of Hammer's most attractive stars, and she became more attractive to him as she embraced her place in genre history as an enthusiastic commentator and author. In Lovers, Carmilla has a dominant, mocking, feline quality, like a cat toying with mice before devouring them. There's an appropriate inexpressive, poker-faced quality to the character despite her protests of great feeling; Pitt gives off a vibe of an undead creature going through the emotional motions toward a selfish goal. Hammer could have gone too far to make Carmilla a sympathetic character, but Pitt maintains a predatory attitude that keeps you mindful of her villainy. It makes Wendigo think that Pitt would have made a great wicked warden in some women-in-prison film of his imagination.

For all her dominant quality, however, Pitt's Carmilla is not a master vampire. She answers to a character known only as the "Man in Black," presumably the head of the Karnstein clan and the counterpart to "Count Karnstein" characters in later films -- though he could also be seen as the Devil himself. This is a departure from Le Fanu, for whom Carmilla is the last of the line, aided only by a lackey who poses as a mother or maid. That may undercut her power in some eyes, but Wendigo suggests an analogy making her Darth Vader to the Man in Black's Emperor. Carmilla may ultimately be a stooge, disappointingly answering to a man, but she remains formidable in her own right and a dominant power over her victims. Still, there's something sexist about the insertion of this mysterious mute man, as if the idea of an autonomous female master vampire might have been too subversive for Hammer. It's especially odd, given how he's established as the true master, that he's unscathed at the end of the film. It's a unusually open-ended outcome for a Hammer film. If the Man in Black is meant to be the head of the Karnstein clan, leaving him "alive" is almost an announcement of a sequel, though if he's the Devil he could just be some floating element who still ought to have been brought back for a final bow. Wendigo doesn't consider him a bad addition, but does think him an unnecessary one.

John Forbes-Robertson is a passable Man in Black, but Johnny Cash is scarier.

While The Vampire Lovers is probably the best-known film version of Carmilla, it wasn't the first. Hammer came late to the subject, preceded by Carl-Theodor Dreyer's very loosely-inspired Vampyr, by Roger Vadim's nearly-as-loose and much worse Blood and Roses, and the Italian Crypt of the Vampire, which admirably builds plot complications around a fairly faithful core to make a mystery out of the story. Wendigo was recently quite impressed by the stylishness and creativity of Crypt of the Vampire, which he finds visually more impressive, even in black and white, than the mostly set-bound Lovers. Hammer has the advantage, however, in casting, with Peter Cushing as the vengeful General as well as Pitt (while Crypt has Christopher Lee in a mortal role), in scale of sets, extras and costumes, and in more overt sexuality than the merely suggestive Crypt. If gore counts, Lovers's two decapitations are another advantage over the merely creepy Crypt. Some corny crossings (a dagger hilt? really?) are mild demerits, however.

Vampires should know never to bother even coming near this guy.
Cinema's greatest vampire slayer plies his trade in The Vampire Lovers.

Hammer also makes the most of color just as Crypt does with monochrome. Ultimately, The Vampire Lovers' superior fidelity to the original story noses it ahead of Crypt in Wendigo's estimate. It's all to Ingrid Pitt's credit that her picture holds up on fresh viewing against impressive competition. We moved this picture to the top of the to-do pile to honor her memory, and the film did just that. It remains a milestone of British horror and vampire cinema in general.

In memoriam Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010)

This copy of the Vampire Lovers trailer, which stragely lays off the lesbianism, was uploaded to YouTube by Lv99Slacker.


dfordoom said...

The Vampire Lovers is one of the few Hammer movies that seems quite relaxed about being an erotic horror film. The nude scenes don't feel like they were added for commercial reasons. The erotic element is the key to the entire story. All vampire stories from Polidori's 1818 tale The Vampyre onwards are about sex.

And while it was clearly a commercial goldmine the lesbian vampire movie really does get to the heart of the vampire myth, encapsulating so many anxieties about sex. Not just male anxieties about female sexual voraciousness either. I think it also speaks to female anxieties about sex in general.

R. Sterling Gray said...

My favorite Hammer film, hands down.

Samuel Wilson said...

d: I agree with you on the casualness with which Baker introduces the nude Ingrid in her bathtub. I haven't read Polidori but Wendigo seconds your opinions on sex and vampirism.

Speaking for myself, I actually like Crypt of the Vampire better in pure movie terms for its effort to maintain mystery and its overall gothic style, but I can understand why Carmilla readers would prefer the Hammer film. They're both good.