It’s not exactly ground breaking to declare that, compared to most other horror movies made at the time, Hammer Films’ output was noticeably hornier than your average fright flick with it’s seductive vampires, female killers and more scattered cleavage than an earthquake at the Playboy Mansion. But as the studio headed into the more liberated 70’s, it undoubtedly reached its climax with a series of pictures that went from plunging necklines to full frontal nudity in a sweatily aroused heartbeat that peaked with the Karnstein trilogy.
For those not tuned in, the Karnstein Trilogy was a loosely connected trio of erotic horror, unconnected to Hammer’s Dracula series that usually saw a reincarnated vampire named Carmilla indulge in lusty antics that pushed the borders of onscreen acts of strongly implied lesbianism. The first of the series was The Vampire Lovers in 1970 and barely a year later, the follow up came. Literally.
In 1830, 40 years after the events of The Vampire Lovers, Count and Countess Karnstein get on the metaphorical blower to Satan and get their seductive daughter, Camilla, brought back from the dead with a bunch of baritone chanting and a sacrificed tavern girl and because the prince of darkness obviously owes them a solid, her moldy bones are revived and reskinned with the ridiculously appealing visage of Danish actress Yutte Stensgaad (filling in for The Vampire Lovers’ Ingrid Pitt).
Elsewhere, horror writer Richard LeStrange has arrived to view the dilapidated Castle Karnstein in order to get some insight into his next novel, but despite the overbearing warnings of the local townsfolk, he heads up anyway and nearly has a conniption when he’s surrounded by numerous young women wearing shrouds. Thankfully, they all turn out to be the students of a fashionable finishing school on an educational trip (still doesn’t explain the shrouds, though…), led by meek headmaster Giles Barton who seems overjoyed that he’s bumped into a famous author and he invites LeStrange back to the school. Being the sort of man who can think of nothing more he’d like to do than openly ogle young girls like a predatory wolf, LeStrange accepts, but its here he meets, new student Mircella Herritzen and is instantly smitten.
Of course, Mircella is actually an anagram of Carmilla and the Bambi-eyed vampire sets about seductively seducing and fanging various girls about the school, but her appetite for supple, female flesh apparently isn’t a match for LeStrange, who has conned his way onto the teaching staff in school the girls in English and profess his love to the buxom, blonde bloodsucker. Surely, this is a relationship that can only end in tears – but whose?
I have to confess that due to availability and time restrictions (oh, and let’s not forget the fact that I’m also unprofessional as fuck)
I’ve actually been viewing the Karnstein Trilogy in reverse order and as of writing, have not yet seen the first installment – however, I’m willing to bet dollars to pesos that The Vampire Lovers is way more engaging that this surprisingly bland slab of dead-eyed erotica that ends up being creepy in all the wrong ways.
There’s numerous things that bugged me about the film and I’ll cover them all as I get to them but the first thing that strikes you about Lust For A Vampire is that even though the horror genre was breaking new ground in sophistication with such titles as Night Of The Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) either already released or poised to rock the genre to its core, this movie feels its prudent to stick to the camp performances and dated practices of the 60’s, inadvertently making its 1830’s antics seem fairly lame. I’m not saying that the film should have been a serious meditation on the emotions cousing through a female vampire who preys almost exclusively on women but finds herself attracted to a man (Chasing Amy with fangs?), but the moment Count Karnstein shows up looking suspiciously like Christopher Lee and starts babbling on about Satan, it feels noticably stagey and more than a little silly.
However, from here, a more disconcerting thread arises as I’m assuming the legitimately unsettling actions of the movie’s hero (and I use that term as loosely as I possibly can) are supposed to be seen in positive light as he conives his way into a teaching position solely to get himself into the middle of a school packed with young, impressionable and obviously attractive young girls. I don’t know, maybe the charscter of LeStrange is supposed to be a headstrong young man in his twenties, but the fact that actor Michael Johnson easily looks north of forty (he was actually around 32) gives the whole thing a noticably distasteful edge. In fact, his desperate attempts to get Carmilla alone in order to profess his love (remember, they barely know each other) makes you openly wonder who the actual predator is, despite the fact that the insatiable Carmilla chews up and discards more young girls than cheerleader tryouts for the Dallas Cowboys.
Now, I understand that a horror film made in 1971, set in 1830 and that concerns itself with the lesbian-tinged practices of a nubile vampire who wears clothing so loose, the lightest of touches send her nudey bits tumbling out for all to see is deliberately going to have murky sexual politics, but Lust For A Vampire is way too flat and cynical to do anything actually interesting with its concept aside from flash an occasional bit of boob and have a muddled sub-plot involving a mystery benefactor covering up Carmilla’s murders. Similarly, the climax is a big old mess that throws in an angry mob, a burning castle and LeStrange desperately trying to save his conquest despite him still being clueless about her vampire nature – but it leaves you utterly flummoxed as how you’re supposed to feel. Are we supposed to feel sad when the mass-murdering Carmilla catches a flaming spike of debris in the chest? Are we supposed to feel sorry for LeStrange that his bout of creepy grooming has ended so badly? Were we actually supposed to see this whole misadventure as a tragic romance and not merely a lurid something for some members of the audience to chuck in the old wank bank for later? Not every horror film should end with so many questions neatly answered, but it feels less born from an artistic choice and more from the fact that the screenwriter had to wrap things up because he was getting tired of typing with only one hand – if you get my drift…
On the plus side, there’s the obligatory flash of style all Hammer movies come equipped with as standard and there is the occasional memorable image with a newly revived Stensgaard, drenched in blood and naked as the day she was born, being one of the rare bursts of nudity that actually means something, instead of merely being there like a cinematic version of a Page 3 Girl.
Presumably the least of the Karnstein Trilogy, if Lust For A Vampire could have kept its member in its pants long enough focus chiefly on the predatory aspects of its villain and not been distracted by the pervy wish fulfillment of its male lead, maybe the movie could have been way more memorable – but it sacrifices it for some cheap titillation and a whiff of some girl on girl action that just ends up being a turn off.