Back in their glory days, the vampire-themed horror movies Hammer Films released into an unsuspecting public were always charged with a subtle sexual energy, what with the villains every bit as debonair as the leading men as panting damsels heaved against their blouses as caped noble men became literal beasts, ravishing the neck area at will. However, while some of this could be attributed to subtext, things became all the more literal as the 70’s broke and the powers that be decided to loosely adapt Sheridan Le Fanu’s erotic female vampire tale Carmilla to the screen in their own inimitable style.
The result was the Karnstein Trilogy, three barely connected tales that saw the bloody, morbid and impressively horny antics of the sultry lead character that messed with established vampire lore and heavily went to town on “implied” lesbianism and bisexuality thanks to relaxed censorship laws.
After witnessing a misty flashback that sees the sweaty Baron Hartog as he stalks the shroud wearing, female vampire who fed on and killed his sister, we bounce ahead a few decades to join the illustrious party of General Spielsdorf, who is celebrating the birthday of his comely niece Laura. After conversing with a Countess, he agrees to care for her striking daughter Marcilla whom he welcomes into his home – however, after bonding with (and by bonding I obviously mean seducing) the girl, Laura starts suffering from horrible nightmare of a giant, grey cat and steadily weakens by the day while displaying two puncture wounds on her breast.
Eventually Laura dies with Marcilla disappearing not long after and sensing some sort of fowl play, the Colonal heads off in search of the legendary Baron Hartog in order to try and find an explanation to his terrible loss. However, Marcilla resurfaces as Carmilla, this time burrowing her way into the household of Mr. Morton, his agonisingly naive daughter Emma and her immaculately eyebrowed governess Mademoiselle Perrodot and before you can say “deja vu”, the cycle seems to begin again with Carmilla happily flaunting her nakedness around Emma and not so subtly attempting to awaken her sexuality – something made all the more easier by the fact that Emma has all the common sense and self preservation of a giant baby.
Of course, soon Emma too starts having those cat-related nightmares and start to progressively get ever weaker, but this time the various men in the film are slowly starting to put the pieces together thanks to the actions of a suspicious Butler, a smart doctor and the continued action of the Colonel who, with Baron Hartog, warn Morton about the danger his daughter is in. However, Carmilla isn’t exactly a slouch herself and starts trying to counter these actions by seducing, controlling or killing anyone that is trying to keep her and Emma apart.
In many ways, The Vampire Lovers is a breath of fresh air when it came to Hammer’s fanged output as their continuing adventures of Dracula were starting to (forgive me) feel a little long in the tooth. Kickstarting a string of features that boasted alternate versions of the vampire myth, the studio branched out into other flicks such as the trippy Vampire Circus and the other Karnstein movies that also took advantage of the newly chilled out censors and blurred the lines between vampirism and sexuality further than ever before. In fact, depending on who you ask, The Vampire Lovers was somewhat groundbreaking in its depictions of Camilla’s bisexual attempts to seduces virtually anybody who locks eyes on her sizable… pupils (steady now) and the implied “conversion” to lesbianism that encapsulates the main drive of the plot.
While some may scoff that The Vampire Lovers is hardly a glowing example of LGBTQ+ representation in cinema (someone being “infected” by gay feelings by a seductive monster is hardly endearing) it actually fits in that circle of horror movies that has achieved cult status by cheekily casting queer urges as the villain – see also The Babadook becoming a gay icon and Freddy Krueger essentially becoming a razor-fingered metaphor for homosexuality in the second Elm Street film. Obviously it isn’t exactly subtle or nuanced and at times it predictably veers into soft erotica as both Ingrid Pitt’s Carmilla and Madeline Smith’s Emma bear their breasts at each other as they frolic around the bedroom, but taken in context and properly framed within the period when it was made, it’s a truly interesting example to see how far LGBTQ+ representation has come – and at least Carmilla seems to genuinely care for Emma at the end. It may not have been overly flattering to infer that Catmilla’s victims are essentially “catching gay” and that it takes a cadre of straight, white men to eradicate this menace – but it was a start, I guess.
Switching from dated subtext to the actual film itself, while The Vampire Lovers contains all the hallmarks of a classic Hammer production (lush sets, garish blood, Peter Cushing glaring intently), the story sometimes feels uneven as it tries to add an air of mysteque around the Karnstein name. Both the woman who keeps palming Carnilla off onto unsuspecting families like a mysterious cuckoo is both introduced as her mother and her auntie at different points and the stranger who watches over the whole story while occasionally giving out an evil cackle is similarly unexplained, but I guess their relatives? Also, while an iconic Pitt positively relishes the seduce and destroy mission the script has given her as she leads with her deep voice and even deeper bosom, the hypnotically adorable Smith plays her role almost so ridiculously innocent you wonder if she was raised by a cult – and it’s just plain odd to see Cushing have to have vampire lore explained to him by someone else.
But apart from the plot occasionally quivering as much as the of bottom lip George “Arthur Daley” Cole, the movie becomes fairly gripping as the blind chess game of Camilla versus the disparate forces trying to thwart her blood drinking libido continuously raises the stakes.
Groundbreaking, but very much still the product of its time, The Vampire Lovers is a prime example of Hammer trying something relatively new while still delivering the same gothic serving of murderous melodrama thanks to their induction of more adult themes and weirdly innocent smut.