J. Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla, which predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a quarter-century, is credited with originating the popular lesbian-vampire archetype. Accordingly, the various film adaptations of Carmilla are filled with Sapphic eroticism. To date, the most noteworthy adaptations is The Vampire Lovers, a co-production of U.S. drive-in supplier American International Pictures and UK horror house Hammer Films. Starring the lovely European actress Ingrid Pitt, the sleek and titillating movie depicts the adventures of Mircalla Karnstein (Pitt), an Austrian vampire who drifts from one noble household to the next, using aliases to cover her tracks as she seduces nubile women and drains them of their blood. Meanwhile, heroes including the bereaved father (Peter Cushing) of one of Mircalla’s victims try to stop her killing spree.
Directed by Hammer stalwart Roy Ward Baker, The Vampire Lovers tries to be equal parts horror show and romance. At one extreme, the movie features gory neck wounds and an onscreen decapitation. At the other extreme, The Vampire Lovers includes tender scenes of Mircalla cuddling and kissing her sexy paramours. Thanks to Pitt’s elegant presence, it’s possible to read the movie as a character study of a woman torn between animalistic urges and emotional desires—but whenever Baker cuts to leering scenes of topless women kissing, it becomes difficult to attribute The Vampire Lovers with lofty aspirations. After all, the picture includes such raunchy details as a dream sequence in which a young woman imagines a giant cat pressing its mouth to her nether regions. (Paging Dr. Freud!) Worse, the narrative runs out of gas about halfway through, and the acting is highly inconsistent, with pretty starlet Madeline Smith giving an especially vacuous performance.
Nonetheless, the combination of blood and boobs proved attractive to audiences, so Vampire Lovers screenwriter Tudor Gates was hired to write a pair of follow-up features that are known among Hammer aficionados as the “Karnstein Trilogy.” The first sequel, Lust for a Vampire, is a simple romantic adventure revolving around the reincarnated Mircalla (played this time by Yutte Stensgaard). After being raised from the dead by cultish followers, Mircalla takes up residence at an exclusive finishing school for young women, catching the eye of author Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson). Yet Mircalla hasn’t lost her taste for the ladies, because she also sleeps with one of her sexy classmates. Alas, her other appetites remain just as strong, so bodies start piling up in the countryside around the school. Despite the presence of several beautiful starlets and a generally salacious storyline, Lust for a Vampire is exceedingly dull, since the audience can’t play along with the narrative’s whodunit structure. Even the sexy stuff feels overly familiar, although Gates has fun with a key scene—Mircalla, who finds unholy pleasure in biting people, climaxes when her mortal lover goes down on her. (Oral-fixation alert!) Nothing in Lust for a Vampire feels frightening or new or urgent, so all that’s left to admire are the nubile ladies and the usual slick Hammer production values.
Surprisingly, the series’ signature element of lesbian erotica is nearly absent from the final film, Twins of Evil, which is “noteworthy” for featuring real-life siblings Madeleine and Mary Collinson, the first identical twins to be named co-Playmates of the Month in Playboy, circa late 1970. Representing a slight improvement over Lust for a Vampire, the third “Karnstein” movie reintroduces Peter Cushing to the series, albeit playing a different role than the one he essayed in The Vampire Lovers. Here, he’s a devout puritan who becomes guardian to a pair of nieces (played by the Collinsons) when they are orphaned. One of the sisters falls victim to the charms of a male vampire, Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas)., which triggers the usual drill of townsfolk hunting for vampires as the corpses accrue. The shortest of the “Karnstein” movies, Twins of Evil has the least to do with le Fanu’s source material. Cushing’s presence helps tremendously, as does the vigorous musical scoring by Henry Robertson, so Twins of Evil is mildly watchable despite long stretches of tedium. And of course, like all three of the “Karnstein” films, Twins of Evil relies on nudity as heavily as it relies on gore, so fans craving skin will find plenty to ogle.
The Vampire Lovers: FUNKY
Lust for a Vampire: LAME
Twins of Evil: FUNKY