Within the more often remembered, even cherished, Hammer Films horror cannon, the inherent, seductive sexuality of the vampire had always been an indirect and coded fact. We knew there was something sensual of the way attractive older gentlemen sought after young, voluptuousness women with a lustful, predatory determination. But by the end of the 1960s, especially after Polanski's 'Rosemary's Baby' and Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' changed the genre, the production company decided to upgrade their signature approach of vampire lore. While their familiar design, mood and gothic atmosphere mostly remained the same, the Hammer films of the 1970s were an attempt to better reflect the contemporary attitudes and concerns of the new counter-culture.
Loosely based on the 1872 novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, 'The Vampire Lovers' was one the company's first experiments. The movie is particularly noteworthy for its explicit depiction of nudity and blatant scenes of lesbianism. Whereas the vampire's sensual attraction was only alluded to in previous films, director Roy Ward Baker ('A Night to Remember,' 'Quatermass and the Pit') here makes it overt and puts it in plain sight. It's a rather valiant endeavor to make the once-great Hammer hip, current and edgy, an effort that would actually manage to keep the company afloat for the rest of the decade. Whilst Baker's direction and Moray Grant's photography show some visible creativity and style, the story, itself, falls a bit short and can feel a little stale in some areas.
Le Fanu's basic storyline remains intact as a carriage accident forces an enigmatic young beauty named Carmilla (Ingrid Pitt) to stay at the home of Mr. Morton (George Cole) where she quickly befriends his daughter Emma (Madeline Smith). Of course, those familiar with the Victorian era book, which preceded Stoker's Dracula by a quarter century, will quickly note the alterations, most notably the amount of sexual explicitness. Although Le Fanu writes with a great deal of prudence expected of the period, there's a clear underlying theme of lesbian eroticism as Carmilla pursues her intended female victims with the same sort of passion and desire as a wanted lover. In 'Vampire Lovers,' the filmmakers, again with the intention of attracting a new generation of moviegoers, bring Carmilla's implied sexual orientation to the forefront with scenes of her and Emma in a naked embrace or flagrantly seducing the Governess (Kate O'Mara) into bed.
Working from a script by Tudor Gates, the adaptation also comes with several other minor changes to the original plot, which is not to say that a comparison between the two is the reason for pointing out the film's faults. In fact, taken on its own, 'Vampire Lovers' is an enjoyable and uniquely entertaining genre entry, a fantastically curious synthesis of erotic horror and the romantically gothic atmosphere in the Hammer Films tradition. The movie is the first in a loosely connected trilogy called "The Karnstein Trilogy," all written by Gates and named after the sultry vampire Mircalla, Countess Karnstein. Each of them features the Carmilla character in some fashion or another while also keeping to the explicit sexuality and eroticism started by this film.
However, if I'm allowed a few negligible quibbles, I'd start with the wonderful Peter Cushing moved to a supporting role and given limited screen time, especially when his General von Spielsdorf is supposed to be a key player in the story. He's great in his portrayal of a father seeking vengeance on the devilish creature that killed his daughter, but he's also sorely missed throughout much of the second act. Then there's weirdly cryptic man in black who goes largely unexplained as he watches Carmilla feed her lust from a distance and appears to be the one in control. But the gravest offense in Gates' script is really the stilted, somewhat pretentious dialogue making the production seem mawkishly amateur and rather corny. Still, it's an amusing and admittedly memorable B-horror picture from Hammer Films, one of the most admired names of the genre.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'The Vampire Lovers' to Blu-ray under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the normal blue case with reversible cover art. At startup, the disc goes straight to a main menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
Carmilla is brought back to life on Blu-ray with several noticeable age spots which tend to distract a bit but for the most part, look to be in great shape for her age. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is sadly littered with white specks, dirt and several instances of brown vertical lines, all of which are more a reflection on the condition of the source and not the quality of the encode.
Although many scenes are poorly resolved and blurry with a slightly thicker grain structure, a majority of the high-def video shows distinct, well-defined lines in the set design, costumes and the baroque architecture of the mansions. Facial complexions are generally healthy and revealing. The 1.85:1 image mostly displays a strong, well-balanced contrast, but there are moments when the picture dulls or looks slightly yellow, which relates back to the print used for this transfer. Nonetheless, colors appear bold with rich saturation in the primaries, and black levels are generally accurate with deep, fairly intense shadows.
Overall, the presentation is quite good with much to appreciate, but it also comes with several noticeable issues related to the condition of source. Given the proper time and restoration, the cult erotic horror film from Hammer could yield some marvelous results.
Things improve dramatically in the audio department with this strong and very enjoyable DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Although labeled as a two-channel presentation, the lossless mix preserves the film's original monaural design by retaining all the action in the center of the screen where it belongs. Despite making the ADR work more apparent, dialogue reproduction is clean, intelligible and generally precise. Ingrid Pitt's accent is thick and apparent while Madeline Smith's voice is as high-pitched as ever. Dynamics and acoustical details are surprisingly extensive with plenty of range and clarity in the higher frequencies, and background activity is plainly audible, generating an expansive and welcoming soundstage. There's also an appreciable low-end that while not extending very far, still provides the high-rez track with noteworthy depth and a good sense of presence.
The first in "The Karnstein Trilogy," all written by Tudor Gates, this stylish if only a bit mawkish adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's novella, Carmilla, is a curious erotic B-horror picture, for it breaks from Hammer Films tradition in an attempt to attract a new generation of moviegoers. In spite of the stilted dialogue and the rather maudlin production, the movie remains amusingly entertaining, rich with gothic atmosphere and wonderfully creative photography, perfectly in tune with the sophisticated customs of the admired production company. The Blu-ray arrives with a strong audio and video presentation, sure to please fans. Supplements are rather small, but the overall package is satisfying.