Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lust of Evil


Hammer starlet Madeline Smith in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.

WITH an absence of fresh avenues for their monsters to explore, and a relaxation of censorship, Hammer turned to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. A curious mix of traditional vampirism and Irish folklore, the novella overtly uses lesbianism to heighten tension and to symbolise abnormality, and was a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. By adding this explicit frisson to their already luridly realised baronial halls, village taverns and moonlit woods, the studio’s Karnstein Trilogy - all scripted by Tudor Gates - suggests a more obvious deviance and desire, and a recognised stage in which the drama could be played out.

Roy Ward Baker's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is historically remarkable for being the first (and only) co-production of Hammer Films and American International Pictures. While this combination looks promising on paper, the result is an uneven attempt to bring the studio into the late 1960s marketplace by revelling in lesbian couplings and graphic decapitations. In early 19th Century Styria, Carmilla Karnstein (Ingrid Pitt) is insinuated into the household of General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), and the death of his niece soon follows. When Emma Morton (Madeline Smith) begins to suffer from fatigue and anaemia, her fate rests in the hands of her young suitor (Jon Finch) and the vengeful fathers of Carmilla’s previous victims. While too mature and earthy to make an ideal Carmilla – Le Fanu wrote her as a young creature unaware of her destructive effects – Pitt nevertheless displays some memorable vampiric anger, including the panting seduction of a governess played by Kate O'Mara. The central theme of the film is the battle between Carmilla’s brood and the repressed, brutal vampire hunters – Cushing’s General and Douglas Wilmer’s Baron Hartog make suitably grim-faced avengers - reinforcing the question of who represents the greater threat; the uninhibited vampires, or the sadistic authority figures.

LUST FOR A VAMPIRE’s lesbian focus is blurred by its heterosexual romance between Mircalla and the writer turned schoolmaster LeStrange (Michael Johnson, the part a fictional representation of Le Fanu himself). This piece of narrative is appropriately centrepiece in this attractive promotional poster.

The hastily conceived LUST FOR A VAMPIRE never raises above a schoolboy level of eroticism, but this mongrel entry has earned a reputation as a Hammer fan’s guilty pleasure. Here, Carmilla Karnstein is reincarnated as Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard), a luscious seductress who is enrolled at an exclusive girl’s school. The Danish actress is everything a traditional vampire is not: blonde, blue-eyed and with a cleft chin, but she is also enigmatic, mannequin-like and ethereal, with a forbiddingly cold core. The shot of Mircalla sitting upright in her coffin, her bare breasts drenched in the blood of a sacrificial victim, was the company’s most shocking image since Christopher Lee’s entrance in DRACULA. Stensgaard does not possess Pitt’s burning intensity, but her serene, blank-faced detachment is strangely effective.

The final film of the trilogy – TWINS OF EVIL – is, in fact, set 150 years before its predecessors, and is one of the most brutal and brilliant of Hammer’s latter-day oeuvre. Heavily influenced by WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the film substitutes the exploitation of flesh for an intensity and chilling sense of purpose rare in British horror. Madeleine and Mary Collinson, duly cast as titular Frieda and Maria Gelhorn, stay with their puritanical uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing) in conservative middle Europe, where Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) is pitted against Weil’s witch-hunting sect. Cushing gives one of his finest screen characterisations – unwilling guardian to his wayward nieces by day, and ritually seeking out and burning young girls by night. Weil is blind in his devotion to duty, with his interpretation of good nothing more than an alternate evil to that being woven by Karnstein. His death scene – plunging from the Count’s balcony to the stone staircase below, surrounded by his black-clad brethren - provides one of the most memorable of all climactic tableaux.

Peter Cushing in TWINS OF EVIL. The film went into production nine weeks after the death of the actor’s wife, and his performance bears the unmistakable signs of this bereavement. Consequently, a character that easily could have been no more than a religious zealot is transformed into something much more resonant.

Horror is not an obvious genre for locating positive representatives of women, based as they are in the misogynist mythology of the female as either virgin or whore; in spite of the presence of numerous female vampires, the cinematic representation of predatory women is invariably a negative one. Victorian vampire literature reveals a belief in the vulnerability of young girls to the temptation of the flesh, and vampire cinema merely gives this notion a contemporary spin. A young woman, one bitten, will become shamelessly promiscuous and a threat to decent society. Patriarchal control in the form of fathers, husbands, vampire hunters or witchfinders, can reign in transgressional impulses but when all else fails, death is the only solution. Within the society of the undead, the usual rules apply.