Saturday, October 22, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1970)

What a gruesome (and entertaining) twosome - two seminal horror flicks from a late Hammer Studios (in decline?) in the 1970s. Both films are part of the so-called Karnstein saga (the third was called Twins of Evil), and both dramatize the twisted tale of a female vampire known as Carmilla/Mircalla. The stories are loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu's (1814-1873) novella, Carmilla, first published in 1872.

In The Vampire Lovers, a vampire from the Karnstein clan, Mircalla (Ingrid Pitt), makes a deadly enemy of Peter Cushing's steel-spined military general after she drains the blood of his beautiful and innocent daughter, Laura. Mircalla moves on to seduce another virginal beauty, Emma (Madeline Smith), but the General and a cadre of other Karnstein enemies gather to end the vampire curse.

In Lust for a Vampire, Mircalla is played by sexy Yutte Stensgaard and the story picks up in 1830, as the vampire mistress masquerades as a student and methodically sucks her way through a bevy of school girls.

The Vampire Lovers is a notch above some of the typical Hammer horror fare produced in the early 1970s, for a few notable reasons. First, it's the film (I believe...) that really makes a full-fledged star of Ingrid Pitt, a capable actress with not only the beauty and charisma to play a powerful vampire, but the gravitas too. Secondly, the film boasts the courage to offer interesting insights about Mircalla's cursed existence rather than relying merely on bloodletting and heaving bosoms (though there is plenty of each here, too, so breathe easy...)

"I want you to love me for all your life," a jealous Mircalla says to her dearly beloved Emma, a beautiful girl destined to be her victim in The Vampire Lovers. "It's not the same," Emma replies thoughtlessly, comparing her "fraternal" love for Carmilla to her more romantic feelings for a "boyfriend." This conversation highlights The Vampire Lovers' interesting decision to confront the sexual preference of its villain, and what it means in a society that clearly forbids "alternative" couplings.

For Mircalla genuinely loves Emma and, actually, each and every one of the women she seduces and kills. She doesn't want them to die, but nor does she want to lose them (specifically to men...) either. If they live, they will eventually be "taken" by their boyfriends, never to be hers again. Yet if Mircalla murders the girls she desires, draining their blood, they are just as lost to her. What a terrible dilemma. Accordingly, there is serious melancholy in this vampire...she is truly cursed.

In one monologue, Mircalla spells it all out, making it clear that she despises death for the things and people it takes away from her. This awareness of death, of her role in fostering it, differentiates Mircalla from Hammer's Dracula (usually Christopher Lee). He thrives on death, on seduction, on the corruption of life and innocence. By contrast, one feels fof Mircalla that she is a woman trapped by her nature and her preferences. Her appetites are unacceptable (i.e. lesbianism/vampirism), but she bows to them out of a sense of a biological imperative, out of desperation, also out of a sense of jealousy, perhaps.

In a strange way, these qualities make this cinematic vampire almost human...sympathetic. Are not all of us, at one time or another, slaves to desire? For most of us, those desires, those appetites, fall well into the consensus of "normal" society (heterosexuality). But what of those with "alternative" orientations? Are they merely to hide their needs in dark and secret, like vampires? That is the argument that The Vampire Lovers makes, and one it states rather successfully, I believe.

It is clear that Mircalla despises herself, and how her appetites force her to hurt the very people she longs to share life with. By facing this duality and dilemma in Mircalla's nature (she is both killer and lover to the objects of her desire), The Vampire Lovers offers something that many Hammer films - if I'm being brutaly honest - kinda lack: social subtext. The movie is not all period detail, lush forestry and beautiful woman in diaphanous gowns. There's a point to the violence, to the terror, and that makes it a worthwhile character study, and consequently, a worthwhile film.

And Ingrid Pitt - in my opinion - is the perfect actress to vet this material. She can be simultaneously seductress and vampire, or tragic anti-hero, depending on how the audience seeks to view her. Her portrayal has layers, something that probably cannot fairly be said of the fetching and charming Yutte Stensgaard in Lust for a Vampire. In that film, one does not truly understand who Mircalla is, or why she is that way. But Pitt is a strong actress, a powerful central presence that dominates this film in an unusually masculine and potent fashion. She has the raw power a vampire should embody, but is burdened with the seeds of a conscience as well. Pitt gives the role her all, embodying both the vampire and lover.

The remainder of the movie is, alasm the standard dated vampire thing. The ubiquitous Peter Cushing is present as an aggrieved father, out for revenge, and there are the requisite (and welcome) shots of Pitt's breasts and pubic zone, but The Vampire Lovers works well because it captures the core of the vampire aesthetic: the haunted soul, the eternal torment, the loneliness, the love lost forever. Mircalla is beutiful, powerful, and evil...but tortured. The Vampire Lovers works best when it remebers that even in monsters, the audience looks for identification, for itself.

Lust for a Vampire, as the title indicates, is another breed entirely. This movie is more a romp, as it throws humor, thrills and horrors into a blender yet doesn't emerge as anything of much nutritional substance. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Hammer Studios set a horror film at an all girl's school, and this setting permits for many lascivious moments, all wonderfully lit and composed. In one notable sequence, a bevy of adolescent girls frolic and dance on the school grounds in skimpy dresses that have slits cut all the way up their legs. In another scene, set in a dormitory room, the luscious Pippa Steel thoughtfully massages Mircalla's shoulders, and her blouse "inadvertently" (right!) drops to reveal her ample breasts. Then, because there may indeed by a God in Heaven, Steel obligingly suggest a midnight visit to the nearby lake...and a skinny dip.

At this point in the film, I was totally mesmerized, but my wife was grumbling, and, truth be told, growing a little suspicious. As the camera lingered longingly on the two beautiful girls mixing it up in the water - mostly topless - my wife thoughtfully pointed out that it still appeared to be broad daylight. "Midnight is really bright in England, isn't it?" she quipped with a hint of irritation.

All the better to see those breasts, my dear.

I counted no less than eight shots of beautiful female cleavage s in the film. And then came the immortal love scene in which Mircalla (Iron Willed Queen of the Damned!) is seduced against her will by a randy school teacher. Stensgaard's eyes go crossed and then roll back in her head as she makes love. Humorously, this all happens to the strains of a very seventies pop song entitled "Strange Love."

Predictably, the elements of Lust for a Vampire not involving female pulchritude don't really work at all. For instance, I like how a flaming two-by-four conveniently falls from a ceiling and stakes Mircalla right through the heart. Talk about a lucky shot! And of course, there's the ridiculous and sexist double standard at work here. Mircalla clearly enjoys going both ways (seducing men and women with equal aplomb), but gee, the audience never sees Christopher Lee's Dracula seducing a man, does it? Even more to the point, Mircalla is "taken" by that teacher, not vice-versa. Again, Dracula would hardly be so weak to fall victim to his own prey, right? Poor Mircalla. She's got a long way to go, baby.

All in all, Lust for A Vampire is a brilliantly-constructed male fantasy, but not nearly as interesting, memorable or as thematically resonant, in my opinion, as The Vampire Lovers.

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