The Vampire Lovers
Review by Mike Finkelstein
We open on an old castle with a mist-covered graveyard. A lone vampire hunter, the Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), is there to wait for the vampire that killed the Baron's own sister. He's surprised (and ensorceled) by the vampire, a lovely young woman. But his cross burns the girl's skin, and when she reveals her deadly fangs, the Baron stakes her.
Years later, at a party, a young countess, Marcilla, is left in the care of the General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing, ever the Hammer standby). While Marcilla is at the General's estate, she befriends his daughter, Laura (Pippa Steele). Sadly, Laura soon takes ill, and when she dies (of vampire bites), Marcilla disappears. Could the two be connected?
Days later, a young countess, Carmilla, is left in the care of Mr. Morton and his daughter, Emma (Madeline Smith). While Carmilla is at the estate, she befriends Emma, but sadly, Emma soon begins to take ill. Could it be the vampires again? Is it Carmilla? How is everything connected?
Ingrid Pitt was in two vampire movies at Hammer Films, The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula, and of the two, The Vampire Lovers is a far superior movie. The script moves faster, the characters are more intelligent, and while the body count is lower, there's more action (and nudity) than the other movie has to offer.
As ever, Pitt does her best when given a sultry role to inhabit. As Marcilla/Carmilla/Mircalla, Pitt is all dusky voiced sex, luring you in with her charisma (and her flesh, of course). The role of Mircalla Karnstein is perfectly suited to her assets, tasking her with being sultry and commanding. Her worst scenes are, certainly, the ones where she was told to act meek or depressed -- Pitt is too bold an actress to be able to pull off quieter scenes. Thankfully, those scenes are few and far between, leaving most of the time for Mircalla to be cunning, sexy, or both.
Madeline Smith also gets a fair bit of mileage out of her character. As written, Emma is the damsel in distress, and there isn't a lot for her to do. Smith gives her a winsome, innocent charm, filling the character with personality and making you actually care about this girl that's slowly being turned into one of the undead. Just enough time is spent with her and Mircalla that you almost feel bad when the heroes come in and muck up their afterlife together.
But, of course, the heroes do show up to ruin the day. As with every Hammer vampire movie, the protagonists are not the vampires but the humans, and the vampires will always lose. This late in the Hammer cycle (the '70s), the formula was well set and the movie follows the same beats as any Dracula movie: a girl starts to grow weak, potentially from anemia. She dies, and when another girl falls ill, the heroes realize vampires are at work. Everyone is all too ready with stakes and garlic flowers, and the vampires always take one day too long to put their plans into action before fleeing the realm. I appreciate that the film uses a female vampire as the lead (a lesbian one, no less, playing around with basic conventions), and that the heroes are thrown off by the fact that the vampire is a woman... but there's still a formula, and it does start to wear out after a time.
And that's the great flaw of The Vampire Lovers: despite being a chance for something new, it's more or less a Dracula flick with a female lead (and lots of nudity -- seriously, whole, long scenes filled with it, so at least Hammer knew how to put butts in theater seats). It's a good movie with all the solid production values one comes to expect from Hammer films, but it's not new or different enough to rise above the other films in the catalogue. It's totally worth watching, but don't expect a fresh experience.