Hammer Films, famous for its costume drama gothic horror, decided to sex-up its offering with this film, the first in a loosely-connected ‘Karnstein Trilogy,’ based on the 1872 novella Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
Carmilla, which predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a full 25 years, tells of a female vampire named Carmilla, who preys on a series of young girls. At its heart, it’s story of isolation. Specifically that of Laura, a girl who lives with her father, a retired general, in a castle in the forests of Austria. As the novella opens, Laura learns that another young girl who was to visit her has suddenly died under mysterious circumstances. Laura is heartbroken, since this other girl was her only hope for a friend and human companionship.
It is when Laura is at her weakest that Carmilla arrives.
Carmilla seduces the girl, but not in a strictly sexual way (though it’s implied about as strongly as a 19th century novel can). Carmilla is worldly, mature, and confident; the opposite of Laura in every way; and she shows Laura affection (the only true affection she has ever received from someone who wasn’t required to like her). The combination is intoxicating, and soon Laura falls to the strange girl’s charms.
Hammer’s adaptation doesn’t really delve into the more interesting aspects of Laura’s character; the loneliness that grooms her for the vampire. Instead, Laura (and the second girl, Emma) are merely generic ‘innocents;’ whilst Carmilla (or Mircalla) is the ‘bad’ girl. Hammer productions have always had a slight ‘morality play’ aspect to them; and the virgin/whore dichotomy of the two female leads comes from that tradition. The characters are fine and well-acted; but the movie could have been so much more if Hammer had drawn some of the more interesting aspects out of the original story.
The Vampire Lovers tends to jump around a lot. Carmilla’s encounter with the first girl (the one only revealed in a letter in the original novella) is presented in full, basically killing the surprise reveal at the end. At the same time, the slow build-up of the original, as Carmilla’s true nature comes into focus, is largely skipped over; she shows up and is sucking girls off within minutes. Basically, anything that would serve to build tension or create mystery has been stripped away.
Aside from the addition of some light girl-on-girl frolicking; The Vampire Lovers sits very comfortably within Hammer’s oeuvre. It has the same look and feel as all their other films; and the ‘adult’ aspects of the movie are handled with class and subtlety. It’s sure to satisfy hardcore Hammer fans, as well as those that find the studio’s earlier work to be a little too family-friendly.
The Blu-ray looks good, or at least it’s a solid transfer of a somewhat dull and faded print. Scream Factory has included a slew of extras; from commentaries, to documentaries, and a reading of the original Carmilla by actress Ingrid Pitt (Mircalla).