Courageous disc boutique Scream Factory takes on one of Hammer’s biggest embarrassments, that almost everyone connected to it would like to disown. I bailed from my first viewing around 1990 … yet this time around found it somewhat better than I expected. The girlie-show nudity is treated as a special effect, and the story at least hangs together. And like every Hammer horror, there’s a sizable, vocal cheering section out there that sings its praises.
Lust for a Vampire
1971 / Color / 1:85 & 1:66 widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date July 30, 2019 / 27.99
Starring: Barbara Jefford, Ralph Bates, Suzanna Leigh, Yutte Stensgaard, Michael Johnson, Helen Christie, Mike Raven, Christopher Cunningham, Harvey Hall, Pippa Steel, David Healy, Jonathan Cecil.
Cinematography: David Muir
Film Editor: Spencer Reeve
Original Music: Harry Robinson
Written by Tudor Gates, based on characters by Sheridan Le Fanu
Produced by Harry Fine, Michael Style
Directed by Jimmy Sangster
What? This column gripes (mildly) about Hammer’s relatively charming The Reptile, and then wants to say good things about Lust for a Vampire?
No, Jimmy Sangster’s girlie vampire picture is not good, but diehard Hammer fans love it anyway. The well-read students of Richard Klemensen need not look to this review for new revelations, because I’ve barely dipped my toe in the subject. My coverage is geared more toward those that are as unfamiliar with the show as I was.
Hammer brilliantly exploited horror and gave the Brit film industry a major boost, but they only infrequently produced horror pictures to equal their output from 1957 to 1961 or thereabouts. Hammer’s winning Sci-fi streak took a pause after someone decided that their fascinating These Are the Damned was unreleasable. Hammer tried to diversify into action movies, and especially psychological thrillers, mostly from the pen of Jimmy Sangster, but the budgets (and inspiration) were frequently lacking. The Peter Cushing-driven Frankenstein films each found a reason to be, building upon the concept with every new installment. But too many of their other gothic chillers — vampires, mummies, etc, — fell into the rut I describe in my The Reptile review, namely repeating the same slow unfoldment of dusty mystery elements.
The abandonment of the Production Code in the U.S. was almost immediately mirrored in the U.K., likely because the shrinking Brit film industry was desperate for business. Movies that could previously be shown only in Cinema Clubs were suddenly in general release. To reinvigorate the Hammer line of horror, 1970 & ’71 saw the small company turn to ‘adult’ nudity. But it wasn’t accompanied by any refinement of filming style or philosophy beyond direct exploitation. Although directed by Roy Ward Baker and given an impressive cast, the ambitious The Vampire Lovers delivers only a few moments of quality Hammer horror thrills.
Not to make too big a deal of it, but the nudity in Lust for a Vampire looks even more like imagery from 1960 girlie magazine. We might imagine Miles Malleson entering a news shop to buy wrapped-in-brown-paper ‘views’ from The Vampire Lovers. Don’t look for variety: our menu choices are breasts with blood, or breasts without. The casting agents had plenty of ‘dolly girl’ actresses in their books, and many were adventurous enough to welcome the opportunity to play in an erotic movie that had characters and something to say. Hammer instead uses breasts as decoration, or as Jim Wynorski would say, a ‘special effect.’ Thus the pictures become mild embarrassments. The most the actresses could aspire to, would be to become a ‘Hammer horror queen,’ the prime nude example being Ingrid Pitt.
Originally written as To Love a Vampire, Hammer’s follow-up to The Vampire Lovers lost the services of director Terence Fisher and star Peter Cushing just before filming. Having finished The Horror of Frankenstein, former writer Jimmy Sangster stepped in to direct. It’s really a ‘murders at a girl’s school’ tale with vampirism added to the mix, filmed at a handsome country house and on decent studio sets. But the lighting, camera blocking and direction are generally uninspired. Sangster didn’t write the screenplay and he doesn’t bring much excitement to the proceedings. An early scene in the Castle Karnstein chapel surrounds the hero is surrounded with a platoon of menacing vampire women. The reveal of who they really are is pitiful: ‘something spooky is happening here — oops, just kidding.’
Sometime in the 19th century, published writer Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) visits the finishing school of Miss Simpson and history instructor Giles Barton (Helen Christie & Ralph Bates) and is so taken with the gym instructor Janet Playfair (Suzanna Leigh) that he connives to take the place of an arriving literature instructor. Despite being a fox in a henhouse of nubile maidens, Richard restrains himself. The repressed Barton has uncovered occult secrets about the nearby Karnstein Castle, and believes that a new student, Mircalla Herritzen (Yutte Stensgaard) may belong to the Karnstein vampire bloodline. Giles is dead right: using human blood, the equally dead-alive Count Karnstein (Mike Raven) revived/reconstituted Mircalla from the rotted remains of her ancestor Carmilla.
Mircalla responds to the amorous interest of lesbian student Susan Pelley (Pippa Steel) with a vampiric attack. Giles implores Mircalla to induct him into the world of satanic magic, but she has no need of a male disciple. She favors Richard Lestrange’s romantic advances to the degree that she doesn’t attack him. Mircalla’s mother Countess Herritzen (top-billed Barbara Jefford) encourages Miss Simpson not to report both Susan’s disappearance or Giles Barton’s unexpected death. Janet Playfair confesses her love for Richard even as he’s falling under the spell of the seemingly irresistible Mircalla. Yes, Castle Karnstein has indeed become ground zero for a Karnstein vampire jubilee.
Miss Simpson’s school for nudity higher learning specializes in plunging necklines and nonexistent undergarments. It offers a minor in Grecian dancing in sheer satin, while the social life consists of topless get-togethers in the girls’ dormitory. Hammer’s research on the 1830s apparently couldn’t justify a gym with showers. The peekaboo material isn’t all that plentiful, but it just seems… silly.
The school must have a revolving door to facilitate all the nocturnal, let’s slip out together hanky-panky that goes on. The most unintentionally hilarious ‘romantic’ scene is between Richard and Mircalla, out alone at night. The soft-focus softcore sex encounter is at least thematically sound — Richard is smitten, and Mircalla is (theoretically) intrigued by the possibility of non-predatory sex. I suppose that randy Richard should be proud: he’s such a ladykiller, even a vampire falls for him. Their nudie sex scene is tracked with a god-awful vocal song called Strange Love, which makes even devout Hammerphiles cringe and bow their heads. It is soon given a reprise in Richard’s haunted dream.
Although the screenplay is slack some of the acting is not bad. Ralph Bates is all right, while Susanna Leigh is a spirited good girl in a male fantasy: she who does not disrobe will survive. Chris Lee lookalike Mike Raven has the non-appeal of a TV horror host with no sense of humor; his presence is so inert that Hammer saw fit to have the booming, intimidating Valentine Dyall re-voice him. Anyone that has heard Dyall speak as God in Bedazzled, and ‘Dr. Noah’ in Casino Royale will immediately recognize him. It’s a crying shame that Hammer didn’t find a way re-team Valentine Dyall and his equally sinister The City of the Dead costar Patricia Jessel (although she left us in 1968).
There’s nothing commanding or intimidating about Lust for a Vampire’s Karlstein family. They rightly gamble that the incompetent peasants will leave them a loophole for a vampiric revival at some point in the future. When the locals close in with their torches, we wish that Barbara Jefford’s Countess Karlstein could have been given something like Anjelica Huston’s line from the first The Addams Family movie: “Try telling THAT to an angry mob.”
Yutte Stensgaard’s presence in this picture has earned her a slice of movie immortality, according to the Hammer faithful. The doe-eyed vampire temptress Ms. Stensgaard is a gorgeous but empty space at the film’s center. When nude, Mircalla mostly doesn’t move, like one of those English tableaux attractions that allowed nudity if the models remained motionless, as in a painting. Director Sangster gives her innumerable close-up opportunities to gaze in lust, love, menace and lesbian allure… but they’re all the same slightly vacant ‘what-am-I-supposed-to-be-looking-at?’ stare.
There’s also nothing wrong for a performer in any medium to regard their skin as just another costume. That notion was compellingly opined by Mathilda May, the memorable star of the space vampire mini-epic Lifeforce. That said, we still read once in a while of Hammer actresses that were only informed that they were expected to ‘strip off’ on the day of filming. Testimonies like that make the Bray executives sound like a pack of dirty old men.
So, what’s the deal with these nude vampires, anyway? Isn’t gothic horror supposed to be a mix of blood and sex? Creepy sexuality has been a mainstay of horror from its literary beginnings. The tremulous, wraith-like brides of Lugosi’s Dracula were deliriously erotic for 1931 — fantastic creatures waiting for prey in a ghost castle. Vampire women were bound to evolve as movie content became more daring. Hammer pioneered more explicit horror imagery, mixing fangs, sex and vampire vixens intent on perverse pursuits. The ferocious, child-molesting fiend Carol Marsh in Horror of Dracula, and Andrée Melly and Marie Devereux’s eager bloodsuckers in Brides of Dracula are envisioned as animalistic in their sexuality. Adding a glow of sheer madness (or evil unleashed), Andrée Melly suggests a female Dwight Frye.
Evil can surely be ‘as pretty as a picture,’ yet laughter is the most common reaction I’ve seen to Lust for a Vampire’s nude scenes. The glamour photography seems aimed at simple voyeurism. The ‘Playmate of the Month’ incongruity is what seems silly. The sexy nude vampire formula has certainly succeeded elsewhere, in pictures by José Ramón Larraz and Harry Kümel. Those movies are stylized for realism and high art, respectively. In producer Harry Fine’s flatly directed, uninspired show, the nudie angle just detracts from the horror vibe.
But it’s a romantic vampire movie, you say. Lust for a Vampire is way behind the curve on that score. Way back in 1943, Curt Siodmak envisioned an undead tie that binds (and betrays) between Lon Chaney Jr.’s Son of Dracula and the bayou socialite played by Louise Albritton. She WANTS to die, but on her terms.
Hammer was not entirely on the wrong track, commercially speaking. Romantic ‘The Ghoul that Loved Me’ vampires took off in the 1990s, generating big hits based on the notion that living-dead bloodsuckers are swooningly attractive, soulful and sexy. Had Hammer not conceived of sensuality in strictly girlie-mag terms, they might have come through with something good. When Richard Lestrange becomes obsessed with Mircalla, we feel nothing. Is it just the lack of convincingly directed performances? There is just the barest hint that Mircalla is torn between obeying Mom and Dad, and running off with her mortal boyfriend. If her emotional conflict were more developed, Lust for Vampire might resemble The Little Mermaid.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Lust for a Vampire presents a vibrant, accurate transfer for Hammer’s second foray into R-rated girlie horror. The 4k scan has been formatted in two aspect ratios, 1:66 and 1:85. The image is always attractive, something that I could not say for the wilted-looking DVD I once saw.
The extras are spirited. The older commentary with Jimmy Sangster (apologetic), Suzanna Leigh (charming) and Marcus Hearn (thoughtful, informed) is a fun listen, and Bruce Hallenbeck offers another take on a new solo commentary track. In addition to the de rigeur trailer, radio spots and image galleries, a new interview is offered with actress Mel Churcher, who plays one of the finishing school girls. Unless I failed to pay close enough attention, I still couldn’t figure out which smiling beauty on view is Ms. Churcher.
The subtitles were pretty accurate up until a goof that made me laugh. Giles says that Genealogy interests him, but the English sub reads, “Geniality is my hobby.” And Death and Danger are my various Breads and Butters.
And I must add that plenty of Hammerphiles dote on the Karnstein trilogy as core horror erotica. They are invited herewith to enjoy it to their heart’s content. They don’t all say things like, ‘Why doesn’t she bite her on the tit?’
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Lust for a Vampire
Movie: Fair but fair game for unreconstructed girl-watchers
Supplements: New commentary with Bruce Hallenbeck, new interview with Mel Churcher; library commentary with Jimmy Sangster, Suzannah Leigh and host Marcus Hearn; trailer, radio spots and image galleries.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 31, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson