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Twins of Evil (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
John Hough
Peter Cushing
Kathleen Byron
Mary Collinson
Madeleine Collinson
David Warbeck
Bottom Line: 
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The 17th century, somewhere in Central Europe: orphaned Identical twins Maria and Frieda Gellhorn (Playboy centrefolds Mary and Madeleine Collinson) are sent from Venice to live with their puritanical uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing) -- the head of a merciless Brotherhood of pious local witch hunters, fanatical in their quest to root out Satan’s disciples among the peasantry of the surrounding locales by burning powerless female victims at the stake: their response to a spate of alleged vampire attacks in the villages along the lush woodlands at the foothills of Castle Karnstein.

The twin girls are very different in temperament. Maria is meek, mild and innocent; but Frieda is sexually curious and has cruel, sadistic tendencies which attract her to the decadent local aristocrat Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), who, while lodged in his family’s ancestral castle high above the countryside, indulges his taste for ‘sinful pleasures’  in ‘debauched gatherings’ where ‘unspeakable ceremonies’ involving Black Magic are regularly practiced in the presence of young girls abducted by the Count’s lackeys in order to have them take part in orgiastic rites involving the dark arts. Gustav can do nothing to oppose the Count’s ungodly practices while the nobleman has the backing of the Emperor and his court, but the fanaticism and violence displayed by Gustav’s army of witch-finders is also opposed by the anti-authoritarian village choirmaster Anton Hoffer (David Warbeck), brother of the village schoolmistress Ingrid (Isobel Black) -- especially after Anton falls for the bewitching charms of one of Gustav’s newly arrived nieces, the troublesome teenage Frieda …

Unfortunately, the evil that Gustav and his followers seek to expunge from the earth makes itself known much closer to home than the puritan and his subservient wife Katy (Kathleen Byron of “Black Narcissus”) could ever have guessed, after Count Karnstein inadvertently resurrects his one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old vampire ancestor Countess Mircalla (Katya Wyeth) while dallying in murderous occult blood sacrifices, thereafter willingly allowing himself to be turned into one of her own kind as part of his pact with Satan. The vampirised Count soon converts the uncomprehending Frieda to the cult of the undead with the lure of all the satanic delights the condition entails – and uses her identical-looking sister Maria as a cover while Frieda sets out to wreak havoc upon the village, thus allowing the Count to take revenge upon his righteous opponent by attacking him from within his own household …

The early-seventies were transitional times for Hammer Film Productions. Key personnel such as Anthony Hinds – one of the prime architects of the original Gothic Hammer brand –  had recently left the company, and, having also lost his U.S backers, MD James Carreras began to turn more and more to outside producers in search of ideas, looking to keep Hammer’s remaining British distributors The Rank Organisation supplied with a steady flow of product in a period of great economic instability and a changing marketplace unsteadied by recent liberalising trends in UK certification, introduced by the BBFC in the face of the harder-hitting fare now emerging with increasing regularity from the States, such as Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”.

One of Hammer’s first and most memorable attempts to deal with these challenges was instigated by a small production company called Fantale Films, which consisted of three men: Dublin-born former stage manager, actor and casting director Harry Fine entered the world of movie production by working up from production manager stints on a host of TV dramas such as “Danger Man”, while his first major theatrical feature in 1965 had been Gerry O’Hara’s “The Pleasure Girls”, made for Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger’s Compton outfit. His main partner, Michael Style, was a Canadian producer with a background in children’s television and drama in his homeland, but who moved into producing sport, documentaries and variety shows for ATV in the UK; he met Fine while the latter was an associate producer on Hammer’s TV anthology series “Journey to the Unknown”.

The duo formed Fantale Films with a writer friend of Michael’s called Tudor Gates, whose best known work had been for Mario Bava on his comic-book adaptation “Danger: Diabolik”. The trio first approached James Carreras and Hammer with the idea of adapting the short story “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in 1969, selling it on the basis of its juicy title -- “The Vampire Lovers” – with a story outline that made excruciatingly explicit the lesbian undertones only supposedly suggested by Le Fanu’s original 1871 tale. With the captivating Ingrid Pitt in the title role opposite Hammer stand-by Peter Cushing, the resultant blood-curdling, rushed-into-production potboiler married familiar period Gothic Hammer ingredients with more gore, overt lesbian eroticism and shameless titillation in the guise of more explicit female nudity than had been possible before the introduction of the 18 certificate. The film was a success for Hammer, and led to two more entries, in what became known as its Karnstein Trilogy, being enthusiastically green lit by Carreras before shooting on the first had been completed.

Yet it turned out to be a case of diminishing returns. On the face of things, Hammer’s business strategy was still working well. The company was continuing to turn a profit and its roster of releases in 1971 still looked incredibly healthy. But warning signs were already becoming apparent that the usual Hammer aesthetic with added sex would not be enough to preserve the company fortunes for long: the horror market was being transformed by visionary independent directors such as George A. Romero; and while Hammer was still at this stage a British industry success story, it biggest hit in 1971 turned out to be not one of its many horror titles, but a film spin-off from the popular TV sit-com “On the Buses”. In fact, more and more of its horror product began falling rather flat with modern audiences, who were starting to find the Hammer formula all a bit passé … with or without the oodles of pulchritudinous young female flesh now being put on display! 

“Twins of Evil” was the third and last of the Karnstein vampire films. For although Fine and Styles did moot a fourth entry in the series, to be entitled “The Vampire Virgins” -- well, what else where they going to call it? -- by the end of 1971 James Carreras had passed control of Hammer to his son Michael, who rejected the pair’s pitch for a fourth film and, in any case, was never a fan of their blood n’ boobs approach to the Hammer brand -- especially since both “Twins of Evil” and its rushed predecessor “Lust for a Vampire” had met with poor critical reception and muted audience responses. Looked at again, though, this final flawed attempt to bring a more ‘adult’ slant to the Gothic fairy-tale traditions of the Hammer name has more merits than it does faults. It’s actually a prequel to the two previous films in the series, and uses the Le Fanu Carmilla source sparingly, really only as a kicking off point in fact, for an approach that has much more in common for most of its run-time with the rustic landscape-based historical folk horror of Tigon offerings “Blood on Satan’s Claw” (also from 1971) and the classic “The Witchfinder General” -- with former TV director John Hough channelling some of the late Michael Reeves’ youthful energy and verve into his first Hammer outing, at least in terms of the amount of on-screen violence he ends up bringing to the table.

In fact, in terms of its connection to the other films in the trilogy, and despite its fantastical, European fairy-tale storybook aesthetic (realised so effectively throughout by art director Roy Stannard and Ken Russell’s regular director of photography Dick Bush), after the phantasmagorical scene featuring the vampire Mircalla’s resurrection (one of the most surreally eerie sequences in the whole of the Hammer cannon), and her subsequent incestuous joining with her own Karnstein descendant, the hooded vampire queen is never seen nor mentioned again! Instead the witch-hunting theme and the depiction of the unforgiving brutality of the Peter Cushing character and his godly mob of puritan moral crusaders, actually sees the film connect more with the spirit of Michael Reeves’ excoriating portrait of English Civil War-period unrest in the 17th century, than with the customary division between the forces of light and darkness usually associated with, for instance, Terrence Fisher’s adult fairy-tale version of the Hammer universe.

Cushing’s joyless, gaunt, ashen-faced countenance (the bereft actor had recently lost his beloved wife Helen, and a resigned acceptance of grief is etched into his performance) provides a grim depiction of religious intolerance and the misogyny that invariably comes as part of that package; his violence and the rigid enforcement of his patriarchal rule through fear and threat is opposed by the young David Warbeck’s enlightened, rationalistic and egalitarian village choirmaster Anton -- who attempts to petition the church elders against Weil’s activities in the village only to find himself in danger of becoming one of The Brotherhood’s next targets, along with his innocent sister. In this more sophisticated picture of the world, that Gustav and his men are proved correct about the supernatural threat assailing the countryside does not detract from the fact that the Brotherhood pose just as much of a threat to the well-being of the community as do the parasitical Karnstein vampires and their progeny up in the castle.

Warbeck’s disabling disbelief in such matters is eventually to be overcome (after a moonlit bedroom encounter with the undead Frieda posing as her sister … with Michael Style’s Playboy centrefold discovery Madeline Collinson thrusting both her newly acquired fangs and her bared breasts very much to the fore!) and prompts him to take up arms against the taint of vampirism alongside Weil and his men, without needlessly targeting innocents as the Brotherhood has been doing. Yet this is a much more equivocal take on the nature of the battle between the forces of good and evil than had been Hammer’s usual stock and trade; one that seems more heavily influenced by the social zeitgeist of the times when, in the early 1970s, the debate between the politics of sexual liberation and feminism was in the news like never before.

Ultimately it is class exploitation and patriarchy that are marked down in Tudor Gates' screenplay as the larger evils. Both Gustav and Count Karnstein represent two apparently opposing aspects of patriarchy, and exercise contrasting methods of attaining their power and controlling female sexuality: Damien Thomas’s Karnstein, in displaying the lineaments of a handsomely vulpine aristocratic Devil worshipper -- with his flamboyant crush velvet-and-lace attire -- represents the opposite of Gustav’s austere, poker-faced severity (‘what kind of plumage is this!’ the witch burner indignantly demands of his twin nieces when they arrive at his simple cottage homestead sporting matching green velvet travelling dresses with ostrich feather-festooned hats!) but the libertine Count Karnstein’s attractiveness to the opposite sex and his opposition to Gustav does not mean that he is any less of a threat to local womanhood: while Gustav burns women for the crime of being young, pretty or unmarried, Karnstein exploits their innocence and craving for a better life than that which can be provided in the god-fearing community the Brotherhood enforce by kidnapping young girls and transporting them to his castle lair while in the charge of his snivelling courtier Dietrich (played by a bilious-looking Dennis Price) to take part there in his ‘debauched occult gatherings’. (Gustav’s horrified descriptions of what goes on at these meetings – ‘men and women, stripped naked they say!’ – is exactly what attracts the adventurous Frieda to Castle Karnstein in the first place). Just as Maria and Frieda represent extreme opposites of female gender identity, so Karnstein and Weil act as competing guises for patriarchal control of that identity; Weil’s crusade against evil must be joined with Anton’s sense of justice and fairness in order for the correct targets to be at last identified, namely the powerful Karnstein and his decadent vampiric ancestor. Otherwise Weil is as much of a monster as Karnstein.

Hough, who here employs a large repertory company of cast members from his previous Robin Hood feature “Wolfshead” alongside the pre-cast Cushing and the Collinson siblings, brings the classic Hammer elegance of aesthetic -- with its misty graveyards and Gothic settings -- to his direction but also loads the frame with a newly invigorating dynamism and energy. Composer Harry Robertson picks up on the cowboy imagery Hough injects into his depiction of The Brotherhood (constantly seen galloping about the Black Park locations which double for Mittel-Europe, like a gang of outlaws from a John Wayne flick) by counterpointing the Gothic melodrama and fairy-tale eeriness with a main theme that sounds like it would be more at home in a John Ford Western – an idiosyncratic flourish that provides the film with another reason for seeing it as a work belonging alongside the English Western tradition of “The Witchfinder General” and its ilk than the other Karnstein vampire films. When it comes to the climactic showdown encounter between The Brotherhood and Karnstein, Hough certainly goes all out to try and make this feel like a new era in Hammer’s handling of such traditional material, with the violence quotient becoming noticeably more extreme as the picture goes on: hatchets bloodily bisect skulls, bodies are skewered on stakes and it all culminates with Cushing carrying out a shock beheading on one of his prey before himself succumbing to a gruesome end at the hands of his corrupted aristocratic rival.

The film ends by restoring order in the usual Hammer style, but this time that restoration involves defeating two extremes instead of ennobling one, finding the middle balance between traditionalism and iconoclasm, sexual freedom and stifling censoriousness, and innocence and licentiousness. Despite the unnecessary built-in pandering to slap n’ tickle glamour material thanks to the stunt casting of twin Playboy centrefold Playmates Mary and Madeline Collinson (who also provided plenty of juicy dressing room nude shots for the accompanying publicity campaign – available for perusal in the extensive photo gallery included on this Blu-ray), there is a hint of Hammer reaching for a new level of maturity here, which unfortunately was never fully capitalised upon in the few remaining years left to the company before its time was finally up. Released as part of Network Distributing’s British Film Collection, the HD transfer here is good enough to justify splashing out on another purchase if you’re a fan of this enjoyable, lurid romp, but the only disc extras consist of trailers and TV spots, several photo galleries featuring production images, behind-the-scenes shots, portrait images and promotional material, and a strange deleted scene (standard definition and unrestored) consisting of an anachronistic-sounding musical number sung in Anton’s music class by several of his pupils. PDF press-book material is also available, and a commemorative booklet comes with the disc.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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