Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's short story, "Carmilla", was the basis of Tudor Gates' screenplay for Hammer Film's 1970 production, "The Vampire Lovers". The Irish writer published the story in 1872 as part of a collection of five ghostly tales that went under the moniker "In a Glass Darkly". Though this early vampire story was later very influential on Bram Stoker's "Dracula", Le Fanu's reputation as an author didn't achieve anything like ascendency until the Edwardian writer of supernatural fiction, MR James, highlighted him as an influence on his own work. "Carmilla" is a classic example of Victorian supernatural fiction, and is probably most famous today for what seems like an obvious lesbian subtext apparent in the descriptions of the spell that the seductive titular character casts over Le Fanu's female narrator. Lines like: "I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable but was ever and anon mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust", seem to sum up our ideas about Victorian attitudes to the 19th Century taboo of homosexuality and the repression that forced it to seep out in Gothic flavoured tales from the period such as this.
In any case, by the time independent producers Harry Fine and Michael Style came to pitch the idea to Hammer Films of adapting the story for screen, changes were taking place within and around the British film industry that were to ensure that these supposed lesbian undertones would be highlighted for maximum publicity and effect in Tudor gates' script and Roy Ward Baker's film. The new "X" certificate was to be introduced in the year of the film's release, raising the age that cinema-going audiences needed to be, in order to see Hammer product, from sixteen to eighteen, but, ironically, having the unintended effect of enabling film makers to have much more freedom in their portrayal of sex and violence on screen. "The Vampire Lovers" represents the first hesitant toe being dipped in the water before British genre films became swamped in sleaze in their efforts to compete with the explicitness of continental horror. Ingrid Pitt appears in two tantalisingly fleeting full frontal nude scenes, and she and sundry minor British actresses bare their breasts at seemingly every opportunity!
Though the previously chaste Hammer formula, based on the production of adult fairy tales, might seem to be corrupted by this new emphasis on blood n' boobs, in fact — by today's standards — it all now seems rather innocent: the film still has that familiar Hammer feel to it, and the story, although recognisable in the main as Le Fanu's original tale, has been altered here and there to craft it into the tried and tested form that Hammer tales tended to take: Jon Finch's character, Carl Ebhhardt, for example, does not have an equivalent in Le Fanu's story; he has merely been added to play the handsome love interest that all such Hammer films relied on to save the day in the majority of their films up to that point. AIP, the financial backers of most Hammer films at this time, insisted that Peter Cushing be cast to give the film its box office clout, and although his character, General von Spielsdorf, only appears at the beginning and end of the film, his presence adds to the notion that this is really business as usual, despite the welcome addition of small amounts of female flesh! Although taking full advantage of the new liberal regime in censorship, the film actually deals with its lesbian theme in a rather touching, sensitive manner, and is certainly not the cavalcade of sensation and exploitation it was often seen to be at the time.
The tale tells of a mysterious young female who inveigles herself into several motherless households and forms an attachment to the daughters that live there with their patriarchal elderly fathers. The girls grow gradually sick and ever paler, and finally die, whereupon their new "friend" disappears! Le Fanu's tale repeats this plot form several times in little more than sixty pages and "The Vampire Lovers" follows suit. "Carmilla" generates a haunting, tragic quality by suggesting a macabre mystical link between the initial female narrator and the hypnotic Carmilla in telling how both seem to remember dreaming of each-other when they were children. Later though, the narrator is horrified to hear the tragic tale of a friend of her father's, the General, whose own daughter died of a mysterious ailment. He tells of a mysterious woman and her beautiful daughter who appeared at one of their Masques one evening. The girl stays at the General's residence when the mother is called away unexpectedly, and becomes great friends with his daughter. The narrator soon realises that these events mimic her own tale and that the girl who befriended the General's daughter is Carmilla! Furthermore, she is beginning to suffer from the same symptoms as the General's daughter did just before she died. Carmilla is in fact the vampiric descendant of the corrupt Count Karnstein. In this tale, vampires can move about in daylight but must always use the same name, or an anagram of it — thus Carmilla becomes Millarca or Marcilla depending on whose household she is staying in.
The repetition in the film cannot have quite the same effect that it does in the original tale, since we can see immediately that the two incarnations of Carmilla are one and the same person in the form of the photogenic Ingrid Pitt. There is, thus, very little tension or intrigue in the plot and the screenplay omits the strange dream link that is so memorable from Le Fanu's tale. It even unnecessarily repeats several times its opening pre-title sequence in which Douglas Wilmer's Baron Hartog beheads his shrouded daughter with a sword (phallic imagery, anyone?) after learning she has become a graveyard-roaming vampire. Wilmer (who had just retired from the role of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's adaptations of Conan Doyle's tales; a role that his co-star, Peter Cushing, then took over) appears again to explain Carmilla's vampiric originis by explaining how she must also be dispatched by the same method. Instead of the subtle atmosphere of the short story, the film relies a great deal on the immense screen presence of its lead star; although the Polish-born actress, Ingrid Pitt, had already appeared alongside Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood In "Where Eagles Dare" (1968), it is most likely her portrayal of the charismatic, sexy, yet strangely tragic vampire villain, Mircalla (Carmilla) Karnstein that first springs to most people's minds when thinking of her screen career.
Ingrid Pitt's vampire is a long way from the clichéd representations of lesbian vampires one associates with countless European horror movies that have come in the wake of her role. It is much closer to the semi-tragic vampire representation one finds in some of Jean Rollin's more haunting films. Although she does indeed have the ability to weave a hypnotic spell on her young "victims" (here played by Pippa Steele and Madeline Smith respectively), her actions seem to be mysteriously determined by a Dracula-like "man in black" (John Forbes-Robertson), whose presence is never really explained in this film (although it is more obvious that it is Count Karnstein himself, taking revenge upon the descendants of the people who attempted to end his original reign of terror, in the subsequent Le Fanu-inspired Hammer film, "Twins of Evil") but who suggests that Carmilla is merely a pawn in his supernatural revenge scheme.
This is an element added by Tudor Gates' screenplay; another is the ambiguous nature of the relationship between Carmilla and her second "friend" Emma Morton (Madeline Smith) -- not in terms of the lesbianism, which is more than sufficiently highlighted in numerous instances of hair stroking, kissing of the neck (although Carmilla habitually bites her female victims on the bosom!), longing looks and semi-nude romping! — but in the power dynamic between the two. Male vampires are always dominant — utilising controlling hypnotic powers and an overpowering presence to enslave their subjects. Here, Carmilla often seems touchingly out of control of her emotions and appears to genuinely care for her so-called victims. Of course, her ultimate aim is to be joined forever with her "love" in an existence of undead vampire-hood, but there is an added dimension of genuine romance and longing between the vampire and the subject of her attentions here, that we don't find expressed with quite the same level of passion in other Hammer productions.
This is down to Ingrid Pitt, who is capable of alternating between the two poles of mesmeric seductress and clinging lover with compelling ease. As the male protagonists, led by George Cole's Roger Morton and Peter Cushing's General Spielsdorf, close the net around her activities, Carmilla resorts to seducing Emma's Governess, Mme Perrodot (Kate O'Mara) with a moonlit striptease; while head butler, Renton (Harvey Hall), becomes the victim of her animalistic bloodlust when he tries to stand in the way of her visiting the, by now, quite anaemic Emma Morton, whose room has been festooned with garlic flowers. The film ends by reinforcing the sexual status quo (in typical Hammer style) by having Carmilla brutally staked and beheaded — but the triumph of the parental elder patriarchs is not quite so clear cut as it normally is in a Hammer film — especially as Count Karnstein is still free to roam the forests of Styria: a small sign that the sexual politics of the new decade were beginning to make tiny inroads into the essential traditionalism of the Hammer product by extending some degree of sympathy to its tragic female vampire!
Roy Ward Baker's career could be thought to have been in steep decline by the '70s, compared to heights it had reached during the '40s and '50s, for instance. But the high regard and fondness in which the Hammer brand has been held by audiences since, probably means that he is more widely known for these films than any of his others. "The Vampire Lovers" was the first horror movie Baker directed for the Company; before this he had shot various non-horror films for it which included "Quatermass and the Pit" among them. The director proves adept at creating a nice looking picture on the film's small budget and comes up with a few neat in-camera tricks that add an extra air of magic to the events of the film: there is a particularly clever shot where the camera appears to pass through a locked bedroom's key hole; when Carmilla preys upon a peasant girl in the woods, the camera seems to pass, along with Carmilla's outstretched arm, through her window, whereupon the arm becomes a shadow creeping along her bedroom wall before re-materialising at her throat!; There are a few not quite so effective scenes of course: the story's dreamlike episodes where Emma sees a large panther-like cat in her room, end up looking as though a furry rug is being dragged across Madeline Smith's bedcovers!
The film gets adequate treatment on MGM's Region 1 DVD, which is a double bill in their "Midnight Movies" series, where it is paired with Hammer's other Ingrid Pitt vampire movie, "Countess Dracula" on the flip-side. The transfer is anamorphic, though slightly grainier than would be hoped for, in places. It comes with a commentary track moderated by Jonathon Sothcott which features Roy Ward Baker; screenwriter, Tudor Gates; and Ingrid Pitt. Pitt also reads excerpts from Le Fanu's "Carmilla" in an audio recording accompanied by publicity stills and posters, and there is also an overwrought US trailer for the film. "The Vampire Lovers" is not one of the best films in the Hammer cannon but it features many memorable scenes and a wonderful performance by Ingrid Pitt who smoulders across the screen with an adult sexuality only hinted at in previous vampire movies from Hammer.