Hammer Vampire Triple Feature Reviews – The Karnstein Trilogy

“The trouble with this part of the world is that they have too many fairy tales.”

My experience of Hammer horror is pretty spotty. I’ve seen quite a few of their classic monster films – the Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy movies. Quatermass and the Pit remains a favorite, and I’ve seen a few others here and there – The Devil Rides Out and Plague of the Zombies, for instance. I still haven’t seen Curse of the Werewolf, though, or The Witches. And until this weekend I hadn’t seen the complete Karnstein trilogy.

I stumbled across Twins of Evil while looking for a theme for the weekend. I was looking through my collection and realized that I have a copy of Twins that I’ve never watched. I knew it was part of the Karnstein trilogy of vampire films, but didn’t know exactly where it fit in. I decided to watch it anyway, only to discover it’s the LAST film in the series! It doesn’t really matter, though, as it seems to be a prequel of sorts – the Karnsteins start out the film alive and distinctly non-vampiric. I watched the other two in short order – with The Vampire Lovers being the only one of the series I’d seen before.

The Mediums
As seems the norm for the modern streaming diaspora, the Karnstein films are spread across a number of services. I watched The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil on Shudder and rented Lust for a Vampire on Amazon for 99 cents (it’s free for subs on Flix). Twins of Evil is also available for subs on Amazon Prime. Their availability for rent or purchase is pretty limited, but you can get them all via Amazon.

The physical releases are also across companies, with Blu-rays of both The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire from Shout Factory, while Synapse has released Twins of Evil. I think its possible to find pretty cheap DVD copies of all the films across a variety of releases – I have Twins on a double disc with Messiah of Evil, for instance (not the best presentations of either, unfortunately).

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

By 1970 Hammer was feeling the pressure of a new wave of horror, ushered in by films like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby. These films and others that followed were more explicit in terms of content and, particularly, gore than anything that had proceeded them. Though Hammer films had always been known for pushing the line on violence and sexual content, their Gothic trappings came to be seen as quaint and out of style. In an effort to compete, while still building on they types of films that had made them successful, Hammer entered into a partneship with AIP to adapt J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel, Carmilla – with an eye towards a more explicit presentation of both gore and nudity.

In this endeavor The Vampire Lovers succeeds quite well, starting things off with a quick decapitation and moving relatively quickly into diaphanous gowns and casual nudity. As a story, it’s a bit more convoluted than it really needs to be, with a sort of prologue where a young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) befriends the daughter of a local general (Peter Cushing). The girl, Laura (Pippa Steel) ends up wasting away with a mysterious illness. Marcilla disappears on the day that Laura dies.

Later, Marcilla (now called Carmilla) is once again left in the care of a man with a beautiful young daughter (Madeline Smith) and the process repeats itself. Without the prologue you wouldn’t have the involvement of Cushing, and his previous experience with Marcilla that proves pivotal later on, but it still feels unnecessary and repetitive.

The Vampire Lovers has all the hallmarks of classic Hammer films, exquisite costumes, fantastic sets, lots of color, mood and menace. It’s also got boobs galore, with transparent nightdresses, bathing sequences and random nudity for the hell of it. I’m sure it was titillating at the time, but the sheer amount of blatant nudity makes it all somehow less than erotic.

Ingrid Pitt as Marcilla/Carmilla acquits herself quite well, seemingly remote at first but with hints of deeper emotion as her attachment to her second victim becomes apparent. That growing feeling seems to force Carmilla to find victims in the surrounding countryside and even amongst the servants in an effort to keep her victim alive a little longer. I kept feeling like there was a more complicated film just under the surface, with a real romance just out of reach beneath the pandering moments of lesbian interaction.

Carmilla/Marcilla is found out, of course, and pursued to her resting place at Karnstein castle where it’s revealed she’s actually Mircalla Karnstien, the only surviving member of the family. (So who is the woman who pretends to be her mother and who is the male vampire always lurking and laughing in the background?) Cushing stakes her and cuts off her head and that brings an end to the menace. At least until…

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

In the ruins of Castle Karnstein a bearded vampire (Mike Raven, looking and acting like a bargain basement Christopher Lee) and a hooded female vampire (Barbara Jefford) conduct a satanic ritual to resurrect Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard). This sequence actually has some cool visuals, with blood, skeletons and lights. There have certainly been worse vampire resurrection sequences, and things seem off to a good start.

It quickly bogs down after this, however, with the introduction of the writer Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson) who can’t be bothered with all of this vampire stuff, except as grist for his stories. He almost becomes a believer when he’s trapped by three cloaked women at Karnstein Castle, but they turn out to be students at the local girl’s school.

If you’re thinking “local girl’s school – that’s just an excuse of Hammer to have scantily clad young ladies prancing about in diaphanous gowns” then you’re right. And it just so happens that there’s a new student arriving, young Mircalla Heritzen, and LeStrange is immediately smitten.

Mircalla begins doing what vampires do, seducing and destroying all around her. One of her victims is actually the headmaster, Giles Barton (Ralph Bates), whose historical discoveries lead him to the realization of who – and what – Mircalla is. His attempts to plead his undying loyalty fall on deaf ears.

LeStrange finagles his way into the school to be closer to Mircalla. He finds Barton’s research, but can’t bring himself to do anything about it – he’s in love you see, which means he can threaten Mircalla with exposure until she sleeps with him, like gentlemen do. Hammer toned down the lesbian aspect with this film, perhaps due to pressure from censors, but I prefer to think Mircalla/Carmilla is simply leading LeStrange on as she would any male who was a danger to her. It’s less silly than thinking all it took to get to her to go straight was the right guy.

Though I like the way things fall apart for Mircalla and her “mother” as the bodies pile up – it does seem ridiculous that you could cover up ALL those mysterious deaths – I ended up being bored more often than not. Stensgaard just doesn’t have the same presence as Pitt and it’s the kind of movie that thinks it’s a good idea to have an original pop song to go over the lovemaking (“Strange Love,” by Tracy). Terrence Fisher was originally supposed to direct, and I can’t help but wonder what that film would have been like.

Mircalla/Carmilla is once again destroyed – this time by her affection for LeStrange, as she’s pierced by a falling timber while attempting to reach him. (She then burns, but it’s so obviously a puppet that I laughed out loud at it.) The other vampires burn as well, but we’re informed that fire alone is not enough to kill them, so we’re certain there’ll be more bloodshed in the future.

Twins of Evil (1971)

Though Twins of Evil was the third film in the Karnstein trilogy it actually seems to take place before the previous two. The first Karnstein in the film, a Count (Damien Thomas), is very much alive – though a Satan-worshiping sadist. It’s only once he makes a human sacrifice over the body of his ancestor Mircalla that he becomes a vampire (by her hand).

Peter Cushing returns as a crusading Puritan, Gustav Wiel, a leader of the Brotherhood – who seem to make a habit of burning all the single ladies as witches. In some ways he is just as much a villain of the film as the vampires. He becomes the guardian of twin girls, Maria and Frieda Gelhorn (Mary and Madeleine Collinson), his nieces who are recently orphaned. Frieda in particular chafes at Gustav’s stern manner, and becomes fascinated with Count Karnstein and his ‘wicked’ ways.

Twins of Evil makes the most hay it can with the “good twin, evil twin” canard, with Frieda falling under Karnsteins spell and becoming a vampire while Maria covers for her and pines for the local music teacher (The Beyond’s David Warbeck). There’s the requisite amount of decolletage and diaphanous evening wear, though this film has the least lesbian content of the three. Eventually Gustav finds out about Frieda and must struggle with treating his nieces with the same cold cruelty as the (innocent) local girls.

I enjoyed much of Twins of Evil, almost in spite of how campy it all is. Cushing in particular is great, playing both religious zeal and tortured empathy with equal aplomb. The Collins twins actually hold their own and Warbeck is fine as well, though somewhat bland. Thomas as the vampire Count is fine, but his menace is undercut for me by his uncanny resemblance to late night host Jimmy Fallon. It was pretty distracting.

A final confrontation with the vampires at Karnstein castle goes better than previous installments, though Gustav pays the final price. There are decapitations, burnings and a spear through the chest. As the count crumbles to dust it seems that the Karnstein curse is finally over…

(A fourth film, with Cushing staring as a vampire!, never made it past the draft stage)

The Bottom Line
The Vampire Lovers is the best of the series, and it hints at deeper themes about women and love and power, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to do them justice. There are some cheesy glories (and plenty of nude women) to be found in all of the films, but I found Twins of Evil to be the biggest surprise, as I’d heard very little about it and it has some interesting characters and fun with the twin concept. I couldn’t engage with Lust for a Vampire, though, and I feel like I could easily have skipped it – though the opening sequences of vampire resurrection are pretty interesting.

Your enjoyment of these films is really going to depend on how much you like Hammer and Gothic horror in general. If bodices and blood and boobs (and Peter Cushing) are your thing, then these are definitely going to be worth your time.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.