Blu-Ray Review: “The Vampire Lovers”

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  • Air Date: 1970
  • Release Date: 4/30/2013
  • Running Time: 91 minutes
  • Written By: Tudor Gates
  • Directed By: Roy Ward Baker
  • Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Madeline Smith, George Cole, Peter Cushing, Kate O'Mara, Douglas Wilmer, Dawn Addams, Pippa Steel, John Forbes-Robertson, Jon Finch

Blu-Ray Review: “The Vampire Lovers”

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THE VAMPIRE LOVERS came at a time of change for Hammer films. Due to a marketplace more saturated with violence and sex, not to mention a horror stage increasingly shared by classics, like ROSEMARY’S BABY and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Hammer was struggling financially. To combat it, Hammer, along with American International, adapted J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella CARMILLA (1872), into the Karnstein Trilogy, of which THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is the first entry. The film took the boobs and blood formula to new heights, by infusing the film with some of the most tawdry lesbian scenes that had ever taken place on celluloid (which, while fairly tame under today’s standards, is no less erotic).

The film looks beautiful, and the booming Hammer score is there, replete with ear splitting screams (watch out with volume control). But you’re here for one thing: THE EXTRAS; and for the most part, they’re fantastic.

The original radio spot is a hilariously straight advertisement, with a monotone announcer pronouncing that “the blood nymphs who won’t die” are in “color and had to be rated R.” The theatrical trailer seemed to foreshadow movie trailers nowadays that ruin large segments of the plot, as the 2 minute clip provides many of the twists, including the final one, in a straightforward way. But, the kitsch is all over the place: the “perverted crusaders of the night” is a fantastic selling point, and the red, dripping blood of the “V” showing up following screams is classic stuff.

The still gallery is only for the die hard’s, or those that can’t work the pause button to ogle the nudity for a lengthier period of time during the actual movie. There’s more than 8 minutes of photos, with 3:30 dedicated to the movie in pictures, without all the screaming and bad teeth, another 3:30 dedicated to behind the scenes shots from the set, along with PR photos and candid pictures of the cast and crew, acting friendly toward one another. The final minutes are dedicated to the many classic posters for the film, as well as more promotional shots featuring the beautiful ladies of the cast.

If you’re a sucker for the original novella by Fanu, I can’t imagine a better way to hear it than from “the Queen of Scream” and the “most beautiful ghoul in the world” herself. Polish bombshell Ingrid Pitt unleashes her rich, deep European accent on the prose in a 12 minute excerpt from the source material. It’s pretty great and erotic, even if she didn’t record it until 2003. Ingrid Pitt regrettably died in 2010.

The highlight of the extras, at least for me, was the monstrous 20 minute discussion with Madeline Smith, who plays the nubile Emma in the film. Fresh off her role in Hammer’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, she landed the part without an audition (or so she remembers), even though, as she says, she was small chested (!). When you see the film, you hardly think that’s an issue, but we learn that she ate yogurt for two weeks straight before shooting, and lo and behold, her breasts grew (note to self: stop eating so much yogurt).

As you might expect, Madeline Smith talked a lot about the lesbian and nude scenes in the film, which is exactly what you want a 60+ year old British woman talking about. You may think I was kidding just then, but it turns out it actually is what you want, as she’s remarkably candid about her experience. She was a Christian girl, with no experience of the world, and here she was getting naked and kissing women on screen when that was no small taboo. She perhaps regrets revealing herself, but at the time, she was so naive (virginal, as she puts it) and was led to believe the nudity would only be seen by Japanese audiences. Of course, there was no Japanese version. She gushes about her experiences with director, Roy Ward Baker, a veteran of 60′s British TV (THE AVENGERS, in particular), Ingrid Pitt, Kate O’Mara, and others, and clearly relished the role and is proud of the finished product. Horror-philes will eat up her insights into these legends, especially what she has to say about Peter Cushing, even if they didn’t have much of a working relationship.

Finally, to round out the goodies, is a 10 minute short from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures entitled FEMININE FANTASTIQUE: RESURRECTING THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. The film features Hammer documentarians, historians and collectors discussing the company itself, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, and Le Fanu’s work. While you do get tired of the same footage and shots after going through all of this content, there’s no doubt plenty of insight into the film, and how it fit into the time period.

The project was interesting in that Harry Fine and Michael Style of Fantale Films brought the idea to Hammer, and Hammer, with Fantale, worked with American International in an attempt to broaden its market. The film was targeted to sex up their image and it’s easy to see that that’s exactly what happened. Many critics derided the film when it came out, but others still see it and the Karstein trilogy from Tudor Gates, as the last gasp of creativity from Hammer. The experts talk about how Ingrid Pitt was miscast (Carmila/Marcilla is supposed to be 16), that she didn’t view her role as sexual (uhh…okay), but the experts are unanimous in their opinion that she truly owned the movie (this was her breakout role in the horror genre), and it’s not just her beauty that sells that statement. Her authentic drawl and magnetic screen presence is just as evident now as it surely was in 1970.

If you’re buying this collection, or interested in it, you’re surely a fan of the film. And why shouldn’t you be? Yes, it falls into camp, but it has that Hammer luster, with lavish set designs, blood, and great soundtrack (and yes, sex). While some of the footage and stills are certainly redundant, each and every extra brings something to the table, and gives you a greater understanding of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS’ place in not only Hammer’s history, but in the entire horror genre.

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