StudioCanal’s restoration of the Hammer back catalogue continues with their Blu-ray and DVD release of Lust For a Vampire (1971). This was the second of the ‘Karnstein trilogy’ that began with The Vampire Lovers (1970) and would conclude with Twins of Evil (1971). Lust reincarnated the character of Carmilla, as originally played by Ingrid Pitt in the first film, and continued Hammer’s exploration of the “more explicit sexual nature of the [female] vampire.” Unfortunately, a rushed production, the loss of its original star and director, and some rash post-production decisions sealed its reputation as the weakest of the trilogy.
Hammer’s CEO Sir James Carreras was very excited by the prospects for The Vampire Lovers, a stylish reworking of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla independently produced by Harry Fine, Michael Style, and writer Tudor Gates of Fantale Films. Carmilla was a major influence on the vampire genre, with its depiction of the female and/or lesbian vampire predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years, and Carreras saw Hammer’s production as an opportunity to strike out in a new direction as the company found itself adapting to the changing fortunes of the industry and film censorship.
Even as Lovers started shooting in January 1970, Fine recalled that within two days of production they’d lined up a sequel To Love a Vampire (eventually retitled Lust For a Vampire in post-production). Carreras, keen to finance the sequel, had hoped that Hammer’s funding and distribution partner on Lovers, American International Pictures (AIP), would join them again. In February, Hammer greenlit the film with the proviso that it could be shot May-June 1970, at Bray Studios and Oakley Court in Berkshire, for £150,000. However, AIP declined Hammer’s overtures for funding and distribution. They hadn’t seen any footage from Lovers and, unsure of its box office appeal, wouldn’t back the sequel. Eventually, Bernard Delfont at Anglo-EMI agreed to bail out the film.
One of their most capable and intelligent directors, Terence Fisher, took the helm. Fisher had just completed work on Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969), after recovering from a broken leg sustained in a road traffic accident—“when I walked out of Richmond station, started to come across the road and the same thing happened! Broke the same leg in the same place!” Fantale and Hammer were already two-weeks into pre-production discussions with Fisher on To Love a Vampire when they had to hurriedly find his replacement. They turned to Jimmy Sangster, a writer and producer with a long history with Hammer.
Sangster had steered Hammer’s break into the horror genre with his scripts for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) and then, tiring of Gothic horror, he wrote and produced a string of psychological thrillers for the studio: Taste of Fear (1961), Maniac (1963), Nightmare (1964), Hysteria (1965) and The Nanny (1965). He was working in the US when Hammer asked him to rewrite the script for The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). He eventually agreed on a deal to write, produce, and direct its latest attempt to refresh their Frankenstein franchise.
As he was completing editing on Frankenstein, he was asked to take over from Fisher:
The film’s sets had been done, the screenplay was finished, and 80% of the casting was completed. From the day that I agreed to direct Lust For a Vampire, I had only one week of preparation before shooting was to begin.
Sangster had little creative input into the film and this set the seal on what would be an unhappy directing experience. In hindsight, scriptwriter Gates conceded it was a difficult situation and “Lust just did not turn out to be a good film. I look back over the script, and I think it’s a very good script —but it just didn’t turn out. I wouldn’t want to lay the finger of blame on anybody, but I don’t think Jimmy had his heart in it.”
Gates’ script was specifically written for Peter Cushing and he was set to play Giles Barton, a teacher at a girls’ finishing school in Austria. Carmilla, reincarnated by the Count and Countess Karnstein using the blood of a peasant girl, and calling herself Mircalla Herritzen, enrols as a new pupil. She seduces the students and staff, including Barton and a travelling writer-cum-tutor Richard Lestrange. Lestrange, who has some interest in the Karnstein family history, secures a position at the school and falls in love with Mircalla but belatedly discovers she is a vampire.
The day before Cushing was due to start filming he left the production because his wife was again gravely ill. His last-minute replacement was Ralph Bates, who had already graced Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and Sangster’s The Horror of Frankenstein. Sangster persuaded him to step into the breach. Bates later recalled of Lust:
I thought it was a tasteless film and I regret having anything to do with it. But again, Jim is a close, close friend and so is Peter; so as a friend I was happy to get them out of a very unhappy situation.
Gates did some last-minute re-writing and tried to tailor the part for Bates. However, Sangster believed “the screenplay’s problems ran much deeper than that. The film needed a complete from page one rewrite, but there was just no way that production could be delayed.”
Another nail in the coffin, so to speak, was the absence of Ingrid Pitt. Pitt had certainly made the part of Carmilla her own in Lovers but she was unavailable, busy completing The House That Dripped Blood (1970) for rival studio Amicus and already committed to Hammer’s Countess Dracula (1971). Danish actor Yutte Stensgaard, the latest incumbent from Hammer’s glamour charm school, was cast as Carmilla/Mircalla. A former au pair and model, she was an alumnus of the Studio Film Craft drama school with a number of brief movie and TV roles to her credit. Her manager, father-in-law Ronald Curtis, probably brought her to Hammer’s attention. However, Gates considered, in the end, that she “just didn’t have the exceptional qualities which Ingrid Pitt, as an actress, did have. She was a very pleasant person, and she tried very hard, but she was a bit out of her depth.” Just as many female actors working on Hammer films before and after her, Stensgaard also ended up being dubbed.
A six-and-a-half week shoot began at Elstree on 6 July and, for the finishing school exteriors, the production used Hazelwood House (now known as Hunton Park), a country house and estate in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire. Bates and Stensgaard were joined by Suzanna Leigh (as gym teacher Janet Playfair she was an eleventh-hour addition after a bankrupt Leigh had begged Carreras for a part in the film), Michael Johnson (as Lestrange), Barbara Jefford, and Mike Raven (as Countess and Count Karnstein). Raven was a former radio presenter and DJ, with a deep interest in the occult, looking to develop an acting career and went on to enjoy a short-lived career in horror films. As Count Karnstein, a character previously seen in Lovers and referred to there as the ‘Man in Black’, he consulted his own library of occult texts and added several invocations to the script during Carmilla’s revival.
Sangster’s relationship with the producers deteriorated from day one. His satisfaction with the first take of the Karnstein’s coach arriving in the castle courtyard set at Elstree was questioned by one of his producers: “This voice from the back shouted, “We can do better than that!” It was Michael Style, trying to behave the way he thought a producer should. “You can do better than that? Then you shoot the fucking picture,” says I, heading for the nearest exit.” Sangster felt his position as the director had been undermined in front of the cast and crew and, unfortunately, this tension soured his response to the nervous Stensgaard’s enquiry about what her motivation was for the scene. When the shoot ended, Sangster didn’t stay for post-production and noted: “I don’t think it would have been a much better picture had I stayed for the editing.” In his absence, the producers had yet one more indignity to foist upon the film.
Ralph Bates once described Lust as “one of the worst films ever made” and the received wisdom is that it’s the weakest of the Karnstein films and one of Hammer’s less interesting efforts of the ’70s. It opens with a lushly romantic score from Harry Robinson, certainly one of the major pluses of the film. Although Robinson dismissed Lust as simply one of Hammer’s “tits and bums productions”, his score does underpin the strongest element of the film, which is essentially about the doomed romance between the mortal Lestrange and the bi-sexual vampire Mircalla.
It starts with business as usual for Hammer. A buxom peasant girl (Kirsten Betts), hurrying off home, is rather easily hoodwinked into taking a lift in a mysterious coach. She ends up unconscious at Karnstein castle, generously donating her blood to the dark ceremony that revives Carmilla. The copious bloodletting creates a moodily backlit resurrection but Mike Raven’s performance as Count Karnstein is somewhat compromised - his voice was replaced by Valentine Dyall’s and the close up of his blood-red eyes belonged to Christopher Lee in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968).
As noted in the documentary on this disc, Hammer set out its store with the infamous, widely circulated publicity still of Stensgaard, sitting topless in the remains of Carmilla’s bloody shroud. It was hardly representative of what was on screen. Even when a shot of Stensgaard from the front is included in a later flashback to the ceremony, her attributes are masked by a filter on the camera. The scene didn’t seem to trouble the censor in November 1970, where the major objections were more to do with the female-on-female vampirism combined with nudity in the sequence where Mircalla seduces fellow pupil Amanda (Judy Matheson).
After this atmospheric opening, we’re introduced to Lestrange (Michael Johnson making the best of the material he’s given), a writer keen to explore the legend of the long-dead Karnsteins despite warnings from a dour innkeeper that “they still have the power to reincarnate themselves” and entice both sexes with their vampire proclivities. Lestrange, like all would-be savants in Hammer’s vampire films, emphasises that this is mere superstition. What’s intriguing is that Gates’ script places a Gothic novelist who writes about these subjects into the story.
As “an authoritative master of the very same discourse within which he himself appears” Lestrange weaves his own imagination and the village’s occult fears into the story and Mircalla’s identity is gradually revealed to him. This early scene expresses the key theme of the film. A man with a rationalist view of the world meets and falls in love with a vampire, a folkloric figure who disrupts his rational state. Sadly, the script doesn’t fully exploit Lestrange’s romantic obsession, where his patriarchal authority is undermined by a female’s agency. It’s sidelined by Hammer’s need to make an exploitation film.
In the castle ruins, Lestrange is menaced by three hooded women in a rather well-judged bit of misdirection as the audience is led to believe, through Sangster’s mise en scène, that they’re about to entice him into an early grave. When Giles Barton (Ralph Bates, like Johnson, trying hard to make the role work) suddenly admonishes them only then does Lestrange discover, to his relief, they are students from a nearby finishing school on a day trip with the sleazy genealogist to further his studies into the fascinating Karnstein family.
The locations are used very effectively to introduce Lestrange to the school. A long shot slowly zooms into the sunlit terraces as the girls are called into their Graeco-Roman dancing class by their gym mistress Janet Playfair (Leigh, who accomplishes herself rather well in the film). Overseen by the uptight school’s proprietor Miss Simpson (Helen Christie), she berates Lestrange for writing books “not suitable for girls of an impressionable age.” This sets the arch tone, tuning into Sangster’s interpretation of the script’s theme of repressed sexuality and doomed romantic obsession. While the finishing school setting is reminiscent of Hammer’s superb The Brides of Dracula (1960) and anticipates the cloying supernatural disturbances of Peter Weir’s exemplary Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Lust is a pale reflection of both.
The subplot involving Miss Simpson, as she attempts to hush up the deaths that follow Mircalla’s arrival at the school, allows Sangster to reinforce his approach to horror as a comedy of manners. To preserve her standing and keep the school open she willingly goes along with the manipulative Countess Karnstein (Barbara Jefford piling on the sadistic camp tone with an increasingly colourful wardrobe). There’s a touch of farce when Count Karnstein, as a bogus doctor providing the necessary death certificates, intones thunderously “a heart attack” when Janet Playfair, a police inspector and an irate parent each query the causes of death. Simpson’s descent into neurotic collapse is a highlight in an increasingly by-the-numbers film. Played for comic hysteria, Christie almost walks off with the film.
Lestrange and Barton are merely emblematic of the male voyeurism encouraged by the film’s overall purpose to titillate. There are lingering shots of topless women, a naked midnight swim, and a lesbian vampire encounter, which vie for the attention of Barton, Lestrange, and Hammer’s putative audience. A love triangle is grafted onto the narrative, with Janet Playfair falling in love with Lestrange as she attempts to get him to rationalise the various deaths at the school since Mircalla’s arrival. When Lestrange confirms Mircalla is the vampire Carmilla, Lust is also saddled with a song, “Strange Love”, as he and Mircalla get down to business in a scene originally absent from Gates’ script and added during filming. It precipitates a lurid dream sequence illustrating how Lestrange is conflicted between the attractions of the transgressive Mircalla and the principled Janet.
Sending Mircalla into cross-eyed orgasmic abandon, the song was an attempt by producers Style and Fine to boost the film’s chances with potential entry into the pop charts. Robinson and music supervisor Philip Martell apparently resisted this instruction but, to their chagrin, EMI contract singer Tracy was duly hired to record the song, lyrics written by Demons of the Mind (1972) producer Frank Godwin. Released as the B side to “Rock Me in the Cradle”, it’s one of the strangest and campest moments in a Hammer film (and there have been many). Added without Sangster’s knowledge, he and Bates saw the results a year later. Aghast at the scene, Sangster attempted to hide under his seat at the theatre.
As the locals at the inn proclaim “there’s evil in that castle and there always will be” a priest and his entourage conveniently arrive and offer an immediate solution to “matters beyond science” and murdered girls with marks on their neck. His presence is enough to whip the villagers up into that deathly cliché of the torch-bearing mob. Lestrange is unable to countenance that Mircalla is a vampire and attempts to rescue her as the mob descends on the Karnsteins, stake their henchman through the heart, and try to burn the castle to the ground. The fire itself can’t kill the Karnsteins but Mircalla, torn between her lineage as an evil Karnstein and her newfound love for a mortal, is rewarded with a flaming roof rafter to the heart as the castle burns in a reused, unconvincing model shot borrowed from Scars of Dracula (1970).
Is it the worst film ever made? One can forgive Bates’ hyperbole given what transpired during and after production but there is a fairly decent story in Gates’ script and it’s embroidered with a few stylish directorial touches—Sangster shows Mircalla’s victims, dumped down a well, plunging toward camera— but they aren’t used consistently enough to elevate the narrative. Despite this, cinematographer David Muir did keep the camera moving, particularly on location, and provides the film with some striking images. Sangster’s proclivity for comedy is evident enough in his parodic approach but the direction is workmanlike, perhaps due to his lack of preparedness and the very short schedule he was given. That Terence Fisher was the first choice to direct is no surprise, as the overtly romantic tone of the script would’ve better suited his allegorical, spiritual approach.
At worst, the film is a muddled attempt at horror parody that simply goes nowhere. At best, it’s a guilty pleasure with any ideas about the romantic subtext of Gothic horror, the nature of female agency, and the lesbian vampire buried beneath its cheaper excesses. It’s certainly a film “that constructs lesbianism in accordance with the male imaginary” and plays to male heterosexual fantasies. Many critics have opined that this equation of lesbianism with aggressive vampire women was regressive and destructive, symbolic of the male subconscious fear of women’s sexual power and lesbians as unnatural, violent representatives of this power.
Jeffrey Weinstock argues that it is more complex than this male fantasy and, in Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy, the women (both as vampires and victims) are depicted in a hyper realised fashion, eschewing what were considered the lesbian stereotypes of the period. Mircalla seduces men and women and “what the films seem to assert is a fundamental female bisexuality” rather than a representation of lesbianism. As the castle burns, patriarchal dominance is reinstated when Count Karnstein exercises his control over Mircalla after Lestrange arrives to save her. She’s compelled to initiate him as a vampire. Lestrange finally rejects her, having possibly realised that he may not be able to change her true nature. The film’s ending punishes her transgressions with a burning stake and returns Lestrange into the arms of the film’s female moral centre, Janet Playfair.
Blu-ray Special Features:
StudioCanal’s Blu-ray release boasts a clean, detailed transfer with excellent colour and contrast but, as a result, it tends to exacerbate some of the budgetary restrictions associated with the film. The large scale set constructions at Elstree, for the castle courtyard and ramparts, look rather more exposed and artificial in contrast to the lush location work. Smaller sets, like Barton’s detailed study, are presented successfully and the transfer works to their advantage. Costumes and flesh tones are rendered very well too. Overall, a very pleasant viewing experience.
It’s unfortunate that StudioCanal couldn’t include the commentary with Jimmy Sangster and Suzanna Leigh from Anchor Bay’s 2004 release. The original trailer, conveying the irreverent tone of the film with its quip “welcome to the finishing school where they really do finish you off”, is also missing. However, there are a number of new extra features worth watching:
- Strange Love: Hammer in 1970. A neat little documentary that takes us back to 1970 and a company in transition and crisis with the departure of Hammer’s old guard and the loss of its American backing. Conveyed intelligently by Alan Barnes, Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, this is about how the studio started working with independent producers on lower budgets and, when censorship laws changed, took a new approach with The Vampire Lovers and beyond.
- Script to Screen: To Love a Vampire. Alan Barnes offers a fascinating comparison between Gates’ first draft script of To Love a Vampire and what eventually made it to the screen. The original draft suggests that Lestrange, originally written as an Irish author, was intended as Gates’ reference to Le Fanu, the story was supposed to take place much later than 1830 and, crucially, Mircalla’s love for Lestrange (an aspect lost in the film) was motivated by his knowledge of the Romantic poets.
- Judy Matheson: Bride of the Vampire. Matheson, who played Amanda, one of Mircalla’s finishing school victims, regales us with an interesting overview of her career and her experiences of filming Lust and the sequel Twins of Evil. Her appreciation of Sangster, Bates, Cushing and working for Hammer comes across very well.
- Stills gallery. A great selection of posters, glamour shots, lobby cards and stills, both colour and black and white, set to Harry Robinson’s lush score and Tracy’s ‘Strange Love’.
Cast & Crew
director: Jimmy Sangster.
writer: Tudor Gates (based on characters by Sheridan Le Fanu).
starring: Ralph Bates, Barbara Jefford & Suzanna Leigh.
I am indebted to the following articles and books: