*½/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras A
starring Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Eles, Maurice Denham
screenplay by Jeremy Paul
directed by Peter Sasdy
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
DVD - Image A Sound B+ Extras A-
BD - Image B+ Sound A- Extras B
starring Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate O'Mara, Peter Cushing
screenplay by Tudor Gates, based on the story "Carmilla" by Sheridan Le Fanu
directed by Roy Ward Baker
by Walter Chaw Britain's Hammer Studios all but defined the period horror film from the late-Fifties on, making matinee idols of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Bram Stoker's Dracula and erstwhile vampire hunter Van Helsing. But musty is what most Hammer productions remain (with notable exceptions like Quatermass and the Pit), and as the drive-in exploitation ethic of Herschell Gordon Lewis began to redefine the limits of what could be shown with regards to gore and nudity in the United States (arguably, the European films that found currency in the Sixties with a more sophisticated audience had as much or more to do with the "opening" of America's notorious piety), the studio found itself distressingly out of touch--Merchant/Ivory doing The Matrix.
With Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers, both released in the early-'70s in, ironically, heavily-edited versions, Hammer Studios introduced Ingrid Pitt as the face of their new ethic, the Polish sexpot baring her bosom in a pair of fledgling splatter flicks that married Hammer's dusty sensibilities to a few exploitation elements to a general lack of success. In hindsight, the studio would have been best served sticking to its guns rather than making broad concessions to the spirit of the times. The elements that work best about these late films are still the fog-shrouded boneyards, the deserted villages, and Peter Cushing; Pitt naked is nice, but adds little besides cult appeal to the already niche proceedings. That being said, The Vampire Lovers is clearly the superior of the two films, managing a level of Sapphic eroticism that provides the piece with meaty enough subtext to appeal to the civilian (read: non-fanboy) element.
Countess Dracula is a retelling of the story of 17th-century Hungarian noblewoman Erzsébet Bathory, who, believing that bathing in the blood of peasant women (and, eventually, women of lower noble birth) was the secret to eternal life, was allegedly responsible for the death of more than one-hundred women over the course of her cosmetological reign of terror. Having nothing at all to do with Stoker's Dracula, Countess Dracula is the sort of film that tells the overly familiar tale in an overly familiar way, all billowing curtains and screaming corsets, with Pitt in fright makeup half of the time. Professionally mounted if almost completely pulse-less, the film's small spark--provided by Lesley-Anne Down as the Countess's daughter-with-bad-timing--is overwhelmed by plodding pace and enough melodrama to upset a runaway carriage. Of note is an early moment in which a peasant is trampled by the Countess's procession that amuses with the flood of grieving children ("Father! Father!") vomited up by central casting. It's nearly as funny as the description of the cat-beast that Pitt appears to transform into in the The Vampire Lovers: "It had...it had enormous...enormous eyes."
The Vampire Lovers, as horror/exploitation films go, is leaps and bounds superior to the stuffy Countess Dracula. Favouring wide-eyed starlet performances and breathy pronunciations, it makes fine use of the Hammer fog and Harry Robinson's breathless orchestral score. A pair of pretty neat beheadings share time with a pair of full-frontal shots of Pitt emerging from a bath and, later, seducing a stuffy governess. A retelling of Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla, embraced as something of a landmark in Lesbian horror fiction, the picture is actually quite overt in its homosexual-fear themes, with each of the women victims lulled to their doom and each of the men essentially raped by a vengeful succubus.The bisexual element in Erzsébet Bathory's story (she was rumoured to have taken many women lovers, including her aunt) finds itself echoed herein--a nice echo that binds the two films in this double feature, and one that I have to admit to finding surprisingly erotic. Something about virginal girls in whalebone corsets encouraged to disrobe by violet-eyed Polish vamps... It's hard to pinpoint.
Following the rampage of ancient vampire Carmilla (Pitt) as she kills Peter Cushing's daughter before working her way through the household of another nobleman unwisely away for a visit in the country, The Vampire Lovers is an excellent showcase for Pitt as she shares a moment centre-stage, seducing a parade of nubile girls eager to be introduced to the world of sensuality, one Color Purple moment at a time. Although its middle devoted to the relatively bloodless machinations of the immortal seductress, its prologue and conclusion do feature a satisfying amount of geysering blood and the standard pain-verging-on-orgasm death throes of the eternally damned. It's telling that while the picture is unlikely to raise much of an eyebrow in the gore department, the nudity of the piece, as tasteful as it is, would still be considered shocking in modern mainstream American film. The problem with both movies is that they're almost wholly without surprise, their plots progressing along staid lines, necessitating the craft of the individual pieces to dictate its worth. The early days of style over substance, in other words. As the format of the DVD release invites comparison, The Vampire Lovers, which contains a few black-and-white dream sequences that are genuinely harrowing, is veal to Countess Dracula's chop steak.
MGM outdoes itself with the audio-visual presentation of Countess Dracula, stored on one side of a double-feature flipper with The Vampire Lovers. Letterboxed at 1.66:1, the print is lovely and largely unmarred, though without anamorphic enhancement, the transfer does seem a little peaked. The original monophonic audio track is reproduced here, as in The Vampire Lovers, in two-channel mono with clean fidelity. For as clean as the picture looks, it sounds as vibrant and sharp. A feature-length yakker featuring Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, and screenwriter Jeremy Paul is full of almost blue reflection, Pitt in particular distressed that the film isn't more respectful of the events upon which it is based. Her concern for the nameless victims of the infamous fiend, and what a populist "fluff" piece does to their memory, feels genuine and, for that, is really quite touching.
MGM presents The Vampire Lovers in a beautiful (beautiful!) 1.78:1 anamorphic video transfer that is sharp and lush while retaining a filmic quality as seductive as Pitt in evil action. Flesh tones, in particular, are vibrant and natural. A yakker featuring Pitt, veteran British director Roy Ward Baker, and screenwriter Tudor Gates, moderated by Hammer historian and author Jonathan Sothcott, is lively and fascinating--almost more for the lack of perspective possessed by the venerable trio as Sothcott tries to draw them into an academic discussion of the lesbian, let's call them "overtones," of the piece. While watching naked Pitt embrace a naked waif as music swells, or naked Pitt throwing out her arms to soon-to-be naked governess, the three are pathologically unwilling to acknowledge that there are Sapphic "elements" to the piece. Baker, in particular, goes to great pains expressing his inability to see the lesbian aspect of either the film or the Le Fanu while Pitt says that the love scenes are just an especially ardent version of female bonding. Which, I guess, they are. Pitt charms again, however, in her recollection of shooting a vamp attack in the middle of January, clothed in a thin nightie: "I didn't feel any cold, I was shooting a scene of passion and it was...it was wonderful."
Side two also features excerpts read by Pitt from Le Fanu's short novel, underlying a series of production and publicity stills--by far the most innovative presentation of a photo gallery that I've ever seen. Pitt, sounding a little frail throughout all the special features, lends a whispery conviction to the extended reading that compels. Trailers for Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers accompany the respective films, with the whole package ensconced in a keepcase adorned with the films' deliciously pulpy poster art. The disc is a must-have for genre, Pitt, and Hammer fans and a serious archival entry from MGM, who should be applauded for the obvious care and effort they put into the preservation and restoration process. Originally published: October 6, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
by Bill Chambers Scream Factory's Blu-ray release of The Vampire Lovers is not going to become anybody's demo disc, but there is something transporting about the presentation. The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer (misidentified as 1.78:1 on the cover art) comes from a print that hasn't undergone any obvious clean-up--light scratches and pinholes, those little white dots created by light shining through punctures in the print, abound, and some scenes, particularly those shot in fog-enshrouded exteriors at night (like Ingrid Pitt's ghostly waltz through the woods), look a few optical generations removed from the bulk of the footage. Grain is constant but not displeasing; the overall effect is like seeing the film on rep, or in its umpteenth week at the grindhouse. Contrary to the advertised running time of "+/- 88 minutes," this is the 91-minute uncut version MGM restored for DVD, and which required a lot of hocus-pocus on their part to undo quasi-censorship à la the solarization effects that originally rendered the decapitations illegible. On Blu-ray, the unevenness of the source material shines through, but also prominent are a depth of colour and a dynamic range that were mostly sacrificed in standard-def. The attendant 2.0 mono DTS-HD MA track begs to be turned up yet otherwise contains no obvious flaws.
Returning from the "Midnite Movies" DVD are the audio commentary and segment with Pitt reading Le Fanu's "Carmilla" over production stills, though said stills get an HD bump here. New to the platter, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures' "Femme Fantastique: Resurrecting The Vampire Lovers" (10 mins., HD) and an interview with the enchanting Madeline Smith (20 mins., HD). The former invites a panel of experts, including British genre critic Kim Newman and "Carmilla" historian John-Paul Checkett, to provide context for the production and its place in the so-called Karnstein Trilogy, as well as to pontificate on the film's considerable eroticism. Like Ballyhoo's featurette on the Vampire Circus Blu-ray, the virtues of the piece are almost toppled by hyperactive editing, replete with cornball gothic flourishes that reduce Hammer to "The Hilarious House of Frightenstein". Smith's interview, on the other hand, could probably stand a bit of pruning, but she reflects with wisdom on her time as a Hammer starlet, from bloating her modest bosom to studio specs by eating nothing but yoghurt for two weeks (she claims that her breasts ballooned while the rest of her stayed rail thin) to being as "gormless" as her alter ego, having fallen for the producers' fib that any nudity she did would only be seen in Japan. Nevertheless, she calls Baker a lovely man and says the crew treated her like "family" no matter her state of undress. A separate photo gallery plus a trailer (HD) and radio spot for The Vampire Lovers, both, round out the BD. Note that Countess Dracula is due out on the format from Synapse, street date pending.