AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 91 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1830, forty years after the last manifestation of the vampiric Karnstein family. A young woman is captured and taken to the Karnstein castle, where the Count Karnstein and his two aides are waiting to revive Carmilla. The girl’s throat is slit and her dripping blood revives the beautiful vampire. Meanwhile a writer called Richard LeStrange has come to the village to do some research for his latest horror novel. When he sees a pretty new arrival at the local girl’s school, calling herself Mircalla, he impersonates another teacher so he can stay there. Meanwhile in the village, a dead girl is found with bites on her neck….
For some reason, I always seem to remember Lust For A Vampire being better than it actually is, then when I sit down to watch it I soon realise that it’s not very good at all. It’s not quite a chore to watch like Horror Of Frankenstein, and there are actually signs of a decent and even interesting movie in there. There’s nothing essentially wrong with the idea of a more romantic vampire film as long as you forget that Twilight ever existed: after all, Terence Fisher did call Dracula a love story, but the attempt at mixing typical Hammer stuff with matters of the heart is mostly sunk by terrible scripting which gives us lots of improbable actions and things that just don’t make any sense, and a complete lack of tension. The film isn’t terrible – it’s surprisingly strong on characterisation, and it sometimes succeeds in its attempts at an atmosphere of casual eroticism, but for the most part it’s just rather dull, even seeming to mark time sometimes like a dream scene consisting entirely of tinted shots from earlier in the movie except for the famous still of Carmilla drenched in blood and partially covered by blood-soaked rags as she rises from the tomb.
The Fantale group of Harry Fine, Michael Styles and Tudor Gates sent Hammer a script outline called To Love A Vampire which Gates turned into a full screenplay, though he was then asked to drop all the continuity with The Vampire Lovers, plus LeStrange swooning at the sight of Mircalla, Mircalla crying after sex, and Mircalla vampirising the headmistress Miss Simpson. For some reason AIP turned this one down despite The Vampire Lovers having made a sizeable profit for them, so EMI and, for the US, American Continental Films, came to the rescue again. Terence Fisher was intended to direct but broke his leg having been hit by a car while playing chicken crossing the road, Ingrid Pitt turned down the opportunity to return, and Peter Cushing, for whom the role of Charles Barton was specifically written, bowed out to care for his wife who was really ill. Hammer’s great production designer Bernard Robinson was asked to do this rather cursed film, but died several hours after the offer was made. Plans to shoot at Bray also didn’t happen, the filming taking place at Elstree on sets from Scars Of Dracula and at Hazelwood House, Abbots, Langley. Director Jimmy Sangster failed to get on with Fine and Style, who took the film off his hands as soon as filming was completed to edit it themselves, while the BBFC ordered the removal of a scene of Mircalla seducing and feeding on a naked schoolgirl, and the substitution of one nude shot with a partially clothed one. The film had a rather limited release and certainly made no money.
It certainly begins well even though Castle Karnstein is the same matte shot of a castle that was used in the previous two vampire flicks and it’s just so obvious that the entrance to the place is exactly the same as the one in Scars Of Dracula [at least Robinson would disguise his re-used sets a bit]. Shots of a hooded figure cause some anxiety as a girl is brought to Castle Karnstein with the camera cleverly fixated on her face, while Carmilla’s bloody revival plays like a combination of Dracula’s unforgettable resurrection in Dracula: Prince Of Darkness and the drinking scene in Taste The Blood Of Dracula [and of course the girl’s school setting for much of the rest of the film is from The Brides Of Dracula] as the girl’s throat is slit off-screen and blood pours into a goblet which is then poured onto Carmilla’s remains. We are treated to some unrealistic but commendably ambitious shots of the blood seeping around Carmilla’s bones and a body forming, then a creepy shot of the totally shrouded Carmilla jerking to life under the sheet. It’s good enough for us to forgive the fact that they’ve totally sidestepped the fact that Carmilla was decapitated in The Vampire Lovers! We then switch to our ‘hero’ Richard LeStrange, and he’s introduced as a boozy skirt-chaser who may not be the most likeable of guys but is certainly more interesting than many of Hammer’s other dull young male lead characters. He gets the usual warning from the local landlord, and then we get another effective scene as he does precisely the opposite from what he’s advised to do and heads off for the castle where he’s surprised by some hooded figures – which turn out to be some of the girls from the local school. Richard initially takes a liking to teacher Janet Playfair [sounds like a Bond girl], but then Carmilla, calling herself Mircalla [still using anagrams] is brought there by the Countess Karnstein [the film’s idea of a surprise is to later reveal her as the hooded figure present at Carmilla’s revival] and he’s immediately besotted.
Things tend to drag once we’re at the school despite the occasional vampire attack – the camera becoming Mircalla stalking a victim is a nice touch – and bit of titillation like another girl massaging Mircalla and gently biting her while her top falls off. And the central love story is almost totally sunk by poor scripting which drastically reduces viewer involvement. The first time Richard is alone with Carmilla, he tells her he loves her despite hardly knowing her. Then the second time, after he has found out she’s a vampire, he says “prove to me that you’re not”, assuming she’ll have sex with him there and then despite her having shown no feelings for him whatsoever either of the romantic or the carnal variety. Then of course, she does have sex with him immediately! The love scene between the two reveals Hammer’s often obvious sexism by having Carmilla naked but Richard fully clothed, and is set to a rather sweet but out of place song called Strange Love which Sangster and Bates were very surprised to hear when they went to see the film at a cinema. Little then really happens until the climax, a great deal of time being spent on whether the police should be told about a missing girl, though at least at the end we get some torch bearing villagers and some gore with some nicely gruesome stakings and a rather good downbeat final scene – though it’s rather funny when the Karnstein’s coachman shows his total stupidity by charging at loads of villagers on his own, and when the Count and Countess seem to not be bothered when surrounded by fire – supposedly fire can’t harm them [that’s a new one] but the crumbling castle soon will!
Gates’ script is incredibly poor narrative-wise, but he bizarrely does pepper the film with far more rounded characters then was usual for Hammer. Aside from Carmilla who this time seems more unfeeling and evil than before, we have our flawed hero Richard, who becomes more and more sympathetic as the film goes on; he genuinely falls in love, can’t really deal with it and drowns his pain in more and more drink. There’s Janet the outwardly cold teacher who inside is passionately in love with Richard. And schoolmaster Giles Barton, who on the surface is a typical repressed teacher most happy amidst the dust of old books, but who has a secret interest in witchcraft and possibly sexual desires. Ralph Bates is very good as the character [look at the silly way he runs] and totally different from his previous performances for Hammer. Even minor characters like a police inspector [Harvey Hall again] are well sketched out, it’s just that they all belong in a better film. And the slightly enhanced role for the Man In Black, now called Count Karnstein, doesn’t really work though, especially when the film throws in a couple of shots of Christopher Lee’s eyes from Scars Of Dracula! Actor Mike Raven, despite being a radio DJ, was dubbed, presumably because Valentine Dyall sounds a little bit like Lee.
Sangster directs this movie with little interest. Yutte Stensgaard as Carmilla certainly doesn’t come up to Ingrid Pitt in acting ability, but she still has a presence and does effectively display a callous evilness. Micheal Johnson is not good enough an actor to show Richard’s emotional journey convincingly and is sometimes unintentionally funny in his expressions. Harry Robinson’s fantastic score though seems to have been written for the film that Lust For A Vampire should have been rather than the film that it is. He employs a variety of musical instruments and styles from 18th century harpsichord music to choral hymns, really gets into the emotional heart of the story and provides a beautiful love theme. Again, there’s lots of motifs – even Janet gets one – but they’re better used and organised this time. The score is a fine achievement. There’s no doubt that Lust For A Vampire does have a few good aspects, but it’s still basically a failure for Hammer and not even entertaining enough to be considered good camp. Maybe this is one film that Hammer could successfully remake without offending the fans – though it’s been a while since we’ve heard anything from the revived studio, isn’t it?