Friday, October 23, 2020

Hammer Watch: The Vampire Lovers (1970)


Watched:  10/21/2020
Format:  BluRay
Viewing:  Third
Decade:  1970's
Director:  Roy Ward Baker

A few years ago I included The Vampire Lovers (1970) in my list of one of the best movies I'd watched that year, but I don't think I'd actually watched it again since.  Maybe in bits on cable, but this year I've been saving another rewatch for Halloween-season.   The last few Octobers were obnoxiously busy times for me (in no small part because of baseball, but the Cubs were very bad this year).  But, last year I squeezed in a listen to the audiobook of the source material, the novella Carmilla.  (I should mention, the novella predates Dracula by about 15 years).

And, look, The Vampire Lovers is a bit of a shock to watch and figure out the year, as it contains no small amount of nudity and lesbian eroticism and is not Italian.  It's easy to dismiss as erotica or prurient content due to the implied sex and sexiness in the movie, and that critical dismissal is something I think is natural but not useful.  As much as I enjoy the Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee outings I've seen, the story in The Vampire Lovers manages to do something those films do not (and do not intend to do), and that's to give some semblance of complexity to Carmilla as a character that Hammer's Dracula never lands.

Dracula may have requirements, and he may have obsessions (after all, he keeps coming after the same victim, even when folks are onto him, and it seems like it might be easier to just go pick on someone who doesn't know a vampire is running around causing problems).  But Dracula does not have relationships with people - they're prey or cattle to be slaughtered.  Maybe familiars to be used.  And, arguably, Carmilla thinks along those same lines on some level, but she also seems to genuinely have *some* sort of attachment to the object of her longer term victimhood.  The novel states that she *does* form a bond with her victims, and identifies it as "love", which, clearly, it is not (slowly murdering someone is not - I repeat: not - how you show affection).  The film doesn't get into these specifics, and casts "The Man in Black" as a satanic figuring driving Carmilla on - and I think the film leaves it open as to what Carmilla is going through.  After all, she tries to take Madeline Smith with her when she goes.

When similar themes were revisited in what could have easily been a continuation of the Karnstein films in The Hunger (1983) starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon - it's worth noting that critics at the time savaged the film (see Ebert's eviscerating review, which I think equal parts is worth considering and equal parts is ignoring that there actually is a story there).  But I also think - any time we do ore than *hint* at sex in film, especially genre film - people have a need to minimize the film/ lose their minds about how we talk about films.  And, of course, these days The Hunger has a very different reputation.   

There are some more traditional Vampire bits - Peter Cushing appears in a supporting role as a General who lives nearby and is the father of Carmilla's prior victim.  He's in full "determined Cushing mode" when he reappears later in the film, and it gives weight to the middle age gents storming around an empty castle trying to sort out what to do.

And, of course, there's definitely lots to write about the patriarchal figures saving the day, even defeating Carmilla with a phallus jammed into the ribcage (I find the former a legit reading, the latter, less so).  But there's no question that men in the film play a certain role versus women, and that's a product of the novel as well as Hammer SOP.  

I've been enjoying my Dracula films this season, but I also appreciate a take on vampires that's not all Prince of Darkness.  Seeing another take on vampires and the vampire mythos, which is a horror show for both victims and the vampire in this story (I mean, this is no way to spend an eternity as one of the undead), isn't just novel, it gives the audience something new to chew on other than "scary monster, run away!".  

*that said, (and I footnoted this in my write-up of the novella) the book was released in 1872, and the ways in which friends demonstrated affection in letters IRL from this era reads as weirdly romantic to a modern audience.  

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