Sunday, October 30, 2022

Hammer Horror Halloween Watch: Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Watched:  10/30/2022
Format:  Amazon Streaming
Viewing:  Second
Director:  Jimmy Sangster

So, way back when I was first getting familiar with Hammer, I watched Lust For a Vampire (1971), and wound up with one of those absolutely wild experiences you get once in a while on the internet.  Admittedly, I'd not *really* been watching the movie - I was online and just watching the movie with one eye and I dashed off a jokey, jerky write-up.  But I was so much not paying attention that I mistook a completely different actor for Christopher Lee, which should tell you how much I was *not* watching.  

Within 24 hours, actor Judy Jarvis (nee Matheson) - who plays Amanda McBride in the film - spotted the review and *rightfully* called me out.  My review was stupid.  I'm lazy.  It happens.  But it was also a reminder that I should actually pay attention to a movie and give it a fair shake if I'm going to criticize the film as a viewer.  And real people do work on these films.

I promised Judy Jarvis I would rewatch the film, but, honestly, that's a *lot* of pressure.  Now I didn't want to embarrass myself if Judy Jarvis was still patrolling the internet, and I absolutely wanted to give the movie a fair shake this time.

Suffice to say, I am now more familiar with Hammer, what was going on in 1970's British film, and know how to watch these movies from a better perspective.  I've read Carmilla and become more aware of what Hammer was doing with the Karnsteins (a family of vampires they employed as Dracula wound down and based on the novel Carmilla).

I am not just saying this:  I loved the movie this time.  

It's never going to work well if you're not looking at the screen, which seems obvious in retrospect, but there you go.  It's very different from the predecessor, The Vampire Lovers, with a greater scale and scope, but as smart, sexy and well-done as anything in Hammer's catalog.  It's well performed, engaging, and I was on-board with the movie from the resurrection scene.

I'd argue that beyond spectacle, what makes this movie work is both performance and *story*.  Vampire Lovers sets the table, but this movie gets to push at and explore the notion of Carmilla and the Karnsteins.  Or what it means to be a vampire vis-a-vis urges versus feelings, what it means to have this curse around, etc...

So, forty years after the events of the previous movie, a school opens in the shadow of the abandoned Karnstein castle, and romantic horror author Richard Lestrange scams his way into a job as the English instructor to be near the fetching Mircalla.  

It's a web of who is in love with who as Lestrange (Michael Johnson) and his fellow instructor, Giles (Ralph Bates) pursue Mircalla, while Mircalla woos her fellow students and Miss Playfair (Suzanna Leigh) both tries to sort things out and falls for Lestrange.  Meanwhile, people start turning into bodies and the headmistress of the school knows that's bad for business and - with the assurance and support of Countess Herritzen (Barbara Jefford)  - covers things up.  

The decision to have Carmilla fall for Lestrange is fascinating, especially as Mircalla/ Carmilla's (Yutte Stensgaard) internal struggle is almost wordless and entirely within performance.  In addition to creating confusion for Carmilla (who is usually operating with the certainty of a shark) it throws off Lestrange and his theorizing about Mircalla's true nature.  But a vampire's gotta vampire.

Speaking of, Mike Raven as Count Karstein makes waaaaay more sense when you're actually watching the movie.  I kinda wish we'd had three or four more of these with Jefford and Raven and their clan causing havoc.  The exploration of vampires beyond Dracula and the dynamics of the Karnsteins is good drama, and it feels like there's more to look into.

There's so much going on in this movie, but it works.  And if I can't admit I was wrong on the first viewing, I'm not doing you or me any favors.  While I do recommend watching this after The Vampire Lovers, it's definitely the case of a movie matching the first installment while also heightening the stakes and world of the characters.  And, honestly, a really good choice for your Halloween viewing.

If there's anything that made me smile this time, it's that Hammer clearly said "oh, you like pretty girls?  Well, here's 20 of them."  I mean, there's already a lot of money thrown at this movie with sets, costumes, make-up and FX, but then fully populating a finishing school - which totally makes sense for a hunting ground of Carmilla - is a fantastic setting and set-up.  But someone clearly understood how to draw in a crowd and make a story to make it make sense.

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