Hammer Films has always had some form of sexual content in their movies, generally in the form of various generic barmaids with cleaving-accentuating outfits being menaced by some form of monster (usually Dracula, but occasionally a werewolf or Frankenstein’s monster. However, due to Hammer’s frequent clashes with the BBFC, never with actual nudity. Similarly, while critical discussion of vampire fiction has discussed a degree of homoeroticism, up until the 70s, much of what you got was male actors staring intensely into someone’s eyes before feeding on them – with probably the distinct exception of Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural. The Vampire Lovers crosses both of those lines.
The Vampire Lovers is an adaptation of Carmilla, one of the first overtly queer coded vampire stories. The film follows the vampire Carmilla Karnstein (Ingrid Pitt) who comes to stay with the protagonist – a teenage girl named Laura (Pippa Steel), under the auspices of recovering from a carriage accident. During their time there, the two bond first as friends, then becoming something more. However, during all of this, girls from nearby villages end up dying, attacked by a vampire, and Laura is struck with anemia.
This ends when the father of one of Carmilla’s earlier victims, General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), meets with Laura’s father, hears what’s going on, puts two-and-two together, and gets “Vampire”. The parents then go to slay Carmilla in her lair, while Laura moans passively at home.
So, due to the premise of the film, this is probably one of of the more character-focused of hammer’s films, since the film depends on Carmilla and Laura’s chemistry, along with both of their chemistry with Laura’s governess Perrodot (Kate O’Mara), which makes those characters’ parts of the movie great.
And there’s the matter of the men. The role of the male characters in the film can be summarized as “the patriarchy saves the day.” The male characters recognize the signs of the vampire, take steps to put out protective measures, and ultimately slay them, while the female characters get snowed by the vampire or are just oblivious and passive and take direction from whoever gave it to them last.
That said, with that writing, it’s to this film’s credit that the film doesn’t entirely paint Carmilla as a villain. The story and the performances do a good job of building the idea that not only does Carmilla not want to kill Laura, but she wants to turn into a vampire as well, to share eternity together. The filmmakers clearly intended to take the subtextual romance of the original story and make it very textual, and that generally works.
However, where that part stumbles as well is, well, Hammer gotta hammer. Several of the nude scenes feel very leering and sleazy. Like the director was trying to see just how pervy the BBFC would let them go. And also, on top of that, there’s the problematic elements of the vampire-human relationship in the context of how queer relationships in fiction at the time were often depicted as predatory and harmful.
Still, I liked the film a great deal. Arguably, this is one of Classic Hammer’s greatest films, as opposed to how rote the Dracula series had gotten after the first couple sequels. It’s still deeply problematic, in the ways that Hammer tends to be, but to its credit – without overt rape imagery, so this might make for a good time.
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