A decade-and-change after Hammer revolutionized Dracula, their movies were getting to seem old-fashioned. Sex in movies was the new draw, and they were still doing costume melodramas. The Vampire Lovers was their leap into the deep end. “An erotic nightmare of tormented lusts that throb in headless, undead bodies!” is the tagline — and this was a movie that still had to pass a censorship board.
American International Pictures, which handled The Masque of the Red Death and other Corman-Poe films, teamed up with Hammer to heat things up. For this they turned to a project by screenwriter Tudor Gates, who had also worked on Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik!. This project was an adaptation of a very early vampire novella, 1872’s Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu.
Carmilla tells the story of Laura, a teenage girl who falls ill after her father promises to act as guardian to a strange noblewoman’s daughter. The noblewoman refuses to reveal her identity and has sworn her daughter Carmilla to secrecy as well. While staying there, however, young women in the nearby villages die of a mysterious disease; and one that affects Laura as well.
Although not a great novel itself, Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-six years. It has an obvious, although well-cloaked, lesbian subtext which Hammer and AIP exploited as much as possible. Hammer defended much of the overt sexuality in the movie by claiming it was in the original and they were simply faithfully adapting a classic book for a modern audience. The censors permitted it.
The Vampire Lovers is a faithful adaptation of the source material. Gates keeps most of the set-pieces, including Carmilla’s shocking displays of jealousy towards Laura (renamed “Emma” for the movie) and Carmilla’s distress at hearing religious music.
Tudor Gates also kept in place the novella’s two vampire attack stories. In the original, Laura’s father eventually hears from his friend General Spielsdorf, who explains that his daughter died mysteriously while his family was entertaining a mysterious young girl as a houseguest. This retelling of the same events works in the novel to explain what’s happening to Laura, but in Gate’s screenplay, he dramatizes both back-to-back. As a result, the second half of the film looks much like the first. And as both halves feature the decline of a young woman into disease and the futile attempts to save her — a tale already told many times through adaptations of Stoker’s work — there’s virtually no drama in the story.
Madeline Smith plays “Emma,” who is the novel’s viewpoint character “Laura.” Hammer had chosen Smith as their new cover girl, although she may not have been aware of it. Unlike Laura, who is young but alert, Emma is empty-headed and doe-eyed. I could forgive you for thinking Smith is laying on the naïve young girl bits pretty thick, but Madeline explains the circumstances in an interview included in Shout Factory’s release. “I was hired for my gormless face, my fringe, and my strawberry blonde hair,” she says. “I look like I have nothing between here and here,” she says, waving at her ears.
This role was Smith’s first significant acting work, and she was almost fresh out of convent school. She had never had a boyfriend, had never seen a man naked, and says when producer Michael Style insisted she act out an orgasm in one scene — a scene true to the source material, incidentally — Madeline Smith said she did not know what Style was talking about. If Smith’s performance often looks like she’s drawing inspiration from Precious Moments figurines, it’s because that behavior came naturally to her.
Ingrid Pitt’s performance as Carmilla could not offer more contrast. She is at least as effective as any of the male character actors at chewing the scenery. She often looks at the rest of the cast through narrow eyes, and you can practically feel the contempt for lesser beings rolling off of her. Despite playing the role almost perfectly, she seems woefully miscast given her apparent age; Pitt is twelve years older than her blonde co-stars. Hammer invited her back for both of the other Carmilla-related movies, but once seems to have been enough.
Besides the significant pacing problems and the childlike performance by Madeline Smith — which makes her nude scenes seem very inappropriate — The Vampire Lovers suffers from having no clear protagonist. Some occasionally rise to the situation, but Gates’s ending boils down to having the male cast run down corridors while Carmilla herself is several miles away — and it lacks the punch of the final, gruesome scene of Sheridan Le Fanu’s original.