L: Lust for a Vampire (1971)

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I had a friend who was one of those grey market vendors, who made his living selling VHS dupes of out-of-print movies (he’s out of the biz now, ditching the whole enterprise a couple of years before torrenting made it superfluous). For years, though, this movie was his best seller; given a VHS release once, and then vanishing from sight. So I was glad to finally watch the damn thing, and find out what the shouting was all about.

Spoiler alert: boobies.

In the opening scene, a peasant girl is kidnapped by the usual evil black carriage and taken to Castle Karnstein. Her blood is used to resurrect the dried-out corpse of what we will come to know as the infamous Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard). The guy doing the officiating is Count Karnstein, played by Mike Raven, with a cameo of Christopher Lee’s eyes.

But never mind that, wandering nobleman and author Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson) has arrived in the village, doing research for his next book on witchcraft, vampires and black magic. Told of the Karnstein legacy, LeStrange visits the seemingly abandoned castle, only to find himself stalked by three be-caped ladies. Ho ho, though, it’s only three girls from the nearby Miss Simpson’s Finishing School, on a field trip led by their headmaster, Giles Barton (Ralph Bates). LeStrange is introduced to Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) and the rest of the girls, just as a new student arrives – Carmilla, once again using the Mircalla alias. LeStrange is instantly smitten.

(LeStrange isn’t the only one, as we are treated to some lesbian-tinged toplessness and skinny-dipping that night at the school)

Things rapidly get complicated from there. A serving girl at the inn is found dead, two bite marks on her throat. LeStrange meets the new English instructor for Simpson’s school, tricks him into going to Vienna instead, and gets his job just to be near Mircalla. Mircalla’s skinny-dipping girlfriend Susan Pelley (Pippa Steele) vanishes (we know she’s been exsanguinated and dropped down the well). Giles Barton, knowing Mircalla’s true identity (the study of local noble families is his personal obsession), offers himself to her, hoping to become a vampire and worshipping her forever. Mircalla, though, only likes girls and turns him down. His dead body is found on the outskirts of the school the next day.

Miss Simpson has gone into full cover-up mode, refusing to call in the authorities about the missing girl, and grateful that Mircalla’s personal doctor (whom we recognize as the driver of that black coach) certifies that Barton died of a heart attack. LeStrange goes through Barton’s library, and discovers Mircalla’s secret. He, too, confesses his love to Mircalla, and begins to put that only-likes-girls thing to the test (he wins). Meantime, the school’s dance teacher (Suzanna Leigh) has notified the cops and Susan’s father (David Healy), who is American and having none of this shit.

It ends as all such gothic romances must, in a burning castle with Carmilla dead again, and LeStrange’s heart broken. The end.

After the success of The Vampire Lovers, Hammer felt they’d finally found a new vein to tap with Ireland’s other favorite author of vampire stories, Sheridan Le Fanu. The Karnsteins would crop up again in Twins of Evil and the next year’s Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, but never really recaptured the popularity of their Dracula series. It didn’t help that Lust for a Vampire had a troubled production.

Jimmy Sangster replaced Terrence Fisher in the director’s chair at very short notice. Also rushed into his role was Ralph Bates – Peter Cushing was to play Giles Barton, but bowed out due to the serious illness of his wife. Bates hates this role and this movie, and most people hate him for not being Peter Cushing, but really – he’s fine. There was a reason he was Hammer’s utility player at this point. What really kills the movie is the lack of Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla – she turned it down because she thought the script was lousy (she ain’t wrong). (also, there’s no Michael Ripper, so I don’t feel it can rightly be called a Hammer film) Overall, it’s pretty emblematic of Hammer’s rudderless direction in the 70s, when they found that everybody was doing the voluptuous horror bit, and the obvious thing to do was free those bosoms from their constricting bustiers and peasant blouses. A prime example, I think, of scarcity giving a movie a panache of quality it did not warrant (see also The Incubus).