Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect Lust for a Vampire (1971).
While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.
In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.
Hammer Studios had long been an organization that leveraged a troop of internal talent to drive its creative output, cultivating a catalog of films that generally felt of a piece with one another. Chief amongst these foundational fathers of the studio was producer and screenwriter Anthony Hinds (often credited as John Elder), instrumental in bringing to life some of Hammer’s most successful and defining genre works. It was Hinds’ departure from the company as the 1960s came to a close that marked the end of an era and opened the door for the otherwise uninitiated to bring their projects to Hammer’s stoop.
Around the same time, producer Michael Style had been reflecting on his days as a performer and had come across the notes of a production he had been involved in some years prior. The play had been based on one of the earliest entries in the vampire genre, the 1872 novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. Predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years, the book features a female vampire baring the family name of Karnstein, a legacy of evil spanning across time and a lesbian love story well before such themes were commonly explored in popular fiction.
Although Carmilla had been adapted before, the climate seemed ripe to bring the tale to life as the decade turned and moviegoers were looking for provocative, boundary-pushing fare. Given the ever-diminishing censorship and Hammer’s interest in merging their classic gothicism with modern sensibilities, the Karnstein storyline seemed the perfect fit to bring the Hammer vampire into the 1970’s.
After partnering with producer Harry Fine, Style brought the pitch to Michael Carreras who quickly gave the go ahead. The film was called The Vampire Lovers (1970), an Ingrid Pitt-starring project that Carreras so believed in that he sanctioned a sequel to it only days into the production. The pitch, tentatively titled To Love a Vampire, was to follow up the first with a direct sequel, bringing back Pitt and telling the further story of the Karnstein family. Unfortunately, the tight timetable precluded Pitt from returning as she was set to be shooting Countess Dracula (1971). Furthermore, producer Harry Fine’s decision to sign a quick distribution deal with EMI as opposed to American International Pictures (AIP) meant the screenplay could not include certain elements that AIP retained the rights to and would have to be a far more general follow up than initially anticipated.
Terence Fisher was initially brought on to direct, adding a sense of gravitas to the production following in the footsteps of Roy Ward Baker’s work on The Vampire Lovers, but had to bow out due to his second automobile accident in two years, the former forcing him to step away from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968). At the same time, prolific Hammer screenwriter and creative staple Jimmy Sangster was in post-production on his first directorial effort The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). Carreras came to Sangster, begging him to take the reins. Despite his apprehension regarding the fact that he would be afforded little creative input given that the sets, cast and script were already solidified, he agreed as a favor to the studio he so loved.
Then, only days before shooting was to start, what had become Lust of the Vampire (1971) lost another Hammer icon with the departure of Peter Cushing. Despite the part of the occult obsessed schoolteacher having been written for him, Cushing was left no choice but to bow out of the role when his wife fell seriously ill. Ralph Bates was brought in to replace him, something which Jimmy Sangster was pleased with given the relationship they forged months before making The Horror of Frankenstein, providing Sangster at least some degree of influence on the film’s internal machinations.
The production pushed forward regardless, marred all the while by the gnawing animosity shared between the producers and director Jimmy Sangster. From Styles’ on set criticisms regarding Sangster’s direction to the producer’s decision to include of an awkward pop song called “Strange Love” by British singer Tracy which Jimmy Sangster knew nothing about until he was cringing in his seat at the film’s premiere, the atmosphere was often one bathed in stress, pettiness and stunted creativity. Even Bates, in retrospect, reflects on the film as one of the worst he’d been a part of.
The end result is a picture that pales in comparison to its predecessor, minimizing the more interesting sexual ambiguity and stylistic flare that The Vampire Lovers explores and employs in favor of lurid exploitation. The influence of the producers looms large over the narrative’s fairly simple goings on, playing into the male gaze voyeurism that critics of the studio were always accusing its output of being driven by.
Still, the film was a moderate financial success and led to a third and final Karnstein film, Twins of Evil (1971), which was released only nine months later. Even amidst the changing hands at the center of the studio, Hammer fought to keep up with what they believed moviegoers were searching for in an ever fading bid to find, grasp and control relevance in the gothic subgenre they so dominantly orchestrated only a handful of years prior. And yet, just as their faithful troop was starting to disband, it seemed that even Hammer Studios itself sometimes produced poor imitations when attempting to rebottle its magic as opposed to fostering reinvention.
“Oh Lord of Darkness, Prince of Hell, hear this, thy servant’s plea. Send from thy Black Realm the power that we may do thy will on Earth.”
Ethereal voices beckon within Harry Robinson’s mesmerizing score as a village perched atop a hill under the bright blue sky grows ever nearer. The people in the small town bustle about merrily as one young woman makes her way into the wilderness with a picnic basket, playfully dodging the advances of an admirer. She moves happily through the lush greenery, unaware that a hooded figure is patiently watching. The figure climbs into a black carriage which passes her shortly thereafter, beckoning her inside. Her curiosity brims and she enters with a grin which all too quickly twists into open mouthed horror before her screams corrupt the once calm air. The carriage driver whips the horses and they set off under the blue sky now cracked with lightning as the shrouded figure stands silhouetted against the now dim and clouded heavens.
The cold open to Lust for a Vampire informs viewers of much of what they can expect from the film to follow, a movie more concerned with displaying Hammer’s most recognized tropes than it is in utilizing them. A follow up to the far more effective The Vampire Lovers and a precursor to the superior Twins of Evil, Lust sits as the middle and weakest entry in Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy, representing Hammer’s look and feel however devoid of the studio’s signature passion, gravitas and underlying meaning.
Written by Tudor Gates, returning from The Vampire Lovers, and directed by Jimmy Sangster, Lust is not an incompetently made movie. Shot mostly at Elstree Studios with some on location work in Hertfordshire, England, the film is peppered with beautiful locales and well composed shots that evoke shades of The Witches’ (1966) on location work and provide the film with no small degree of scope. It’s in the story, characters and odd stylistic editing choices that Lust for a Vampire flails, falling into purposelessness at best and unaware self-parody at worst.
The film forgoes the typical rules of the vampire as do many of Hammer’s later bloodsucking efforts. The sun causes no issue for the Karnsteins, for example, and while stakes are fatal, they don’t seem to have much of an allergy to anything else. While these alterations often have the potential to create fascinating divergences in standard lore, as in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter(1974), here little is done to explore or play with the differences. In fact, most of the goings on still land under the night’s sky regardless.
After the opening credits conclude, the black carriage arrives at castle Karnstein which lies in close adjacency to the village. Count Karnstein waits there, played here by Mike Raven dressed to resemble Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula, so much so that close ups of his eyes are actually shots of Lee himself from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. His performance follows suit, aping Lee’s mannerisms to the best of his abilities as he performs a blood ritual, reminiscent of that performed in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) to resurrect the Count.
While the sequence does provide some affecting special effects and an iconic image of the newly resurrected Carmilla, garbed in a bloody cloth as she sits naked in her coffin, it’s ultimately a microcosm for the film’s prevailing mediocrity. The scene reminds one of a different film, a better one, and fails to forge its own identity, rather clinging to the goodwill associated with what it’s referencing.
Shortly thereafter the film finds traveling author and skeptic Richard LeStrange at the local town pub, receiving a heavy dose of expository mythos from the landlord there. LeStrange is played with suave confidence by Michael Johnson, a man whose actions gradually devolve into disquieting voyeurism, something that makes his character rather difficult to root for. While the fault is not Johnson’s but rather the script’s, the character is stuck somewhere between a vanilla leading man and a roguish antihero that tends to confound rather than engage.
The story falls together as expected as LeStrange defiantly moves to investigate the Karnstein grounds, encountering a troupe of beautiful women there and challenging his certainty that the stories of seductress vampires are anything but true. It’s then that LeStarnge discovers Miss Simpson’s Finishing School, an estate just beside Castle Karnstein that houses a slew of young women under the direction of Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) herself and headmaster Giles Barton (Ralph Bates).
Bates plays Barton with a certain sniveling underhandedness and sense of superiority that offers an appreciable attempt to do something of note with the character. Standing in for Peter Cushing, it’s clear the role was written for an older man, but Bates shows up well here, making the role his own. It’s Barton that leads LeStrange to the school grounds, ushering on a scene that takes full advantage of the practical location they were shooting on while calcifying the picture’s aims.
The Finishing School comes into view as the girls run up the stone stairs carrying white fabric as though performing a rehearsed dance. A harp plays as they engage in a sort of light calisthenics before him, all in bright, revealing dresses and seemingly there to entice LeStrange’s appetites, particularly by Suzannah Leigh’s Janet Playfair, another teacher at the school. But the brief glance they share is shortly forgotten when a new student arrives in the form of Yutte Stensgaard’s Mircalla.
Accompanying Mircalla is Countess Herritzen, played by Barbara Jefford. Clearly another Karnstein in secret, Jefford plays the character with pomp and circumstance, which makes her haughty interactions with others fairly entertaining. She’s one of the performers who attempts to infuse some life into the proceedings onscreen and the movie is admittedly all the better for it, for what little time that she does get to take the stage.
Stensgaard plays Mircalla, an anagram for Carmilla, with an air of naiveté and good natured trust, providing the villain with a sense of soul that is often lacking in this sort of story. However, the script fails to treat Mircalla with the same degree of respect as Stensgaard does, utilizing her for physical form more often than not, finding excuses for her to disrobe and seduce that defies the logic of the story and ultimately forgoing the roots of the character’s lesbian leanings for a traditional heteronormative romance.
That is not to say the film doesn’t exploit the erotica suggested by Sheridan Le Fanu’s original Carmilla text, far from it. The following scenes find the girls in the school preparing for bed, topless and massaging one another, brushing each other’s hair and subsequently even going for a late night dip in the nearby lake. While the swim in the lake clearly shows Mircalla’s roommate’s attraction to her, the later events in the film prove to negate the interaction in the eyes of Mircalla as she chooses the love of a man over all else, even forsaking her vampiric heritage in that stead. Such a thrust not only reduces these earlier scenes to lackluster exploitation but it casts a condemning shadow over the sexual freedom Carmilla seems designed to support.
What makes the blooming affair between LeStrange and Mircalla yet more difficult to engage in is how little it has to do with interpersonal connection and how much with unfettered lust. The movie spends a great deal of time with LeStrange, watching him lie his way into a position at the school and leering at Mircalla through windows while class is in session. Still, he’s presented as the protagonist while the weaselly Barton is made to be the desperate ogler, despite the fact that their actions, when distilled, hardly differ at all.
Romantic intrigue aside, the film becomes a rather dull affair, a series of midnight meetings between Mircalla, her victims and her suitor juxtaposed against those in the school attempting at first to deny and subsequently get to the bottom of the disappearances which plague them. Some attempts are made at comparing history with superstition, discerning the meaning behind those stories which become facts which become legends, but such discussions rarely amount to more than a fleeting thought. Instead, Lust for a Vampire is concerned with exactly that, lust, all the while complicating that word with love and operating under the assumption that the viewer isn’t wise enough to untangle the two.
This is most apparent with Playfair’s infatuation with LeStrange, a character she is rarely shown interacting with in any meaningful way, but one viewers are expected to believe is in love with by the burgeoning finale. Her purpose is to stand as an alternate option to the one so scarred by evil, a pawn in the script’s game of chess that simply needs to move into place at the right time in an attempt to break the spell Mircalla has over LeStrange. Once again, the romance rings false and further weakens the narrative’s cracked foundation as it heads toward conclusion.
There are moments that work visually. When Barton meets Mircalla in the dead of night to pledge himself to her, the woods are dark, wonderfully eerie and thick with that patented layer of Hammer fog. Mircalla emerges from the blackness looking like a ghost dressed in white and regardless of the quality of the script, any viewer would be hard pressed not to be enraptured by it. Later in the film when American character actor David Healy turns up as Raymond Pelley, murdered girl Susan Pelley’s father, his performance is captivating and compelling, leading to a scene where an inspector investigates the well containing a corpse that houses some of the most dread the film ever manages to conjure. In a vacuum these elements and scenes are worth celebrating, but when considering the discordant whole (like the love sequence set to “Strange Love” which amounts to nothing more than extreme colorized, psychedelic photography), such facets, however grand, serve simply as entertaining distractions amidst a rather dreary experience.
The climax arrives with the usual trappings of a classic Hammer conclusion, a mob forming at the local pub, coinciding with the coincidental arrival of a priest passing through town. While it’s difficult for any Hammer fan to deny a group of people storming a castle with torches and madness in their eyes, it arrives as too little too late, another moment to remind of other, better films that earned such fervor.
Still, when the Karnsteins are in their castle and Count Karnstein puts his daughter Mircalla under his spell, one wishes that the film had worked harder to craft a compelling romance between her and LeStrange. The story wants to challenge the notion of the soulless undead, suggest that there is indeed a modicum of humanity somewhere inside, but as it stands, her fight against her own legacy and eventual demise in a the atypical burning Hammer castle lands with the thud of the burning beam which falls against her chest.
As LeStrange emerges from the fire, the priest begins to pray and the same ethereal voices which heralded forth the film’s beginning return to escort the narrative to its conclusion. LeStrange falls into the arms of Janet Playfair and the Priest thanks God himself, vanquishing the evil that plagued their town— and, perhaps, challenged their sexual worldview. All the while the remaining two Karnsteins, the Count and Countess, stand safely in the burning building, not vanquished but shrouded, where they will wait and watch until the opportunity for carnage presents itself once more.
It’s an ending that supposes the film which preceded it earned the emotion behind the cursed romance. One that assumes the position of the righteous right that The Vampire Lovers seemed so interested in challenging. A conclusion that features all of those elements Hammer fans expect out of their gothic climaxes, present and accounted for but hollow all the same. A perfect summation of what Lust For a Vampire ultimately is and why it so rarely works.
The Special Features
This release comes equipped with a brand new 4K scan of the original film elements by Shout! Factory in both 1.85:1 and 1.66:1 formats. The picture is beautiful, offering rich colors that bring to life the costuming and makeup effects in wonderful quality. The DTS-HD Master Mono track also delivers, providing clear dialogue, score and sound effects that serve to enhance the already superb video quality and make this a package every Hammer completist will find worth owning.
Audio Commentary, by Author/Film Historian Bruce Hallenbeck
Author and film historian Bruce Hallenbeck delivers a solo commentary track, detailing the history of the Carmella narrative, Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy and the ups and downs of the production of Lust for a Vampire.
Beginning with a history of Carmella in print and onscreen, Hallenbeck brings listeners up to speed on how it was that the project landed on Hammer’s doorstep and how it was produced so quickly. He discusses the film and its influences as well as the many Hammer players that went into its creations, including those that had to leave the production like Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher. He discusses the vampire genre as a whole and where the Karnstein trilogy fits in, contextualizing its influence and providing a broader understanding to the series at large.
It’s a loving look at a movie that Hallenbeck is certainly a champion of, despite its reputation, and serves as a wonderful, insightful dive into the film’s origins and legacy.
Audio Commentary, by Director Jimmy Sangster, Actress Suzanna Leigh and Hammer Films Historian Marcus Hearn
(2001, Anchor Bay)
Ported over from the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD release of the film, director and Hammer legend Jimmy Sangster, Actress Suzanna Leigh and Hammer film historian Marcus Hearn sit down to discuss Lust for a Vampire through the lens and remembrances of some of those who were there for its creation.
All of these years removed, Sangster’s memory has clearly faded some, leaving more sour thoughts regarding the project than happy ones. He recalls being begged to do the job and doing so somewhat begrudgingly and getting into arguments with producer Michael Style on set. Suzanna Leigh is far more amicable and merry, reminding Sangster of some funny anecdotes, like how he convinced her to shoot the scene with all of the topless school girls by (falsely) explaining to her that it was only for the “Swedish” version.
It’s a commentary track that works in fits and starts, marked by swaths of silence, but one that offers insight from those who were there for the production and, on that level, is interesting and worth listening to.
Just One of the (School) Girls — An Interview with Actress Mel Churcher (03:35)
(2019, Shout Factory)
A very brief interview with Mel Churcher, one of the actresses who played a girl in the Finishing School in Lust for a Vampire. She recalls the summer of filming as beautiful and magical, learning how to dance in skimpy clothes and bonding with her cast mates. She fondly recalls working with Ralph Bates and Jimmy Sangster and proudly admits she is not and has never been afraid of vampires. It’s a charming little chat that offers hope that the on-set experience might have been more pleasant than the accounts of production woes might otherwise make it seem.
Theatrical Trailer (2:41)
Count Karnstein stands in the frame as an announcer speaks: “If the very thought of vampires makes your flesh creep…” LeStrange wanders, exploring a dark castle and the announcer continues, “If you think all vampires are ugly creatures of the night, then you’re in for a shattering surprise!” Mircalla moves gracefully into frame, garbed in a white nightgown. The title appears in green and purple lettering: LUST FOR A VAMPIRE.
Images of a girl lying down and the girls at the Finishing School dance by the frame. Giles Barton begs Mircalla to learn the ways of the Black Arts. A voice says, “Welcome to the Finishing School where they really do finish you.” The title appears once more. Shot after shot introduces the cast. LeStrange shouts about his vampiric research and the song “Strange Love” resounds as images of Mircalla and LeStrange kissing overlays atop Barton being bit. The title appears one final time as Mircalla disappears into the night.
Radio Spots (1:33)
The poster for Lust for a Vampire, bathed in green and gray, sits as a backdrop as radio lines emanate outward in a circle around it. A voice resounds:
“If you think all vampires are ugly creatures of the night, then you are in for a shattering surprise…” The voice continues, “if the very thought of vampires makes your flesh creep, the sound of tortured screams leaves you quivering with fright, then you must see: LUST FOR A VAMPIRE!” The title echoes. The voice continues, telling of devils in female bodies, bloodlust and death, finally informing that it’s in color and rated R.
A second spot plays, more truncated than the first but beginning in the same way. This one also speaks of “Disciples of the black mass” and “the kiss of death for both men and women”. It concludes in the same way. Both of these spots make for fun, breezy listening, reminding as always of a time long since gone.
Still Gallery (9:49)
A collection of on set photos of the cast and crew, stills, glamor shots of Yutte Stensgaard, head shots of the cast, publicity materials and candid photography surrounding the production comprise this wonderful time capsule of the film and the people who brought it to life.
Poster and Lobby Card Still Gallery (4:57)
A collection of domestic and international poster artwork, double feature advertisements, production stills, publicity materials, press information, biographies, newspaper advertisements and theatrical listings serve as a worthy accompaniment to the previous gallery, providing yet more context to the film’s release and initial campaign.
In light of Anthony Hinds’ departure in 1969, Michael Carreras opted to forgo the past mentality of focusing on in-house development and set up an “open door” policy for outside producers to bring their projects to Hammer. A departure for Carreras and the studio at large, this decision allowed for new ideas and fresh perspectives that would ideally lead the studio to new horizons, forgoing what some audiences might find the tired musings of the studio’s gothic roots for something more contemporary and eye catching.
So it was that Michael Style and Harry Fine brought Carmilla to Carreras, a story in which the Hammer head immediately saw all of the salacious selling points he was so interested in exploiting. It only took two years for them to produce three films out of the property and, as a result of breakneck production speeds and pervasive on set troubles, what might have originally felt like a fresh reinvention took a turn toward pale imitation.
While the first in the series was a rousing success, Lust for a Vampire falls flat. Despite being helmed by Jimmy Sangster, the film feels detached from its Hammer namesake, a movie desperately trying to fit the studio’s mold without truly earning its place alongside it. It’s the risk one takes, it seems, when bringing in outside forces to make a movie so steeped in the tropes that the studio itself had established, as Lust for a Vampire makes it quite clear that emulation and execution are two very different things.
Scream Factory brings the film to US Blu-ray for the first time with a gorgeous video transfer and superb audio, preserving the film’s elements in an easy to appreciate package. While the disc is scant on special features, it includes a new commentary track from author and historian Bruce Hallenbeck that is an invaluable look at the creation and legacy of the film, simultaneously serving as a loving tribute to Hammer’s legacy. Considering the addition of the previously recorded commentary track with Jimmy Sangster and Suzanna Leigh, the disc is worth owning on those merits alone for any Hammer completists or curious fans of vampire cinema.
In the end, Lust for a Vampire stands as an artifact of its time, a middling movie in a trilogy of films that falls near the end of Hammer’s reign. While it has aspects worth appreciating, the film feels like a regression at a time where the studio should have been pushing forward, a movie content to revel in the “Greatest Hits” of the studio’s sensibilities rather than attempt to forge new ground with such things in mind. It’s that complacency and inertness that further undermines the subversive nature of the Carmilla storyline, ultimately leveraging the text’s ideology embracing sexual awareness for nothing more than lurid fodder meant to satisfy the moral right against which the studio so vehemently claimed to rebel.
Luckily, Lust for a Vampire was more of an exception than a rule, as it’s follow up, Twins of Evil, remains one of Hammer’s great, latter efforts, restoring Peter Cushing to the Karnstein trilogy and offering complex characterizations deserving of exploration. Even less than a year after Lust, Hammer was able to show the other side of the coin that the film represented, one still very much rooted in the trappings of Hammer’s past, but willing to embrace the complexities of the future. While it’s true Lust opted for imitation over reinvention, they exhibited that, even as the end drew near, there were few production companies more capable of charting an ever adapting course than Hammer Studios.