Lust For A Vampire (1971)
By: Mr Intolerance on July 16, 2009  | 
DVD
Anchor Bay (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.77:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0 Mono. 95 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Jimmy Sangster
Starring: Ralph Bates, Barbara Jefford, Suzanna Leigh, Michael Johnson, Yutte Stensgaard
Screenplay: Tudor Gates
Country: UK
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
Some films have a pretty difficult birth, to say the least. Given the background story to the production of the second in Hammer's stories based around the character of Carmilla/Mircalla Karnstein, created by 19th century Irish writer of weird fiction, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (the novella, Carmilla, was in itself also an inspiration for Bram Stoker's vampire tour-de-force novel Dracula), it's amazing that the thing was made at all, or that to contradict director Jimmy Sangster, it stands up as well as it does - just.

In 1970, Hammer had a big hit with The Vampire Lovers, their bloody and oversexed, positively panting adaptation of Le Fanu's novella about vampirism with its strong indications of lesbianism, and, as was their modus operandi at the time, wanted a sequel cranked out, and fast. This one would be set in a secluded girls' finishing school in continental Europe (so that gratuitous nudity and sultry pulchritude, not to mention intimations of lesbian sex could titillate the audience). Terence Fisher, the studio's highest profile director, would direct, Peter Cushing would take a starring turn, and Ingrid Pitt would again take up her role as the sex-kitten vampire Carmilla. Bam – a winning formula, and one to give the audience exactly what they want – a collection of known quantities, slotted neatly into the trappings of Gothic horror, with blood and boobs for all. Too easy.

Except it didn't quite work out that way.

Terence Fisher had injured his leg badly (according to the audio commentary, he'd broken his leg having been hit by a car while playing chicken crossing the road!), and couldn't direct, so one of Hammer's leading writers, Jimmy Sangster stepped into the breach – the man responsible for having penned some of Hammer's biggest blockbusters, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula and The Mummy, to name but three, and (extraordinarily) fresh off the set of directing The Horror of Frankenstein – but Sangster wasn't keen on prolonging Hammer's reputation as a company who only made Gothic horror, had no say in the pre-production of the film, and really was only doing the film as a favour to Fisher. Worse yet, his relationship with the producers was so poor that he was asked to leave the set as soon as the filming was finished and had no say in what was to become the final print. Second blow: Peter Cushing wasn't available – his wife's extremely serious ill-health prevented his being in the film. Enter: Ralph Bates, an up-and-coming actor not part of the Hammer stable, but being groomed by them nevertheless to take up the mantles of the likes of both Cushing and Christopher Lee; a good actor, but one without Cushing's gravitas, although he struggles manfully with a role written with another actor in mind. Third blow: Ingrid Pitt was also unavailable to appear, and so the role on which the film hinges went to an almost complete unknown, Danish former au pair and photographic model Yutte Stensgaard, whose film career involved basically being eye candy in a few Carry On films, a role in a Tigon film, Zeta One, and a bit part in the Amicus film Scream and Scream Again – and while she's quite stunning in a china doll kind of way, she's as wooden as a plank. What had initially appeared to be a sure fire hit for the company, and the continuation of a promising franchise started to look very shaky indeed. To make things worse, scriptwriter Tudor Gates' (another name familiar to Hammer fans) original script, the more lyrical and less lurid, To Love A Vampire, had been tampered with, Sangster had a matter of a few weeks from getting the commission to starting filming, and said filming was being done at the inferior EMI-MGM Elstree, rather than the desired Bray Studios, using sets that had been left over from the just-finished Scars of Dracula.

By the end of the film the indignities continued: one of the supporting cast, R&B DJ and enthusiastic horror fan Mike Raven, in the pivotal role of Count Karnstein had his voice overdubbed by "The Man In Black", Valentine Dyall (and an extreme close-up of Karnstein's eyes early in the film is clearly Christopher Lee's intimidating bloodshot stare from Scars of Dracula), and worse yet – unbeknownst to Sangster, the producers dismissed any of the more interesting ideas of Gates' script, re-titled the film to the soft-core porn name it has today, cut some parts of the film out completely (although truth be known the BBFC, that most censorious of organistions, wouldn't have passed the original cut from all accounts), and then added an atrocious schmaltzy pop-song, "Strange Love" over the key sex scene between Stensgaard and Michael Johnson, ostensibly our square-jawed hero (the scene implies he's giving her head – she goes cross-eyed at one point, if you watch closely, which I guess means she was having a good time...), producing this effect on the mortified Sangster when he first saw this film with Ralph Bates at an early screening, with no knowledge of what had been done to his movie: "I have never been so embarrassed in my life when that song came on." An oft-repeated tale is that Sangster was so horrified that he tried to sink into his seat, and eventually slunk out of the cinema.

Lust For A Vampire begins with a reincarnation sequence that conveniently side-steps the issue of Carmilla's decapitation at the climax of The Vampire Lovers. Carmilla (Stensgaard) is raised from the dead by Count Karnstein (Raven) in a pretty bloody black magic ceremony, and heads off to a finishing school for late teenage girls – surely the vampire's equivalent of a smorgasboard, in the early 19th century. At the same time, author of controversial and racy Gothic novels a la Matthew (The Monk) Lewis, Richard LeStrange (Johnson) has turned up researching the legend of the Karnsteins. He inveigles his way into a teaching position at the school through a low down dirty trick, smitten with Mircalla (as Carmilla's calling herself). Also on the scene is sleazy schoolmaster Giles Barton (Bates, relishing every scene he's in, and doing a pretty good job), who starts to suspect that Mircalla isn't exactly who she claims to be – and given the sudden wave of deaths at the college, and in the area surrounding it, he may well be right. However, LeStrange may have gotten himself in a bit too deep with Mircalla (which ain't exactly saying too much that's good about teacher-student relationships in 19th century schools), and things start getting more and more sinister with Mircalla having bewitched students and teachers alike, leading to an inevitably bloody and fiery climax...

I know that many of my reviews are a lot more in-depth in terms of the plot summary, but really the brevity of the above can be attributed to two things: one – the incoherence and nonsensical nature of the story, and two – the fact that the story around the film is a great deal more interesting than the story inside the film, which is little more than a riff on The Vampire Lovers, just with a more explicit sexual aspect, and more blood. As a matter of fact, that's part of the problem – the story is sacrificed for the sake of titillating the audience through sex and violence; a patchwork Gothic quilt of nekkid flesh and gushing blood, with some stylistic touches (LeStrange's psychedelic dream sequence and that excruciating song, particularly) that date the film badly.

I wouldn't blame Sangster's direction for this, as it remains to be seen how much of his final intended project actually appears on the screen, and how much of it is simply the producers' rather leering vision. There are parts of the audio commentary where Sangster claims to have had no idea about some of the shots, and having not known about characters being dubbed and such – I've not any reason to doubt him. It's a shame, as though while I don't think that this would ever have been one of Hammer's flag-ship films (given the production design, the majority of the acting, and the script) there's enough here to show a fair amount of promise for something better than what we ultimately received.

I'd probably also suggest that by 1971, the tide had started to turn in terms of what actually made for a horror film – the impact of US contenders such as Night of the Living Dead, with its more visceral horror brought home to the now, rather than the 19th century fairy tale horror of Hammer's output – even Edgar Allan Poe-devotee Roger Corman had stopped producing his wonderfully lush Gothic horror melodramas by this point, and he's a fella who knows which way the wind's blowing. Even Amicus, Hammer's chief rival, had realised that updating the context of their films was necessary to survival in the changing context of the modern horror audience. The notion of what scared people was changing rapidly, and films like Lust For A Vampire show a film company treading water, and not really understanding that the times, they were a-changin'. While I think that Hammer continued to get along for a number of years producing good, and at times very good quality period piece horror films (Scars of Dracula, most of the latter Frankenstein films, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, and so forth), they really did miss the boat by hitching their wagon to the wrong train, if I can mix my metaphors – To The Devil, A Daughter's 70s re-imagining of Dennis Wheatley's Satanic thriller in the light of bloated Hollywood fare such as The Exorcist showed a trailblazing company trying desperately to ride on the coattails of the new, good film though it still is. Even rival UK period piece horrors such as Witchfinder General, The Devils, and Blood On Satan's Claw seemed to have stayed more up to date through the handling of the material, if not through updating the stories. And vampire-wise, films such as Roger Vadim's Et Mourir du Plaisir (Blood and Roses – another riff on the Carmilla story), Joseph Larraz's Vampyres and Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness (another Carmilla tale) and the US Count Yorga and Blacula films, not to mention some of Jean Rollin's more sexually charged vampire flicks, had already updated the story successfully to a modern zeitgeist, and one much more in line with the audience's experience, and therefore much easier for them to identify with – providing greater immediacy for them, and a greater level of success than Hammer could dream for at the time.

To me, Lust For A Vampire, along with the equally flawed Countess Dracula, showed a company for whom the clock had started to tick ever-more loudly. That they lasted as long as they did in the ever-changing 70s is a tribute to the craftsmanship of their regular core of writers, directors and stars.
Video
A beautiful, pristine-looking anamorphic 1.77:1 transfer, I can't imagine Lust For A Vampire looking better – it really is stunning, with a rich and vibrant (sometimes too vibrant) colour palette. Shame I can't be as complimentary for what goes on on-camera... A poor story well shot?
Audio
Similarly, the audio, while still in a mono track, is crisp and clear and certainly sounds the business. Would've been nice to have heard this in a surround track, especially the big Hammer ending with peasants, torches and pitchforks, but you've got to take what you can get, huh?
Extra Features
Not so many of them, but for what they're worth, there's an extremely informative audio commentary with director Jimmy Sangster and star Suzanna Leigh, moderated by Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn, co-author of the invaluable text, The Hammer Story, along with Alan Barnes – this was an essential research tool in the writing of this review. If you're a fan of Hammer Films, I strongly advise you picking it up as soon as possible. Besides that, the special features are pretty slim: the theatrical trailer, a poster and still gallery (I normally don't rate these as special features, but Hammer always had impressively lurid poster artwork, so this is worth a look – even if it only plays as a slideshow and you can't navigate within it), radio advertisements for the film (again, can't be navigated within, but does feature some more poster artwork and promo images) and text talent bios for director Sangster and stars Bates and Stensgaard. Hardly all inclusive, but does this film really deserve better?
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
But is it really all that bad, you're probably wondering. Lust For A Vampire is a film that divides Hammer fans. Many write it off as more than a bit of an embarrassment (and let's face facts, when the director is as hard on a film as Sangster was on this one, you'd be justified in thinking so), but some, and I'm one of 'em, can see that there was something promising here, but Hammer's almost perpetual run of bad luck with financiers leeched all the life out of this film by rendering it utterly devoid of credibility – the sets are cheap, the acting (with a very few exceptions) abysmally bad, going from attempting some kind of sinister mood (the Count Who Likes To Count from Sesame Street could have done a better job of being scary than many of the characters), to fever-pitch terror (or more correctly, inexperienced and girlish histrionic melodrama) with little success, the story seems sadly almost superfluous to what we're watching – if I wasn't a Hammer fan, hadn't seen any of their other films and someone showed me this, I could understand why people don't like this company's work. It's a tacky film at best, verging on the ludicrous, and definitely not a fitting companion piece to The Vampire Lovers, one of Hammer's finest works. I guess if I was being particularly benevolent I'd say that Lust For A Vampire was a victim of circumstances. If you're not familiar with Hammer's films and are curious about seeing what all the fuss is about – don't start here.

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