I absolutely love the horror films that were produced by Hammer production company from the 1950s through the 1970s. Now me saying I love them means I love quite a few of them, while others are absolute crap and don’t even qualify as being so bad that they’re actually good. By the 1970s, Hammer was running out of steam and began to get tired of releasing sequel after sequel instead of creating something new. The answer to their problems (sort of) was found in a novella Sheridan Le Fanu called Carmilla. The result is the uneven, but totally Hammer-esque, Karnstein Trilogy.
The first of these films was released in 1970 and titled The Vampire Lovers while the other two were both released in 1971, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil.
While these movies are called a trilogy, it’s kind of hard to find any sort of continuity among them. The only real connection is that all three implement the Karnstein family of vampires as the villains. In The Vampire Lovers, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) is a bisexual vampire who begins to prey on the young women of Styria, turning entire households against the people who know what she truly is. After his daughter falls victim to Marcilla’s bloodlust, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) gets a band of men from the town together to march on Karnstein Castle and put an end to the evil once and for all.
Lust for a Vampire tells the story of the vampire Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard), who may or may not be the same vampire from the first film. I really can’t be sure. Anyway, Mircalla finds her way to a finishing school where she once again(?) begins preying on the students. Meanwhile, the school’s new English teacher, Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) begins falling in love with Mircalla, which begins an unholy and forbidden relationship that can only end in tragedy.
In Twins of Evil we see twins Maria and Frieda (played by Playboy centerfold models Mary and Madeline Collinson) arriving in the town Karnstein after losing their parents. Their new guardian is the uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), a strict puritan who is also the leader of the “Brotherhood,” whose mission is to hunt the witches and other servants of the devil and burn them at the stake. While Maria begins settling in, Frieda becomes more and more attracted to the mysterious Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), an evil count that has recently been turned into a vampire. As Frieda becomes mixed up in his evil, Maria must try and protect her from the wrath of Gustav and his Brotherhood.
Let’s start with The Vampire Lovers. Like I said before, at this point in time, Hammer was running out of steam and their ideas for their movies were getting stranger and stranger. Just look at Dracula A.D. 1972 which came out a few years later. The good thing about The Vampire Lovers is that it still has that classic Hammer feel to it. There’s plenty of great scenes and the atmosphere is spot on with the traditional town inns, to the foggy cemeteries, and the ominous castles lit in the moon light. That and also the obscene amount of sex and nudity. That was Hammer’s draw with this movie, and it works to a point but begins to get pretty silly with its gratuity. All in all, this is a good entry and a fine start to the trilogy.
Then there came the sequel, Lust for a Vampire and… oh man… it’s something. It’s almost as if the film makers didn’t know if they were doing a softcore porno or a horror film. I get that they were trying to draw people in with the promise of boobies, but this is just ridiculous. The movie starts off cool enough with the creepy architecture and vampire horror stuff, but it soon goes away. Instead we get a cheesy love story between man and vampire, horrible music, and a stupid amount of gratuitous nudity that was thrown in just to get people in to see the movie. This isn’t a horror film, it’s too funny for that. Some of the actors who worked in this movie have even said it’s the worst movie they ever worked in. I can believe that.
You would think that after a movie that bad, the third film would only be worse. What if I was to tell you that it’s not only the best of the trilogy, but one of the best Hammer films I’ve seen. Twins of Evil combines vampires and witch hunting and features Peter Cushing as a violent puritan who burns “witches” during the night. We also get a fantastic vampiric villain played by Damien Thomas who seems to relish hamming it up any chance he gets. This is a super entertaining horror film that actually poses a lot of good points about the gray areas in morality and also has two villains working at opposite ends of the spectrum. Cushing’s character is a zealot for God while Thomas’ vampire is a zealot for Satan. It’s surprisingly smart and has its fair share of creepiness and gore.
The Karnstein Trilogy certainly isn’t the greatest work that Hammer film studios came up with, but for the most part it certainly is entertaining. The first film is fun, the second is the closest thing to career suicide you could see, and the third is an un recognized masterpiece. Fans of Hammer films should really get a kick at seeing how far they were willing to go in the final days of their productions. These movies certainly aren’t going to convert anyone who doesn’t like their other films, but for those of us who do they provide the creepy, gothic atmosphere that we’ve come to expect and the horror and gore that we’ve come to love.