Lust for a Vampire (1971)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: July 30th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Hammer entered the 70s on an inauspicious note with The Vampire Lovers. Not necessarily because the film is bad mind you (even the “worst” Hammer films are solid) but because its stark depiction of vampiric lesbian love rustled the era’s pearl-clutching prudes. Nevermind that the studio was merely adapting a century-old novella: Hammer had clearly pushed too hard in its attempt to keep up with the new decade’s more overtly lurid shockers. Its course correction—if it could even be considered such—turned out to be just an infamous in a worse way.
Criticized by both star Ralph Bates and director Jimmy Sangster as a shoddy effort, Lust for a Vampire didn’t exactly dial back its predecessor’s salacious wares. Apparently, you could load up on all the sex and violence imaginable so long as it wasn’t too homoerotic, an approach that simply yields a strange sense of déjà vu. Here’s another riff on Carmilla, only it’s being put on by Hammer’s B-team. It’s no wonder it isn’t among the studio’s most beloved efforts: not only did its own star and director pan it, but audiences and critics have also dismissed it over the years as a forgettable entry in both the Karnstein Trilogy and the Hamer canon at large.
Truthfully, it’s never be one of my favorites, but my latest viewing (courtesy of Scream Factory’s recent Blu-ray release) fostered a bit more appreciation for both its craftsmanship and its wry, campy outbursts. Lust is a film that’s silly in a way a lot of Hammer efforts weren’t up until this point and subtly reflects the direction of some of the studio’s other 70s output. The problem is that it just doesn’t quite go all the way in upending conventions, which I suppose isn’t much of a surprise when it felt expressly made to uphold heteronormative conventions. Landing at a nebulous intersection of pastiche, homage, parody, and just straight up retreading, it’s difficult to know exactly what to make of Lust for a Vampire; however, something about the way it all comes together sometimes makes for fascinating viewing.
Déjà vu—or at least a cockeyed sense of it—sets in almost immediately, when we watch the umpteenth ritual sacrifice. This time, it’s at the behest of the Karnstein clan, who have abducted a local girl with the express purpose of slitting her throat and pouring her blood into the tomb of the deceased Carmilla. Essentially a souped-up take on Dracula’s resurrection in Prince of Darkness, it makes for quite a striking opening that the rest of the film largely struggles to keep up with, even if the whole thing feels like a generic redux. Mike Raven (a bizarre casting choice in and of itself) glowers through the proceedings, trying his best not to just be a discount Christopher Lee but sort of failing to do so (it doesn’t help that Hammer tacked an insert shot of Lee’s eyes to further draw an unneeded comparison). This Carmilla is not Ingrid Pitt but instead Yutte Stensgaard, a switch that, to be fair, eventually works to the film’s advantage. But still, you get the picture: there’s something just a little off about Lust, a film whose occasional playfulness cuts through its familiar digs.
The plot itself is sort of a hoot: the Karnsteins have resurrected Carmilla with the apparent plan of turning her loose on a nearby all-girls school, where she proceeds to prey upon the students with suggestive massages before seductively sinking her teeth into them (again, lesbian overtones were apparently fine for the purposes of pure titillation).
This vaguely nefarious plot finds a match in a much more lucid one when very horny author Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) happens upon the school and decides he’ll do anything to get in on that action.
After conspiring with the school’s actual English teacher, he weasels himself into the position and promptly tries to weasel his way into the girls’ negligees. Of course, he falls in love with Carmilla, which soon turns awkward because a.) she’s a vampire and b.) he also kind of starts a thing with another teacher (Suzanna Leigh). Just your typical “I fell in love with a vampire heiress and a co-worker predicament. You hate to see it.
Suffice it to say, Lust for a Vampire thrives on the trashy intrigue that’s actually perfectly suited for gothic romance. It is perhaps a touch sillier than most—I haven’t even mentioned the sublot involving another wormy schoolteacher (Bates in a role originally written for Peter Cushing) who’s in love with Carmilla even after discovering her secret, or the headmistress’s desperate attempt to cover up one of the girl’s death. There’s a lot going on with Lust, which misses the brisk elegance of most Hammer scripts; that’d be fine if it were in the service of something complex or nuanced, but that’s not exactly the case here, especially when it hastily resorts to your standard climax with the local villagers brandishing their torches and pitchforks. It’s fair to say this eventually feels like Hammer on autopilot.
And yet, it’s not without its moments and fun performances. Johnson is clearly having a blast as Lestrange, who’s lecherous schoolteacher makes for an offbeat protagonist. Whether the film realizes it or not (I tend to think it doesn’t, at least not completely), there’s something slightly comedic about how oblivious he is to his plight. By the end, he’s more of a pathetic figure who finds himself victimized by his own ignorance and raging hormones. He’s not even particularly involved in the climax, if one can even say the film has a conventional climax—it just sort of ends on a random note before Castle Karnstein goes up in flames (this, despite the script’s insistence that the vampire clan can’t be dispatched by fire). Bates is similarly delightful as the other lovelorn teacher in Carmilla’s life; you’d never know he hated doing this film just from watching him on-screen, where he’s this close to just being a parody of a nebbish old bookworm.
Everyone’s caught in Stensgaard’s orbit though. Lust for a Vampire clearly revolves around her stunning screen presence: Hammer had a way of making natural beauty become transcendent on-screen, and the studio’s signature, otherworldly male gaze is no different in this case. Stensgaard enchants with every appearance, dominating the screen with saucer eyes that are somehow expressive and vacant all at once. The script doesn’t provide much in the way of dialogue for its tormented temptress, leaving Stensgaard to find the warring impulses between Carmilla’s Lust and love. It’s too bad the script also sells her out with a slipshod resolution that does nothing to confront the inner turmoil driving the character. Instead, Lust is quick to put a stake through its heart, essentially relegating Stensgaard’s terrific performance as a footnote in an odd film.
If only it were odd enough. As the second entry in the Karnstein Trilogy, it feels very much like a middle child awkwardly trying to do its own thing in the shadow of its more popular siblings. Every now and then, it’s prone to outbursts (like the strange love-making scene here that climaxes with Stengaard’s cross-eyed orgasm) that command attention, and it does a little bit to muck with the formula, which dutifully includes the usual helping of heaving bosoms, ominous castles, and garish bloodshed. Perhaps a better ending or a more pronounced wry streak may have helped it stand out some more; instead, it endures as a curious, unfortunate attempt to reform the mold after its predecessor shattered it with a bold, queer vision that’s lost to the stuff of prepubescent male fantasy.
But Scream Factory has insisted that this has a place, too. The last of the Karnstein Trilogy to arrive on Blu-ray, Lust for a Vampire has been painstakingly transferred to high-def with both 1.85:1 transfers and the original 1.66:1. Despite Sangster’s disinterested direction, the film’s striking imagery still pops on Blu-ray with vivid colors and rich textures, resulting in a more visually engrossing experience.
Scream has ported over the original audio commentary with Sangster and Leigh, plus recorded a new track with Hammer aficionado Bruce G. Hallenbeck. They’ve also included a new (albeit) brief on-camera interview with actress Mel Churcher, who recalls various, scattered anecdotes about the film’s shoot. The usual assortment of promo material—a theatrical trailer, radio spots, lobby cards, posters, and production stills—rounds out a decent release. It may be a little humdrum by Scream’s standards, but this is an instance where it’s just nice to have this title on Blu-ray. Given its reputation, it may have been easy for Scream to just overlook it completely in favor of other, more well-regarded titles; instead, it’s done its best to give it some attention. After all, middle children need some love, too.
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