Saturday 25 September 2021

Double trouble… Twins of Evil (1971)

I’m prepared to admit that you can’t watch Twins of Evil too many times… Kim Newman


I find Hammer films slightly confusing and difficult to critique if I’m honest as the genre sometimes obscures the skill involved in making them. In terms of a “Hammer Canon”, there seems a divergence of opinion online as to which titles are the “best”, top tens almost never seem to overlap and yet… gradually you start to make sense of it, solid wooden stakes being visible through bloodied trees and genuinely vibrant storytelling matching the invariably excellent performers and sometimes patchy scripts.

So it is with Twins of Darkness that, having not seen it since the late 70s, always struck me as a gimmick, the two sexy stars being used to pruriently sell another twist of the formula, two for the price of one in terms of vamps set against a gothic background built on flimsy chipboard by a production company famed for putting its poster art at the heart of the sell… never mind the script if we can get the backing for another lucrative addition to a bottom line so tight, you can't see the join.

Maria and Madeline or is it Frieda and Mary??

But by this stage of the game, Hammer was having to change its winning formula, introducing not just more sexuality but also new, younger directors such as John Hough who had learned is craft working on cutting edge TV action-drama series The Avengers, and who had something new to say on the big screen. The company had also involved new production teams including Harry Fine and Michael Style, who had previously worked on the cheese-core classic The Vampire Lovers and the less lauded, Lust for a Vampire the first two parts of the so-called Karnstein Trilogy of which Twins was the final part – although both Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) and – more loosely - Vampire Circus (1972) are linked to Hammer’s interpretation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s saucy 1872 novella Carmilla. Incidentally, both are fine films and in my personal Hammer Top Ten (this week).

The script was from Tudor Gates who also wrote for Lovers and Lust and is an interesting attempt to merge the expected vampiric tale with a moral debate about the merely bad and the truly evil. None of this would work quite so well without the huge presence of Peter Cushing as Gustav Weil, head of the local Christian Brotherhood who are committed to cleansing evil through means of burning at the stake. Cushing was recently widowed and threw himself into his work to help distract from grief.

Judy Matheson: "Ready for my warm-up Mr deMille!"

I saw Judy Matheson (now Jarvis) discussing her genuinely iconic cameo in this film as the first of the suspected witches to be burned, and she tells of how professional and considerate Cushing was, making sure that she was well treated and comfortable in one of her earliest film roles. On screen, of course, there is no mercy, and Judy is dragged from her home and set alight by the Brotherhood before the credits even roll… a breath-taking start that signals the film’s intent: there is evil about but that within the hearts of these “good men” is no better or worse than that of the vampires up in the castle.

Cushing is drawn and so pained it’s hard to know where his performance ends and his bereavement begins but there’s no doubt his presence and force of character. He takes a thoroughly conflicted character and adds unexpected humanity to a “witchfinder” utterly convinced he is doing the right thing until fate suggests otherwise. Alongside him is the magnificent Kathleen Byron as his wife Katy, an actor of equal skill and experience who makes the most of her role and must have been a real comfort for Cushing. Byron had a huge career from a clutch of Powell and Pressburger classics –Small Back Room as well as the classic Black Narcissus – through to The Elephant Man and Saving Private Ryan.

Kathleen Byron, absolute legend!

In Twins, the characters are close in blood and proximity with fast-moving narrative entanglement as Weil’s twin nieces, Maria and Frieda arriving from Venice to set a stir the village and arouse the most unwanted of attention. The girls are played by the Collinson twins, Maria as Mary and Madeline as Frieda, having being talent spotted posing in Playboy by producer Harry. They’re almost identical but Maria/Mary is slightly prettier and more dutiful whilst Madeline/Frieda is earthier and most interested in exploring moral boundaries…

The girls immediately cause a stir with their low-cut city style and this extends far beyond the village. Up on the hill sits Castle Karnstein where the Count (Damien Thomas), descended from Countess Mircalla Karnstein, is bored to tears. The Count’s retainer, Dietrich (Dennis Price) tries to entertain him with dark theatre, hiring men and a local girl to enact a satanic ceremony, but the Count wants only the real thing and, having got rid of them all promptly despatches the young woman invoking the dark lord. This sacrilege succeeds in waking the dormant Countess who is played by Katya Wyeth with Ingrid Pitt refusing yet again to return in the role. One thing leads to another and Great-Great-Grandma turns the Count into a vampire.

Lovely Luan Peters and Damien Thomas share a joke

The Count has been amusing himself with local girl Gerta (the late, great Luan Peters) but connecting with Frieda, he finds someone eager to explore the dark side. Frieda has already attracted the attention of local schoolmaster Anton (David Warbeck) who, along with sister Ingrid (Isobel Black) have an all-girl class packed full of lovelies… there women in Twins are virginal and sexually inquiring to various degrees whilst so many of the Brotherhood are so repressed, they take strange delight in burning the thing they love.

Sexual politics aside this becomes a three-way battle for the soul of the Twins as Frieda’s night-time sorties to the castle and Count increase and she confronts her uncle and his Brotherhood, trying to frame her sister for her misdeeds. Can Anton or anyone, tell them apart?

Madeline and Maria... probably

Dusty verdict: There’s a lot packed into Twins of Evil but much to enjoy. Part of the problem with Hammer and other genre films is the predictability of much of the action – it’s usually just a question of when and how many characters get killed before the, mostly, inevitable conclusion. Hough wisely focuses on the supernatural elements and builds a consistently tense atmosphere throughout. 

He also makes the most of his cast who, the Collinsons apart, are able to extract every ounce of potential depth from Gates’ script. The Twins are OK and react well but they’re not pros and it shows, compare Judy Matheson and Luan Peters’ moments with theirs’, both are able to bring full commitment and emotional response whereas the Playmates need great editing to fit with the mood. Judy’s so good in fact, she gets burned twice, her pre-credit sequence being re-used to show another brunette paying the price for “living alone in the woods” and other clearly unholy activities.

Witch hunting never changes, does it?

Twins of Evil is now available on Network Blu-ray at very reasonable rates. There’s also an import Blu-ray which comes with the excellent documentary The Flesh and the Fury: X-posing Twins of Evil: Directed by Daniel Griffith which features some informed interviews and presents the history of Hammer to the point of the film. These include the rather jolly Damien Thomas in a Soho pub, along with horror writer Kim Newman, who’s quote at the top says all you need to know about this film! It has to be on anyone’s list as one of the most enjoyable from this period.

Judy's two burnings, the second - featuring higher flames - standing in for another poor wench



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