Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Strange brew… Lust for a Vampire (1971)

This being the second of the Karnstein Trilogy and featuring some of my favourite Hammer stars, I’ve been very remiss in not watching this film before (I know!). On a recommendation from Judy Jarvis (nee Matheson) I bought the Studio Canal Blu-ray which, as it happens, comes with an excellent interview with Judy amongst a host of extras and a sparkling transfer. It looks fantastic and, whilst it’s not as well executed as Karnstein III, Twins of Evil or as iconic as Karnstein I, Vampire Lovers, it is a very enjoyable romp that perhaps should have stuck with its original title, To Love a Vampire.

It’s fascinating to hear Judy’s fond recollections of not just this film but also her other Hammer work including Twins alongside the Strange Love featurette which addresses the changes affecting Hammer in 1970. In 1969 Anthony Hinds was leaving Hammer after decades as writer and producer for his father’s company whilst Hammer also lost Warner Brothers’ US distribution deal and ended up working with independent distributors, Fantale Films which included producers Harry Fine and Michael Style along with writer Tudor Gates.

Judy Matheson and Yutte Stensgaard

Fantale were keen to take advantage of the liberalisation of censorship rules and the Hammer films they were involved in mostly in 1970, all feature the more graphic sexual and violent content that was prevalent at that time. This film has a reputation for high levels of nudity and – largely – female sexual engagement; "cheesy" for some and difficult to contextualise now. But Judy Matheson recalls the atmosphere as being very supportive and considerate with a positive approach led by director Jimmy Sangster as well as Ralph Bates and other senior leads. Lust does indeed feature a lot of female flesh but overall, it is indeed less about the lust and more about the love, “strange” though it is.

Judy has a scene with Yutte Stensgaard, presented in an “overseas” topless version and domestic cut with strategically draped sheet, but she remembers it being well managed and professionally done by the crew. As she also points when even Helen Mirren, Glenda Jackson and other RSC alumni had made nude appearances at this point, not to mention Oliver Reed and Alan Bates… in terms of overt sexploitation, Lust for a Vampire is pretty tame certainly in terms of the ratio between narrative exposition and sex; if anything, it’s a pretty wordy film.

Yutte Stensgaard, Barbara Jefford and DJ  Mike Raven

The story begins 40 years after Peter Cushing chopped Ingrid Pitt’s head off in The Vampire Lovers and in a world where the former wasn’t available and the latter declined to be. We’re in Castle Karnstein with the Countess Herritzen (Barbara Jefford) and Count Karnstein (DJ Mike Raven, as always looking the part but not quite acting it…and even being dubbed by an uncredited Valentine Dyall) who are conducting a satanic ritual to resurrect their daughter Mircalla after having captured a pretty young virgin from the village (Kirsten Lindholm). She lies head back on the slab and they cut her throat – did I mention how squeamish I am? - and drain her blood to pour into Mircalla’s coffin and re-animate her young and beautiful as ever.

Mircalla is, of course, Carmilla previously played by Ingrid and now by the Dane, Yutte Stensgaard who, according to Jonathan Rigby (author of English Gothic) and others is actually closer to the character as depicted by Sheridan le Fanu in his original novel, Carmilla being very young (Stensgaard was 24, Pitt 33…) and less worldly than Ingrid could ever be. Unfortunately, the acting level is not the same and Yutte merely does OK, possibly overawed by the role or, as Judy suggests, lacking in confidence amongst the Brits. She is radiant though reminding me of Katy Perry in terms of her look and with a stronger script and better coaching she could have made more sense. Possibly.

A proper finishing school...

There’s a school for young ladies in the locale and when Irish writer, Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson), goes to research the supposedly abandoned castle for his next book on vampire horror, he is surrounded by a group of diaphanously dressed students, including Amanda (Judy Matheson) who briefly convince him they’re reincarnated Karnsteins, before revealing the gag. The writer meets the people who run the school, Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) and Giles Barton (Ralph Bates, who replaced Peter Cushing who had taken time out to nurse his terminally ill wife) along with Janet Playfair (Suzanna Leigh) who is conducting what looks like ancient Greek Panathenaeac dancing in the grounds with the ridiculously good-looking pupils.

That ratio of impossible to improbable shifts significantly to the former as young Mircalla is brought by the countess to join the school… LeStrange is immediately spellbound and intrigued by both the legends and those looks, engineers a way of joining the school staff.
Ralph Bates and Michael Johnson like a lady vampire they really do...
Miss Simpson’s establishment soon becomes a finishing school in ways she couldn’t imagine as pupils begin to disappear as do others outside with yet another barmaid lost at the village tavern, Trudi as played by the super Luan Peters who, incidentally appeared in a further two films with Judy Matheson, Twins of Evil and The Flesh and Blood Show, both part of the group of players guaranteed to deliver performance in films often made on the tightest of schedules and meanest of budgets! 

Strange loves develop all around Mircalla both with other pupils Susan (Pippa Steel who shines brightly and briefly) and with teachers too as LeStrange is compromised by his feelings for her even as he is certain she is a vampire… is even she a victim of circumstance? Meanwhile Miss Playfair has her own stake in things as she falls for the writer and, in one of the film’s strongest scenes, so well played by Leigh, pleads with him to examine his conscience and report the Karnstein cabal to the authorities: I thought of you as someone honest and courageous when you first came here… She is, as is noted in the featurette, the moral heart of a film in which most characters either lose their way or aren’t fully realised.

There's not just a Strange Love scene but also a lovely tinted dream sequence... like in a silent movie!

Meanwhile, the writer has strange dreams of his contrasting attractions to the teacher and the pupil… as a song called Strange Love, sung by a young singer called Tracy and written by film producer Michael Style, plays. An up-tempo version was later released as a single and is quite collectable!

The human cost of Mircalla/Carmella’s existence soon brings real consequence as the locals plan revenge, parents of missing pupils arrive and the loves or lusts that dare not, soon have to speak their name…

Dusty verdict: Lust for a Vampire feels somehow incomplete but the sentiment is clear and it does make for a vampire film with a difference… a sympathetic lead and humanity led by hearts not heads. It’s not as clunky as its reputation has it nor even as exploitative as the marketing would have it, as for 1970 being a “blip” year for Hammer, I’m not so sure given the affection with which the Karnstein Trilogy is held as entertainment and nostalgia. The company may have wanted to take advantage of changes in censorship, like most, but the raising of the X-rated age of admittance from 16 to 18 mid-year surely made it harder for the company to target the younger market as some of the commentators suggest?

The female gaze.

Anyway, as Judy Matheson said, the film looks great and Studio Canal have done a superb job in producing this set, which is essential, of course, if you like the genre, the studio and the actors… why else would you have read so far down the page! It’s available from all good retailers, including Amazon

Proper castle
DJ Mike realises he's forgotten to put the bins out.
Kirsten Lindholm tries to remember the advice about getting into strange coaches
The image is so clear you can see the camera crew...
Obligatory Luan Peters pic
"We're just sayin' we'd like to take back control from unelected Counts..."

Early form of The Birdy Dance.
This is as racey as I'm letting it go...
DJ Mike Raven... from this angle almost as tall as the actor Christopher Lee.
Katy Perry's auntie?
Behind you Ralph...
You know what this means...
Suzanna Leigh questions the audience's attitude...

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