Blu-Ray Review: The Vampire Lovers (1970)

APRIL 26, 2013


I never got around to seeing Twins of Evil for HMAD proper, but I'll get to it, I swear! In fact, once the initial "Yay, I'm retired!" thrill wears off (and my work schedule gets a little more lax for the summer) one of my goals here is to "plug holes"; finishing off series I saw in part such as this. In the meantime, I took another look at The Vampire Lovers, which hits blu-ray (for the first time in US) in a few days courtesy of Shout Factory, who has been draining horror fans' wallets all year with plenty more to come. They've been compared to "Criterion for horror" by more than one writer, and I'm inclined to agree - the "Scream Factory" line has amassed a truly impressive output in a fairly brief time.

Lovers is a bit of an anomaly in that group; however - it's the first (but hopefully not last) Hammer release to join the line. I can assume they'll also pick up Twins and the 2nd, not particularly good film Lust of a Vampire, and if so the bar for a release is set pretty high with this disc - a gaggle of new extras and a top-notch transfer should please anyone, not to mention inspire newcomers to check it out. It also allows folks like me to reappraise it; at the time I watched (in 2010! Which is to say I barely remembered it and had to consult my own review to see what I thought about it) I wasn't all that impressed, but I admitted that was probably due to seeing the 2nd film (Lust) the day before, as it was basically the same thing.

So now, on its own and with my memories of both films reduced to "some attractive vampire ladies, right?", I can see that it's actually a pretty solid vampire film, if a bit slower than some of the others of the period. The 3rd act is terrific, with the usual race against time stuff plus a fun little subplot about Carmilla (Ingrid Pitt) trying to get the garlic flowers removed from the beside of her target. She's got a "henchwoman" in the house, a countess played by the lovely Kate O'Mara, and the two of them repeatedly try to get the other folks in the house to get rid of them, only to be thwarted over and over - it takes some chess-style thinking ahead for them to finally get cleared. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing, a guy that looks like Jeffrey Tambor, and a handsome young man join forces to deliver exposition and realize that Carmilla needs to be destroyed before she finishes taking hold of Emma (Madeline Smith), the young girl in the "Lucy" role.

But the first hour could have benefited from some improved pacing; because the story tends to get similar to Dracula (albeit with a woman). Yes, I'm aware the "Carmilla" story predates Stoker, but the latter's had been filmed over and over so these beats can't help but feel familiar regardless of who was first, and they might have opted to take that under consideration even if it meant changing the book (which I understand they were fairly faithful to). It starts off with some vampire hunting, but it's just a prologue that gets repeated again at the end anyway, and after that first time there isn't much action until Emma starts getting sick. Plus it's sort of like Shocker (yep, I just did that) in that there's a lot of plot to set up before getting to the stuff anyone remembers; after that prologue there's an extended sequence (actually the entire first act) where Carmilla seduces another girl and kills her before going on the run and meeting up with Emma and starting the process all over again. So it can feel a bit repetitive within itself on top of all the "Dracula"/other "Carmilla" versions (such as the terrific Vampyr, an ACTUAL Criterion release), which is probably why I was a bit restless the first time.

Knowing that already this time, however, made it easier to enjoy while focusing on what worked, like Pitt's terrific performance, and the high def image allowing me to further appreciate the traditionally lush Hammer visuals (courtesy of Roy Ward Baker here) and set designs. The resolution can be a bit TOO good at times - I noticed a seam (or crack?) in the "sky" behind a character during an exterior scene - but for every little glitch like that there are about 10 closeups of Pitt or O'Mara to appreciate, so who cares? The image isn't clear enough to get any more insight as to who the hell the man in black that we see throughout the movie is, however - I had forgotten all about this bizarre, unexplained subplot. Of course now I can just go look up the info and discover that A. I'm not dumb - there IS no explanation for him in this film and B. the sequel (where the actor was replaced) revealed him to be Carmilla's husband, but at the time this must have been one of the most baffling goddamn things in movie history.

They don't talk about him much on the commentary featuring Pitt, Baker, and screenwriter Tudor Gates (moderated by Hammer authority Jonathan Rigby), however. The film was made during a rather difficult period in Hammer's history; the box office was declining and their style was becoming outdated as American horror was in the middle of a creative rebirth thanks to Romero and Polanski. So a lot of the commentary tends to drift toward that element of the production, as well as the sort of "package" process that they stood by - Rigby will ask Baker about a particular cast or crew member and he'll just say it was someone that the studio gave him. Pitt seems to be having trouble breathing at times (she died in 2010 but this was recorded in 2003 at the latest as it was included on a DVD from MGM), so some of her stories take patience as she pauses (or merely gets sidetracked), but her anecdotes are always very lovely and funny, including the one where she talks about meeting Cushing for the first time - during (spoiler!) her death scene where he cuts her head off! Pretty funny. Cushing's role in the film isn't large, but they have plenty of things to say about him, including some truly gut-wrenching stuff about his demeanor after his wife died - he took it very hard, almost to the point of suicide if their stories are to be believed. Cushing's one of those actors you never really hear anything bad about - everyone loved him, and that comes across even though his role is fairly brief in the film itself.

The rest of the extras are solid as well, including a new retrospective featuring some Hammer historians and critics in lieu of anyone from the film (kind of hard to avoid; Pitt, Cushing, some of the other actors, and nearly every principal member of the creative team is dead), complete with some great anecdotes and further explanation of its importance during Hammer's decline (it was a hit and almost singlehandedly kept the lights on for a few more years). I particularly liked the point one guy makes about the film's "Dorian Gray" inspired portrait subplot, as the film featured heavy (for the time) lesbian elements, while Oscar Wilde was expressly forbidden from including any homosexuality in his novel. And then there's a lengthy interview with Smith, one of the few main actors from the film who are still alive. She repeats the sentiments about the others, talks about the nudity, the film's legacy... it runs a bit long but it's worth a look, as is the carried over selection of passages from the book, read by Pitt and played over the appropriate scenes from the movie. Again, her voice is a bit shaky, but it's a unique feature - rare to see the source material being given any sort of reverence on a DVD of the movie. The trailer and some radio spots are also included, though I gladly would have traded them for a proper scene selection menu - there are chapter stops but no way to access them, so if you want to skip to the 3rd act you have to hit play and tap the "next chapter" button over and over until you get there. Yes, it's not the end of the world, but if you're like me and doze off (it took me a few days to get through the whole disc), it's a pain to have to do that just to get to the last 10 minutes of the commentary when you dozed off the night before.

Otherwise, you can't ask for a better Blu-ray release; it ports over the existing extras while adding a few others, and tops it off with a pretty great transfer - exactly what all companies should be doing with their high def double dips. I see some blu releases from the studios that strip the film of the bonus material it had on DVD and/or offers nothing new, making it hard to justify buying again, especially if your HDTV isn't top of the line anyway (mine sure as hell isn't). Shout's doing it right - wish the majors would follow their lead.

What say you?


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