Sex was always an important ingredient of Hammer horror, from the moment Christopher Lee’s Dracula swept down the stairs of his castle, setting female pulses racing. But as the British studio entered the more permissive era of the ‘70s, the two-backed beast increasingly began to eclipse the befanged bloodsucker.
Based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 tale “Carmilla”, The Vampire Lovers pushes the lesbian subtext to the fore, then strips it bare, taking advantage of changes to the X certificate to flash more flesh. Ingrid Pitt is the vamp who insinuates herself into aristocratic homes to prey on young women. At 32, the Polish actress is visibly far too old for the role, but has an undeniable magnetism.
Moments of visual poetry aside – Pitt wafting through a misty graveyard in a diaphanous gown – it’s all a little plodding. Take out the titillation and it’s basically an extended wait for the various family patriarchs to put two and two together. And while it’s pretty tame by today’s standards (or indeed, compared to contemporary European films by the likes of Jess Franco), once you know quite how naïve young actress Madeline Smith was, certain scenes make for very uncomfortable viewing; this is exploitation cinema in more ways than one.
Extras: Hammer mavens Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby team up on a very informative, good-humoured commentary, quoting from the script and correspondence between Hammer and the censors. They’re joined by four other experts on featurette “New Blood” (25 minutes), which concisely does a good job of explaining what a watershed film this was for Hammer. There’s also a trailer, gallery and restoration comparison. Thanks to a frame-by-frame clean-up, this new transfer looks immaculate; if you have a spotty old 4:3 DVD edition, it’s well worth upgrading.