Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers is based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, taking many plot elements directly from the original story. As such, the film is a classic (but also “run-of-the-mill”) vampire story not dissimilar to many Dracula-style films.
The film opens with a prologue that is set a few decades earlier, and that is intended to achieve some world-building and to set up the lore. According to that lore, vampires have certain spirit-like properties, and you can cause them some trouble by removing their shroud from their coffin, because they can not retire to rest without it.
The main story sees Carmilla over time being introduced into different households under different names, with the help of her “mother” and shadowed by a mysterious stranger – it is never revealed who these two people are. The story is set in Styria in the early 19th century, and the opening ball-room scene features quite a lot of Viennese music including waltzes by Johann Strauss – even though that music would be composed nearly half a century later.
As in Sheridan Le Fanu’s original story, Carmilla’s “con” sees the “mother” in urgent need to hurry away, but allegedly unwilling to put Carmilla through the discomfort of a long and arduous journey. So arrangements are made for Carmilla to stay at a household of kind strangers – much to their detriment.
As I said, many elements are taken directly from the original novella. And as Bram Stoker seems to have modelled his Dracula tale in part on Sheridan Le Fanu’s story, you will find that some things feel oddly familiar, as the story of the struggle against the vampire is structurally very similar to many other vampire films that follow a classic tradition.
So as the plot feels neither revolutionary nor particularly exciting, Hammer tried to create some interest in the story by introducing some faint yet unsubtle hints at lesbianism, and some brief nudity. According to Wikipedia (referencing Sinclair’s book on Hammer films), Hammer successfully pushed this past British censors by pointing to Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella and arguing that they were merely adapting classic British literature and that any sexual and/or lesbian vibes were already present in the original text.
If the sexual content appears rather tame by today’s standards, the horror is almost non-existent. The original radio ads’ claim that the film will “drive your mind through a thousand terror-filled moments” would today definitely be seen as false advertising. From time to time I have pointed out on this blog that I am rather squeamish – certainly far too squeamish to sit through most modern horror films – but this film is a complete dud as far as horror elements are concerned. There is also no gore, apart from small amounts of fake blood.
Of course, standards for horror were much different back then, and there was only so much you could get past the censors. But I also believe that there was still a general tendency to rely more on the Gothic atmosphere and the effects of the sublime, rather than on gore and scares.
As far as time and pacing are concerned, the film takes the deliberate approach to force you along. The dialogue will simply inform you (indirectly) that a few days have passed since the last scene, even if nothing else would betray that fact and even though the pacing certainly does not make it feel that way. But I can respect that. In this film it is part of the suspension of disbelief. If the dialogue tells you that a certain amount of time has passed, then you have to accept that and move on.
The film’s strengths are in its design and in the acting. The sets (mostly sound-stage) are well-crafted and look the part, even though you can see that the coffins are made from styrofoam, etc. The period costumes also look convincing, although I assume they are a bit eclectic, and like the ball-room music may possibly be not entirely true to the period. The make-up is OK, but the vampire fangs were a bit “one-size-fits-all” and consequently did not match the colour of the actors’ own teeth.
The cast is very impressive, including Peter Cushing, Ferdy Mayne, and George Cole, who all give very strong performances. I also enjoyed Harvey Hall as the butler. The female cast mostly consists of attractive young women, including Hammer icon Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla. Other important female characters are played by Kate O’Mara and Madeline Smith. They all give good performances, but O’Mara and Smith are dangerously close to overacting more than once. Still, Smith is a perfect choice for the role of chief victim, as she radiates both utter naivety and utter vulnerability. It is the naivity element in particular which is getting precariously close to overacting territory.
As I said, this is a pretty faithful Carmilla adaptation, and as such is an ordinary traditional-style vampire story and plot. There is nothing wrong with the film, but there is just nothing that really stands out or is in any way exciting. There is no horror, no gore, barely any eroticism, and just absolutely nothing in way of originality.
I guess because it is faithful to the source, is quite well-produced, and has an impressive cast, I am willing to give it a 6-out-of-10 rating, but somehow it feels like that might be a bit too generous.
Like fellow Hammer-production Captain Kronos, The Vampire Lovers is neither a particularly exciting film, nor is it particularly bad. There is no reason for me to recommend this film, but there is also no reason to advise against watching it.