Lust for a Vampire/To Love a Vampire (1970/1971) **
Harry Fine, Michael Style, and Tudor Gates knew they had a hit on their hands with The Vampire Lovers. In fact, so certain were they of its inevitable success that they began laying the groundwork for a sequel before the first film was even complete. They ought to have waited just a wee bit longer. Not that they were wrong about the reception that would greet The Vampire Lovers upon its release, you understand; it was one of Hammer Film Productions’ most successful horror pictures of the 70’s, and the Karnstein vampires would receive yet a third go-round the following year. But that premature first sequel, Lust for a Vampire, was such a conspicuous rush job as to risk undoing the positive impression its predecessor had made. At the very least, it wasted no time making a dismal reputation for itself, and I’ve heard more than one Hammer fan opine that only the first installment in the Carmilla trilogy is worth the bother. On the other hand, if we take the brief for the Karnstein franchise to be to give British audiences their own homegrown equivalent to the films of Jean Rollin and Jesus Franco, then Lust for a Vampire might be scored as a backhanded sort of success. As silly, disjointed, illogical, and exploitive a picture as it could plausibly have been under the direction of an old pro like Jimmy Sangster, Lust for a Vampire does indeed come pretty close to the authentic Continental sex-horror style.
The Vampire Lovers ended with Mircalla Karnstein destroyed, but her accomplices, the Countess Karnstein and the unnamed rider in black, still at large. I therefore assume that the vampire parental figures in Lust for a Vampire are meant to be the same characters, even though they’re now played by Barbara Jeffords (seen much later in The Ninth Gate) and Mike Raven (from I, Monster and Disciple of Death) instead of Dawn Addams and John Forbes-Robertson . For that matter, their daughter, if such she may be called, won’t be played by Ingrid Pitt this time, either. Pitt’s place in the sequel is taken by Yutte Stensgaard, of Burke & Hare and Scream and Scream Again. Also, her character is no longer Mircalla-posing-as-Carmilla, but rather Carmilla-posing-as-Mircalla, and the undead girl’s mortal lifetime has been pushed forward more than a century: 1688-1710 instead of 1522-1546. For now, though, the more important point is that the elder Karnsteins will require some means of restoring Carmilla-Mircalla-Whatever to unlife. Luckily, the Karnsteins are still in good (in bad?) with Satan, and a quick virgin sacrifice over Carmilla’s bones has her feeling her old self again in no time.
Meanwhile, down in the village over which the ruined Castle Karnstein broods, a British traveler called Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) is getting an earful from the innkeeper (Michael Brennan, of Doomwatch and Fright) on the subject of flirting with girls in Styria. The landlord advises Lestrange not to bother. For one thing, he can be virtually sure that nothing will come of it, and beyond that, he’d most likely be even worse off if it did, since that would probably mean that he was chatting up one of the Karnstein vampires. Naturally Lestrange doesn’t take this warning anything like seriously, but he is very interested to hear the story behind it. Richard, you see, is an author of penny dreadfuls, and collecting legends of this sort for use in future writing projects is his entire reason for coming to the Austro-Hungarian backwoods in the first place. With rapt attention, he listens as the innkeeper and some of his fellow guests explain about the Karnsteins and their castle where none among the locals dare to venture, with the ultimate result that Lestrange resolves to pay the place a visit himself. The trespassing writer has quite a shock when he finds first the bloodstains in the crypt leftover from Carmilla’s resurrection, and then a whole trio of beautiful young girls in hooded cloaks. Silently, they advance upon him, cutting off all routes of escape, and Lestrange has time to regret his arrogance before— well, before the girls are ordered to behave themselves by Giles Barton (Ralph Bates, from The Horror of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde), their deputy headmaster at the newly opened finishing school on the opposite side of the old Karnstein estate from the village.
Barton’s senior partner is Miss Simpson (Helene Christie, from Escort Girls and Rasputin, the Mad Monk), one of your classic 19th-century Old Maids. The pair sunk the whole of her modest fortune into buying and refurbishing an old chateau on the Karnstein lands (one assumes they got it for significantly less than its nominal market value), and thus far they’ve been remarkably successful. The student body consists of young ladies not only from all over Europe, but even from America, whence Susan Pelley (Pippa Steele, returning from The Vampire Lovers to play a functionally equivalent part) hails. Lestrange, the lucky dog, gets his first look at the school in the middle of a calisthenics class led by Miss Janet Playfair (Suzanna Leigh, from The Lost Continent and The Deadly Bees), which entails about a dozen girls dancing on the lawn with erotic languor in flimsy costumes inspired by Classical Greek fashions. Instantly he conceives an ambition to teach modern literature to Miss Simpson’s pupils, but the old lady says she’s already filled that position in her faculty.
While Lestrange is thus making a randy ass of himself, a carriage pulls up to deliver a late-arriving student to the school. The attractive, 40-ish lady dropping off her daughter calls herself Countess Herritzen, and her progeny Mircalla, but these two are none other than Countess Karnstein and the resurrected Carmilla. Richard doesn’t know which to be more smitten by, Miss Playfair or the vampire girl. In any case, he returns to the village cursing his luck about that teaching business. But wait! Upon his arrival at the inn, Lestrange is introduced to a new guest, a fellow Brit by the name of Arthur Biggs (Under the Doctor’s Jonathan Cecil). Biggs is a dreadfully tiresome schmuck, but it soon comes out that he is (1) an admirer of Richard’s, (2) an aspiring novelist himself, and (3) the very man whom Miss Simpson engaged as her literature instructor. Lestrange exploits this threefold discovery brilliantly. Dangling a collaborative writing gig as bait, he packs Biggs off to Vienna on a wild goose chase of a research project, then goes to Miss Simpson to report that her English teacher has injured himself in a highway accident, and will be laid up under medical care for several weeks. Naturally, he simultaneously re-extends his offer to take up the “incapacitated” man’s post. In a matter of hours, the fox is contentedly guarding the henhouse.
Richard Lestrange is not the only fox here, however. Most obviously, Mircalla views her classmates as a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet, and it’ll only make things easier for her that Miss Simpson’s institution is a bigger nest of lesbianism than the Nulpoliterordnen boarding school in Danish Pastries. But Giles Barton, too, bears close scrutiny. It was no accident that he steered his partner into buying this chateau out of all the derelict properties in Europe, and although his claims of an abiding interest in the genealogy of the Karnstein family are true enough on the surface, Giles normally leaves out the detail that he comes by that interest via his devotion to Satanism and his veneration of vampires. Soon Barton and Susan Pelley both go missing after pursuing closer ties with Mircalla, dead girls start popping up all over the village, and Miss Simpson is turning to Countess Herritzen for help in covering up the whole unseemly mess. Count Karnstein enters the game posing as Dr. Froheim, the Herritzen family’s staff physician, and it’s phony death certificates for all. Janet Playfair rightly suspects that her boss is playing most unfairly, but her bid to involve the authorities accomplishes little but to get Inspector Heinrich (Harvey Hall, from The Masque of the Red Death and Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something!) killed by the undead count. Meanwhile, Richard’s escalating affair with Mircalla keeps him quite effectively neutralized even after he realizes what’s really going on. There are two outside developments, however, that could collectively bring about the vampires’ undoing. First, Susan’s father, Raymond Pelley (David Healy, of The Ninth Configuration and Haunted Honeymoon), knows bullshit when he smells it, and he’s on his way with a personal physician of his own (Eric Chitty, from The Vault of Horror and The Horror of It All) to bust the Joe Paterno School for Young Ladies wide open. Secondly, there’s a bishop (Jack Melford, of Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons) on his way through Styria as well, and that inn where Lestrange was staying looks to him like as good a place as any to take a break from the rigors of the road.
Lust for a Vampire has plenty of problems, but the biggest is probably the replacement of Ingrid Pitt by Yutte Stensgaard. It’s a curious complaint to make, because by any reasonable assessment— including that of the very people who ultimately cast her in spite of it!— Pitt was completely wrong for the part of Carmilla. Twice the apparent age of the character in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s story and possessed of an overriding force of personality that could not be more starkly at odds with the source tale’s passive, introverted, enervated, and utterly harmless-seeming villain, she nevertheless rose to minor stardom on the strength of her performance in The Vampire Lovers. In Pitt’s hands, Carmilla became a sophisticated femme fatale, a canny manipulator of illicit desires, and a credible physical threat when the circumstances called for it. Hell, Pitt (much like Christopher Lee) even had the unruly jumble of snaggly, crooked teeth that were necessary to make Hammer’s invariably lousy plastic vampire fangs look believable. If The Vampire Lovers were more often seen today, I think Pitt’s Carmilla would be regarded as one of the iconic female monsters of 70’s horror cinema. Yutte Stensgaard, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of actress you’d expect to be cast as Carmilla. Fresh-faced, blonde, and lovely, she manages to seem carnal and ethereal at the same time. But whereas Pitt’s superficial inappropriateness for the part was counterbalanced by unlooked-for virtues that enlarged and improved the character, Stensgaard’s superficially perfection for it is undermined by a fundamental lack of substance. Stensgaard isn’t a bad actress— she just isn’t a good one, either.
A good actress to play Mircalla is exactly what Lust for a Vampire most needed, too, because the person saddled with the part here has a lot of bullshit to sell. The love affair between Mircalla and Richard, to start with, is as nearly as implausible as it’s possible for such things to be. On the one hand, we’re asked to believe that this randy lout mooning over schoolgirls, and engaging in Euro-sex-farce subterfuges in order to moon over them at closer range, is somehow irresistible to an experienced and primarily lesbian seductress who is now on her third lifetime. And on the other, we’re also asked to believe that with Miss Simpson’s entire student body to choose from— to say nothing of the comparably beautiful and age-appropriate Janet Playfair— Mircalla stands out so commandingly that Richard is prepared to love her even after he knows what she really is. The only way it could ever have worked was with an actress who genuinely was that commanding, preferably in combination with an actor who genuinely was that irresistible, with whom she’d have the chemistry to make everyone in the audience want to fuck both of them whenever they appeared together. Stensgaard and Johnson are simply not that pair. Stensgaard is equally unequal to the task of Mircalla’s numerous lesbian seductions, but she’s rather less to blame for that. With those, she’s further handicapped by an inexplicable decision on Jimmy Sangster’s part regarding how to film her girl-on-girl depredations. It’s worth mentioning at this juncture that we never see Carmilla’s face during the opening resurrection scene, and that a flashback to that scene later treats the change of camera angle revealing her as a big deal. That doesn’t make any kind of sense. After all, we do see enough of Carmilla to know that she’s blonde, and we see Countess Karnstein’s face very clearly. Can we really be meant not to make the connection when the woman we just watched presiding over a demonic blood ritual drops a blonde girl off at the school, regardless of what names she gives while making her introductions? Be that as it may, the hints of intended surprise may mean that Sangster was misguidedly trying to create suspense over the vampire’s identity by filming the deaths of Mircalla’s classmate and village-girl victims from the vampire’s first-person perspective. The trouble (apart from it being pointless, I mean) is that Mircalla isn’t just sneaking up on those girls and stabbing them like some Jason Voorhees wannabe from the following decade. She’s seducing them, luring them into her embrace and then killing them at the first spike of passion— which means that the poor actresses playing the victims are required to make out with the camera before the scream-and-die bit! No description I could offer would adequately convey how ridiculous it looks.
Those who have seen The Bare-Breasted Countess will now understand at once why I thought of Jesus Franco specifically while watching Lust for a Vampire, even though Jimmy Sangster’s direction is, on the whole, nowhere near that incompetent. Indeed, Sangster’s work is easily the strongest thing in the movie. He had a lot of years in the film industry by 1970, even if most of them were spent writing rather than directing, and it seems fair to credit him with making Lust for a Vampire merely a disappointment, as opposed to a full-fledged disaster. It’s similar to what you see in so many 70’s TV movies— artistically uninspired, but technically proficient enough to keep the film from derailing even where it probably deserves to. The hazards by which Sangster steers without an inch to spare include Ralph Bates’s entire performance (Bates here is distractingly reminiscent of Danish porn-comedy regular Bent Warburg), the bizarre detour through Carry On! territory represented by Arthur Biggs, Yutte Stensgaard’s ludicrous cross-eyed orgasm face, and a pop song on the soundtrack so intrusive that it really needs a Franco nightclub scene to accompany it. Sangster himself hated Lust for a Vampire when he saw the finished product, but I doubt that even Terrence Fisher (who was originally slated to direct, but was busy with another project by the time this one was ready for launch) could have done any better given the material at hand.