By the early 1970s, England's Hammer Films needed to rejuvenate their gothic horror cycle and were ready to supplement their successful Christopher Lee Draculas with a new series of vampire stories. Outside producers Harry Fine and Michael Style (the heads of an independent film company named Fantale) brought Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla to Hammer's attention, and the rather erotic subject matter (a lesbian vampire preying on young women) made a perfect vehicle for Polish-born beauty Ingrid Pitt, who was being molded as their latest femme fatale. A notable success at the box office at the time of release, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory arm, via a distribution deal with the film’s owner, MGM.
In THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, Pitt plays Carmilla (also using the name Mircalla and Marcilla), a centuries-old vampire who has retained her youth and beauty. Governed by Countess Karnstein (Dawn Addams, VAULT OF HORROR) and a mysterious caped Dracula-like fellow known as the Man in Black (John Forbes-Robertson, THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES), Carmilla becomes a houseguest of General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) and his young niece, Laura (Pippa Steele, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE). After recurring nightmares involving a huge feline, Laura grows increasingly ill and eventually dies, while a local doctor (Ferdy Mayne, THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING) discovers bite marks on her bosom. Carmilla then seems to vanish into thin air.
Next stop for Carmilla is the home of Mr. Morton (George Cole, FRIGHT), and his innocent daughter Emma (Madeline Smith, FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL). Carmilla becomes obsessed with Emma, wanting her to love only her, and when Mr. Morton leaves town for a while, the seductive vampiress turns the whole house upside down. Not only does Emma fall victim to Carmilla's prolonged bloodletting and seduction, but so does the governess (Kate O'Mara, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN) and the butler (Harvey Hall, GORGO). When Mr. Morton returns, he is convinced that the ailing Emma is suffering from vampirism, but General Spielsdorf has coincidentally brought back Barton Hartog (Douglas Wilmer, BRIDES OF FU MANCHU), who had hunted down the bloodthirsty Karnsteins years ago (the highly memorable prologue has Wilmer as a younger Hartog, slaying a lovely blond temptress played by Kirsten Betts). With the help of young heroic Carl Ebhardt (the late Jon Finch, FRENZY), the brave men set out to uncover Carmilla's crypt and destroy her once and for all.
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS carried Hammer into the 1970s with a gothic, poetic masterpiece of erotic horror and doomed love, and the film actually remains fairly close to its literary source. The stunning Ingrid Pitt is one of the screen's finest vamps, and her portrayal of Carmilla is sympathetic and passionate, while cold and calculated at the same time. Although some have criticized her being too old for the role, Pitt gives a strong performance, and she's supported by a wonderful cast as well as the atmospheric direction by veteran Roy Ward Baker, delivering his first full-fledged gothic horror film. Peter Cushing's role is small but momentous, as his familiar vampire-slaying antics play a key role here. Cushing's involvement and marquee value was reportedly demanded by American International Pictures (AIP) who co-produced the film, and released it in the U.S. with an "R" rating, and it's one of the first, if not the first, horror film to land such a label. Two sequels were produced (LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and TWINS OF EVIL), and although Pitt did not return in either one, she did come back as COUNTESS DRACULA for Hammer (due out on Blu-ray from Synapse some time in 2013). The gothic sets by Scott MacGregor (who worked on a number of Hammer’s early 1970s period horrors) provides a nice contrast between upper class elegance and monstrous decay, and the music by Harry Robinson (who also provided the scores for LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and TWINS OF EVIL) definitely sets the right (often somber) mood from scene to scene. British horror fans will recognize the late Janet Key (here playing a naïve housemaid) from Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972, as well as Amicus’ AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (playing a role almost identical to what she played here).
MGM previously issued VAMPIRE LOVERS as a double feature “Midnite Movies” DVD (paired with COUNTESS DRACULA) in 2003. Some years later, MGM commissioned a new HD transfer, and that’s the source of Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray disc. Presented in 1080p HD, the new transfer carries a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, displaying far more head room at the top of the frame, and a sliver less at the bottom when compared to the old DVD transfer. The picture here is quite remarkable, with rich colors and amazing detail, so much so that the outdoor foliage is life-like, and facial features have impressive textures (though some background structures are clearly identifiable as paintings). Darker scenes are never too dark and always clear, while day-for-night shots look like nighttime without having their images obscured. The film elements do sport some speckling, but it’s hardly anything too distracting, especially when admiring the overall outstanding transfer. The English DTS Master Audio mono track is clean, with dialog, music and sound effects all emerging clearly. Optional English subtitles are included. The back cover (as well as Scream Factory’s press releases) state an 88-minute running time; fear not though, this is the full 91-minute version of the film, which like the 2003 DVD, restores an often censored frontal shot of a fully nude Pitt getting out of a tub, as well as several graphic and essential decapitations and vampire stakings that were cut from U.S. theatrical prints (as well as initial VHS and laserdisc releases). With a sense of humor in tow, the Blu-ray’s first image (before the menu pops up) is a bright yellow close-up of the lurid poster tagline, “CAUTION: Not for the mentally immature!”, but surprisingly, the disc has no chapter menu.
This Blu-ray carries over two supplements from the 2003 DVD, including the audio commentary with director Baker, star Pitt and writer Tudor Gates (sadly, all three have since passed on). Moderated by Jonathan Sothcott, this is a wonderful treat for Hammerheads and horror historians alike. Although Pitt was very ill when the commentary was recorded, she is still very passionate when discussing her role and what this film meant to her career, while Baker (almost 90 at the time and still spry) and Gates provide a lot of info on Hammer head Jimmy Carreas, the producers of the film, as well as a sequence which was eliminated against their wishes. Sothcott keeps things interesting by asking about specific cast members and other topics concerning the film. A segment of passages from Carmilla (12 minutes) read by Pitt at the time of the commentary, has also been carried over, but here on the Blu-ray, there are different background images and scenes from the movie then what was presented on the MGM DVD.
New extras include the featurette, “Feminine Fantastique: Resurrecting the Vampire Lovers” (9:52), produced by Daniel Griffith and his Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. The short documentary features interviews with Carmilla historian John-Paul Checkett, as well as film historians and authors Kim Newman, Ted Newsom, Wayne Kinsey, Eric Hoffman and David J. Skal. You won’t learn anything new here, but collectively the participants’ comments and views on THE VAMPIRE LOVERS are at least enjoyable. “Madeline Smith: Vampire Lover” (20:35) is a new video interview with the star, produced and directed by Greg Carson (who worked on many supplementary materials during MGM’s DVD heyday). Smith speaks very highly of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, and admits to being very proud of her work on the film. She gives some good insight on what it was like to work in a cold studio (which she describes as an airplane hangar), and discusses her co-stars (she got on well with Pitt), her fondness for director Baker, the nudity required, how she responded to producer Style’s fear of her not being top heavy enough, her overall youthful naivety going into the picture, and more. The photo gallery (8:18) displays a fine amount of production photos, behind-the-scenes shots and advertising materials, but it’s far from comprehensive given the amount of stills, international posters and lobby cards that are out there on this popular title. Rounding out the extras on this must-have Blu-ray are the original trailer, as well as AIP’s sensational radio spot. Scream Factory's Blu-ray doesn't have a reversible cover like some of their other releases do, but on the reverse of this one's cover are the images from some of the film's posters (including the beautiful Italian poster and the British quad), as well as several color shots. (George R. Reis)
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