Our month of Hammer Horror continues with a long look at the hysterical and lurid final chapter of the Karnstein trilogy.
In recent years, it’s become fashionable for clueless hacks in the mainstream media world to refer to Hammer horror films as ‘campy’, which has to be one of the most inaccurate descriptions that I could possibly imagine. Love them or hate them, everyone should surely agree that if there is one thing these films are not, it is camp. Unless you believe that old horror films are by default rather cheesy and comical – and let’s face it, that’s essentially what is being said here by smart arses who probably haven’t even seen the films and just assume that they are all tits, gore and bad acting – then the idea that these well crafted, solid and serious films are somehow the height of kitsch seems ludicrous. On the whole, Hammer films are as straight-faced a series of movies as you could imagine, bringing a stoic sense of realism to the fantastical stories. The fact that you can immediately spot when an actor thinks that these films are beneath them and delivers a lazy, smirking performance – say, Michael Gough in Dracula – says a lot for their quality as a whole. Sure, some of the films have sub-par supporting actors, iffy dialogue and the melodrama ladled on, but camp? No.
However… there are exceptions to the rules, and re-watching Twins of Evil with my reviewer’s hat on, I was immediately struck by just how spectacularly hysterical and – yes – camp this particular film is. It’s insanely, trashily, gloriously and – most important, this bit – knowingly lurid, seeming to revel in every gothic cliché and replete with full-blooded performances, comic book dialogue and moments that are so outrageously kitsch that the whole thing almost feels like a satire. All this is to the film’s advantage. The film is the third and final entry in the Karnstein trilogy, a series of related but individual films that have little connecting them beyond the Karnstein name and a reputation as ‘soft porn’ with the more stiff upper lipped Hammer experts and critics. The series began with The Vampire Lovers, which – despite its reputation – is rather tame, almost staid – even in 1970, the levels of nudity in the film were hardly excessive but Hammer fans, then and now, have often been both prudish and traditionalist. Any variation on the established style has generally been looked at with contempt and suspicion, which is why many of the company’s more adventurous films of the 1970s – when diminishing returns forced Hammer to try anything and everything to bring new life to what was becoming an increasingly tired formula – are dismissed with a vitriol that is hard for the rest of us to grasp. The film was followed by Lust for a Vampire, which was very much the film that The Vampire Lovers was claimed to be – wildly and deliberately kitsch, gleefully trashy and wonderfully lurid. Producers Harry Fine and Michael Style – names that evoke thoughts of a music hall comedy double act – seemed to have an understanding that the Hammer formula was looking old and, if they had to make gothic period movies about vampires, the only way forward was to crank up the levels of excess. We’ll be coming back to Lust for a Vampire at a later point.
Interestingly, the Karnstein trilogy is perhaps the most varied series that Hammer produced. The first film is a fairly straightforward Hammer Horror, even down to the literary origins; the second is as much a lecherous sex comedy as anything, almost a satire of its predecessor; and this film, unquestionably the best of the bunch, is part of the then-popular series of films that began with Witchfinder General and continued with Mark of the Devil, Cry of the Banshee, The Demons, The Bloody Judge and others, where the witchfinders become the real villains of the piece.
The film, of course, exists solely because Hammer found a pair of Playboy playmate twins and crafted a film around them, not much caring if they could act or not (as long as they looked the part, Hammer didn’t much worry about anything else and was never shy about re-dubbing its weaker actors, as is the case here). It’s a thin gimmick to hang anything other than a porn film on but at least allowed the company to milk the PR machine – there may be more gratuitously sexy publicity stills for this film than any other Hammer movie and several of them play on a faux-lesbian incest theme (though with more restraint than the pair’s appearance in Some Like It Sexy, which really pushes the boundaries of what you can ask identical twins to do with each other).
Madeleine and Mary Collinson are Frieda and Maria Gellhorn, newly orphaned and sent to live with their aunt and uncle in the village of Karnstein, a long way from cosmopolitan Venice. Uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing) is no fun – he’s the head of The Brotherhood, a puritanical religious cult who get their jollies by snatching young women at night and burning them as witches. Weil’s nemesis is Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), a genuine Satanist who Weil is powerless to move against. This conflict briefly sets up an interesting moral angle – the God-fearing Weil is a genuine monster and the Satan-worshipping Count initially seems to have the moral high ground. There might have been an interesting story to be explored here, but such a daringly provocative play on morality might be a bit much to expect from Hammer, even in the wake of The Devils, and the film soon reveals Karnstein to be at least as fiendish as the puritans. Tiring of watching performers play-acting black magic rituals, he yearns for the real thing, which involves killing a naked girl on an altar and invoking Satan. What he gets is the revived Mircalla Karnstein (as seen as the main character in the previous films in the series, now reduced to a cameo by Katya Wyeth), who vampirises him in what must be the fastest transformation into the undead ever seen on film – here, you become a vampire within seconds of being bitten, not even having to die first. This scene also offers our first hint that the film might not be taking itself quite as seriously as we might expect, featuring as it does Mircalla’s infamous candle masturbation scene during a spot of lovemaking with the Count.
Back in the village, the two twins have started school (where all the pupils are nubile young women in their twenties and the only lessons are in sewing and choir practice), and Frieda catches the eye of choirmaster Anton (David Warbeck). But Frieda is the archetypal Evil Twin – unlike her mousey sister, she’s not content to follow Uncle Gustav’s rules, and is fascinated by tales of Count Karnstein and his depraved orgies. Before long, she has slipped out and made her way to the castle, where Karnstein initiates her into vampirism, and soon the pair are leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Eventually, Frieda slips up and is captured by the Brotherhood, but as they keep her locked up, Karnstein kidnaps Maria and the two girls are switched. Will Maria be burned at the stake in place of her wicked sister, or will Anton come to the rescue? Well, I think you know the answer to that.
In many ways, Twins of Evil is the closest Hammer came to recreating the florid Euro gothic movies of the era – outrageous productions like The Devil’s Wedding Night and Malenka. It shakes off any sense of English restraint and instead becomes a fantastically entertaining, shamelessly trashy tale of satanism, vampirism and forbidden pleasures. Like most Hammer films, it has impeccable production values – Harry Robertson’s score is one of the company’s best and the film is beautifully shot. The sets (which were also used in Vampire Circus) are suitably impressive, though here too, there is a sense of gothic excess not usually found in Hammer movies – skulls and cobwebs litter the castle for no good reason other than to look moody, and there’s a fantastic moment where Karnstein seduces Frieda into vampirism in front of an inverted, glowing red crucifix. It’s a ludicrous moment, but it’s also brilliant because it really emphasises the fact that nothing is too over the top for this movie.
John Hough – who was a decent director capable of subtlety, as The Legend of Hell House shows – is clearly having fun here, and he seems to have encouraged a certain camp sensibility in his cast. It’s hard to imagine that scenes such a the one where mute manservant Joachim (Roy Stewart) wildly pantomimes a warning to Karnstein as the Count becomes more and more aghast (“they have crosses? And STAKES? And AXES??”) would get past the director if he hadn’t intended it to be funny. And other moments – Frieda’s melodramatic gasp at seeing Karnstein has no reflection, the Count actually growling like an animal before laughing like a supervillain – suggest a knowing awareness that this is not an especially serious tale. When the film lingers on a blatantly unrealistic severed head, it is just the icing on the cake.
The story is also full of holes – Mircalla is revived and then immediately forgotten about as though her appearance in the film is simply a contractual obligation to connect it to the other Karnstein stories, and in any case, the village already seems plagued by vampires before Karnstein summons her, a fact that is never explained. None of this matters, as the film seems to exist in a cartoonish version of the Hammer universe where logic and coherence are not important, where every village is of course plagued by the undead all the time and sinister castles are ten a penny. The film audaciously seems to challenge you to question its own internal logic – it has its vampires walking about in daylight when it is convenient for the narrative, and makes up some rules as it goes along while adhering strictly to others (the fear of the cross, the lack of reflection etc). Interestingly, given its predecessors, it doesn’t dwell on the lesbian vampire theme – at one point, Frieda bites village girl Gerta (Luan Peters) on the breast, but this again feels like a knowing nod to the earlier movies rather than anything else. The film is notably short of lesbianism beyond the general ‘every hole’s a goal’ attitude that vampires seem to have.
Do we need more evidence that this is a deliberately camp film? Then consider the fact that it was written by Tudor Gates, a man who wrote Danger: Diabolik and had his hand in the screenplay for Barbarella – not to mention writing a brace of British sex comedies in the 1970s. It’s difficult to imagine him writing this with a straight face.
The cast, for the most part, plays it straight. Cushing, of course, gives it his all in an unsympathetic role (the film’s biggest fault, I would say, is wimping out and allowing the murderous Brotherhood to ultimately become heroic figures), and he’s remarkably physical in the part. He commits to this as thoroughly as any other role and you wonder if he even realised that it wasn’t a serious film. Cushing showed an admirable commitment to Hammer and was famously reluctant to say anything bad about anything he made, but you have to wonder just discerning he was, or how much attention he paid to the script. Given his public disapproval of ‘erotic’ horror, his involvement in these movies – and he was scheduled to appear in Lust for a Vampire as well before dropping out to care for his terminally ill wife – is rather baffling. On the other hand, the fact that he would give such powerful performances – the sort that might have seen him showered in awards had they been in more respectable films – in movies that he probably had no genuine interest in is admirable. There is never any sense of him phoning a performance in.
David Warbeck – who was once considered as James Bond and would go on to be a stalwart of European exploitation, starring in the likes of The Beyond, The Last Hunter and Hunters of the Golden Cobra – is admirably straight-faced (and he was someone who definitely knew camp when he saw it and certainly would’ve picked up on the ludicrousness of this film) and actually has a more worthwhile involvement in the story than is usual for such films. Damien Thomas, on the other hand, is clearly hamming it up as Count Karnstein, his tongue entirely in cheek. Given that he has most of the outlandish dialogue, it was probably hard to show restraint and he’s given full reign to be as outrageous as possible. The supporting cast, including Dennis Price (quite the prolific horror star in the 1970s), Kathleen Bryon as Weil’s long-suffering wife and Isobel Black as the schoolmistress are all decent, and while Price always seems to have his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek in films like this, the other two are perhaps the most grounded and realistic characters in the story.
As for the twins… well, they are actually pretty good. They’ve been dubbed of course, but they still seem to be giving solid performances. It’s notable that Hammer didn’t just dub actors to disguise sloppy delivery of dialogue but also to cover heavy accents, and that seems to have been the case with the Collinsons, who were Maltese. Of course, their main role was to look sexy in sheer negligees and to take off their clothes as required, a task that they are more than up to, though the film has less nudity than you might expect – possibly because Mary Collinson was allegedly and inexplicably reluctant to disrobe, a sudden dose of morality than must’ve have appeared after the Playboy shoot, George Harrison-Marks’ Halfway Inn and the British sex comedies that the pair made. At least she had a ready-made stand-in, and Madeline doubled for her in her one nude scene – though this was then deleted from the film anyway.
By 1971, Hammer’s gothic horrors were already a bit long in the tooth. They were established enough to have been widely satirised on TV, in movies and across the media. More to the point, Hammer copycats were already pushing the gothic in new, more extreme directions – or rejecting it entirely. With the 1960s Hammer movies now turning up on TV across the world, the company knew that they needed to offer something new, or else lose their audience – they took Dracula into the modern day in Dracula AD 1972, cashed in on the kung fu craze with The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and belatedly tried to modernise and enter the Satanic Seventies with To the Devil – A Daughter, though it was all too little, too late of course. As much as the traditionalists seem to hate it, Hammer’s 1970s output is fascinating because there is a desperation about it, leading to sometimes radical ideas being tried by new producers only for the Hammer executives to react with confused bewilderment. The final years of Hammer’s Golden Age produced some of their best work, but it was often buried at the arse-end of double bills or promoted in ways that just made it look like the same old formulaic stuff. Hammer, in the end, was too wedded to what it understood, and it was down to individual filmmakers – the writers, directors and independent producers – to try and breathe new life into a dated formula, a conflict of ideas that sometimes created extraordinary and provocative films that even now tend to be overlooked because of the Hammer label. Twins of Evil makes the most sense when you see it as a knowing satire of the traditional gothic, cranking everything up to 11 in a deliberate act of subversion. The result is a livid, melodramatic and ostentatious extravaganza that looks like the traditional Hammer film but is anything but that. Shameless entertainment.
Update: in response to this, actress Judy Jarvis – formerly Judy Matheson, and part of the film’s cast – made the following comment:
“John Hough has said on many occasions, including a Q& A in which I also took part (as did Mary Collinson) that they were not dubbed. This fabrication continues to be blithely repeated, without any genuine knowledge & certainly no credit in IMDb.”
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