Like THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970), this is one of the most reviled Hammer efforts - but, again, I found it not that bad after all! Still, being one of the countless vampire-themed outings from the studio, it does feel like a tired rehash of better films; actually, it happens to be the middle part of Hammer's "Karnstein Trilogy" (inspired by J. Sheridan Le Fanu's classic short story "Carmilla") - if, admittedly, the least of them. As was the case with THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and would be again with TWINS OF EVIL (1971), the main behind-the-scenes credits weren't the usual Hammer stalwarts: producers Harry Fine and Michael Style, screenwriter Tudor Gates and composer Harry Robinson. While the latter's score is appropriately grandiose for the most part, the love song - apparently inserted without director Sangster's consent, or even knowledge - is a total embarrassment!
It starts off well enough: all-too-typical material, to be sure, but very atmospheric (Carmilla's reincarnation, for instance, or the scene where hero Michael Johnson is surprised at the dilapidated Karnstein Castle by three cloaked female figures he takes to be vampires) and reasonably entertaining for all that. Other effective moments include: Carmilla's botched seduction of the Suzanna Leigh character; a couple of falls down a well, rendered stylized by the use of slow-motion; and the climax with the vampires trapped inside their flaming castle (lit by the inevitable torch-bearing villagers).
However, following the demise half-way through of top-billed Ralph Bates (yet another impressive turn from Hammer's candidate to replace Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), the film slowly falls apart; reportedly, Cushing was supposed to have played the scholar/would-be vampire disciple - but I can't help feeling he'd have been both too old and ill-suited for the role. Similarly, Sangster replaced Terence Fisher: it would have been interesting to see Hammer's top director tackle "Carmilla" - but I wonder how he'd have handled the erotic aspects of the story. With its full-frontal nudity and scenes of lesbian love-making, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS had been credited with pushing the boundaries of permissiveness in Hammer horror - and this certainly follows in that tradition, with the script coming up with every possible excuse to have its scrumptious female cast disrobe!
The film does suffer from the lack of a star cast or even those familiar Hammer faces (other than Bates, that is): there's no denying that leading lady Yutte Stensgaard looks great throughout but, ultimately, she makes for an inadequate vampire (since she's depicted as being more pathetic than evil); Suzanna Leigh, then, is an equally attractive heroine; Barbara Jefford and Mike Raven, however, don't exactly ignite the screen as the Karnstein descendants (he was an especially poor choice and Hammer apparently realized this, to the extent that they had his voice dubbed by Valentine Dyall - while close-ups of Christopher Lee's eyes were roped in to 'aid' his character display the requisite fierceness!); Helen Christie is unintentionally funny as the headmistress of the school (where a good deal of the action takes place), who breaks down at ill-fated Police Inspector Harvey Hall's interrogation after a girl goes missing - which she fails to report immediately so as not to damage the school's reputation!
In the Audio Commentary, Sangster explains how he was dismissed by the producers (with whom he never saw eye to eye) during the editing stage. Suzanna Leigh spends more time discussing her career (in particular the actress' brief stint in Hollywood) than her contribution to the film proper, also mentioning her role in an episode of Hammer's JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN (1968-9) TV series - that, incidentally, was entirely filmed in Malta - and, at one point, even describes an out-of-body experience she went through in the mid-70s! However, Leigh does recall the atmosphere on the set of LUST FOR A VAMPIRE as being somewhat tense - with the troupe divided into two camps (one of which was snobbish about the profession, while the other kept a good-humored attitude towards the whole thing). Curiously, no mention is made at all of the film's literary origins - or, for that matter, the fact that it formed part of Hammer's Karnstein trilogy!
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