Saturday, March 30, 2013

Blu-ray Review: THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)

Region Code: A
Rating: R
Duration: 88 Minutes 
Video: 1080p WIdescreen (1.78:1) 
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate )'Mara, Peter Cushing, Dawn Addams
Tagline: If You Dare... Taste the Deadly Passion if the Blood-Nymphs! 

Synopsis: A female vampire with lesbian tendencies ravages the young girls and townsfolk of a peaceful hamlet in eighteenth century Europe who, years earlier, killed off her fellow vampires. A rousing hunt for the vampiress ensues as a group of men follow her bloody trail of terror through the countryside. Adapted from J. Sheridan LeFanu's novella "Carmilla," The Vampire Lovers stars Ingrid Pitt, George Cole and Peter Cushing.

Here we have the beginning of what would become Hammer Film's Karnstein Trilogy and it opens with a nice pre-credit sequence with vampire hunter Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) who witness a vampiress (Kirtsen Lindholm) rise from her grave like a creepy specter shrouded in flowing linens. She attempts to seduce the  Baron when she is stricken by the sight of his crucifix which comes into contact with her ample breasts, momentarily weakened the Baron thrusts a wooden steak into her dead heart and decapitates her with his sword. It's a great opening and quickly we know we're are in the good hands of Hammer Films, only a few moments in and we are already deeply drenched in copious amount of fog, creepy cemeteries, plunging necklines and undead beauty.

The 19th Century Gothic vamp chiller The Vampire Lovers (1970) thrust Ingrid Pitt into the spotlight as the libidinous, blood-thirsting lover of women, the story takes it's cues from the seductive vampire tale Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu and Hammer make the most of it's reasonably low budget to amp up the Gothic horror in this sexually charged entry. Pitt stars as Marcilla, a vampyric beauty whom befriends Laura (Pippa Steel), the naive niece of General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) in the village of Styria. It's hinted at not-so-subtly that the women are lovers, Laura is completely enthralled with the vampiresses beauty and falls to her unearthly charms quite easily. Her health begins to deteriorates after she begins having strange nightmares of a large, unnatural cat menacing her, the girl's family is helpless to stop the mysterious illness that has befallen her and as the life-force quickly ebbs from her pale body Marcilla disappears leaving the General grieved at the loss of his beloved niece. 

A short time later in a nearby village Marcilla, now going by the alias Carmilla, arrives at the home of Mr. Morton (George Cole) and in a very similar manner befriends his daughter Emma (Madeline Smith). Emma is young and naive, just the way Carmilla enjoys, and it's not long before the women are bathing topless and chasing her around the bedroom in a girlish fashion, just one step removed from a pillow fight, they are mostly nude and intertwined in a steamy girl-on-girl love affair of the flesh and blood. The nightmares of a menacing cat plague Laura and so to does her health begin to fade. When two small puncture wounds present themselves on Laura's breast her governess Mademoiselle Perrodot (Kate O'Mara) and the butler Mr. Renton (Harvey Hall) suspect something supernatural has befallen their home and set out to destroy the vampiress. 

The Vampire Lovers is a film that's drenched in sexuality, it was by most accounts  the film that played up the sensual eroticism of the vampire film, not only in it's sequels but echoed in the films of Spanish auteur Jess Franco and French eroticist Jean Rollin. So, please let's take a moment to offer a deep debt of gratitude to novelist Sheridan Le Fanu, screenwriter Tudor Gates and director Roy Ward Baker for making eroticised lesbian vampires chic, not to mention to the vivacious Ingrid Pitt and the wide-eyed Madeline Smith for making such wondrous spectacle, whose nude scenes are truly a feast for the eyes. Horror cinema legend Peter Cushing's participation amounts to what is in effect a bookend cameo at the start and end of the film, he has a much more significant role in the final film of the trilogy Twins of Evil (1971) as witchhunter Gustav Weil but his presence here is appreciated. 

As a Hammer film we get everything one could want, a period-set Gothic chiller steeped in fog-drenched atmosphere, spooky cemeteries, eerie woods, crumbling castles, plunging necklines and even a few gruesome decapitations with the occasional spurt of blood as sexy vamps either drain a victim or take a wooden steak to the heart, a very entertaining watch. It won't unseat the brilliantly bizarre Vampire Circus as my Hammer of choice but it's right up there with the best of 'em. 

Blu-ray: The Vampire Lovers (1970) comes to Blu-ray from Shout! Factory imrpint Scream Factory with a AVC encoded 1080p transfer in Widescreen (1.85:1). The print used for the HD Master is not exactly flawless and there are quite a few instances of print damage throughout ranging from minor white specks to scratches, the image is not overly sharp and is a bit soft at times. I found that the colors just weren't dazzling me but that's what one might expect from a forty-three year old film. When compared to Synapse's releases of both Twins of Evil (1971) and Vampire Circus (1971) I think this transfer falls a bit below that admittedly high watermark. 

The English language DTS-HD Master Audio Mono has a limited sonic range with little depth but offers decent fidelity with only the occasional appearance of background noise and crackling, overall it's quite a good listen with well balanced dialogue, effects and Harry Robertson's score.

Onto the special features we get a nice assortment beginning with an Audio Commentary with Roy Ward Baker (Director), Tudor Gates (Writer) and Ingrid Pitt (Carmilla) moderated by Jonathan Sothcotta - it's pretty decent, not sure when it was recorded but the participants do seem to be getting on in years, it's informative and fun, particularly Ingrid Pitt's reflections on the film and her recollection of Peter Cushing's suffering following the loss of his beloved wife, she sounds nearly in tears as she tells the story and it was deeply affecting to listen to it. I was humored by the fact that both Pitt and Ward insist that there are only suggestions of lesbianism, that it's there only if you want to see it, apparently I really wanted to see it, ha ha. Then into the Ballyhoo Motion Pictures produced featurette Femme Fantastique: Ressurecting the Vampire Lovers (9:52) featuring clips from the film and behind-the-scenes pics with interviews from film historians Ted Newson, John-Paul Checckett, Kim Newman Wayne Kinsey and Eric Hoffman. Great stuff, at just under 10 minutes they cram quite a bit of info into it. Ballyhoo produced a feature-length documentary on Synapse Twins of Evil Blu-ray called The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil which explores Hammer's Karnstein Trilogy in depth featuring many of the same talking heads, I highly recommend a viewing of it. Interview with Madeline Smith (20:35) is a new interview with starlet Madeline Smith whom portrayed Emma is the film, she candidly discusses the film and her own virginal naivety during the shooting as well as heaping on the praise of director Roy Ward Baker. Next up is a neat audio feature, Excerpts from the novella Carmilla, read by Ingrid Pitt (12:05) as the starlet does just that, recorded in 2003 it's a seductive and breathy reading accompanied by short clips and a gallery of stills from the film. The last of the extras are a Photo Gallery (8:18) accompanied by score from the film, a Theatrical Trailer (2:18) and Radio Spot (0:51)

Special Features:

- Feature Length Commentary with Roy Ward Baker (Director), Tudor Gates (Writer) and Ingrid Pitt (Carmilla) moderated by Jonathan Sothcott
- Femme Fantastique: Ressurecting the Vampire Lovers (9:52) 

- Excerpts from the novella Carmilla, read by Ingrid Pitt (12:05)
- Photo Gallery (8:18)
- Interview with Madeline Smith (Emma) (20:35) 

- Theatrical Trailer (2:18)
- Radio Spot (0:51) 

Verdict: An entertaining erotic-vamp entry and a great Hammer submission, the more 1080p Hammer we get the more I love it - please don't stop anytime soon! A very nice edition from Scream Factory who've made quite a name for themselves this past year with wonderful HD presentations of genre favorites that are jam-packed with extras, a very pleasing edition with quality supplements. The Vampire Lover's (1970) on Blu-ray from Scream Factory is a no-brainer for Hammer horror hounds, get it.  3.5 Outta 5