Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Vampire Lovers

I caught The Vampire Lovers on a big screen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I realized that the DVD era has brought a few curses along with its blessings. Of the good, thanks to DVD and VHS before it, we are able to see an old film whenever we want. I have The Vampire Lovers on DVD myself, in fact. And most of the times I've watched a movie and studied it, I've watched a home video version. But I realized while watching the movie in a theater that theaters give us the gift of focus. In a theater, we delegate to a third party the authority to tell us to shut up and listen, to sit quietly in the dark. I'm used to this for brand new movies, but I have to search for it for older titles.

I tend to watch movies as thought I'm studying a problem, letting the movie play while I thumb through four or five different books on movies, and tabbing over to look up various details. (With this movie, it's, Who's that playing the innkeeper? Is that castle set the backlot at Elstree or Bray Studio? Wait, this would  be 1970, so it has to be Elstree, so when did that transition happen again?) When you watch an older title in a theater you get the chance to think of it by itself.

The Vampire Lovers is a Hammer Studios adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla. Carmilla was probably the first vampire story I ever read, a languid, erotic and romantic story of a vampire woman who comes into the life of a young noble girl and nearly destroys her. It's an extremely important story.
Everyone always remembers that Carmilla was a lesbian but they rarely seem to remember what an exciting b**** Carmilla is in Le Fanu's story. She whines petulantly when she doesn't get her way, smugly insults peasants and comes on a little strong with everyone. She's dashing and brash. She's a con artist, too, running a regularly-repeating long con where the mark is always a pretty and naive noble girl and prize given up is the mark's life.
Carmilla came out in 1872, fifty-three years after Polidori's The Vampyre but certainly in that tradition of dastardly and erotically powerful noble vampires. The date also puts Carmilla twenty-five years before Stoker's Dracula, which would revisit several of these themes, though with nowhere near Le Fanu's gift for prose:
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever". ("Carmilla", Chapter 4).
I loved Le Fanu's use of time in his story, note how he mentions the "hour of apathy;" in fact Carmilla is full of ennui, of slow walks and lounging, waiting for something to happen. Punctuated with vampirism and violence.
The Vampire Lovers attempts to take Carmilla and tell it as a Hammer movie, and why not-- the Hammerscape, a strange Euro-Britain of rolling fog and gorgeous castle sets, is on full display here. In fact, I'm not sure it's ever looked better, because The Vampire Lovers manages to display in one movie every graveyard, haunted wood, foggy court, broken down castle, and musty crypt ever built for other Hammer movies, with a few more new ones thrown in.
The movie, like all Hammer Films, operates within a rigid fictional class system where everyone's behavior is pre-determined. Carmilla's scam works this way: her mother/aunt/older companion drops her off at a nobleman's castle, protesting that she must hurry to an emergency meeting elsewhere; could the master of the house allow Carmilla (called whatever she's called) to stay with your daughter? Because they are of the same class, the imposition is acceded to inside a cloud of understandings and gentleman's agreements.
We see the scam play out twice in The Vampire Lovers, once with Laura (the  first girl here, the Final Girl in the original novella) and then with Emma, who becomes the Final Girl.
There are problems everywhere-- it's troubling that we conflate Carmilla's lesbianism with her villainy, because she is a villain, she lies and she kills with no remorse. And Ingrid Pitt, who is an enchanting actress, is still a very strange choice for Carmilla because she's about fifteen years too old. Maybe the problem is that it's hard to find a 19-year-old who can play a centuries-old noblewoman. Also, the movie seems to suggest that Carmilla is changing the rules and has special feelings for Emma-- which would add a special crime-drama tragedy to the piece if it were explored more. And of course the movie is mannered, as all Hammer's are, with language as formal as its attire. The acting is mannered, too-- all of these actors could probably appear very normal in another film, but on these sets they are stagy and expressive. Watching Hammer, you are watching a universe that plays by its own rules.
The Vampire Lovers comes very close to capturing the ennui, romanticism and action of Le Fanu's story, and at the same time is a fine example of Hammer Horror. If you catch catch it on the big screen, get the DVD-- and put away the books.


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