Yeah, yeah, she’s the famous lesbian vampire. Don’t write off her movie as looking at somebody’s subconscious (we have Brian dePalma films for that); Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) is a truly excellent movie, and not just because Ingrid Pitt has a nude scene. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Based on Sheridan LeFanu’s novella Carmilla, the movie opens with narration by Baron von Hartog about how he tried to destroy the evil, vampiric Karnstein family, but missed one daughter. It’s a spooky, intense flashback, and lets us know that while this movie will be sexy (he’s nearly seduced by a vampiress), it will also be very grim.
Cut to General von Speilsdorf giving a party for his daughter, Laura. Among the guests are a Countess, and her daughter, Marcilla. She suddenly gets news that her brother is very ill and imposes on the General to look after Marcilla while she is away. He agrees, and the two young women become fast friends. Laura soon begins to suffer nightmares and become weak. She dies, to her father’s immeasurable grief, and Marcilla vanishes.
Then, the Countess suffers a carriage accident outside the home of Englishman Morton and his daughter, Emma. The hospitable man offers to let the Countess’ niece, Carmilla, recover from the accident while her mother sees to her ailing brother. The cycle repeats itself, only when Morton leaves to fetch a specialist, Carmilla also begins to bite the French governess. A clever servant realizes that Emma is the victim of a vampire attack, but mistakenly believes the vampire to be Mlle. Perrout. He dies under Carmilla’s fangs.
Meanwhile, General von Speilsdorf, with the now aged Baron von Hartog, has realized the true circumstances of his daughter’s death and has traced Marcilla to Carmilla. The vampire tries to take Emma, who she does love, with her back to the castle but is forced to abandon her at the last moment. Going back to her shroud, she is swiftly staked through the heart and beheaded by the vengeful General. Her portrait, which was the one beautiful thing left in the old Karnstein castle, changes to show a skeleton with fangs rather than a woman.
The subject matter is treated very seriously from the start. Carmilla is a vampire and her victims do die, but she is also very sympathetic. The viewer never doubts that she does love Laura and Emma, and her visible distress when seeing the funeral of one of her victims is genuinely sad. One wonders how much loss she has endured throughout her existence because her love can only bring death.
Yet she is also wily, manipulating people into doing what she wants, and we know from the Baron that she has been doing it for years. She also smiles up at the moon after first biting Laura. The viewer is left with the impression that she hates herself for what she is, but at the same time loves being a vampire. In fact, when the General drives a stake through her heart (with his bare hands!), she dies with a look of relief, like she can finally get a good night’s sleep after a long period of insomnia.
The audience cannot fully condemn her as “evil” the way the General, Morton, and von Hartog do.