If Dracula’s Daughter is up there with film noir in terms of great closing dialogue then The Vampire Lovers is up there with film noir in terms of its bleak ending– even though the vampire has been destroyed and the “correct” couple are together. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This movie is about Carmilla (or Marcilla or Millarca… she goes by all three), the famous lesbian vampire, of Sheridan LeFanu’s novel Carmilla. It was the first and best of what became known as Hammer’s “Sex Vampire Trilogy.” Naturally, such an association means that this film is grossly underrated. In fact, I count it as one of the best representations of a lesbian relationship on film– even with the unhealthy vampirism element.
But plot recap. Years before the main events of the movie, a Baron, who lost his sister to the vampiric Karnstein family destroys all the vampires except for the youngest daughter, Mircalla. He was unable to find her shroud.
Peter Cushing plays General von Spielsdorf, a widower whose only daughter, Laura, becomes fast friends with Marcilla, the daughter of a friend of the General’s. Marcilla’s mother, the Countess, imposes on the General to keep her daughter as a guest for a few weeks while she settles her brother’s estate in the north. Laura then begins to suffer nightmares and anemia. She dies with Marcilla’s name on her lips. When the General notices bite marks on his deceased daughter’s neck– Marcilla is gone.
Now Carmilla becomes the houseguest of an Englishman (who also knew the General and Laura) and his daughter, Emma. The same pattern follows, although more attention is given to Carmilla’s relationship with Emma. The Englishman has to leave on business, and Carmilla decides to turn Emma into a vampire. There is very little doubt that she does in fact love her victim, and is tormented by the losses she experiences over the centuries.
But now the General and the Baron have put their heads together and realized that Marcilla and Carmilla are really Mircalla Karnstein, and that Emma is destined for the same fate as Laura. There is a ferocious chase (in the grand Hammer action tradition) to the ruins of the Karnstein castle, but this time they are able to follow Carmilla to her shroud. The men take her body to the ruined chapel.
The Baron makes to stake her through the heart but the General states, “I will do it.” Cushing is absolute icy determination, an implacable force out for revenge. He drives the stake through her heart while, miles away, Laura screams in agony. The staking done (with his bare hands, I might add– no hammer in sight), the General unsheathes his sword and lifts Carmilla’s head up by the hair.
To the shocked Baron, he says, “It’s the only way.” And one blow is all it takes. The portrait of Carmilla, hanging in the entrance of the castle, turns into a skeleton with fangs.
But that’s really an afterthought. The “huh?” and elevator bars following “the, uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” After seeing the General, who was such a lovely person in the first half-hour of the movie so changed… so brutal, nothing else matters. And the characters really can’t go back to the way their lives were. Things have been made right, but they aren’t right.
Laura is dead, and the General is alone in the world. Emma will live, but the fact that she fell in love with a female vampire will probably cast a shadow over her relationships with her father and the young man she had been seeing earlier.
Hammer films aren’t typically regarded as being particularly deep, but The Vampire Lovers challenges that. It’s not the ridiculous slasher-movie ending where the hero’s fortunes are reversed, but it’s no bed of roses, either. Pleasant dreams.