Ah, Lust for a Vampire. With the possible exception of Dracula AD 1972 this must surely be the most reviled of all Hammer’s movies. Is it as bad as its reputation would suggest? Is it as bad as my memories of it from several years ago? The answer on both counts is, yes and no.
It’s certainly not one of Hammer’s shining moments. It’s one of their most overtly trashy offerings but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my book. I like cinematic trash.
This movie forms part of their Karnstein trilogy, along with The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil, based very loosely (very very loosely indeed) on Sheridan le Fanu’s classic 1860 vampire novel Carmilla. The Vampire Lovers stuck closest to the source material and it’s by far the best of the three. It’s also the only one of the three in which the lesbian vampire angle (which is very much part of le Fanu’s novel) actually serves some purpose other than titillation.
Titillation though was very high on the agenda in all three Karnstein films. They went as far as Hammer was ever prepared to go in terms of sex and nudity.
The plot of Lust for a Vampire is pure exploitation cinema. It is 1830, somewhere in Hammer’s semi-mythical central Europe, and gothic novelist Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) talks himself into a job as English teacher as Miss Simpson’s finishing school for girls. He had never considered teaching as a desirable profession until he came across a party of scantily-clad young ladies from the school practising their dance routines in the open air. Whereupon he was suddenly seized by the desire to impart learning to the young.
He shares accommodation at the school with history teacher Giles Barton (Ralph Bates). Barton has an obsessive interest in the history of the Karnstein family, the local grandees. We will later discover that his interest in the family is motivated by the legends that they were vampires. Giles believes the legends, and Giles has always wanted to be a vampire. Giles has other obsessions, notably one of the students at the school, the extraordinarily beautiful Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard).
All is not well at Miss Simpson’s school however. Several girls from the village have gone missing and now one of the students, Susan Pelley, has disappeared. Miss Simpson dreads scandal so she is reluctant to report the matter to the police. She finds an unexpected ally in the person of the Countess Herritzen (Barbara Jefford), Mircalla’s mother (or possibly her guardian, I confess I wasn’t entirely clear on that point). As luck would have it the countess always travels with her personal physician which comes in very handy when Giles Barton is found dead. He is able to issue death certificates for both Giles Barton and Susan and is prepared to overlook small details such as the bite marks on Barton’s neck and in Susan’s case the lack of a body. The important thing is that this will allow Miss Simpson to avoid any unpleasantness with the authorities.
Of course Miss Simpson’s attempts to avoid scandal backfire when one of the teaches insists on being difficult. Meanwhile Richard Lestrange is also becoming obsessed with Mircalla. It all leads up to that most clichéd of horror movie endings as a mob of enraged villagers with flaming torches descends upon Karnstein Castle.
Ralph Bates is irritating as Barton. Michael Johnson as Lestrange is not an overly exciting hero. Mike Raven is dull in the totally unnecessary role of the master vampire of the Karnstein clan.
Mircalla was to have been played by Ingrid Pitt but she (perhaps wisely) backed out. Yutte Stensgaard is quite adequate as an actress but the movie but the movie really needed the more charismatic Ingrid Pitt to give it some badly needed focus.
The movie was in fact plagued by drop outs. Peter Cushing backed out (and again his presence would have added some focus) while Terence Fisher was probably quite relieved to be saved from the director’s job by a timely broken leg. Jimmy Sangster stepped in and while his achievements as a genre movie screenwriter were considerable he was the first to admit that he was not a great success as a director.
It could be argued that this fairly aimless movie might have been improved by the inclusion of a good deal more sex and nudity. It’s sleazy but not sleazy enough to compensate for a threadbare plot and an overall lack of any real sense of what the movie was attempting to achieve.
And of course there’s the song, Strange Love, surely one of the most forgettable ditties ever to find its way into a movie.
On the other hand, with all its faults, Lust for a Vampire still manages to be campy fun. If you can accept it on that level it’s quite enjoyable.