Let's get the elephant out of the room first. This film is about Ingrid Pitt's breasts.
Admittedly there are other attractions as well, such as Madeline Smith's and Pippa Steele's. However Ingrid Pitt is the one who turned herself into a horror icon... and it's largely thanks to this one film. In 1971 she'd star in Countess Dracula and one of the segments of the horror anthology The House That Dripped Blood, but that's it. No more vampires. That's all she did. Like Bela Lugosi, she's legendary for a role she didn't actually play very often. In its own way, this film is a slice of history. Never again before or since have breasts been bared on celluloid to such lasting effect.
Not to discuss the nudity would thus be a disservice to the movie. There's a reasonable amount of it... not enough to make it sleazy, but definitely enough to be memorable. What's more, the girls are all striking. Pitt flashes the most flesh, but Steele is outrageously cute and I'm a huge fan of Madeline Smith. Steele would return in the next film in this series, while the delectable Smith's other films include Live and Let Die, Carry On Matron, Theater of Blood, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. The only disappointment is that her breasts were bigger in Up Pompeii.
What's more, the nudity isn't gratuitous. No, really. This is an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, with lesbian themes that even at the script stage had the chief censor John Trevelyan hot under the collar. He'd snipped five whole minutes from The Killing of Sister George for precisely that reason. Hammer came back by pointing out that the lesbianism was from the 19th century original and Trevelyan backed down, although he would force the next film in the series to be more heterosexual. Thus the nude scenes are all important to the story, with the exception of Ferdy Mayne's doctor pulling down Pippa Steele's top so he can listen to her heart with an antique listening trumpet. Not that I'm complaining, of course. As a result of all this, focusing on the tits will mean missing character development. Pitt seduces her way through half the cast and it's a legitimate angle to explore given the heavy emphasis on sexuality in Hammer's Dracula films. She's genuinely attracted to her victims, which makes for some very odd relationships in which she doesn't seem bothered that the object of her romantic feelings is about to die. She never openly regrets anything, but she seems almost distraught at the end to be vamping out in front of her love, then almost relieved at being staked to death.
Mind you, even when clothed, the ladies of this film are still eye-catching. Those are some amazing nightgowns.
You wouldn't watch any of them for their acting, mind you. Pitt's breasts do most of her acting for her, while Madeline Smith is playing her usual one note so hard that it's a wonder she hasn't broken the piano. Admittedly she does it very well, though. You'll have to go a long way to see anyone outdo Smith at doe-eyed adorable mindlessness. "German's so difficult." The only person here whom you'd accuse of being an actress would be Kate O'Mara, who regrettably doesn't flop 'em out but is somehow hard and scary even when she's merely a governess. However somehow it hardly matters. There's something hypnotic about seeing Ingrid Pitt getting voluptuous with her victims, and I don't just mean in that way. She's so emotionally hungry and her girlfriends so innocent.
Besides, you can hardly accuse the film of coyly tiptoeing around the issue. By the time you've seen Ingrid bathing naked in front of Madeline Smith before coaxing her out of her clothes and wrestling her on to the bed, it's become clear that this is not a half-hearted adaptation. However the other side of the coin is that they're focused on the story throughout, rather than treating the subject matter as an excuse for plotless wank like Franco or Rollin. Yes, I am a survivor of Requiem for a Vampire.
However even if you don't care about the nudity, it's quite an interesting film. It's doing a little more stylistically than most Hammer horrors, with some Nosferatu-like use of shadow and a few arty black-and-white dream sequences. It also manages to weave some atmosphere around Ingrid Pitt, thanks to touches such as a door quietly closing in an empty house. She may not be much of an actress, but she's effective here. One could draw parallels with Gloria Holden in Dracula's Daughter (1936). The film's also untraditional with its vampire lore, coming from a pre-Stoker source with vampires who are tied to their shrouds, possibly turn into cats, don't generally cause their kills to rise again as other undead and instead seem to infect mere thralls with a horror of crosses and garlic flowers. I'm even guessing with the thrall bit. I think it's far from clear cut what's happening with those two.
The bit that really puzzles me is what John Forbes-Robertson is doing poncing around as the Man in Black. Yes, he's in Le Fanu's original story, but he has nothing to do with anything and just seems to like riding past occasionally for a gloat. Mind you, one could argue that since the same actor would go on to play Dracula in Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, perhaps the two series are related? Brickbats should also be reserved for Baron Joachim von Hartog, who takes revenge on his vampirised sister by hunting down and staking an entire castle-full of vampires, but knew he'd missed Ingrid Pitt and yet never bothered going back to finish the job because the place made him feel bad. Stupid von Hartog.
With so much focus on the ladies, the men get little to do. Peter Cushing is dignified but passive in a role that calls on him basically to play the noble host. However he does manage to offer Ingrid Pitt a bed and call young gorgeous girls "darling" without ever seeming other than the perfect gentleman. It's nice to see George Cole here too, but he's similarly anonymous. These are good actors, but they're not being worked very hard. However the ending is a little uncomfortable, as four sword-wielding men hunt down and execute Ingrid Pitt's lesbian temptress. Given how painfully aware Hammer always were of the sexual politics in their vampire films, one wonders if this too was meant as some kind of commentary.
At first glance this film just looks like an excuse to show naked women, but if you're paying attention you'll realise that it's actually a rather good and surprisingly sincere adaptation of a 19th century classic. In some ways it's a shame that it's so well-known for its nudity, since I wouldn't even classify it as exploitation. On the contrary, the only way of getting this material past the censor had clearly been to play the lesbianism as honestly and truthfully as they could. Ingrid Pitt bares her soul and gets jealous even of hypothetical men, even though her lover Madeline Smith hasn't fully processed the situation. She reads a story about manly kisses and amusingly calls it "a silly book." Fans of mispronunciations might also smile at "Turn down the limp."
However on the other hand we get the following exchange. "Carmilla, I'm dying." "Yes." "Will I live until father comes home?" "Perhaps."
This is a film that's easy to underestimate, if only since it probably wouldn't occur to most people that it's a literary adaptation in the first place. It's so famous for its nudity that it manages to distract you from itself. Admittedly I think Hammer's output is generally underrated, but this is an elegaic, occasionally almost fairy-tale film. It looks and feels like a typical Hammer flick, but it would be an injustice to let one's judgement stop there.