That was really good. It has some primary school acting and a disgraceful shortage of nudity, but it has a strong plot, a bit of gore and a unique, disturbing performance from Peter Cushing.
It doesn't feel like a Karnstein trilogy film, mind you. So far the series had been all about the vampire Carmilla reluctantly spreading death, nudity and lesbianism. Here Carmilla only gets a cameo and the girls aren't chasing each other. The lead characters are siblings. Imagine that. Two buxom blondes who sleep together every night in a 1970s Hammer horror film, yet there's no lesbo action. There should be a law against it. Admittedly there's a girls' school in there, but you'll miss it if you blink. Even the nudity's been scaled back, though there's still cleavage and wearing of nightgowns. Instead for the most part this feels like a straightforward Hammer vampire film, showing us how the Man in Black joined the ranks of the undead and thus to my mind working better as a prequel to its predecessors rather than a sequel.
Admittedly the chap dies at the end. (Warning: if you've never seen a film in your life, that was a spoiler.) This might seem to be a problem with my prequel theory. However vampires are always getting killed in Hammer films and that doesn't seem to stop them coming back for sequels, so I'm not going to lose too much sleep over that one. It's also nice to see the Man in Black getting a proper film to himself instead of just being the goofy one who makes the audience snigger and basically seems to be hanging around for shits and giggles. He's played by one Damien Thomas, who surprisingly isn't too bad.
In a way, this feels like a cut-and-pasted Dracula film. What's different about its vampirism is that we see all of Count Karnstein's fall to the dark side, which makes for a more satisfying journey. To compare it with Taste the Blood of Dracula, it's as if they'd combined the Ralph Bates and Christopher Lee roles. At first he's just another decadent aristocrat who's into Satanism. Overall I liked that a lot, since vampires aren't usually noted for character development. Dracula is Dracula. He bites you. End of story. That's the way it's been since 1897.
However the film's big selling point is Cushing. Ostensibly he's playing some random nutter called Gustav Weil, but it's obvious a mile off that he's really meant to be Matthew Hopkins, the famous Witchfinder General. He and his friends go around burning anyone guilty of the crime of possessing breasts. He's dressed like a 17th century Puritan. Hell, at one point the script even uses the word. Admittedly this makes for a bewildering setting, with the Karnstein films otherwise having been set in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, but that doesn't really matter. This is about archetypes. Matthew Hopkins was making a bit of a splash in horror cinema around this time, incidentally, in name in Witchfinder General in 1968 and in spirit in Mark of the Devil in 1970. Clearly we're talking about a real-life monster who's every bit as horrifying as a Hammer vampire...
...but look what Cushing does with the role. He doesn't backpedal on the self-righteous murderousness, yet in the end he created a man for whom I felt sorry. He's old, tired, and only angry in a horribly cold way. He's not having fun being emotionless as he did with Frankenstein, but instead portrays a man who might almost be dead inside. Gustav doesn't even take pleasure from what he does. He believes that what he's doing is right, but I'm not even convinced that he's 100% sold on that. I suspect there's a tiny worm of doubt wriggling inside him, too feebly to save the lives of his victims but enough to turn him into a loveless, charmless shell. "I have tried always to be a good man," he says at one point, which is horrifying if you think about it. He's fervent in his religion, but it gives him no solace. He's obsessed by the Devil, not God.
Looking at the dates, I think this was the first film he made after the death of his wife. He gives an unlikeable, occasionally dead-eyed performance, but it's well worth seeking out. The greatest irony of course is that the vampires in this series can't be killed by fire, so even if Gustav's victims really had been as guilty as he said they were, his habit of burning them at the stake wouldn't have done a speck of good. My favourite moment was when Cushing asks with desperate earnestness if it's true that decapitation or a stake through the heart will return the victim's spirit to God. The answer is what he hopes for. Yes, it's true. The next shot is of Cushing with a massive machete.
At the other end of the quality scale lie the Collinson sisters, a real-life pair of twins who'd posed for Playboy and of course can't act to save their lives. The scene where Bad Twin finds the undead is so amateurishly bad that it's actually funny. Meanwhile she's loved by a man called Anton, played by a cardboard cut-out called David Warbeck. These three are risible, yet somehow this doesn't matter. By Hammer's standards this is a strongly plot-driven film, so it's sensibly not relying on the performances of its stars. Besides, during their bedroom chit-chats you're unlikely to be watching their faces. More uncomfortable is the presence of Roy Stewart as a mute black manservant, much like his similarly politically incorrect turn in Tomb of the Cybermen. I've just discovered that he played Quarrel Jr. in Live and Let Die, by the way.
Harvey Hall is also here, having appeared in each film in this trilogy but in a different role every time. He's the one playing Cushing's second-in-command.
The film ends well, which is always crucial. These explosive characters come together with a bang and not many of them walk away again. A few gore shots drag Hammer briefly out of the 1950s, not to mention the climactic vampire dissolution. That was disturbing. I liked that. It even seems that the original film went even further, with the BBFC having made cuts to the naked sacrifice scene and to shots of Gerta lying on Count Karnstein. Unfortunately the cut footage may no longer exist.
This film impressed me. The production is as solid as always from this studio, with the blood-resurrection of Carmilla even managing to be creepy in a way that today looks reminiscent of J-horror. I can forgive details like a candle not matching up with its reflection in a mirror scene. Of course it's still basically a Hammer film and so barely distinguishable from all their other horror flicks in many respects, but Cushing's character makes it special. Matthew Hopkins and vampires. That's a striking idea in itself, but then Cushing comes in and gives a performance I'd have never expected to see from an actor playing this role. He's a good man doing evil. He's a monster who deserves everything that's coming to him, yet he also won my respect. In a quietly understated way, he makes this film remarkable.