Lust for a Vampire Review
While never quite overtaking the Universal monsters in terms of popularity or memorability, Hammer remains a key influence on the horror world nonetheless. Christopher Lee's incarnation of Dracula seems like the more outwardly evil bloodthirsty cousin of Bela Lugosi's creature, and with actors like Peter Cushing turning up as regulars, its no surprise that films such as The Hound of the Baskervilles are regarded as classics in the genre. Unfortunately, while the notoriety and entertainment value of Hammer's house of horror extends to the erotic vampire flick Lust for a Vampire, none of the prestige or quality associated with the brand did.
Beginning with the carriage-based abduction of a naive young milkmaid in an anachronistically tight outfit, Lust for a Vampire then follows the resurrection of the blood-sucking 'Mircalla', as she terrorises a finishing school for young ladies. However, when the author Richard Lestrange arrives at the school, he quickly falls in love with her against his better judgement.
As a story based loosely on J. Sheridan Le Fanu's novel Carmilla, which centres around a female vampire who preys on young women, the film mostly focusses on the scandalous same-sex rendezvous between the girls at the school and Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard, who plays up the role in a wonderfully silly performance). Where this could have provided an opportunity for the exploration of lesbian relationships onscreen at a time when representation was essentially nil, this premise is instead used for the novelty and titillation of the presumed male spectator. This is perhaps best summarised by Mircalla's unshakeable attraction to Lestrange; ultimately, a man is her most important lover.
If I had to somehow describe the aesthetics of this film, the sweaty cheapness of a pantomime comes to mind first and foremost. From the overly saturated tone of the syrupy fake blood that Mircalla languishes in, to the harsh lighting that plagues scenes intended to be gothic and foreboding, the film just can't shake this stagey sensibility. Perhaps the worst offender is the costumes, which have a vague 'old-timey' feel not strictly connected to the early 19th-century setting at best, and look like they came from a patchouli-scented 70s fancy dress shop at worst (not helped by the heavy fringes and excessive eyeliner worn by most of the women). I do understand their point of view: why bother with meticulous historical accuracy a la Merchant Ivory when most viewers are more concerned with what's underneath the clothes? Well, that's precisely my problem. If you're wanting to make pornography, then just make pornography - don't sacrifice a horror film's potential for quality and the Hammer brand in the process.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not criticising this film based on any kind of distaste for campness. I'm a staunch fan of movies like Elvira: Mistress of the Dark and Death Becomes Her, and will watch anything and everything that has the hallowed name of John Waters placed upon it or anywhere near it. But my enjoyment of camp rests upon two things, that essentially define the difference between the films I've just listed, and the subject of this review: the way in which the inevitable sense of self-awareness is expressed, and who is made out to be the butt of the joke.
In the case of Lust for a Vampire, the self-awareness has the feel of a man in a pub encouraging you to ogle an unaware woman, and the butts of the joke are the oblivious girls of the finishing school, who either fall foul to a humourless lesbian temptress, or fall into the arms of the smug, older Lestrange. While some of the gratuitous nudity did raise a chuckle for how unnecessary and shameless it was, I mostly found myself laughing pityingly at the film, rather than knowingly along with it.
Chances are, you're only interested in seeing this because you're a connoisseur of so-bad-they're-good movies - unless you're a Hammer super-fan, in which case you'll be buying this regardless. If you fall into the former camp, heed my warning: this is a film that Elvira would love to tear apart, and one that isn't good for much otherwise. Too campy to be scary, but too exploitative to be straightforwardly enjoyable, Lust for a Vampire is a film that, along with its lead, shouldn't receive a resurrection.
Lust for a Vampire (1971)
Dir: Jimmy Sangster | Cast: Barbara Jefford, Ralph Bates, Suzanna Leigh, Yutte Stensgaard | Writers: Sheridan Le Fanu (based on characters created by), Tudor Gates (screenplay)