Scoff all you like at that most basic of puns (and really, I AM sorry) but I was chuffed to pieces when I thought of it after the latest of my triple-bill Cushenings. This week’s trio is thematically tied by bosoms bare and bared teeth, and I’ll throw in a little cinematic historical discussion while we’re at it (hey, as long as the history’s Hammer, I’m a grade A student with a major in weak metaphors.)
Twins Of Evil is a misleading title, but Twin Of Evil And The Other Twin hasn’t the same schlocky ring so I’ma let it go. The film opens with a fairly weak scene in which a witch (aha) is burned for her presumed sins under the authority of Gastav Weil (pronounced Vile, and altogether descriptive of his general demeanour). Weil is played by Cushing of course, and at first I had trouble getting into the film as Christian crusaders against the morally unjust really turns me right off a movie, but it wasn’t long before the sheer energy of Cushing’s performance won me over (I think it was around about the time he roars “by BURNING THEM!” in response to a query on how best to deal with the devil’s dearies) and by the end of the film I was struggling not to root for him despite his general nastiness and unrootforability. I think in any other actor’s hands the role wouldn’t be as sympathetic but this is a Cushing Classic right off the bat and his Weil is unforgettable, from his handling of a cane to his two-fingered point (now officially my favourite point in movie history, and I AM a point enthusiast). His sunken cheeks belie his state of health but there’s no denying that look defines the force of Cushing throughout the decade.
Despite his starring role, at times it feels as though the film is an expose for its titular twins Madeleine and Mary Collinson, Maltese Playmates and occasional actors who don’t help confusion by dressing identically from the very beginning of the film. When they’re introduced they’re observed sharing a coach with an elderly pair who seem to disapprove of their very being young and youthsome, not to mention their Venetian origins (after all, if these girls are from Venice then they’re not from HERE, which won’t do at all. “We didn’t mean to offend you”, the nicer of the sisters offers, but I’ll tell you what I reckon, right, I reckon they DID, for these are no mere twins, but Twins...Of Evil (really driven home as Cushing despairs “the devil has sent me...twins of evil”, which is the best shoehorning of a film’s title into its dialogue I’ve ever seen and won a gen-yoo-ine Arms Up in celebration).
The basic plot of the film is that the twins (OF...oh, I’m sure you know which twins by now) have been sent to live with their God-bothering, Bible-blasting uncle (Weil) who’s swanning about the village looking for wenches to burn to slake his thirst for violence and general bastardry. One such scene sees he and his merry, murderous mob descend upon a woodland shack outside which sits a broom in one of the least intentionally humorous moments in Hammer history. Within, Count Karnstein (the implausibly fey Damien Thomas) is up to badness with a local lovely and his machinations are caught just short of copulation by the invading Weil whose actions point ultimately to a subtly-implied spiritual impotence that, again, in lesser hands would make him hard to get behind. Karnstein is an enjoyable villain but is undermined by Thomas’ resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, making the claret-fond fop look most often like a particularly nasty, camp Edmund Blackadder.
The nasty twin decides to get embroiled with Count Karnstein (whose Matte Painting home is visible from her window) because she’s just a bit of a bad ‘un really, despite her sister’s protests. Soon enough Weil gets wise to her vampirism but not before a bankable switcheroo (if the best episodes of Sister Sister have taught us anything it’s that twins MUST be switched over during the course of any work of fiction starring them). Needless to say promiscuity is punished and prudence praised, though Cushing’s crusades go unrewarded as he plunges to his death, an axe in his back.
Elsewhere, we have an Anton (box: checked), some impressive eyebrows, phallic candle abuse, fairly pervy camera attention paid to the bust of a bust of Karnstein’s ancestor and a character named Ingrid Hopper, Prim And Proper. Fair enough, that’s not her actual title, but it sums her up perfectly and anyway, I’m in charge here, sonny boy. When Karnstein bites the dust we’re treated to the usual Hammer vampire demise of various layers of decomposition but most notably Karny goes bald before decaying into a slab of skull meat. The Cushing Ruckus is fairly ongoing, though his speedy decapitation near the end of the film is easily the highlight. There’s a Hammer Scream in there, too, and what Hammer would be complete without those distinctive ugly gulders wrenched from the throats of poor doomed chaps?
Twins Of Evil is a fairly expensive looking production and I couldn’t help feeling that the nudity cheapened affairs somewhat, though for a film whose driving force concerns sexual attitudes it’s hardly a fair gripe. Most importantly, after a weak start it emerges as a great film, and it’s not only one of the most enjoyable Hammers but one of my favourite Cushing performances to date. Still, if gratuitous boobage annoyed me in Twins, I was hardly prepared for what was to come...
The Vampire Lovers actually precedes Twins Of Evil in Hammer’s oft-called Karnstein Trilogy but the connection is scant and not worth observing them in order or succession. On the whole, the film is a lot weaker thanks in no small part to Sir Pete’s “and Peter Cushing as” credit as opposed to the hallowed “Peter Cushing IN” which spells a starring role and most often something worth looking forward to. Alas, his role here is a supporting one, and coming off the back of Twins Of Evil it suffers in comparison to the sheer bombast of Weil. Still, it was worth it if only to pick up on some Hammer Staples and make a few cackhanded observations about sexuality and the studio’s steady metamorphosis from class to trash.
First off, the Ms in the Hammer title card are in italics which bothered me to no end ‘til I forgot about it seconds later. Confusing further is the night’s second (but chronologically first) appearance of the name Joachim, which I’m hesistant to add to the list of Hammer Staples until I spot a third use, though two films in a row is pretty good going for a new entry. Fairly quickly we’re introduced to a much nicer Matte Painting for our cast to live in (or be murdered at) than that of Twins Of Evil and a spooky prologue set in a spooktacular graveyard just bloody rife with spooktastic spookening. In less infuriating terms, there’s a lady roaming about in a sheet while someone who looks a bit like Doctor Who watches her from a window on high and in a voiceover that soon vanishes altogether informs us that she’s a vampire and he’s wrecked her bed so she just has to wander about until he graciously sends her head on a holiday a few minutes later. Our first Hammer Scream comes early on and is courtesy of a toothy sex git who probably deserved to have it torn from his throat.
As the credits roll I am given double cause for concern as in addition to Sir Pete’s reduced role I spy that one John Forbes Robinson from Legend Of The Dancing Hopping Vampires is also in it. If you don’t recall my not inconsiderable distaste for his big silly self, well, there you have it. I’ve just declared it. Introduced to Cushing, we learn that he’s really just background noise as the film is ultimately a vehicle for the undeniably enthralling Ingrid Pitt. Another Hammer Staple box can be ticked off as within moments we have an INSTANT CARL. Carl, Hans, Paul, Anton – there’s always one...
Moments later (I should mention this is all set at a thoroughly boring looking party) the film’s lesbian agenda is confirmed as one male character comments that dear Ingrid (whose character boasts names innumerable and shall be ‘Ingrid’ throughout) is in fact checking out his girlfwife who, like Ingrid, ALSO HAS OVARIES. An awfully pale Forbes-Robinson enters in a black and red cape and you begin to wonder if there might be something suspicious about him. Also he’s a vampire. At first I thought it might be a sort of red herring, something to throw us off the scent. After all, most of the characters in this film are...shhhhh...(not heretosexual). But no, yeah, he’s totally a vampire. Fangs and everything.
One thing these early scenes hammer (hehehe) home is how much Cushing changed physically in the immediate wake of his wife Helen’s death. Here, around a year beforehand, he is his classic, handsome self, but Twins Of Evil (from a year or so afterwards) presents the later, gaunt and altogether mesmerising Cushing who’s perfectly suited to just about any major villain or even in that film’s case a hero who’s hard to root for.
Now, one of the defining images I had for Hammer before I really began digging into its canon was that sex and gore were the films’ primary ingredients, though a few years’ study has proved that to be the opposite. The majority of Hammer’s 60s output is at best thoughtful, tasteful and often iconic, and at its worst inoffensively redundant or straight-up bad, but it wasn’t until it rolled into its last decade of filmmaking that that nudity quotient really became a calling card, and in terms of mainstream exposure it is this film that serves as that calling card. This isn’t heaving cleavage, this is teeth marks on bared breasts, and it’s less an obsession with sex than smut. Vampirism, as these films go, carries certain sexual connotations by default – this increase in fleshtime is titillation.
The basic scenario isn’t much different from the main Dracula series and on the whole it’s not that compelling either. I would go as far as to say, for all its revolutionary attitudes towards the presentation of sexuality within that medium, it still manages to feel overfamiliar and even a little stale. The typicality of the predator role has been reversed but the victim remains the same. A Hammer film with male vampire fodder may have fared a little better, historically, and I can imagine that the studio thought they’d struck a goldmine with this new “this time, the vampire is a WOMAN...A GAY WOMAN” mindset, not to mention a way of prolonging the ailing franchise, but it’s little more than opportunistic and exploitative from a group that really should know better. Like I said, it’s a solid showcase for Pitt, but not in any real way a good film.
Honestly, once Sir Pete left I basically turned off upstairs. The film ran apace but I didn’t engage with this like I did with Twins Of Evil. Still, I noticed another Hammer Staple in the off-roaded horse and cart, as well a reuse of that shot that appears in Twins Of Evil of the woodland shed in the opening prologue with the broom outside. There’s, um, also, well, there’s a horse named Jupiter, which is cool I guess...
Yeah. Oh, I was at least mildly amused by another imitation of subversion by having Ingrid’s portrait disingtegrate rather than her actual vampire self like in the rest of the Hammer set, but I’m clutching at straws here and rather fancy nipping off for a sandwich.
Ultimately, Sir Pete is superfluous in this ‘un, and really there’s nothing to see. Well, no, there’s piles and piles of naked ladies to see if that’s your bag, but you’re not on the Naked Ladies Appreciation Society’s website (and if you ARE reading this there, I did NOT authorise this reproduction, you pesky boob fans!)
Last night’s final screening (you know, for me and all the dust bunnies in my living room) consisted of Hammer’s second “Dracula” film, The Brides Of Dracula, in which neither Christopher Lee or some gangled substitute make an appearance. Instead, Cushing (as the thoroughly heroic Van Helsing, allowing me to cheer him on without so much as a trace amount of guilt for the first time this night) turns his attention to Baron Meinster, a rather crap vamp who’s making for himself an army of subservient lady wives… and a whole heap of trouble! (That’s how you speak if your life is one big long comedy trailer).
Amongst his conquests is a little French teacher of a thing who agrees to marry him after nothing more than a kiss of the hand, a pair of indistinguishable raven-haired waifs (who Van Helsing is quick to burn alive, er, undead) and, most disturbingly, his own mother, especially when you consider the whole sexual element of cross-gender vampirism.
Now, there, SEE, ya got me doing that! Sigh. I was supposed to watch this film as part of my A-Level Media Studies course way back in my youth but seeing as it wasn’t on DVD then we settled for Horror Of Dracula instead. I’ve not seen it ’til now, and I couldn’t help treating it like the type of film you’re usually exposed to on a course of education. As such, I felt compelled to address (up in my thoughtscape) that the fact the heroine was wearing a red dress in the final scene meant she was in DANGER, as well as developing half-hearted notions about gender scrutiny and identifying symbols and all manner of involuntary media studies reactions. This is the bedrock of film criticism but, as I'm sure you've gathered, it's not how I operate.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the film, because despite Lee’s absence it still manages to be one of the better films in the troubled Drac Canon and the face melting, windmill-focused antics of its finale are particularly thrilling, but I couldn’t help feeling a little worn out by it and didn’t make a lot of notes, though I did enjoy seeing Michael Ripper’s childface and there’s a brief appearance by Henry Oscar whose stiff theatrics make the lines “you shameless little hussy” and “I’m no tenant of yours, you young jackass” a riot.
Other than that, it’s the usual yada yada yada, with top notch direction and photography and not a lot to fault. In the end, Vampire Lovers sort of ruined things for me and Twins Of Evil surprised me altogether by setting a benchmark right off the bat. Also, that bat I just mentioned? It’s a vampire bat. Geddit?
NEXT WEEK: AMICUS!
Review: Paul McNamme
Images: Marcus Brooks