Twin sisters Maria and Frieda (Mary and Madeleine Collinson) are sent to live with their stern Uncle Gustav (Peter Cushing), who also happens to be the head of a strict religious sect which is devoted to persecuting witches and other minions of the devil. When Frieda becomes infatuated with the debauched Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), she incurs her uncle’s wrath… but there are worse horrors still in store…
Carmilla, written by the Irish author Sheridan LeFanu, was first published in serial form from 1871 to 1872. It told the story of a beautiful young girl who turns out to be a vampire; she is eventually dispatched, but not before she claims several victims. The story contained undercurrents of lesbianism, and indeed its subtle reference to this has caused some readers to miss this aspect of Carmilla’s character altogether. The story was first brought to the screen, albeit obliquely, in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s dreamlike “art” horror film, Vampyr (1930). With its deliberately off kilter imagery and sparse use of dialogue and sound effects, Dreyer’s film failed to find much of an audience, but has since become embraced as one of the few truly successful attempts at rendering a dream state on screen. In 1960, French director Roger Vadim brought the story to the screen again, with his French-Italian production Blood and Roses. The film sought to explore the lesbian subtext of LeFanu’s novella, but its delicate approach and slow pacing made it something of a disappointment for many horror fans of the period.
In Italy, director Camillo Mastrocinque and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi collaborated on another version, Crypt of the Vampire (1964), which cast Christopher Lee in the sympathetic role of Count Ludwig Karnstein. This version also contained hints of lesbianism, but it failed to capture the lyricism and intensity of the best Italian horror films of the period. In Britain, the series Mystery and Imagination added LeFanu’s story to their roster of chillers in 1966, with an adaptation starring Jane Merrow in the title role. Sadly, this is one of the early episodes of the series which has failed to survive into the new millennium, leaving one to speculate how Merrow (who would go on to play a plum supporting role in Terence Fisher’s Night of the Big Heat, 1967, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) fared in the role.
Hammer Films inevitably caught up with the story, putting The Vampire Lovers (co-produced with their American “rival,” AIP) into production in 1969. Hammer and AIP sought to capitalize on the loosening censorship standards of the period by introducing a great deal of graphic sex and nudity, though director Roy Ward Baker (who always insisted that LeFanu’s story contained nary a whiff of lesbianism) sought to down peddle this. The final result was uneasily couched between Gothic drawing room melodrama and brassiere ripping exploitation, but it was a financial success, prompting Hammer to further explore the potential of LeFanu’s characters. The ill-fated Lust for a Vampire followed in 1970, while Twins of Evil would emerge in 1971 (or 1972, if you lived in the US).
Twins of Evil is almost certainly the best of the so-called Karnstein trilogy. Much of this can be attributed to director John Hough, making his first of several noteworthy horror and fantasy pictures. Hough was only 30 years old, a very youthful age for a Hammer director, and he brought a renewed sense of vigor and experimentation to the proceedings. Unlike Baker and most of Hammer’s other directors, he also had genuine enthusiasm for the genre and was determined to make the best picture possible. Despite a few clumsy moments here and there (think no further than the guffaw-inducing scene wherein the Count’s mute lackey basically plays charades to convey that his master is in imminent danger), Hough delivered a sure footed film with rich gothic flavor. He also proved to be no prude when it came to the erotic component, resulting in some of the more overtly blatant moments of sexuality in Hammer’s oeuvre.
The film is also well served by a fine cast. Hammer was well known for employing stunt casting to help promote their pictures, and Twins was certainly no exception – the titular characters were played by Playboy’s first-ever twin centerfolds, the Maltese-born Collinson twins. While the young women had very little experience in the thesping department, they certainly looked right – and the use of post synching helped to cover up their presumably hard to decipher accents and any difficulties they may have had with the dialogue. Neither actress is really required to do a lot beyond look ravishing, so their contribution can be written up as successful where it counts. To help compensate for this potential void at the center of the picture, Hough enlisted some top notch actors to help keep things credible. Peter Cushing, of course, was almost a staple in the trilogy – “almost” only because he was forced to bow out of Lust for a Vampire when his wife became ill (his replacement, Ralph Bates, looks suitably ill at ease in a role intended for a much older man). Indeed, Twins would mark Cushing’s return to the screen following his beloved Helen’s death in early 1971. The change in the man is noticeable right away. While Cushing had always been a thin man, here he appears positively gaunt – and he looks a good deal older, grayer and more severe, to boot. Gustav Weil provides the actor with one of his least sympathetic characterizations. He is a sadist and a hypocrite, hiding behind the word of God as a means of enacting his own special brand of “justice” on the young women who have offended him.
Cushing tries to bring a bit of pathos to the character late in the day (“I have tried… always… to be a good man.”) but it doesn’t ring entirely true – it could be that this was the actor’s attempt to convey some sense of decency in a character that was written to be totally, well, vile – but it’s a touch that does little to dispel memories of the cruelty he has engaged in through much of the picture. Former matinee idol Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949) is on hand to play the Count’s slimy retainer, Dietrich, but he doesn’t have much in the way of screen time. Price was a brilliant actor whose career was self-sabotaged due to alcoholism and an inability to come to grips with his own sexuality, but even at this stage of the game, doing quickie cameos in low budget horror and exploitation items for a paycheck, he brought a sense of droll humor to many of his characterizations. Dietrich doesn’t provide him with any of the memorable bits of business which he was able to bring to his chatty grave robber in Jimmy Sangster’s Horror of Frankenstein (1970), but it’s still nice to have him on board. Damien Thomas is terrific as the jaded Count Karnstein, who gives his soul to the devil and becomes a vampire in his pursuit of the ultimate thrill. Some have carped that he is cowardly where he should be imposing, but this is precisely the point – even as a vampire, he’s very much the spineless sociopath, always looking for a new high but not willing to put his life on the line in the process. Kathleen Byron, previously so memorable as the deranged Sister Ruth in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947), fares much the same as Price – an actor stuck in a role well beneath their talents, but still adding color and class to the proceedings.
Future Italian horror stalwart David Warbeck (Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, 1981) gives a good account of himself as the usual colorless heroic figure, while Harvey Hall (the only actor who DID appear in all three of these Karnstein films), Alex Scott and Isobel Black all add to the air of cozy familiarity.
Unlike Lust for a Vampire, which had the misfortune of being part of a slate of lower-budgeted-than-usual Hammer titles filmed at Associated British Studios, Twins of Evil benefits from the larger resources available at Pinewood. The sets are impressive, and cinematographer Dick Bush (who would go on to film Dracula AD 1972, before becoming Ken Russell’s DP of choice for a period of time) provides some striking images. Composer Harry Robinson was also able to indulge his wish to score a western by providing a soundtrack which sometimes evokes the work of the great Ennio Morricone. The combination of these inspired contributions help to make Twins of Evil a highlight in the later period of Hammer horror – and indeed, it is one of the ones which best evokes the style and flair of their classic period.