Director: Jimmy Sangster
Release Date: 1970*
This was the middle film of the Carmilla cycle and, in truth, is the weakest of the three films. Released hot on the heals of the success of the The Vampire Lovers (1970), it sometimes feels that it was rushed, though the basic premise of ‘vampire invading girls finishing school’ is exploitative genius.
The cast were changed from the previous film. Ingrid Pitt was offered the role of Mircalla (as Carmilla is named in this film) but turned it down, some say because the script was terrible, others because of commitments. A relative newcomer, Yutte Stensgaard, was cast in her place. Peter Cushing was also offered a role, different to that he had in the previous film, but turned it down as his wife was very ill and Ralph Bates was cast at short notice. There was also a rapid shift from Terrance Fisher to Jimmy Sangster as director.
This film begins in a village as a young girl leaves carrying a basket. She is seen, as she walks, by a caped figure – later revealed to be the Countess Herritzen (Barbara Jefford) – who gets into a coach. The coach pulls along side the girl and the door opens, the girl smiles and gets in but once seated she sees something that causes her to scream. The coach thunders off. She is taken to a castle (Karnstein castle in actual fact) and placed onto an altar. The coachman (Christopher Cunningham) opens a coffin to reveal a desiccated corpse. Count Karnstein (Mike Raven), who plays a more proactive version of the so-called man in black from the previous film, steps up with a dagger. He slits the girl’s throat and then intones, in a deep gravely voice (actually the uncredited voice of Valentine Dyall), a prayer to Satan. The blood from the girl has poured into a chalice, which is then poured onto the corpse, a shroud pulled over its form. Some under the shroud dry ice action and a bit of a lightshow and the corpse sits, revealing the back of a blonde girl, face unseen.
It isn’t as powerful an opening as the previous film, though it is fairly effective. I guess I was just a little suspicious of the fact that we do not see the girl’s face, as though her identity is going to be a big secret. After all, we all know who Mircalla is as soon as she enters the film proper. To be honest, any movie goer at time of release, even if they hadn’t seen the previous film or read the source story, would know from the movie poster!
Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) is flirting with a wench at the tavern. He is approached by the innkeeper (Michael Brennan) and given stern warning that strangers are looked on with suspicion. The innkeeper asks what year it is, 1830 Lestrange responds, and is told it is 40 years to the day when the Karnsteins were last seen. It seems that the Karnsteins reappear every forty years. He then explains that they are vampires, and repeats the rule from the previous film that they either seduce their victims, taking pleasure from wooing them, or glut themselves. He warns that a girl is already missing. Lestrange is dismissive, though he went to the area to pick up on such superstitions as he is a horror novelist (or writer of phantasmagoria, I really should say) and states he will go up to the castle after lunch. Lestrange is an odd character, though at this point he seems almost Byronesque.
In the castle the superstitions seem all the more real. He hears the warnings of the innkeeper and finds blood (from the sacrifice). Suddenly he sees a hooded girl and then another, he backs away but there is a third and he is surrounded. This is interrupted by a man’s voice and we meet Giles Barton (Ralph Bates) history teacher at a recently opened finishing school and genealogist. Barton takes Lestrange to the school, where the girls rush for their Greco-Roman dance exercise session (I kid you not, check the screenshot). The hooded girls are almost reminiscent of the Euro-horror scene, and in particular the imagery used by Jean Rollin. Barton points out the gym teacher Janet Playfair (Suzanna Leigh) and then introduces Lestrange to the principle, Miss Simpson (Helen Christie). It is clear that Miss Simpson dislikes him, especially his writing, but warms to him more when she realises he is the son of a Lord. He suggests he could teach literature to the girls, but is curtly informed that they have a teacher due to arrive. The Countess Herritzen arrives with her niece Mircalla, who is to enrol in the school, and Lestrange is very obviously fascinated by the young woman.
It cuts to night in the dorm, and it is an ample excuse for the filmmakers to show plenty of young naked flesh. Mircalla is with her roommate, Susan Pelley (Pippa Steel, who played Carmilla’s first victim, Laura, in the previous film). Susan gives her a massage and suggest they sneak out for a midnight swim, she is about to kiss Mircalla’s neck when Janet enters the room and hurries them to bed.
Later that night Lestrange is in the inn and telling the locals about his “vampiric encounter” in the castle, to his audience’s great amusement. The serving wench goes out, there is a scream and they find her dead, punctures in her neck. Susan is in the lake when Mircalla arrives, she asks Mircalla where she had been and Mircalla makes an excuse for being out of bed earlier than her roommate – then they kiss.
The next day Lestrange meets a bit of an English fop, Arthur Biggs (Jonathon Cecil), whom he tries to avoid. When he discovers that he is the new English teacher for the school he convinces him that they might collaborate on a book together. Biggs leaves for Vienna to research and Lestrange tells Miss Simpson that Biggs has a badly broken leg and offers to step in for him. He is given lodgings, close to the school, with Barton. It is all an effort to get close to Mircalla.
That night Barton is researching the castle and Lestrange jokes that Barton wants to be a vampire. Barton giggles, in a particularly sinister way, about peasant superstition. Lestrange recalls the wounds on the tavern girl’s throat and states it is not all superstition but Barton has gone. Susan is by the lake and holds her arms out to a person unseen, then screams. A little here about the first two vampiric attacks, both done in first person to hide the identity of the assailant. A pointless and annoying move as we all know who it is. Lestrange sees Mircalla returning to the school and then we see Barton disposing of the body in an old well.
The following day Mircalla is asked if she knows where Susan is, and denies any knowledge. Jenny wants to go to the police but Miss Simpson will not as it would be a scandal, Jenny gives her 48 hours or she will go herself (okay its just barely historically accurate, the first police were the Metropolitan police in 1829, but I doubt Styria had imported the concept by 1830). Barton takes the girls to the castle, specifically to Carmilla’s grave. It is noted that Mircalla is an anagram of Carmilla and Barton asks if her family is related to the Karnsteins, as it is common to anagram familial names amongst that class. He then, out of earshot of the other girls, asks Mircalla to meet him there that night. When they meet he tells her he knows who she is and that her portrait, as Carmilla, is in one of his books. He holds out a crucifix and then reverses it, dropping to his knees and stating that he wants only to be her, and Satan’s, servant. During this the audience is shown the resurrection again and this time we see Mircalla’s face, what a shocker! She kisses his neck and then it appears she might have bitten him. It is a lack lustre attack, designed to make us think that perhaps she has not bitten him after all – forgetting the re-shown resurrection. She walks away and Barton crawls after her until he falls down an incline and collapses.
The next day Barton’s body is found but ‘luckily’ the Countess is at the school and travelling with her personal physician, actually Count Karnstein. “Heart attack!” He intones as the cause of death. Janet isn’t happy and talks to Lestrange about her concerns, she wants them to go to the police but he needs time to think. He checks through Barton’s papers, seeing Barton’s sketches of Mircalla and fangs generally, he also discovers the portrait. Going to the school he checks Barton’s body and finds fang wounds in the neck. The next day he arranges to meet Mircalla at the castle. When they meet he confronts her, Mircalla only admitting she is a Karnstein and the family changed their name. Lestrange declares his love and, after a little pathos, they make love. This scene is awful, with a faux pop-song “Strange Love” playing over the top. That said it is interesting to see that Mircalla cries during the encounter and this emotion could have been expanded upon greatly through the rest of the film. When Lestrange returns Janet is waiting for him, he promised her an answer about going to the police, but he dismisses her concerns and she storms out. He dreams of Mircalla, interspersed with images of Janet, and we feel we’re in for another sappy scene (“Strange Love” is playing again). Sangster manages to save the scene, however, when the dream becomes more sinister and images of puncture wounds start appearing and a shot of Barton dead but his eyes (purposefully, I assume) flickering.
The next day the police are at the school, thanks to Janet, and Inspector Heinrich (Harvey Hall) admonishes Miss Simpson and forces her to write to Susan’s father, Raymond Pelley (David Healy). He searches the grounds and then we see intercut scenes of the Countess with Miss Simpson and the inspector climbing into the well. He finds Susan’s body and climbs back up but Count Karnstein cuts the rope he used, causing him to fall to his death. The Countess tells Miss Simpson to write another letter to Mr Pelley, saying his daughter has died. “Heart Attack!” the Count intones again. Now, I know that Miss Simpson was avoiding scandal but the mass stupidity of the woman beggar’s belief and it is a failing in the scripting of the film. During all this we see Lestrange with Mircalla, she tries to deny him but eventually, when she can’t say she does not love him, they kiss.
That night Janet tells Lestrange that she loves him and she is sure another will die, namely Lestrange. She thinks the disappearance of Susan and the death of Barton are connected; both were besotted with Mircalla, as Lestrange obviously is. This is heard by Mircalla, who, back at the school, hypnotises Janet back to her room. We are left in no doubt that it is hypnosis due to the funny sound effect used. It is clear that Mircalla is about to strike but Janet’s crucifix is revealed and she runs off.
Raymond Pelley arrives at the school, unhappy with what has happened in respect of his daughter. We discover that Miss Simpson has told him that she has been buried. He has the body exhumed, the Countess has ensured it actually has been retrieved from the well and buried, and a pathologist – Prof. Herz (Erik Chitty) – examines it. The Countess later tells him that his daughter’s heart attack happened as she was throwing herself from the top of Castle Karnstein, a suicide brought on by her parent’s divorce. Herz can’t deny this, though he doesn’t know what the puncture wounds in her throat were caused by. If it were to be a vampire, he adds, then Pelley needs a… just then a convenient Bishop (Jack Melford) enters the inn.
Lestrange is drunk. He marches to the school and hammers upon Marcilla’s door shouting that he knows she has someone in there with her. She does indeed, a young woman whom she feeds from and who seems to be really enjoying it. This is a pointless scene, added (I believe) because if we hadn’t seen at least one proper feeding scene the audience would probably have demanded their money back in droves. The door is not opened and, having caused a scene, he leaves and heads to the village tavern. However the villagers are on the march, with the Bishop and Pelley, as they are to storm the castle and kill the Karnsteins. They will be, they claim, resting in their graves after feeding. Lestrange follows, anxious for Mircalla’s safety, and interestingly says that she is a victim too. Mircalla has arrived at the castle grounds where she meets the Count and Countess. They look to leave by coach but the mob is at the castle gate and so enter the castle instead. The coachman bares fangs and drives at the mob, but is pulled down and staked, then the mob try to burn the castle down. The Bishop tries to stop them as fire will do no good, something the Count confirms inside.
Lestrange runs into the burning castle and Mircalla tells him to leave. A bit of hand mojo from the Count and she vamps at Lestrange who pushes her down, straight into the path of a falling ceiling beam that stakes her. Pelley rushes in and rescues Lestrange (somehow knowing his name), delivering him into the waiting arms of Janet, whilst the Bishop (obviously forgetting that fire won’t work) gives a prayer of thanks to God.
If the above seemed difficult to follow it is because it is difficult to follow as you watch, if you ignore the early naked flesh and concentrate on the plot. The biggest problem with this film is the lack of coherent story. Scrap that, the biggest problem is the “Strange Love” song, but story cohesion is still a huge problem. All through the film, up to Barton’s death, we are assumed to not know who Mircalla really is. Even after the film reveals this to us there are attempts to throw red herrings as to the vampire’s identity for no adequately explored reason. Worse, the red herrings are lame, to say the least.
Because of the film’s denial that we might know what’s going on we are forced to miss vampire attacks and it is clear that Hammer forgot that vampire fans want to see bites – not off screen, or hidden, hints of said bites. Thus Hammer fails to make a horror by making a mystery-less mystery and it all seems to be the fault of a rushed script. The concept of forbidden love between a vampire and mortal was interesting but, ultimately, not really expanded upon enough in the script to make it worthwhile.
The characterisation is poor. Some blame the actors, but I think they did well enough with poor material. We see rapid falling in loves for no reason; Lestrange and Mircalla, Janet and Lestrange. Worse of all is Lestrange who turns from Byronesque rake to soppy love-struck puppy in a blink of the eye. Stensgaard, as Mircalla, carries the innocence that Pitt couldn’t in the previous film well enough but fails to be worldly enough to be the seducer that Pitt was. Bates, however, is superb as the intensely creepy Barton (and, dare I say it, was probably a better choice than Cushing would have been). Leigh is great as Janet but woefully underused, seeing as she is the only character with any real backbone.
The film manages to titillate, but fails as a mystery due to the fact that there is no mystery and as such I can only give this 4.5 out of 10 – and no, I haven’t knocked a mark off for “Strange Love” though I probably should.
The imdb page is here. *imdb lists the film as 1971, but it is clearly 1970 on the DVD