--J. Sheridan le Fanu, "Carmilla"
Although Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness is more well-regarded by critics, Hammer's The Vampire Lovers (1970, directed by Roy Ward Baker) is the grandmother of lesbian vampire movies. It's one of the few relatively faithful adaptations of "Carmilla" (that eternal wellspring of lesbian vampires) and it was one of Hammer's biggest hits. In spite of all of this--or maybe because of it--it's a film that makes me uneasy.
As I say, the story here is fairly faithful. It follows Mircalla Karnstein, a 200 year old vampire, as she preys upon the ladies of an Austrian province. Her mode of operation is to insinuate herself into the lives of families with daughters, become the daughters' best friend, then lover, and then feed upon them. Left in her wake are the erstwhile vampire hunter, Baron von Hartog, and the father of her previous victim, General von Spielsdorf. These characters intersect when Mircalla, calling herself "Carmilla" moves in with Emma, her latest lover. She comes to her lovers as the dream of a great cat.
This is one of the first Hammer movies to take advantage of slackening censorship standards. There's a lot of skin in this movie, and some more explicit violence than Hammer is generally known for. I mean, the title credit is superimposed on a shot of a severed head, which suggests a movie that's mostly red meat. That's as violent as the movie gets. For the most part, this is more of a gothic romance than a bloodbath (star Ingrid Pitt would do the lesbian vampire movie as bloodbath in Countess Dracula). It's all elegantly filmed by Roy Ward Baker. This is one of the best-looking of the late Hammer films. It was obviously one of their "A" productions. You could also usually identify their "A" productions by the presence of Peter Cushing, and he plays The General in this movie. Christopher Lee declined a part in the film.
The Vampire Lovers has some inexplicable elements. It postulates that a vampire cannot return to its grave without its shroud and spends some energy on looking for Carmilla's shroud, even though it plays no role in her eventual demise. The movie also includes a mysterious (male) vampire on horseback at various intervals throughout the movie who plays no real role in the plot. The way he's filmed, though, suggests that he's the true king vampire rather than Carmilla. The movie doesn't explore this.
The imagery in The Vampire Lovers is occasionally downright poetic. The image of the shrouded vampire wandering the countryside is striking, and so is the funeral scene. I wouldn't have thought that Roy Ward Baker, usually a stolid, utilitarian director, capable of this, but this is arguably his best film, so the viewer is catching him at his most engaged. The vampires in The Vampire Lovers have an expanded palette of abilities here, too. They can dissolve into mist, for instance, and Carmilla herself is a shapeshifter. Hammer usually didn't spring for these abilities (in part because they required special effects), so they mark this film as being an outlier in the Hammer formula.
There's a good deal more nuance to Mircalla/Carmilla than you usually got from Dracula and his brood. You see an early version of the vampire as tormented anti-hero here. Ingrid Pitt plays Carmilla with a deep vein of tragedy. She longs for companionship throughout her long life, but she lives forever while her companions all die by her hand. This is most prominent as Carmilla watches a funeral procession with her lady love and recoils from the sound of the liturgy. At other times, Pitt's vampire is purely a predator, a reflection on attitudes toward lesbians. In coded terms, she's a monster who seduces young people into the lesbian lifestyle. And Carmilla, unlike some cinematic lesbian vampires, is purely lesbian. She may prey on men for food or for gain, but she doesn't have any kind of connection with them. It's women with whom she falls in love. The tragic nature of the vampire is still present at the end of the movie, too. Carmilla doesn't struggle the way Hammer's other vampires do when the hunters come for her. There's a look of resignation on her face, of relief even, when she's staked at the end of the movie.
It's worth keeping in mind, though, that Hammer films are essentially reactionary. Hammer's vampire movies in particular have always been vehicles for scolding women for their sexuality, a tendency that's thrown into stark relief by The Vampire Lovers. Not only are the women in The Vampire Lovers sexually awake, they're sexually awake in a way that excludes men. And Hammer will have none of that. The narrative of The Vampire Lovers, like the narratives of all of their vampire movies, is a punishment narrative. The punishment meted out by the upright forces of moral propriety--older white men who are fueled by a bitches brew of misogyny and heterosexism and a challenge to the rule of patriarchy--is harsh in this movie. Ingrid Pitt's portrayal of Carmilla has an interesting effect on Hammer's usual formula, though. She's the first of Hammer's vampires whose death at the end seems bittersweet. The audience sympathizes with her. It's with HER that we've been spending our time during this movie, not the male "heroes." We don't have anything invested in the heroes. They're heroes by convention more than by their prominence in the movie.
In any event, this is very much a "male gaze" horror movie, regardless of whatever subversion of the male gaze it manages from time to time. It's influential, too, given that its success led Hammer to make two sequels, and, hell, Jean Rollin has made a career out of riffing on this movie. It's important and it's effective and it's very much what its filmmakers intended it to be. So I'm stuck wondering why I don't like it better. But then, Hammer films always make me wonder why I don't like them better. There's no accounting for taste, I guess.