Getting Hammered


VampiresI recently had the pleasure of viewing for the very first time Hammer Studio’s 1970 classic, The Vampire Lovers, a sexy and quite faithful adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s lesbian vampire tale, Carmilla,which predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by about twenty-five years.

Polish actress Ingrid Pitt plays the role of Carmilla, the blood-lusting seductress who feeds exclusively on the blood of pretty young women, but whose evil character is ameliorated most sympathetically by a loneliness and yearning that causes her to fall in love with select victims. Talk about relationships that end badly—her loves must eventually succumb to the lethal anemia that she inflicts.

Hammer constantly sparred with British censors, but by 1970 nudity, while still fairly novel in mainstream films, was not going to go away. Lesbianism, however, was another matter. It’s said that Hammer was able to convince the censors to approve the kissing and breast-feedings between the vampire and her nubile prey because they were depicted in the original tale—a classic of Victorian gothic horror. A very British accommodation, I think. Consider Victorian artist J. Waterhouse’s paintings, which depicted delectable nudes in scenes from classic mythology—there couldn’t be anything prurient about the classics. Wink

The Vampire Lovers serves up lovely, lithe and naked actresses, and by today’s standards, the lesbian couplings are brief and very tame. Still, watching Ms. Pitt work her wiles upon the sweetly bemused and almost too-naive-to-be believed Madeleine Smith as Laura was as affecting for me as it must have been for 1970s audiences.

Hammer made its movies on the cheap, but they never looked that way. The color and costumes were lush, and the special effects simple but effective. Good production values. Lips and blood were always a rich red. The exteriors are as picaresque as a postcard. And the interiors, well-recycled for economy, were convincing, be they set in a glittering ballroom or a dungeon.

Hammer tales were set in the Victorian era, in mysterious Eastern European settings. There wasn’t a peasant lass depicted whose dirndl didn’t droop from her bosom, supported by nothing more than her areolae.

Hammer also employed a stable of marvelous British character actors, the most famous of course being Sir Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Their constant battles as Dracula and van Helsing strained the imagination of Hammer writers who had to constantly come up with clever and novel ways to revive and then destroy the count.

Hammer Horror The first Hammer film I saw in the darkness of a theater was Brides of Dracula. Released in 1960, when I was eight, I must have seen it as a double creature feature at the neighborhood movie house some years later, because I definitely recall the nascent stirrings of pre-teenage hormonal urges having their natural effect on my hard-wired male brain. And bosoms … a cornucopia of lovely bosoms … were a trademark of the Hammer films. Mainstream nudity was still a few years away, but bodices in the earlier film strained to the point of bursting in nearly every scene, as well as the aforementioned slack peasant blouses, teasing my young eyes, and giving me a pleasant tickle in secret places.

And you didn’t have to confess to the priest what you watched earlier that Saturday afternoon, because eventually, those swelling bosoms would be adorned with a lovely crucifix—protection against the undead, of course. That made it all right; at least, that’s what I and my young pals, all parochial school detainees, decided.

Boobs and crosses … what could be wrong with that?

Aside from the eye candy that titillated us youngsters, the Hammer films were genuinely creepy. There is a scene in Three Brides where an old crone coaxes a newly undead girl from her grave. Her hand breaking the surface of the sod gave me nightmares for weeks. Though I did toy with the notion of being pursued in my dreams by a winsome, albeit fanged, young woman.The Hammer look was copied by other studios. Roger Corman’s very loose adaptations of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, starring the inimitable Vincent Price (Corman’s answer to Cushing and Lee) employed the same atmospherics and dread, as well as beautiful buxom actresses.

Hammer’s directors and cinematographers loved women. The camera ogled them, framed them, doted on them. Male characters were mostly competent or suave, such as Cushing and Lee, or everyday sots who acted as cogs that kept the plot rolling. One sometimes wondered if Cushing was a eunuch, surrounded by all that delectable female flesh, but who was always down-to-business. Oh there was always a conventionally handsome lad tossed in with whom the damsel-in-distress could settle in with after her redemption.

Leaving high school and drive-in theaters behind, I also left behind the Hammer and Corman catalogue of horror. They had been shoved aside by a new and cruder American innovation, the slasher film. In some ways, they were the antithesis of the lush Hammer costume classics. Plenty of nudity, but a pretty breast was more likely to get lopped off by a mindless maniac, than have a suave and sensual vampire lovingly apply a lethal nibble to it.

And the underlying theme: puritanical. Girls who liked sex died horribly; virgins survived.

Carmilla meets her end at the end of a stake held by Peter Cushing. But before he applies the fatal thrust, he hesitates a moment to admire her beauty and her perfect bosom. The fatal penetration occurs between the succulent orbs. They are not damaged.

Hammer Studios… they got it right. I wouldn’t swap you a single Carmilla or Christopher Lee/Count Dracula for all the Jasons and Freddies and their ilk.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Robert Buckley
August 2009

“Cracking Foxy” © 2009 Robert Buckley. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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