Saturday, May 23, 2009

Malleus:hammering Carmilla again

Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy is supposedly “based on the writings of Sheridan Le Fanu”. Ironically, the best film of the three, Twins of Evil, has nothing to do with him.

The second film, Lust for A vampire, is so bad it’s not even funny. I don’t mind bad films. Santa Clause Conquers the Martians is bad but amusing. The Ninth Gate is awful but every time I watch it I’m reminded of how much I like the Dumas club.

But Lust for a vampire has an embarrassing hero and a final vampire death scene that manages to be both silly and embarrassing. The idea behind the film: what would happen if the woman you were in love with turned out to be a vampire…has potential. But it’s potential that never leaves the bank. The film hasn’t got much going for it to start with but they did manage to include, if not the worst “love scene” in all of Hammer’s slightly daffy “love scenes”, then certainly their entry for “the most embarrassing song accompanying a drawn out and embarrassing love scene”. You’ve got to wonder why they did the third one.

But they did and although the script credits remain the same they tried for something different. A story in which there are no good guys: two male leads, one of whom is unlikable and the other hardly “heroic”. If only they’d had the courage to make the vampire attractive or sympathetic or vaguely likeable so there was no bad guy then they could have achieved some kind of moral ambiguity. But as long as the vampire represents appetite demonized; your average Friday 13th American teenager stuck in a castle and allowed out to pull the legs off the locals, there can be no real moral problem.

Carmilla herself is relegated to a walk on roll; literally brought back to life to vampirise her descendant, the decadent Count Karnstein. (Who is supposed to look broody and menacing but looks horribly like Kenneth Williams, complete with flaring nostrils.) Her seduction of the count and one other bedroom scene are the only attempts at anything conventionally sexual in the film. There is very little nudity, and very little “sex”. Instead of naked actresses, we get young women chained to a cross and burning.

Lingering at the edges of this film, is a powerful idea trying to get in.

What happens when misogyny is stamped, approved and authorized. The Contemptus Mundi Preachers of Lady G would approve. The Brotherhood, a group of black clad religious do gooders, who burn young women as witches in the name of their own self righteousness, are fine examples of repression, perversion and sublimation.

Desire denied, soured into fear and self-loathing, desperate to cleanse itself by destroying whatever it desires. In this case men punishing women for their guilt; their crime is to be desirable. It doesn’t seem to occur to the brotherhood that all their victims are pretty young girls who live alone, who have refused the suit of “honest men”. Or that “beating the devil” out of the sexually attractive niece is no less sexual than taking her to bed.

The binary: desire given into is evil, the way of the vampire; desire repressed is the mark of the religious man. And no middle ground

There are moments when the claustrophobia of religious mania surfaces. But as usual with Hammer the film flirts with an idea and loses it. Peter Cushing tries valiantly to play what could have been an interesting character, a bigoted witch finder who learns he’s been wrong, and has a chance to redeem himself, but the film never quite gets there.

An interesting lesson? You can plan the best story in the world. But without the execution, it’s just another good idea that doesn’t really work.

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