In its waning years, in an attempt to remain current in an age of expanding cinema permissiveness, venerable British studio Hammer Films added doses of sex and blood to its tried-and-true gothic horror formula. Where once the company had been an innovator, the first to bring classic creatures like Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster to the screen in glorious color for the post-World War II generation, by the early 1970s Hammer was practically an also-ran, trumped by a tidal wave of low budget B-movies eager to push the boundaries of so-called “good taste” in an appeal to increasingly jaded audiences. Most of the studio’s attempts to “sex up” its horror films were unsuccessful. Aside from a few flashes of naked female anatomy and some extra dollops of gore, these latter-day Hammers were, for the most part, indistinguishable from the films produced 10 years earlier – handsomely mounted and well-acted despite their relatively meager budgets; stately, conventional and leaning to the dry, even dull side. The so-called Karnstein Trilogy comprises what are perhaps the most popular Hammers of this period: “The Vampire Lovers” (1970), “Lust For A Vampire” (1971) and “Twins Of Evil” (also ‘71). Set during the Napoleonic era and loosely derived from Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire story “Carmilla”, the three films center on the nefarious deeds of the Karnsteins, a noble house of Styria (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) whose evil members worship the devil. Rewarded by their dark master with the immortality of vampirism, the Karnstein clan preys on the local populace to satiate their lust for blood and debauchery. “The Vampire Lovers” stars Ingrid Pitt as Mircalla Karnstein, a lesbian vampire who, under a variety of aliases, ingratiates herself to prominent families so as to victimize their pretty daughters. Although eventually staked and beheaded, Mircalla was resurrected for the sequel, “Lust For A Vampire”, played by a different, younger actress (Yutte Stensgaard). Enrolling at an exclusive private school for girls, Mircalla is the fox in the proverbial henhouse, draining one pretty lass after another and even seducing a handsome male teacher. (She decided she swing both ways, apparently.) The Mircalla character again returns in the final film, “Twins Of Evil”, but only as a fleeting supporting player. Instead it is a male Karnstein who supplies the bloodthirsty villainy.
With their parents deceased, identical sisters Frieda and Maria Gellhorn (Mary and Madeleine Collinson, Playboy’s first ever twin Playmates) travel from their native Venice to live with their uncle in the rustic, backwoods village of Karnstein. Upon arrival the girls are crestfallen to learn that dear Uncle Gustav (horror icon Peter Cushing) is a super-strict bible-thumping puritan, one with a scriptural quote for every situation and an unshakeable belief in “spare the rod, spoil the child.” His longsuffering wife, Aunt Katy (Kathleen Byron), is sympathetic to the girls’ culture shock but, like the dutiful wife of any good puritan, is powerless to intervene – Uncle Gustav runs the household with an iron hand. He’s also the leader of The Brotherhood; a group of co-religionists dedicated to stamping out any vestige of Satan they perceive is corrupting the community. As it happens, these “satanic influences” tend to manifest themselves in the form of attractive young maidens of questionable morals, whom the Christian vigilantes “purify” by burning at the stake. One night, as The Brotherhood rides across the countryside seeking out the devil’s pawns, they make the mistake of crossing Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), the arrogant nobleman whose hilltop castle broods over the village named for his family. The Count, found carousing with a woman in a forest hut, is warned by Gustav that even the aristocracy isn’t immune to God’s righteous wrath. To Gustav’s fury, Count Karnstein simply laughs at him and his comrades, threatening them with the gallows if they accost him again. By right of noble birth he is untouchable.
The Count is a thoroughly debauched libertine grown bored with life (even the life of a rich VIP) out in the sticks. Aware of his ancestors’ devilish history and hoping to emulate it, he arranges for a satanic ritual at the castle in which he murders a young woman by stabbing her atop a sacrificial altar. The victim’s blood seeps beneath the altar stone into the crypt of Mircalla Karnstein, resurrecting the vampiress from her dark slumber. Mircalla bites the more than willing Count and transforms him into one of the Undead. (It’s not entirely clear whether Mircalla, here played by Katya Wyeth, is supposed to be Count Karnstein’s deceased wife or a distant ancestor. If it’s the latter, then the movie definitely takes a kinky turn… The two Karnsteins get it on before she bites him. Mircalla then disappears from the story at this point.) Meanwhile, the free-spirited Frieda yearns to get out from under Uncle Gustav’s repressive thumb. To the horror of her sweet, innocent sister, Frieda doesn’t care that the handsome (and wealthy) Count Karnstein is associated with all sorts of nasty rumors. She sees the castle on the hill as a potential Party Central. So she sneaks out one night and soon finds herself at the Karnstein dinner table. Bitten by the Count, Frieda and her new lover begin a reign of terror as they prey on the villagers. This sets Gustav and The Brotherhood off on a zealous campaign to scourge the land of evil, which only results in them killing more innocent people than are actually victimized by the vampires. The town’s enlightened schoolmaster (David Warbeck of Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond”) tries to reason with the fanatical church elder but receives only threats in reply. Count Karnstein finds this all rather amusing until Frieda is caught red-handed (red-lipped?) and thrown in the town jail pending her execution at dawn. To save his vampire vixen from being burnt at the stake, Karnstein and his mute African manservant kidnap Maria and switch her for identical twin Frieda. Now another innocent girl – Gustav’s own God-fearing niece – faces immolation upon the witchfinder’s pyre…
Director John Hough keeps the pacing fairly brisk for a Hammer film, though he saves most of the blood and Mary Collinson’s nude scene for the final 15 minutes. A fine score by Harry Robinson lends atmosphere and urgency to the proceedings; production design is first-rate when one considers the relatively low budget. (Castle Karnstein is especially well-appointed in comparison to Christopher Lee’s cheap, dingy mansion in 1970’s “Scars of Dracula”.) Though the script sticks to most of the familiar vampire movie lore it also throws in a few twists (no coffins, sunlight has no effect) just to keep things interesting. The Collinson gals are surprisingly good in their respective roles, something not typically the case with Playboy Playmates hired chiefly for their physical charms. The rest of the cast treat the material earnestly and seriously, with only Thomas occasionally going overboard in the scenery chewing department. (In a couple of scenes you’d expect him to twirl his mustachios with villainous glee a la Snidely Whiplash – if Count Karnstein had a mustache, that is.) Peter Cushing, always the pro, lends customary gravitas in his portrayal of Gustav, whose inflexible adherence to fanatical Christian dogma makes him every bit the villain of the film as the Satan-worshipping vampire he aims to destroy… Thus “Twins of Evil” has enough going for it to forgive a plot hole or two and a couple of unintentionally humorous scenes. (Some phallic candle-stroking during a love scene is simply ludicrous; Count Karnstein’s mute servant has to play a rather urgent game of Charades to explain to his master that the angry, torch-bearing peasants really mean business.) With its solid gothic atmosphere, nubile eye candy in the form of the Collinson sisters and an interesting story rooted in the duality of evil, the film should entertain even those horror fans who normally find Hammer flicks a bit stuffy.
NOTE: “Twins of Evil” is available on Region 2 DVD in the U.K. and Europe but has not been released on disc here in the United States. (Hopefully that will change.) The pan and scan VidAmerica VHS edition went out-of-print over a decade ago.