The Vampire Lovers and some notes on the collector’s dilemma

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One of the U.S. taglines for 1970’s The Vampire Lovers reads “Caution: Not for the Mentally Immature!” and Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release flashes the same warning up before the menu. The line is good for a giggle, but it’s also incredibly telling of the motion picture we’re about to watch.

The Vampire Lovers is a Hammer film made with AIP* money. That tagline and the awesome—but misleading—American poster give you a good idea about what kind of film you’re getting, even if the Hammer influence does class the proceedings up tenfold.

By 1970, even though they still had some solid efforts left to make, Hammer was beginning its final descent and entering rocky economic waters. The Vampire Lovers is one of several attempts to reinvigorate the studio’s horror output by mixing up the formula a bit (the Shaw Brothers co-production The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires would follow four years later).

Sex appeal is the gimmick they chose to employ in this film to try and keep the studio aloft, and it was successful enough that the mix of censor-pushing violence and sex would be repeated.

While earlier Hammer efforts almost uniformly boast beautiful women and film them with a glamour photographer’s eye, The Vampire Lovers runs on scandal. For devotees of Jean Rollin, the amorous vampire action will seem tame, but there’s also an earnestness to The Vampire Lovers that makes it still feel wholesome and proper. If Hammer is doing a vampire movie with strong lesbian overtones there has to be a sprinkling of culture to the affair, so the film is (somewhat faithfully) based it on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 story Carmilla, where the titular character the progenitor of the modern lesbian vampire.

For one of Hammer’s lower budget productions, the lush sets and location shots look great in Scream Factory’s fine transfer. It’s that combination of top-shelf talent and honest-to-goodness filmmaking chops that makes The Vampire Lovers so much less sleazy than it could be. Screenwriter Tudor Gates delivers a serviceable script that Hammer (and later Amicus)-regular Roy Ward Baker translates beautifully to the screen. There’s plenty of movement and sweep to Baker’s camera, he was a prolific film/TV director who knew how to wring scope out of soundstages.

Although Peter Cushing’s appearance is more of a prolonged cameo (the commentary reveals that AIP was insistent that one of Hammer’s stars make an appearance), the cast is lead by the spectacular Ingrid Pitt in her first starring role and features Jon Finch (who starred in Polanski’s Macbeth a year later) so there’s no lack of star power for film fans.

The most notable extra on the disc is a lively and humorous interview with Madeline Smith that runs about twenty minutes. Apparently, Smith was told that all her nudity in the film was going to be restricted to the Japanese cut. It wasn’t.

The other extra assembled for this release is a short feature about the film’s production and source material that runs about ten minutes. One wonders why this is so short, especially since many of the experts interviewed (Kim Newman, specifically) could hold our interest for much longer than that. The commentary is incorrectly labeled on the back cover as only with Baker, when in fact the director is also joined by Pitt and Gates. Since Baker passed away in 2010, I’m guessing this track is a holdover from a previous release, but I’m not 100% sure.

This is a gem of a release, one that Scream Factory should be applauded for and one you should buy. The company has put out some great discs over the last couple years, but most of the films have been of a more recent vintage than this (late-seventies, and eighties). I love eighties American horror as much as the next fan, but I also love films like The Vampire Lovers. It’s good to see distributors putting out discs like this since studios seem to be getting out of the “special edition” game entirely, especially with regards to catalog titles.

The only downside of physical media is the physical part. The sound and picture are the best you can get, the box art is purty, the features add additional value to your purchase, but the discs have to be stored.

More importantly, the discs have to be moved when it comes time to move apartments. As someone who just spent the better part of my day boxing up his collection, I’m beginning to feel conflicted about a hobby that usually brings me nothing but joy. Wouldn’t it be easier if I didn’t have to lug these around? Shouldn’t I give in and look forward to my collection being stored in the cloud?

Eh, not yet.

Even though they look great lined up on a shelf, I’ve found that it’s easier to suppress my obsessive tendencies when it comes to collecting books. I’m a kindle owner, and proud, so unless I plan on getting a book signed, these days I opt for the ebook edition and save my shelves the strain. But that’s because when I buy a book for my kindle I’m getting the exact same content. There’s no bonus features on a book, there’s no loss in audio or visual fidelity in an ebook over a paperback, but there is when you stream a movie on Amazon or Netflix instead of throwing in the blu-ray.

There’s also the sense of ownership that accompanies a DVD or Blu-ray. Nobody’s going to flip a switch and make my Criterion discs unplayable (although I may not have something to play it on, where’d I put that Laserdisc machine?), but they could very well decide that I was only “renting” my digital copy in the first place.

These are the reasons why physical media needs to stick around for movies, even if it’s only the small boutique labels like Severin, Shout Factory (the parent company of Scream Factory), Blue Underground, Kino and Vinegar Syndrome that remain dedicated to releases like this. They’re making it possible to still be a collector in the digital age and I salute them. Even if my bookshelves do not.

My one complaint about this release? It doesn’t use this dynamite art by Jeff Zornow (commissioned for the most recent British release of the film):

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*Sam Arkoff’s American International Pictures, long time Roger Corman collaborators.

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