In the early 1970s, British horror studio juggernaut Hammer Films, found a need to re-invent itself. The days of traditional gothic horror sharing (or dominating) the contemporary marketplace for genre cinema had past. Though they would still release ‘safe’ vampire titles featuring their mainstay count, such as SCARS OF DRACULA (1971), DRACULA AD 1972 (1972) and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973), a new batch of films featuring eroticized female bloodsuckers would answer the new, decidedly more scandalous, demands of the growing audience of the genre. They would be known as The Karnstein Trilogy.
The three films featured in The Karnstein Trilogy do not need to be seen in succession or even necessarily involve the same characters. Rather, they each involve members of the Karnstein family. The first film, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), deals with Mircalla Karnstein also known as Carmilla, as based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella of the same name. LUST FOR A VAMPIRE would follow in 1971 and would feature further, though unrelated, exploits of Mircalla. The final film in the trilogy, TWINS OF EVIL (1971), is the only one which does not centrally feature Mircalla. Instead, the film follows a pair of orphaned twins who become involved with Count Karstein.
All three films in The Karnstein Trilogy are erotically charged, with the first two films focusing primarily on lesbianism. TWINS OF EVIL forgoes the twin-cest route and instead features the good and evil sisters engaging in sexual acts separately of each other, as well as with different intentions. Though it would not share the provocation of lesbianism with the other two titles, its real-life Playboy Playmate twins – Mary and Madeline Collinson – would add plenty of marketing potential as well as ample opportunity for various states of undress.
Hammer Films wouldn’t be the only company capitalizing on the eroticism of vampires in the early 1970s. Films such as the similarly lesbian themed VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971) and VAMPYRES (1974) as well as the hardcore anthology IMMORAL TALES (1974) which features a segment regarding bloodlust and Elizabeth Bathory, something it has quite in common with DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971).
DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS starts off similarly to TWINS OF EVIL, with a couple (this time newlyweds) coming into contact with a vampire (this time Elizabeth Bathory). Of course, Bathory wasn’t claimed to have been a vampire in the popular culture association even though she was labeled as the Blood Countess due to her tendency to drink blood. This is the first film that I know of in which Bathory is portrayed as a vampire, though she is involved in the aforementioned IMMORAL TALES and does awkwardly work into the plot of last year’s direct-to-video FRIGHT NIGHT 2: NEW BLOOD. If nothing else, Bathory’s representation does allow for “blood lust” to be played up as much as possible, and DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS doesn’t have a hard time doing that. Perhaps even more erotically charged than any of the Hammer titles, it works as much as a piece of erotica as it does horror while excelling at both.
Eroticism and vampires post-1970s seem like a combination that is impossible to escape and each decade seems to take it a bit further. The 1980s went – as expected – the campiest route possible and gave us titles like VAMP (1986) and VAMPIRE’S KISS (1989) in addition to the legitimately great THE HUNGER which brought lesbian vampires back to multiplex screens. Hollywood took over in the 1990s with big budget, lavish productions like BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) and INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994) that had more in common with the earlier Hammer titles than those of The Karnstein Trilogy, yet smaller – and trashier – titles like JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES (1998) and THE ADDICTION (1995) found an audience on video, where the sleazy could truly thrive.
The past decade has shown no sign of the genre’s erotic trappings slowing down, much of which can – strangely – be attributed to the tween market. The eroticism of vampires is no longer a seemingly genre cinema specific attribute. With huge properties like TWILIGHT and TRUE BLOOD increasing – and drastically changing – the demographic for such material, it is perhaps now that Hammer’s initial change towards market trends can most be felt. We may have moved far from the idea of a topless Playmate plunging glistening fangs into an unsuspecting, seduced neck, but the novelty is still being sold and to bigger dollar amounts than anyone would have considered in 1971.