The lesbian vampire really came into prominence in the 70's. Sure, it had been around before, with the Sheridan Le Fanu novella "Carmilla", and films like "Blood and Roses", but the 70's is when this particular sub-genre peaked. Jean Rollin made a career out of these movies (he'd been doing it since the late 60's), and movies like Jess Franco's "Vamyros Lesbos"and José Ramón Larraz's classic "Vampyres" have become beloved cult classics.
Hammer on the other hand, would be the last studio that you would expect to enter this sub-genre. The studio was mostly known for it's modestly bloody updates of classic horror monsters, Gothic horror yarns and intelligent Science Fiction films. Yet by the time 1970 came along, the studio had begun to see that things were changing in the horror market. So, they took a chance by taking on "Carmilla" and adding stronger (well, for the time) amounts of sex and violence into a film with "The Vampire Lovers."
When a countess is away to attend to a sick friend, her daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) arrives as a house guest. However, villagers are showing up dead, and Laura (Pippa Steel), the daughter of General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) is very ill and pale. Fortunately, Marcilla is there to take care of her-and she has a very special interest in Laura.
While I've mentioned in the past that Hammer had some difficulty with keeping up with the times, "The Vampire Lovers" is proof that the studio could still pull off a nice, Gothic horror yarn and at the same time could give newer, hungrier audiences a bit more. Sure, the requisite bloody neck bites, fog drenched atmosphere and haunting menace the studio is known for is here, but this movie, as I mentioned earlier, is stronger in the sex and violence department. The violence is a bit more graphic (bloodier than usual decapitations are on display), and there's plenty of very unapologetic use of female nudity, especially from Pitt, who bares all and looks great doing it. Also, while not as graphic as other lesbian vampire flicks, what you get should still please exploitation fans.
Yet, this is no mere exploitation. The direction by Hammer vet Roy Wade Baker* is solid throughout, and makes the best of it's setting, and manages to wring every drip of atmosphere that he can from the proceedings without losing sight of what the movie is. It's also at times almost reminiscent of the doomed romanticism of Jean Rollins' vampire films (This movie was a big influence on Rollins), with Marcilla/Carmilla's feelings for Laura feeling genuine instead of just "Hey, girls on girls man!" Plus, Pitt does a great job in her role, making the vampire both sympathetic and predatory without overacting her role.
Needless to say, Hammer hit pay dirt with this movie, and gave the world two more lesbian vampire films a year later in "Lust for a Vampire" (which featured-horror of horrors-Mike Raven) and "Twins of Evil" (which featured Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson.)
*Though he'd done several Hammer movies, Baker is mostly known for directing the classic film "A Night to Remember." His other credits include the Marilyn Monroe films "Don't Bother to Knock" and "I'll Never Forget You", among several others.