It’s Hammer-time again, folks!
As we await the coming gems of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein to arrive in their restored and fully resurrected versions on Blu-ray – and quite impatiently, in some cases – we can always spend some gloriously nostalgic time with those luscious Twins of Evil, who have been freshly unveiled on region A Blu-ray by Synapse.
Twins of Evil … or When Van Helsing Turned Bad.
The third and final instalment in Hammer’s Karnstein series, based upon Sheridan Le Fanu’s sensual Carmilla – the gothic novel that kickstarted the trend for literary vampirism and, subsequently, an entire cinematic genre – Twins of Evil isn’t too highly regarded by anyone other than those devoted to the studio that dripped blood. But this isn’t being fair to what is actually a fast-paced and vastly entertaining tale of puritan ogres battling the aristocratic undead. Set during that bygone mystery-era that Hammer frequently rampaged through, and taking place within a very familiar-looking rural milieu, we find two gorgeous twins – Maria and Frieda (played by Maltese Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeline Collinson - coming to a superstitious enclave in 19th Century Europe to live with their aunt and uncle after the deaths of their parents, and causing quite a stir amongst the locals. Not the least of whom is the decadent and thoroughly debauched Count Karnstein who lives and loves up in his brooding castle on the mountain overlooking the village.
The Count (the darkly suave Damien Thomas) is one of those typically jaded examples of Hammer’s unrepentant hatred for blue-blooded aristocracy. Almost all their gothic horrors featured something of a gaping class divide, with the gentry depicted as foul, lecherous, violent and unforgivably evil. Karnstein, however terrible he may be – holding occult shindigs with his slimy manservant Dietrich (played with sweaty arthritic sadism by the great sleazy horror veteran Dennis Price) supplying all manner of orgiastic death and made-to-measure depravity and attempting to summon the Devil – is actually quite charismatic and only seems to want to have some fun in an otherwise drab and dreary realm. By contrast, his nemesis down in the village, the witch-hunting Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing) is a foul-tempered, odious and fascistic scourge whose entire reason for existing is the aggressive eradication of anything that could possibly resemble “fun”.
Or is that my wife? Difficult to tell, actually.
Bored during the presentation of one staged sacrifice, Karnstein takes matters into his own dagger-clasping hands and spills Kensington Gore on the remains of his notorious ancestor, Carmilla Karnstein or Countess Mircalla as she is known here, who is typically resurrected and gives the willing Count the gift of vampirism. Altogether happier now that his canines have grown, Karnstein then sets his sights on the ravishing pair of twins.
But before you exclaim “oh no, how could you?” it is worth knowing that one of them, Frieda, is not quite as nice and as innocent as her sister. In fact, she is more than willing to go along with the Count’s ways and swiftly becomes one of the undead, just like him. This leads to all sorts of confusion and dangerous disappointment when Ghastly Gustav discovers that one of his nieces has been responsible for the rash of neck-nibbling in the region. But they’re both identical and what if he mistakenly intends to burn the wrong one at the stake, and the bad one gets away with the cunning Count?
Perhaps only David Warbeck’s dashing music teacher, Anton, can save the day. Maybe he can tell the difference between the two and, perhaps, teach the ultra right-wing Gustav the error of his wicked ways in the process … and put an end to the Count’s reign of terror.
It’s a seventies production from the studio that loved to push boundaries. That means that there’s going to be flesh and fiends on offer, and a gaudy, gory exercise in ripe old exploitation.
Well, that’s what you’d think at any rate. But despite its salacious reputation Twins of Evil isn’t all that gratuitous or explicit. What it is, though, is a witty-cum-cruel tale of moral twists and devious double dilemmas. It doesn’t compare to the studio’s classics, but it definitely stands up well as a quirky, temptation-filled gothic curio showcasing Peter Cushing in a knockout performance and boasting the ample delights of two of Malta’s most exquisite exports.
And it certainly isn’t your standard vampire flick either, despite the castle, the fangs, the crucifixes and the wooden stakes.
Written by Tudor Gates and directed by John Hough, this was Hammer’s attempt at a Spaghetti Western, albeit one that was beautifully dressed up as a lavish Gothic chiller. Led by witch-hunting Gustav, Peter Cushing’s Biblical bush-burners (think about it) ride around in black like some renegade band of outlaw bandits, or bushwhackers. You could swap Cushing for Gian Maria Volonte, Eduardo Fajardo or even Jack Palance, for that matter – they all ran with a packs of brutal killers who enjoyed holding sway over a captive land. And look at the mud that festoons the village set constructed at Pinewood. This has to be the grubbiest, grungiest set that Hammer have ever served up. It is thickly redolent with the taste of Sergio Corbucci’s classic Django. Urchins are seen wrestling in the quagmire, and Gustav’s Brotherhood are merely puritanical cousins of the same fanatical white-supremacist gang that coursed around Corbucci’s lawless hell-hole in red KKK-style hoods. It’s a great conceit because it means that we don’t have any good guys to root for. Everybody who is even remotely interesting is a murderer of one sort or another. As an audience we are really left to dangle in the middle of a moral morass, between a rock and a hard place. Again, this is pure Spaghetti. We become the Clint Eastwood character from A Fistful of Dollars set adrift between two warring factions, neither of which we actually want to side with. Or, more accurately, given the religious fervour and symbolism in Hough’s film, Franco Nero or Tomas Milian in their respective Django and Django Kill sagas. The distinction between hero and monster is successfully blurred.
If you want to survive in this environment, Hough seems to be saying, then you have to become a monster of some sort.
Gates had been responsible for the other Karnstein tales of The Vampire Lovers (with Ingrid Pitt) and Lust for a Vampire (with Yutte Stensgard), but had also supplied drafts for snazzy culture-shock classics Danger Diabolik and Barbarella, which secured him some rather hip credentials. He certainly wasn’t afraid of taking a risk and providing titillation. Hough, on the other hand, wasn’t a name that anybody would have associated with Hammer, although he had helmed the rarely seen Sherwood Forest actioner, Wolfshead: The Legend of Robin Hood for the studio in 1969. His dedication and commitment was duly recognised and he was rewarded with Twins, for which his flamboyant verve would be a perfect fit. He would maintain an association with horror and fantasy with the superbly atmospheric Richard Matheson adaptation The Legend of Hell House, the goose-bumpy occult fable The Watcher in the Woods, the wretched Incubus, and even an entry in the endless Howling series. He would also get to steward an episode of the Hammer House of Horror TV series.
Great fun is had with Gustav’s puritan posse of black-garbed riders as they hunt down desperate damsels in Hammer’s beloved Blackwood – the stamping ground of zombies and vampires already. Hough burns lots of ladies and decorates the Count’s castle with eerie ground-mist and flickering, seductive candles. He flings into conflict the various parties – good twin, bad twin, vampire and witch-hunter, devoted aunt and anxious teacher – and stages a vigorous storming of the forbidding fortress in a climactic power-struggle. It’s faith versus fangs, with added flesh and flirting.
And the cast are suitably stoked to provide a fanciful script with some fire and brimstone.
Katya Wyeth makes an alluring impact with an early, and regrettably brief, appearance as the vixen from Hell, herself, Countess Mircalla, revived in the usual way by the gushing blood of a slain human sacrifice. It is great to have the character return and almost nonchalantly cause trouble for another secluded hamlet, but you kind of wonder just where she goes to after putting the bite on the Count. I mean she could have stayed around to keep things in order, to ensure the fortune of her family … but, then again, maybe it is just as nice to imagine her drifting off to another town, like a seductively sinister variation on Bill Bixby’s Dr. David Banner in TV’s The Incredible Hulk or, better yet, a sublimely subversive reversal on Michael Landon’s travelling angel in Highway to Heaven. Either way, she is missed once she vanishes into the ether. She would appear for Hammer again in the disturbing Straight on Till Morning and the intriguing and excellent Hands of the Ripper.
Warbeck is a solid force for good – the voice of the common man finally rising up to do what’s right against a tide of tyranny and sheep-like cowardice. Admittedly, he almost comes a cropper when assaulted by Frieda – a girl - but he ensures that we are convinced by the real danger of the tussle with Anton’s shock and dismay at having been duped by the wrong twin. Who hasn’t imagined such a dilemma, eh? Warbeck found cult acclaim making Italian movies, with things like Lucio Fulci’s grungy classics The Black Cat and The Beyond and the splattery action-adventures The Last Hunter and Hunters of the Golden Cobra for Antonio Margheriti. Although an outwardly gay man he was always cast as the macho, womanising lead – perhaps stemming from his rugged appearance as Robin Hood in Hough’s Wolfshead and then as the valiant Anton in this - the sort of role that paid the bills and brought him cult status but probably caused him some degree of professional and personal dissatisfaction. Warbeck actually gets to sing, and even if his voice isn’t that bad, the moment when he croons out Anton’s self-penned ballad whilst tickling the ivories becomes deliberately awkward and self-conscious.
Speaking of voices, the Collinson twins are dubbed because their heavily accented Maltese vocals didn’t really work out, and Damien Thomas just sounds like his voice has been dubbed … but this isn’t the case. Directed to perform with a Shakespearean bent, the experienced stage actor goes for broke with a beautifully modulated timbre that overplays and elaborates even the simplest of lines. Whilst the girls acquit themselves with some gusto – although there are moments early on when the good twin appears to forget her virtues and displays a more lecherous and vulpine countenance than her more daring sibling – and prove to be quite a mesmerising double-act, Thomas sometimes comes across as the third wheel in a twee TV rom-com love triangle. He doesn’t cut the sinister swathe that Christopher Lee does, but then he isn’t supposed to. He is a just a man who craves taboo pleasures and suddenly finds himself with the powers of a vampire. Unlike Counts Dracula or Mitterhaus (from Vampire Circus) he is not a towering force of demonic might. He doesn’t really abuse his new powers to their fullest capacity and retains, for the most part, the same smarmy, petulant attitude that he had as a mortal. As such, some may regard him as an ineffectual villain but this is almost certainly the point. We need him to be unthreatening and even likeable and sympathetic because that then serves to reinforce our distrust of Cushing’s Bible-bashing bullyboy. We are then caught in the dangerous void of deciding who we would turn to, if push came to shove. I know whose side I would find myself on ... and this, of course, is the ace up Hough’s sleeve. We are torn and wrenched from the path of the straight and narrow simply because of the good guys’ puritan values of quashing potential sex and pleasure.
Unlike Corbucci’s Brotherhood, or Matthew Hopkins’ chosen few, these guys just have a rotten time. There are some critical observers who claim that Gustav and his mob are actually “getting off” on the burning of these snatched “witches”, but I don’t really see that as being the case. Gustav is simply too zealous and blinded by his cause to actually derive any sexual gratification from meting out these purifying punishments … and his men just stand around and contemplate each act of church-sanctioned barbarism with dispassionate indifference. In a way, this lets them off the hook. The film’s symbolism and metaphor would be far more overt, and possibly more entertaining if the pyro-gang were to be seen grinning like goons through the haze of each new conflagration. As it stands, Hough plays it far simpler, and far more black and white.
The star of the show is, of course, Peter Cushing.
The leading light of Hammer Horror had just lost his beloved wife, Helen, and the pain and grief is all too easy to see upon his already gaunt face. Having been compelled to quit two productions prior to this – Countess Dracula and Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb – due her rapidly declining health, it was apparent to Peter’s close friends and associates, after her passing, that if he didn’t find something to occupy his time, and quickly, he would probably give up on life, himself. So his agent practically dragged him into the steamy new production that studio fresh-faces and purveyors of prime exploitation Harry Fine and Michael Style were setting up. On the surface of things, the role of the tyrannical fundamentalist seems like the complete polar-opposite of what audiences expected from the former Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes, but then, over the course of five incarnations of the grave-robbing, monster-creating Baron Frankenstein (at that point, with one more to come afterwards), Cushing had become a pretty effective, and often cruel villain already. In 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed he had even added rape to his list of crimes against nature and humanity. The leap to the frightful Gustav Weil (and it is, appropriately enough, pronounced Vile) was, therefore, not so great after all. This was a man who had, in his own words, struggled be good all his life … but had evidently encountered so much evil and corruption in the world around him that his biggest struggle, now, was simply seeing any good in anybody else. His own life has become consumed with an endless crusade to rid the land of witchcraft and devil worship. Part of a holy order that seems to hold the power of judge, jury and executioner over all but the nobility who, metaphorically and literally, are so far above them that they are untouchable, he rules with a rod of iron and the vindicating doctrine of the Good Book.
Cushing looks cold, old and frightfully enraged for much of the film’s duration, striking a truly glowering presence of barely suppressed fury as he surveys debauchery in the exposed cleavages and the youthful antics all around him, but the gentle man of horror is totally invested in the character of this 19th Century moral guardian. As thin and emaciated as he is, Cushing’s Gustav is not someone to get on the wrong side of. Those eyes, that can seem so soft, lucid and tragic most of the time, are implacable, penetrating and dangerously blinkered with spiteful, venomous intent. His emotionless disregard for the screaming and pleading of his flambéed victims is unsettling, as is his deadly direct contempt for those who dare to defy his word as gospel. Let us not forget that he would have little trouble destroying an entire planet as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars only a handful of years later, so sending a few flower-gathering Wiccans up in smoke is hardly going to cause him any lack of sleep.
But his performance is incredibly strong and is often cited as being one his best, and it is hard to argue with that assertion. After pursuing vampire counts for years as the perfect hero, it is actually a superb turnaround that finds him as something of a villain here. Clearly modelled upon Vincent Price’s equally woman-burning Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General, he is the pious avenger so wrapped-up in trying to do God’s good work that he almost irrevocably forgotten the moralistic demarcation line between right and wrong. It is a touch irresponsible to go riding around the countryside and picking on virtually any unattached woman in the belief that they are Satan’s disciples and solemnly incinerating them without even the pretence of a trial, yet Cushing exhibits no wink at the audience, no tongue-in-cheek put-downs or flippant accusations. He devoutly believes in his dastardly character. And so do we.
But what makes his performance all the more impressive is the final-act attack of conscience that creeps up on him and derails all the values that he has been ferociously clinging to. Again, Cushing makes this emotional catalyst totally credible and you can see and feel the crushing weight of guilt and responsibility that eats away at his frail frame at this devastating turning point. Look at the conflict in his tormented eyes as he realises that his own kin are guilty of infernal atrocity … and look at the stark determination he exudes to carry out terrible justice for the soul of his niece and his moving reverence when simply covering up a body with a cloak. There is nobody else in Hammer’s huge repertory pantheon who could give this conscience-wrought character even an ounce of the pathos that Peter Cushing imbues him with.
Even his voice, which is always something worse listening to, is here, in a rarity, a brittle spark of molten animosity. He barks and simmers and casts out vile remonstrations with the sort of poison that you don’t quite expect from him.
As his oft-ignored angel of conscience, Kathleen Byron (so amazing in Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece of Black Narcissus) is wonderful as Gustav’s long-suffering wife, Katy, a woman of staunchly “enforced” principle, yet bursting with half-hidden humanity. Only to her does his guard begin to crack. But amazingly, she even looks like Peter Cushing, which lends the story another novel twin-twist!
Quite audaciously, this theme of twins of evil is actually misdirection. Only one of the “proper” twins is evil … and the real pairing of atrocity is actually that of Karnstein and Weil. Whilst the Count is more overtly nasty – seeking the Devil via human sacrifice, gleefully becoming a vampire and lustfully terrorising the land – Weil is much more of a killer of the innocent, and his appearance and attitude strikes more fear into the hearts of the populace than Karnstein’s ever could. Both are devoted and unstoppable in their obsessions and, although opposed to one another, have much more in common than they would ever dare believe. They both inspire fear and loyalty in others and both pursue their goals to the detriment of normal life and love.
It may be supposed to be the back-of-Bavarian-beyond, but this little hamlet is not exactly wanting for nubile young women. They’re everywhere! There’s so many of them, in fact, that I reckon we can easily lose a few to the pyre! So, between them, the Count and the witchfinder could pretty much carry on their duel for all eternity.
Although Cushing, Thomas and Warbeck have enough savoir-fair and presence to keep the drama gripping, the frantic climax is often hugely hysterical, and memorable for all the wrong reasons. Having spent acres of dialogue explaining that burning is no good for vanquishing vampires, and that only a trusty stake through the heart and a good old fashioned beheading will properly do the trick, we get the amazingly daft moment when Karnstein boasts to his busty muse, Frieda, that the torch-bearing mob descending upon his castle may “melt their bodies, but we will just find new ones, and new victims,” and then his brutish and mute African servant (played by Roy Stewart, who could also be briefly seen in Hammer’s Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and would play Quarrel in Live and Let Die) signs to him that the Brotherhood are carrying more than just matches. “What, Joachim?” the Count exclaims as the muscleman comically mimes the shape of ‘orrible pointy weapons. “They have swords? And stakes? And axes????” Honestly, it is sheer, unintentional brilliance. It is almost like Hammer’s answer to Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. And then, just to show how angry and exasperated he is at this not entirely unexpected development, he backhands Frieda like it’s all her fault! It’s priceless … in fact, it’s Dennis Priceless! He also runs down a spooky tunnel with one twin in-tow … and then runs back down it again with the other one! The cleverness of the screenplay seems to unravel a bit during the free-for-all … and just get a load of that shot of the enraged villagers and Brothers, who have been held at bay by the snarling Count on the balcony, all shaking their fists at him in collective consternation. “OOOH, you!” they should be shouting.
Now let’s have a look at how Harry Robertson handled the score.
Hammer Films had traditionally been the province of the great James Bernard, whose deeply thunderous and deliriously diabolical music has since becomes as iconic as the image of Christopher Lee with a trickle of blood running down his noble chin, but Robertson had been the maestro for the Karnstein trilogy since the beginning. He may have smuggled in the utterly bizarre ballad “Strange Love” in the previous Lust for a Vampire, but we should hold that against him. In keeping with the new direction and invigorated style of Twins of Evil, Robertson, working with regular Hammer orchestrator and musical arranger Philip Martell, was tasked with providing a fresh and altogether more wide-ranging score than the ubiquitous shrieking strings and jabbing, stabbing brass. And this was exactly how it turned out. Twins has a fabulous score that is rich, powerful and exciting. The essence of the Western is upheld with rousing passages for Gustav and his Brotherhood galloping through the woods on the lookout for sexy kindling, and the supernatural is embodied with evocative, sinuous melodies of swooning intensity. But the most interesting thing about this score is that its strident main theme was nicked almost wholesale for the DC animated show Justice League, for which it also supplies a rousing and heroic main theme. Who’d have thought?
Robertson scored the really rather insipid Countess Dracula too, but he would also supply some terrific suspense and ominous dread for both The Ghoul (which was a huge disappointment) and Legend of the Werewolf (which I actually really like) for Tyburn, and even go on to provide the wacky, cult score the even wackier, less culty Hawk The Slayer, liberally, ahem, borrowing from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds album production.
Also on the film’s favour was some excellent photography from Dick Bush. Having lensed the great and thematically quite similar Blood on Satan’s Claw just before the Twins came knocking, he pretty much knew the visual vernacular to adopt with such a muddy gothic vista, but his compositions are quite striking, and there is some interesting imagery that he helps to create. Whenever we see flames – and in this film that is frequently – or spooky mist, we are on an interior set, and these are certainly impressive. Bush fabricates some wonderful views through stone arches, down cobwebbed tunnels and across silvery, moonlit glens. The production is actually quite high, with Karnstein’s main hall retaining the double-staircase of Dracula’s abode, but also employing a decorative stone pillar just perfect for chaining-up lovely young prisoners. Bush would go on to work with William Friedkin on Sorcerer, John Schlesinger on Yanks and to provide some startling imagery in The Lair of the White Worm for Ken Russell.
This isn’t one of their most savage offerings, but Hammer still hurl the claret around with some accomplishment when the time comes. They’d gleefully lopped heads in Plague of the Zombies and Countess Dracula, and we get a great single-handed decapitation in this. Whoosh! And it’s gone. Plus there is a wicked machete embedded deep into a skull, and a very splashy staking that certainly rams its point home with screen-splattering conviction. But the common misconception about Twins is that it is brimming with nudity. This was always one of a chosen few that would have adolescent boys salivating whenever it appeared in the TV guide for a late-night weekend broadcast, but the truth is that there isn’t much actual nudity in it. We have the blatant and, nowadays, purely comical sight of Mirkalla clasping her hand around a phallic candle and running it up and down as she and Count Karnstein embrace with undying passion, and there are a great many shots of the twins parading around in clingy see-through garments, their hands often straying to certain areas as though prompted by somebody just behind the camera. Breasts are exposed, mostly during the final act, and there is that censor-baiting image of one being bitten, but the shot that caused much of the controversy surrounding the film’s release was when the evil vamparised sister is thwarted in her attack upon Anton with a cross and she falls back on to the bed, her nightdress coming adrift to reveal a very profuse seventies pubic bush. Whereas this was a bonafide delight back in the day, it is possibly apt to cause dismay to some modern red-bloods who may mistake her supernatural form for that of a werewolf. Nevertheless, the inviting tease that is ignited in the eyes of both twins is hard to ignore, and this more than provides enough grounds for loin-strainage. Personally, I think that the Count’s discarded plaything of Luan Peters is the sexiest lady on offer.
Once Hammer entered the seventies they were struggling to compete with harder-edged, more explicit and more sophisticated American horror films. But their determination to stick with tried and trusted gothic fare, more often than not, actually compelled them to come up with more intense, and more morally salacious and psychologically troubling scenarios. To wit, they brought us the wild and imaginative genre-switch-a-rounds ofHands of the Ripper and Doctor Jekyll And Sister Hyde, grisly benchmark of Vampire Circus and the delirious fun of the awesome Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, which was, itself, a considered combination of Spaghetti Western-cum-Samurai-flick and period chiller. Twins of Evil, if anything, seems to fit right in with Vampire Circus, which came to town a year after the Collinson sisters. Both feature large casts with a dreamy, seductive narrative, and seek to blur the moralistic line between good and evil. John Hough’s film isn’t as strong or as weird or as nasty as Circus, but it carries a temptingly sadistic taint that wastes no time in luring you over to the dangerously exotic dark side.
So … what are you waiting for? Come and sink your teeth into Hammer’s twin-delights!
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