(Image from Wrong Side of the Art)
If we’re going to maintain our open and honest relationship here, I have to confess that I’m more a Hammer afficianado than an outright fan. Even during their heyday in the mid- to late-‘60s, their budgets were minimal and it showed all over the screen. My favorite of their dubious trademarks included towns located on some strange time-split where it was often and simultaneously daylight on one side and misty night on the other. But where they lacked in money their movies made up for in atmosphere and a sense of otherworldliness. More importantly, they employed a pair of actors who lent gravitas to the proceedings: Peter Cushing and / or Christopher Lee. As long as one or the other appeared in the film, you were guaranteed some level of enjoyment.
For me, Hammer movies seemed to follow a standard beat sheet: Intriguing opening, usually bloody; then came the long middle part where carbon-copy young lovers, usually star-crossed, are introduced, their family feuds established, and perhaps hidden amongst all of this you’ll get a fun set-piece involving fangs or monsters but always cleavage. Finally, an exciting climax and a bloody ending. Since Hammer was competing with larger companies they continually pushed their “blood ‘n boobs” formula as hard as they could against the membrane of censorship also known as the British Board of Film Classification. Long before the board caved to pressure from self-appointed Minister of Decency, Mary Whitehouse, the BBFC during the Hammer years were actually pretty progressive, as far as censoring outfits go. This is largely due to the presence of Secretary of the Board, John Trevelyan, who saw his role in and of the board as men who are “paid to have dirty minds”. From 1958–1971, Trevelyan attempted to work with filmmakers and explain what cuts had to be made prior to a film’s release.
Of course, that’s his point of view. Some filmmakers, naturally, felt that he was the ultimate enemy. Roy Ward Baker, who directed The Vampire Lovers and Scars of Dracula for Hammer, notoriously called Trevelyan a “sinister mean hypocrite”, who played favorites with those he felt were in the “art house crowd” as opposed to commercial film directors. Acording to Baker and echoed by others, Trevelyan “kissed ass” with the bigger names in British Cinema. This relationship was sorely tested by Ken Russell and his still-controversial masterpiece, The Devils. While the two men warred over a sequence dubbed “the Rape of Christ” (a ten-minute scene that has only recently been restored to prints of the movie), John Hough took advantage of the distraction as he readied Twins of Evil for screens.
Twins of Evil is the third film of the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy”—the previous being The Vampire Lovers with Ingrid Pitt and its follow up Lust for a Vampire—all based on J. Sheridan LeFanu’s ode to the sapphic vampiric, Carmilla. Adapted by future rabble-rouser and trade unionist, Tudor Gates, the “Karnstein Trilogy” are perceived by some to be the last “great” films of the Hammer era, before their slide into utter poverty, and are notable for daring depictions of lesbianism, a theme that had gotten ten minutes chopped from “art house” film, The Killing of Sister George, in 1968.
As a trilogy, the “Karnstein” storyline doesn’t really work, having no real continuity to speak of, except for the name of the evil family and their matron, Mircalla (aka Carmilla). The first film of the series, The Vampire Lovers, set film-goers all a-twitter with its boundary-leaping scenes of blood and nudity and girl-vampire on girl-vampire action. The next two installments were toned down for British sensibilities.
While tamer than its predecessors, Hough’s Twins of Evil exploits some of this newfound exploitative freedom by casting Playboy’s first twin playmates, Mary and Madeleine Collinson, as the titular characters (no puns, please, we’re British). Maria and Frieda Gellhorn arrive in Karnstein from Venice, two years after their parents died. They show up at their Aunt Katy’s house in green, instead of the customary black-for-the-rest-of-your-lives. This enrages puritanical Uncle Gustav Weill (Cushing). “What kind of plumage is this? Birds of paradise?” But don’t be too hard on Uncle Gustav, he and The Brotherhood have been busy burning witches all night, doing God’s work. And by “witches”, these Bible-weilding psychopaths mean “unmarried women”, “women walking alone on a road”, “old crones”, anyone who has ever thought about having sex—you know, witches. In fact, the title sequence portrays one of these boys-being-boys bonfires after dragging a teenage girl forcibly from her home, lashing her cruxifix-style to a tree and then setting her on fire. And she screams and screams as the “devils” flee from her “purified” body. In the back, Pat Buchannan nods approvingly.
Within seconds of arriving, the more-willful Frieda is ready to skip town as soon as she can find someone appropriately handsome and dangerous. One of Gustav’s primary adversaries is Count Karnstein himself (played by Damian Thomas, best-known as the baboon prince Kassim in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), a decadent lover, vague ruler and admitted Satanist who takes great delight in humiliating Gustav and his puritanical ways. Which, this early in the film, is a point in his favor since thus far Gustav has failed to win the hearts of the minds of the viewer.
But then we are whisked away to Castle Karnstein where the Count is being bored out of his mind during an actual Satanic pageant. Once he angrily dismisses the players, he finishes the sacred “stab the naked girl” ritual himself, evokes Satan but winds up with Mircalla instead. She makes him into a vampire (in a nifty shot in which she stands behind Karnstein but he alone is reflected in the mirror, and he watches himself fade away as he turns fangy).
Before long, Karnstein is out to find something of Gustav’s to corrupt and sets his sights on Frieda. Frieda is loved and admired by schoolmaster Anton (David Warbeck of Fulci’s The Beyond)—literally, he can only see her, the rest is vaseline on the lens—when he really should be attracted to the more-demure Maria because… well, hell, she looks just like Frieda but she isn’t a bitch. Besides, as everyone—everyone—points out, the two sisters simply cannot be told apart. Frieda exploits this by sneaking about at night and making Maria pretend to be her, so that Maria gets beaten twice (it’s implied by not only Gustav but every patriarchal figure they’ve ever encountered). Strangely, Maria can sense when Frieda is hurt, but either Frieda can’t feel Maria or just doesn’t give a damn.
As typical of Hammer, no one heeds the vampire warnings (even though, apparently, there’s already one running around long before the Count is turned during sex with his dead relative), more busty girls are either bitten or are flame-broiled by Gustav, and Frieda tramps around with Karnstein until she, too, is a mistress of the night. Her first task is to bite into the plump breast of Luan Peters (aka singer Karol Keyes) before the camera quickly cuts to anything else lest Trevelan wield his scissors.
If you’ve seen a Hammer film—any of them—you know what’s going to happen. But Hough and Gates pull some nifty turns along the way. When Gustav catches neice Frieda feasting on one of the Brotherhood, he has her locked up so that he can make sure the rest of the family is safe, planning on burning her later. Sorry, purifying her later. But Karnstein manages to switch Maria for Frieda and soon it’s the nice slutty twin that’s heading to the stake and Hough plays this sequence to the hilt of suspense.
The second twist is far more subtle and involves Gustav’s character, which more than proves Cushing’s a master thespian. After he almost turns the incorrect neice into jerk chicken, Gustav’s faith in his own crusade gets shattered. This is never discussed openly, but you can watch it work on Cushing’s face. Used to the seat of power, when Anton presents Maria with a crucifix and she kisses—rather than sizzling beneath it like Fried did—Gustav is visibly shaken. While he never says it, it’s clear he’s wondering how many other innocent women have been put to death under his pious wrath. We see a glimpse of his regret just as he’s about to put the torch to Maria, refusing to pass it to his second in command—this isn’t some random wench to be roasted for fun and, you know, “God’s will”; this is his neice, who he swore to protect. The realization that he could very well have killed his own flesh and blood in the same manner as he had “purified” so many others chills him.
After this sequence, Gustav still leads the Brotherhood but defers to Anton. “You’re sure a stake to the heart will release [Frieda]? That her pure spirit will be saved?” For the first time in the film, we see all his noxious, prideful bull-puckey summed up in a question. Maybe the others in The Brotherhood were just out for a rolicking witch-burning, but Gustav honestly—honestly—believed he was saving the innocent souls of the wicked. Without the subtlety of Cushing’s performance revealing the man beneath the zealot, Gustav could have remained a villainous figure for the rest of the picture.
While Count Karnstein is really the villain of the piece—with his fangs, his coiffure and cape—but more than anything, he’s just kind of a dick. He spends the climax in a vault, shoving out or dragging in one sister after another and locking the door again, taking few steps to take the upper hand. Gustav, for all his evangelical lunacy, was a man of action and principals. Yes, he shared Karnstein’s arrogance, but he wasn’t out burning witches every night because he was bored.
It’s this last-act transformation that allows Twins of Evil to rise above its formula. It’s not the first time Cushing has helped this elevation; each of his turns as Baron Frankeinstein in the Hammer series shows a different man beneath the madness. But beyond the sex, blood, atmosphere and pretty photography, Twins of Evil gives the viewer something to think about, namely: think long and hard before you’re convinced of your own righteous.