Vampires, Victims and Victor’s: The Women of Hammer Horror

Twins of Evil (1971)
Twins of Evil (1971)

I grew up with the women of Hammer Studios — vampires, victims, and Victor Frankenstein’s first successful female monster among them. For a boy who spent much of the late seventies and early eighties glued to Saturday afternoon horror movie marathons, my first real exposure to buxom blondes, brazen brunettes and titalating twins came not in the form of Hollywood starlets or Playboy magazines*; instead, my dream girls were lesbian bloodsuckers in diaphanous gowns, a vampire hunter’s leather-clad gypsy sidekick, and a seductive Sister Hyde.

Before the age of ubiquitous internet porn, and unedited premium cable, there were few avenues for the adolescent male to use as the stuff of fantasy. Enter the fantastical. For the sci-fi fans, there was Barbarella (1968) — oft cited by Howard Stern who, at 14 remembers watching the film, uncomfortably, with his father. But for those of us  weaned on Universal monsters of the 30s and 40s, we found our fantasies fulfilled in the technicolor flesh (lots of flesh) and blood (lots of blood) that was Hammer. Such an impact had these films that they were still jumpstarting the libidos of boys my age over a decade after many of the movies were made.

Martine Beswick as Sister Hyde (1971)
Martine Beswick as Sister Hyde discovers her feminine side (1971)

I’ve written about the finest films of Hammer studios before, but never have I looked inward to find the young man that first really became aware of the opposite sex by watching Ingrid Pitt rise from a tub (Vampire Lovers, 1970), or Martine Beswick gaze into the mirror at her exposed female form (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, 1971). And when I try to picture that boy attempting to make sense of what he was seeing as his body and mind matured, I have to laugh: what a strange way to first really become aware of the opposite sex?

These women were a bit intimidating. Though products of their time — models and actresses often known for their racy pics in British tabloids of the day — the characters that many of them played were surprisingly empowered by late 60s / early 70s standards. Perhaps indicative of the revolution in attitudes toward women at that time, Hammer’s women of the early seventies were much different than those of the decade earlier. Just ten years before the sexually-charged Vampire Lovers, 1960’s Brides of Dracula presented women as one-dimensional, all-too-typical victims. Actresses like the delightful Yvonne Monlaur were mere fodder for the fangs of Baron Meinster; it takes the all-too-familiar interventions of the hero, Peter Cushing’s Doctor Van Helsing, to save the heroine and the day. Monlaur is otherwise powerless to do anything in the presence of the oddly blue-eyed, blonde-haired vampire.

A decade later, in Vampire Lovers, Hammer places its first leading female vampire — in an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla  — in a position of power. Sure, she too is dispatched by Peter Cushing (feminism hadn’t yet come THAT far), but Ingrid Pitt is able to play an imposing figure that is not only sexual, but dangerous.

Susan Denberg in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Susan Denberg and Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

Susan Denberg, too, is given plenty of screen time in 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman to wreak havoc. She kills those responsible for injustices inflicted upon Hans, the man whose soul now inhabits her body — courtesy of Victor Frankenstein (again, played by Peter Cushing!). Sure, it’s a man’s spirit in a woman’s body — suggesting that only a man could have the murderous inclination necessary to seek revenge — but the message is nonetheless clear: death can come from a beautiful woman.  Ingrid Pitt with fangs bared in Vampire Lovers. Yutte Stensgaard covered in a victim’s blood in Lust for a Vampire. Martine Beswick, stronger as Sister Hyde than her male counterpart, the doctor, could ever hope to be. These were strong women.

Even the victims could be considered strong women; they weren’t the empty-headed, defenseless and promiscuous teens of the many slasher films so popular a decade later. It would appear that the eighties were a step backward for feminism in horror. But Hammer? Hammer’s women seemed empowered. At least to impressionable me.

There was Caroline Munro as a wild gypsy in Captain Kronos helping to hunt vampires.  Dracula , Prince of Darkness finds the Count sinking to a (running) watery grave courtesy of Susan Farmer firing the first shot into the ice. Then there’s perennial victim Veronica Carlson — who at least manages to stab the monster before being killed off by (you guessed it) Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. Hammer’s actresses were more than just eye candy.

Veronica Carlson
Veronica Carlson

And yet “cheesecake” photos from the age of what has since been called “Hammer Glamour” (coined perhaps by Marcus Hearn in his book (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Hammer-Glamour-Classic-Images-Archive/dp/1848562292) of the same name**) abound. They are coveted by collectors today. eBay is loaded with them. Ingrid PittYutte StensgaardMartine BeswickCaroline MunroVeronica Carlson. Many of these women have long since passed away. But through the magic of film, they are young forever — like the undead creatures many of them played, Their autographs on 8x10s are cherished keepsakes. Even the briefest meetings with just one of them at a convention is a treasured memory.***

These are the women — and the films — that woke me to the complexities of sexuality. A place where both desire and fear dwell. A place for fantasies, to be sure, but a place of mystery, too. How strange, erotic, and even a tad ironic that they be cloaked in the stuff of nightmares.

 

* Yes, the Collinson twins were Playboy Playmates of the Month in October, 1970, but in my defense, I was barely a year old and not yet aware of such a pair(ing).

** Be sure to pick up Marcus Hearns’ Hammer Glamour (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Hammer-Glamour-Classic-Images-Archive/dp/1848562292), a book that pays tribute to each of the women mentioned here — and so many more.

Ingrid Pitt 1937-2010

*** I had the pleasure of meeting actress Ingrid Pitt while promoting my book (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Little-Knives-Twelve-Horror-Supernatural/dp/0595319653/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1350808433&sr=1-1&keywords=little+knives) in the summer of 2004.

Meeting Ingrid Pitt in 2004
Meeting Ingrid Pitt in 2004

She was one of the nicest women I’ve ever met. A real class act. Told me I was sweet when I confided in her that watching Vampire Lovers was a seminal moment in my reaching puberty.

Her photo graces the feature section of this blog post. She passed away in 2010.

Please keep her memory alive by watching Where Eagles Dare, Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula, and The House that Dripped Blood.

Paperwork for the Devil

Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885
William Gladstone as Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885

From Faust to Robert Johnson, fictional and historical figures alike have been mythologized for making pacts with the devil. Beelzebub. Lucifer. Old Scratch. Satan. The Devil is a decidedly Christian being that, while having demonic precursors outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is pretty much a product of the Old and New Testaments. Sure, the Babylonians had many malevolent demons. The Egyptians had their dark gods. Zoroastrianism even had a nasty spirit named Angra Mainyu. But it’s in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, that Satan really takes shape — first as heaven’s prosecutor of sorts. Later, in the Synoptic Gospels,  Satan comes into his own as both the great red dragon of Revelation, and the evil being that tempts Christ in the desert. And it’s his role as tempter of Christ that leads to a depiction of the Devil as one who can fulfill desires — for a price. Much like a genie (or djinn), the Devil can deliver on all things worldly.

Even make contractual agreements.

Theophilus of Adana, a 6th century cleric, may be the first documented story of a someone who makes a pact of this type. The archdeacon of Adana, part of modern day Turkey, Theophilus is said to have, out of humility, turned down a promotion to bishop. But when the bishop elected in his stead deprives Theophilus of his position as archdeacon, the poor priest comes to regret his decision, and seeks out a magician to help him contact Satan. In exchange for his help, Satan demands that Theophilus renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract sealed with the cleric’s own blood. Theophilus agrees, and is made bishop.

Fearing, however, that he has put his immortal soul in jeopardy, Theophilus repents, fasts, and implores the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf with God. Satan eventually relents, and Theophilus wakes to find the contract on his chest. He shows the contract to the legitimate bishop, who then forgives poor bastard and burns the document. Out of sheer relief, Theophilus dies and, presumably, goes to heaven. Oh, and he’s made a saint — which gives hope to everyone who’s considering selling their soul.

The tale is attributed to an eighth century scribe, Paulus Diaconus of Naples. From a modern Latin translation comes the details of the pact itself: “Let him deny the son of Mary and those things which are offensive to me,” says the Devil, “and let him set down in writing that he denieth absolutely, and whatsoever he may desire he shall obtain from me, so long as he denieth.” And so it would seem that we have the first instance of such a pact, and the importance of the written contract.

That element of such a pact — as a written contract — is repeated again and again in the centuries to come. It would eventually finds its way into literature — most notably, first in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (https://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/779/779-h/779-h NULL.htm) (1592). And from the 16th to the 18th century, countless witches would be tried and executed over the accusation of such agreements.

Urbain Grandier's Pact with the Devil
Urbain Grandier’s Pact with the Devil from Dictionnaire infernal ou bibliothèque universelle, 1826

The case of the 17th century French Catholic priest Urbain Grandier is perhaps the most infamous of these trials (and the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Devils of Loudun); what unique about Granier, however, is that an actual printed document was presented at his trial in 1634. Said to be penned by all manner of demons and the Devil himself, it is a mishmash of reversed Latin and many occult symbols. In it, Grandier is promised “the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers.” He’s only given 20 years before his soul is forfeit, but it would seem the Devil got his due much earlier as Grandier was tortured and subsequently burned at the stake. With phrases like “He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him,” the contract is quite detailed in its promises.

But a simpler tale of a deal with the Devil may be actually be found in a fairy tale commonly referred to as “The Smith and the Devil.” In it, a blacksmith trades his soul for supernatural powers, and then uses this power to trap the demon with whom he made the deal. So straightforward a story, it was collected by the Brothers Grimm in their two volume (1812 and 1815) Children’s and Household Tales (though it was removed from most later editions).

Like most folktales, the origins of the story are murky. It was readily believed to be European in origin or possibly Russian. That is, until very recently when folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamie Tehrani argued that “The Smith and the Devil” may in fact be one of the oldest known folk tales on the planet, and was told from India to Scandanavia. In their 2016 study “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales (http://rsos NULL.royalsocietypublishing NULL.org/content/3/1/150645#F4),” the authors present evidence that the basic plot of the tale is found across the Indo-European speaking world dating back over 6,000 years, to the Bronze Age.

But a signed contract? With the story of Theophilus not being readily told until the 11th to 13th centuries, it seems that the Devil requiring a physical contract is a relatively recent development, historically speaking.

All in all, I suppose it’s better to get it in writing.