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 Ingrid Pitt as a lesbian bloodsucker in diaphanous gowns; Carline Munro, as a vampire hunter’s gypsy sidekick; Martine Beswick as a seductive Sister Hyde; and one of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s own: Susan Denberg, wrapped in strategically-placed bandages.
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 who came of age in the 1970s and 80s — as rapid fans of the Saturday afternoon movie marathon (and their hosts of horror) — we truly found our fantasies fulfilled in the technicolor flesh (lots of flesh) and blood (lots of blood) that was Hammer. In an age before VCRs and DVDs, the broadcast of a Hammer horror film was appointment television.
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. The virginal Madeline Smith cannot resist the seduction, nor can the governess, played by Kate O’Mara.
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 as Marcilla (Carmilla) 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.
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 Pitt. Yutte Stensgaard. Martine Beswick. Caroline Munro. Veronica 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 — from Veronica Carlson to Ingrid Pitt and so many more.
*** I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. 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.
A photo of her 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.