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Vampires & Victims: Women of Hammer Horror

Twins
Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson in Twins of Evil (1971)

I grew up with the women of Hammer Studios — vampires, victims… even Victor Frankenstein’s first successful female monster. 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 titillating 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; Caroline Munro, as a vampire hunter’s gypsy sidekick; Martine Beswick as a seductive Sister Hyde; Susan Denberg, an alluring creature wrapped in strategically-placed bandages; and Ursula Andress, who is simply “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.”

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. For those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 80s (and were rabid fans of the Saturday afternoon movie marathon and their hosts of horror), we found our fantasies fulfilled in the technicolor flesh (lots of flesh) and blood (lots of blood) that was Hammer. In an age before VCRs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and now, streaming, the broadcast of a Hammer horror film was appointment television.

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. Perhaps indicative of the revolution in attitudes toward women at that time, Hammer’s women of the late sixties and 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 and Marie Devereux 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, the female lead, is otherwise powerless to do anything in the presence of the oddly blue-eyed, blonde-haired vampire. Still, this is quite romantic compared to the degradation, humiliation, and rape of Yvonne Romain as the mute jailor’s daughter in Curse of the Werewolf (1961).

Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith
Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith in The Vampire Lovers (1970)

A decade later, in 1970’s Vampire Lovers — an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” — Hammer places its first leading female vampire 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. And there to set the trap is Dawn Addams, the mysterious Countess who insinuates her daughter into two unsuspecting families’ lives (sure, there is the man in black on horseback in the shadows, but notice how only the women speak!).

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

Of course, bloodlust is not confined to vampires. Susan Denberg 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, who else?, 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 (1971). Martine Beswick, stronger as Sister Hyde than her male counterpart, the doctor, could ever hope to be.  Valerie Leon, fighting, then embracing, then fighting again, possession by a malevolent Egyptian lifeforce in the underrated and often overlooked Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971).

These were strong women. Strong in the sense that some were dangerous, yes. But even those presented as mere victims often seemed capable of fighting back.

There was Caroline Munro as a wild gypsy in Captain Kronos (1974) helping to hunt vampires.  Dracula , Prince of Darkness (1966) finds the Count sinking to a (running) watery grave courtesy of Susan Farmer firing the first shot into the ice as Father Shandor stands idly by. Then there’s perennial victim Veronica Carlson. A mere object of desire in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), she at least manages to stab Frankenstein’s monster one year later before being killed off by (you guessed it) Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969).

These women weren’t the empty-headed, defenseless and promiscuous teens of the many slasher films so popular a decade later. With the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in Halloween (1978), it would appear that the late seventies and early eighties were a step backward for feminism in horror. But Hammer? Hammer’s women seemed empowered. At least to impressionable me. Sure, these were the sixties and early seventies. Many of Hammer’s heroines were women in distress — victims in need of saving — and the antithesis of the woman fighting for equal rights of the time. But they were no shrinking violets either. Credit the actresses for bringing more to their roles than may have been written on the page. As much as they were flesh and blood for sake of exploitation, they were flesh and blood for sake of characterization, too.

Be they vampires, victims or Victor Frankenstein’s most ambitious creation — Hammer’s actresses were unlike any other women in the history of genre film.

Veronica Carlson
Veronica Carlson

“Cheesecake” photos from the age of what has since been called “Hammer Glamour” (coined perhaps by Marcus Hearn in his book 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 photos 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 opened a world to me. 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, a book that pays tribute to each of the women mentioned here — from Veronica Carlson to Ingrid Pitt and so many more. Barbara Shelley. Madeline Smith. Too many to mention! Collectors might also want to track down the September, 2000 issue of Femme Fatales Magazine as it is a double issue dedicated to the “50 Sexiest Figures of Hammer Films.”

Meeting Ingrid Pitt in 2004
Meeting Ingrid Pitt in 2004

*** I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Pitt while promoting my book in the summer of 2004. She was one of the nicest women I’ve ever met. A real class act. She told me I was sweet when I confided in her that watching Vampire Lovers was a seminal moment in my reaching puberty. One of my favorite films made by Hammer, it is the subject of a great article by John J Johnston which I highly recommend [this note was added in 2020, the films’s 50th anniversary]). It is arguably Pitt’s finest performance (among a small but impressive list of films that, in addition to Vampire Lovers, include Where Eagles Dare, , Countess Dracula, The Wicker Man, and The House that Dripped Blood).

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

Genius, Gin and Glucose: The Death of E.A. Poe

A fictionalized account of the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, James McTeigue’s 2012 thriller The Raven finds Poe (John Cusack)  in pursuit of a killer who is inspired by the author’s own tales of terror. Certainly, McTeigue takes liberties with the facts of the poet’s life (and death), but as fantastical as the film’s premise may be, the real circumstances surrounding his final few days are even more intriguing and — as would be expected from him — bizarre. Exactly how did Edgar Allan Poe die?

“Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, 1848

Heartbroken following the death of his wife, Virginia, Poe was physically transformed after 1847. His health was clearly in marked decline following her passing; one need only compare Poe’s life portraits to see the dramatic change in countenance. When the six daguerreotypes taken during the last eighteen months of his life are viewed in sequence following all other known life portraits of Poe, the rapid decline is startling. The almost unrecognizable robust man in his early thirties becomes haggard and wan by age forty.

Could the physical characteristics apparent in just these eleven known life portraits shed some light on the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe?

The most famous image, the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of November 1848 (taken four days after a suicide attempt), shows a man beleaguered and beaten. We are familiar with the haunting eyes and solemn expression. But a closer examination of the face reveals three distinct features not seen in earlier images of Poe: 1) baggy eyelids; 2) a drooping of the left side of the face; and 3) possible temporal arteritis, a condition in some men over 40 that can lead to headache, malaise, fever, weight loss and visual disturbances. The basis of the disorder is an inflammation of the lining of the temporal artery (in the scalp over the temple).

Its causes are many, but among them are two of the more plausible causes of Poe’s death put forward over the last couple of decades: diabetes (argued by David Sinclair, a Poe biographer, in 1977) and brain tumor (most recently put forth by Matthew Pearl, conducting research for his novel The Poe Shadow); this theory of a  tumor / possible brain cancer is based upon 1) a contemporary physician who concluded that he had “lesions on the brain”; and 2) eye-witness evidence of calcification of the brain following an exhumation of the body 26 years after his death).

Despite popular opinion — now and at the time of his death — Poe almost certainly didn’t die directly from alcohol poisoning; re-enforced by continued character assassination by both his own publishers and the many detractors who found Poe, the critic, less than kind with his reviews, that image has stuck. His contemporaries, however, while admitting that the man drank, did not find Poe to be someone who drank to excess. Yet consumption of even the smallest amount of alcohol resulted in apparent stupor and confusion. And in the weeks preceding his death, Poe had  joined a temperance movement.

This is not to say that Poe did not have his problems with alcohol.

In a letter to George Evelth, a medical student who wrote a fan letter to the poet in 1845, initiating a correspondence, Poe writes

“…I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” (January 4, 1848)

Later, the next month, on the wagon, Poe tells Evelth that

“I rise early, eat moderately, drink nothing but water, and take regular and abundant exercise in the open air.” (February 19, 1848)

This period of health was not to last, however; a year and a half later, writing to Maria Clemm, his mother-in-law, Poe says

“For more than ten days I was totally deranged, although I was not drinking one drop; and during this interval, I imagined the most horrible calamities. All was hallucination, arising from an attack which I had never before experienced — an attack of mania-a-potu.” (July 19, 1849)

A violent alcohol intoxication without having had a drop? Poe was no doctor; he used the language he could to express his condition.  But clearly, barely three months before his death, some other malady was at play.

Earlier that year, in writing to Annie Richmond, a close friend, Poe writes that he

“…had a most distressing headache for the last two weeks.” (January 21, 1849)

Could the headaches and hallucinations have a common cause?

Certainly, a brain tumor could be responsible for these, and other symptoms. And while I won’t dispute the possibility of such a thing, a brain tumor would not explain years of sensitivity to alcohol nor would it normally result in the weight loss in his thirties then sudden weight gain evident in the daguerreotypes taken in Poe’s latter years. Excess cortisol in the blood, a result of stress (of which Poe had more than his share) can occur in both situations, but diabetes can certainly explain the sensitivity to alcohol throughout his life.

At the University of Virginia, for example, as early as 1826, Poe (as most young people do when away at college) may have overindulged. But curiously, one contemporary classmate, Thomas Goode Tucker, recalled that Poe

“. . . would seize a full glass, without water or sugar, and send it home at a single gulp. This frequently used him up; but if not, he rarely returned to the charge” (Letter from Tucker to Douglas Sherly, April 5, 1880)

A lightweight, so to speak, Poe’s intolerance for alcohol may have been rooted in his blood sugar. Untreated, diabetes could, over time, progress to nephrotic syndrome and damage to the kidneys, resulting in acute confusion from hypoglycemia — or even contribute to and/or trigger severe depression. In the November 22, 2010 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, one study showed that psychiatric disorders can be a risk factor for, as well as a complication of, type 2 diabetes. Perhaps his melancholy contributed to developing the disease.

Few who read the man’s poems, fiction and letters would be surprised to find Poe suffered from depression. The death of his young bride Virginia two years before his own could definitely bring on stress that would lead any man to drink; but in Poe’s case, the stress may have aggravated by pre-existing medical conditions that ultimately lead to his mysterious last few days: missing in the streets of Baltimore, disoriented, and found in clothes not his known (mostly likely due to the practice of “cooping”, whereby unwilling participants, some mentally ill, some drunk and most vagrants, were forced to repeatedly vote, often after a change of clothes).

So many factors may have contributed to Poe’s death that an accurate differential diagnosis — based purely on letters, a few (questionable) eyewitness testimonies, and some physical evidence that may or may not be apparent in a few photographs — may forever be impossible. Comorbidity of a number of health problems is more likely than any single smoking gun (metaphorically speaking, as there are many a theory as to Poe being murdered!).

In the end, whatever his afflictions, the popular image of Poe as little more than tortured soul, hopeless romantic, and terminal drunk  is ever more confounding. He deserves more than caricature. His life was hard. His enemies were many.

One such detractor, writing in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1846, took a jab in a mock poem that questioned whether Poe’s so-called talent —a talent finally being recognized widely with the publication of “The Raven” the year before — was “excessive genius or excessive gin!”

I would argue it was all that and more. Excessive genius? To be sure. Excessive gin? Possibly. A touch. One drink would clearly intoxicate him. And to this, I add glucose. “Constitutionally sensitive,” Poe suffered from some medical condition — arguably type 2 diabetes — that, to the medical profession of his time, all but meant a death sentence.

Sad, then, that all that Poe may have needed in the hours before his death may have been a simple glass of fruit juice.

LIFE PORTRAITS OF POE (IN ORDER): 1842-1849

Look for yourself at the images of Poe made during his lifetime. See the dramatic changes in his appearance (and his apparent health) in the photographs linked below; they are presented in chronological order.

Note that where necessary, daguerreotypes have been “corrected” laterally. Daguerreotypes show laterally-reversed (or “flopped”) images. Everything in a daguerreotype was flipped: left was right and right was left. I have horizontally flipped images where necessary to show Poe’s face properly so that signs of age, stress and possible diabetes are oriented correctly — as if you were looking at the man.

For a complete visual study of the author in art and photography, see Michael Deas’ Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allen Poe (1989), presented online by the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore.

For the Letters of Edgar Allen Poe, courtesy of the Internet Archive, click here » »

UPDATE: as of January 1, 2022, “Genius, Gin and Glucose” has logged 25,000 unique pageviews. By far, it’s the most read piece of anything I’ve ever written. Thanks to all of the Edgar Allan Poe enthusiasts out there!