200 years ago, a member of the aristocratic Karnstein family was executed for practising witchcraft, cursing the family as she died. Now, relatives are being murdered and Count Karnstein is afraid that his daughter has been possessed by the witch. However, it look more like the work of a vampire…
An impressive skill with European languages led Hammer star Christopher Lee to numerous horror projects on the continent in the 1960s. Here, he plays the worried Count, calling in drippy historian Friedrich Klauss to research the family curse and find the witch’s portrait. The picture will prove once and for all whether his high-strung daughter (Adriana Ambesi) has blood on her hands or not.
Unfortunately, instead of keeping his mind on the job, Klauss becomes romantically interested in Ambesi. It’s not just a bad move because she might be a killer, but because she’s obviously far more interested in stranger Pier Anna Quaglia, who is suddenly dumped on their doorstep by her mother after a coach accident. There’s also naughty goings on in the master bedchamber as Lee is fooling around with his young blonde housekeeper, and, if that’s not enough to be going along with, there’s a sinister beggar, and a servant practising strange rites in the cellar.
Potentially, this is an interesting mix, especially as the story owes a lot to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s literary classic ‘Carmilla’ (1872). That tale reached the screen rather more famously a few years later as ‘The Vampire Lovers’ (1970); one of Hammer studio’s best films. This production isn’t in the same league, however. The main issue is a draggy middle section, and the lack of any sense of style imbued by director Camillo Mastrocinque.
It’s good that Lee is not as peripheral to the drama as in some of his films around the time, but he’s still off-screen too long. He does get to loop his own dialogue though, something that didn’t always happen on similar projects of the period, leading to some disappointing voice work by other actors.
Another plus point is the impressive castle interiors and surrounding landscapes, a common asset of European horror in general. The mystery isn’t without interest as well, and the lingering glances between our pretty young heroines suggests there is rather more going on behind Ambesi’s bedroom door than just a pillow fight and a chat about boys. Klauss just doesn’t get it though, persisting in his lame attempts at asking her out for a curry and a night at the pictures. The hints of lesbian activity are actually quite overt for the time, and perfectly justifiable as one of the pieces of the puzzle that the film presents to the audience. When the resolution arrives, it’s maybe not the best you’ll ever see, but it neatly sidesteps the most predictable outcomes.
Certainly not the best vampire mystery of the time, but a creditable enough effort.