Hammer Horror Series: Twins of Evil (1971)
by Steve Habrat
By the late 60s and early 70s, Hammer Films was beginning to loose some of the popularity that the studio once enjoyed. They started trying to compete with the wave of exploitation horror that was beginning to emerge, which led to the studio cranking up the sleaziness in their pictures. In 1971, one of Hammer’s final triumphs would be director John Hough’s Twins of Evil, the third installment in the Karnstein Trilogy, which also featured 1970’s The Vampire Lovers and 1971’s Lust for a Vampire. Steamy, seedy, extravagant, and violent, Twins of Evil is a hugely entertaining horror film that retains Hammer’s gothic visual style while upping the amount of sex, nudity, and graphic violence for a crowd craving some exploitation insanity. Starring an aging yet wickedly sharp Peter Cushing and the beautiful former Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson (who also happened to be real life twins), Twins of Evil is a thrilling combination of the vampire film, satanic horror film, and witch-hunt thriller, all expertly balanced by screenwriter Tudor Gates. It’s also extremely atmospheric and loaded with Hammer’s beloved castles, heavy fog, crucifixes, tangled woods, and rotting cemeteries.
Twins of Evil introduces us to innocent Maria (played by Mary Collinson) and rebellious Frieda (played by Madeleine Collinson), two identical twins who have traveled to the town of Karenstein to live with their uncle, Gustav Weil (played by Peter Cushing). As it turns out, Weil is the leader of a local witch-hunting group called the Brotherhood, who tracks down young girls who have been accused of witchcraft and burns them at the stake. As the twins settle in to their new home, they happen to hear about a wealthy local by the name of Count Karnstein (played by Damien Thomas), who is well known for practicing the dark arts and coming from a family of Satanists. One evening, Count Karnstein plays host to a satanic cult, and through a barbaric ritual, they happen to contact the spirit of Countess Mircalla (played by Katya Wyeth), who proceeds to turn Karnstein into a vampire. The next day, Karnstein is travelling through town when he bumps into Frieda, who has become smitten with Karnstein’s evil reputation. That evening, Frieda accepts an invitation to Karnstein’s castle, where she gets turned into a vampire and tortures a young girl with Karnstein. After Frieda attacks a member of the Brotherhood, Weil captures his niece and is forced to lock her up until he can decide her fate. His plans change when a local schoolteacher by the name of Anton Hoffer (played by David Warbeck) approaches him about the possibility of vampirism running rampant through the town.
Easily ranking as one of the most fun horror films that Hammer Films ever released, Twins of Evil is an exotic breed of vampire film. The first half is a witch-hunting horror film ripe with hair-raising scenes of Cushing’s Weil ruthlessly running down young girls, tying them to a stake, and burning them to a crisp. Though the film has a heavy B-movie vibe, Hough doesn’t hold back exploring the senseless brutality of these witch-hunts. After finding a man dying in a foggy graveyard from a vampire bite, Weil and his Brotherhood attack the first girl they spot wandering through the woods and drag her off to face a cleansing fire. It really makes for some alarming glimpses of religious extremity at its absolute worst. For a stretch, Hough lays off some of the witch hunting in favor of a satanic horror film set to growling organs, hooded high priests, human sacrifice, and a cry for Satan that would make the climax of Rosemary’s Baby blush. Hough uses the satanic pit stop to glide straight into vampire mayhem that is simultaneously bloody and sexy. The true strength of the film is the way it seems to be able to switch subgenres on us in the blink of an eye.
Performance wise, the actors and actresses seem to have been encouraged to have as much fun with the material as humanly (or inhumanly) possible. Cushing is at his absolutely cheesiest (that is meant as a compliment) as the perpetually serious Weil, an antihero willing to burn an innocent victim at the stake just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ll loathe him at first, but as the film progresses, you’ll be forced to admire the way he sticks to his beliefs. As far as the Collinson twins are concerned, they actually prove to be a pair of competent actresses for a pair of Playboy Playmates. The standout of the two would be Madeleine as the wicked Frieda, who enjoys flirting with the dark side. Hough seems pressured into showing off their bodies for the camera, something that I’m sure Hammer insisted on considering they have Playboy Playmates in the main roles, but the Collinsons don’t seem to mind too much. Damien Thomas gives a vile turn as the satanic Count Karnstein, who grins and snarls through a pair of vampire fangs and shrugs his shoulders in boredom over a satanic ritual that fails to impress him. He can pull off seductive, creepy, and charismatic like a real professional. David Warbeck also holds his own as the kindly schoolteacher Anton, who basically becomes the true hero of Twins of Evil.
While Hammer’s earlier horror films were stone-faced and relentlessly somber, Twins of Evil seems to have a sense of humor about itself. The soundtrack—while exceptional—is wildly over the top, resembling something you might have heard in an Italian spaghetti western. Its all mighty trumpets and ominous organs blasted for maximum effect. Visually, Hough sticks to Hammer’s gothic calling card, but at times he seems to be really laying it on thick, especially in the early scenes when stuffs a gigantic crucifix into a handful of shots. Then there are the overdramatics and the not-so-subtle symbolism that chew on the screen. Cushing screams and shakes his fists at the sky while yelling, “God has sent me TWINS OF EVIL!!,” and during a steamy make-out scene, one character suggestive strokes a nearby melting candle. These winking moments could have been a bit distracting, but Hough has a way of making them strangely charming. Overall, while it certainly drives a stake right through the heart of subtlety and its strongly self-aware, Twins of Evil is still a scrappy little horror movie with plenty of blood, sex, and nudity to go around. It’s a smooth blend of multiple subgenres that all compliment each other quite well in the end. Twins of Evil ranks as one of Hammer’s strongest films in their horror vault.
Twins of Evil is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Beyond (1981)
by Steve Habrat
Italian director Lucio Fulci (the “Godfather of Gore”) is the man responsible for some of the most extreme horror films released in the late 70s into the mid 80s. Probably best known for his 1979 grindhouse gross-out Zombie, Fulci is also celebrated, at least by horror buffs, for his unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy. Beginning with 1980’s City of the Living Dead and ending with 1981’s The House by the Cemetery, the series peaked with The Beyond, the second film in the zombie-filled trilogy. Loved by both horror fans and exploitation gurus (Quentin Tarantino has said he is a fan and his Rolling Thunder Pictures even re-released the film into theaters a few years back), The Beyond is a surreal zombie nightmare that boasts a number of striking images combined with the director’s trademark carnage that every horror fan has come to expect when watching one of his films. It really doesn’t take the viewer long to understand why the film has earned the cult following that it has, especially when Fulci starts out by diving head first into a nasty sepia-colored crucifixion. Looking at The Beyond today, the effects are dated, the dubbing horrendous, and the acting about as over-the-top as you can get, but Fulci still manages to craft a fairly solid horror film that surprisingly gouges its way under your skin (that is, when you’re not chuckling at it).
The Beyond begins in 1927 Louisiana, with an angry mob storming the Seven Gates Hotel and brutally killing an artist named Schweick (Played by Antoine Saint-John). The mob believes that Schweick is a warlock, but little do they know that when they spill his blood, they will unknowingly open a gateway to Hell, which happens to be nestled underneath the Seven Gates Hotel. When this gateway is opened, it allows the dead to enter the realm of the living. Several decades later, a young woman by the name of Liza (Played by Catriona MacColl) has inherited the dilapidated Seven Gates Hotel and is planning on re-opening it once renovations are finished. As the renovations continue, strange apparitions spook the workers and some are seriously injured in freak accidents. To make things worse on Liza, the hotel comes with two suspicious servants, Martha (Played by Veronica Lazar) and Arthur (Played by Giampaolo Saccarola), who are constantly snooping around Liza’s room. When a plumber is brutally murdered and a rotten corpse turns up in the basement of the hotel, Liza teams up with Dr. John McCabe (Played by David Warbeck) to get to the bottom of the bizarre events. Their search leads them to Emily (Played by Sarah Keller), a mysterious blind woman who warns Liza about the hotel’s gruesome history and the dead who roam the basement.
In typical Fulci fashion, the plotline of The Beyond is an absolute mess, but you’re not really here for a satisfying story. No, if you’re stepping into Fulci’s world, you are there for the stomach churning gore, which usually revolves around the eyes (Fulci had a thing with the eyes). The Beyond is more than eager to deliver the violence we have all come expect from the “Godfather of Gore” and it certainly will have some reaching for the barf bag. Eye balls are gouged out, heads are impaled by jagged nails (complete with popped-out eyeballs), faces are eaten off by acid, people are crucified, one character is horrifically whipped with chains, another character has a massive hole blown into their head, man-eating tarantulas eat a character’s face off, and another character has their throat ripped out by a rabid dog. If that is not enough, wait until the zombie-filled climax, with the undead shuffling around a seemingly deserted hospital in search of an all-you-can-eat buffet of entrails. If you’ve seen Fulci’s Zombie or City of the Living Dead, you already know that these ghouls shuffle slowly, are decayed beyond belief, and moan through deep, heavy breathing. They certainly are impressive and Fulci is well aware that they are absolutely disgusting. Yet despite how gross The Beyond can be, Fulci still coughs up a few creepy images (as well as bloody vomit) that will certainly cause a few sleepless nights. Silhouetted zombies shuffle through the cobwebbed hotel, the blind Emily waits for Liza in the middle of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, and a rotting apparition appears in the bathroom of a supposedly haunted hotel room. It’s freaky stuff!
The Beyond also happens to boasts some fairly decent acting, a rarity in both Fulci’s work and exploitation cinema. MacColl is likable enough as the frightened Liza, a New Yorker who doesn’t believe in supernatural ghouls. Warbeck gets by as the pistol-packing doctor who just can’t seem to understand that you have to shoot the zombies in the head. Even if he never learns how to slay the undead, he’s good as the macho hero. Keller is easily the best as Emily, the blind girl with more than a few secrets of her own (her eyes will make your skin crawl). Her character gets the creepiest introduction, standing calmly right in the middle of the causeway as Liza’s car speeds towards her. Lazar and Saccarola are hilariously suspicious as the creepy servants that roam the hallways of the hotel. The best of the duo is easily Saccarola, who mopes around sweating and always looking terrified of something we never see. For horror buffs looking for a neat little Easter egg, keep an eye out for a cameo from Fulci, who appears as the librarian who leaves an architect to be eaten by an army of tarantulas.
Perhaps the strongest film from Fulci, The Beyond is certainly the artiest offering from the Italian horror master. He takes a little more care when putting his gothic images together and he really puts some effort into building a menacing atmosphere deep in the bayou. While the zombie climax is certainly fun, you can’t shake the feeling that it is a sequence that has been tacked on. Apparently, the film’s German distributor wanted to capitalize on the zombie craze that was ripping through Europe at the time, so they demanded that Fulci write in some undead cannibals. At least they look really creepy! You may also catch yourself chuckling at the music, which seems like it would have been more at home in a daytime soap opera rather than a ultra-gory horror film. Overall, The Beyond certainly has its fair share of goofs and flaws, but you just can’t resist its midnight movie appeal and its jaw-dropping violence. If you can, see it on the big screen with a bunch of horror enthusiast or watching with all the lights turned out. This one is guaranteed to make squirm even if you are laughing at the obviously fake tarantula eating a guy’s tongue out.
The Beyond is available on DVD. If you can, try to pick up Grindhouse Releasing’s copy of the film.