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.
by Steve Habrat
If you’re someone who enjoys entering the sleazy land of blood, guts, and gore, certainly you’ve heard of the West German film Mark of the Devil, a film that was advertised as “positively the most horrifying film ever made.” Released in 1970 to cash in on the success of the 1968 Vincent Price classic Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil never even comes close to living up to its famous tagline. No, in fact there is barely a scare to be found in this stomach-churning tale of the European “witch-hunts” in the 18th century. Mark of the Devil does however live up to its reputation of being extremely violent, with prolonged scenes of torture that will make every grindhouse cinema fan beam. One would hope it would live up to its gory reputation, as Mark of the Devil is the only film to be (hilariously) rated “V” for violence (Personally, I think an X-rating is still more hardcore than a V-rating). A gimmicky rating apparently wasn’t enough, as Mark of the Devil also came with barf bags for the weaker stomached audience members, much like Lucio Fulci’s 1979 gross out Zombie. Despite all these wild taglines and marketing gimmicks, Mark of the Devil really isn’t that strong of a film. Sure the torture scenes are sickening enough, but a minor exploration of religious hypocrisy, a dreary ending, and a captivating performance from young genre-favorite Udo Kier are really the only postives this film has to offer. Well, there is also the famous tongue yanking sequence that will make you yelp.
Set in 18th century Austria, a vicious witch-hunter called Albino (Played by Reggie Nelder) has been abusing his power and terrorizing the small town he has been assigned to. After raping a caravan of nuns, the grand inquisitor Lord Cumberland (Played by Herbet Lom) and his young apprentice, Count Christian von Meruh (Played by Udo Kier), come to the town to relieve Albino of his duties. Shortly after their arrival, Christian falls in love with a beautiful girl named Vanessa (Played by Olivera Katarina), who has been accused of being a witch by Albino after she resists his sexual advances. It isn’t long before Lord Cumberland reveals himself to be worse than Albino, who has also continued to terrorize the locals, but after Christian catches his mentor brutally murdering someone, his faith is shaken and he begins trying to break away from Lord Cumberland. As more and more innocent people are accused of witchcraft, Christian begins devising a way to save Vanessa from horrific torture and death. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are plotting to rise up and fight back against Lord Cumerberland and his bloodthirsty gang of witch-hunters.
Throughout Mark of the Devil, there are moments where the film flirts with the gothic flair of an early Hammer Studios production. You wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee emerged from the shadows to consult with Kier, Nelder, or Lom. Unfortunately, director Michael Armstrong never uses the gothic doom to his advantage and instead becomes overly focused on rushing from one torture sequence to another. Sure, they are gruesome enough and I’m sure that at the time, several audience members may have had to put those barf bags to work, but the torture sequences don’t milk any emotion from the viewer. There are a number of secondary characters that are suddenly introduced simply so that they can be stripped of their clothing and whipped, branded, and raped. Trust me, folks, it doesn’t stop there! There is also beheadings, tar and featherings, torture racks, Chinese water torture, people burned at the stake, and even that graphic tongue yanking. The special effects have held up and certainly could run with what we have today, but there were times were the sadism crossed the line into tedious territory.
For hardcore horror fans, it may be worth seeking out Mark of the Devil for some of the familiar faces that drop by to cause bloody mayhem. Kier will easily be the most recognizable face, and probably the most pleasant one (at least for the female viewers) next to Katrina’s. The young Kier certainly does a good job, but there are moments where he seems to be taking the project entirely too seriously. There is really no dramatic break from his mentor and in the final moments, he is asked to become a macho hero in the thick of a hectic mob. Katrina’s role begins to reek of a simple damsel-in-distress, but she puts her all into it. You will also get the sneaking suspicion that Armstrong enjoys showing off her curves. Then there is the vile Nelder and Lom, both of who do a solid job at making you dislike them. Nelder hisses and snarls his way through Albino, a man who just loves stomping through the town’s streets and accusing everyone he sees of being a witch. He is about as nasty as they come and frankly, I would have loved to have seen more from him. Then there is Lom, the impotent grand inquisitor who manages to be worse than Albino. He constantly explains that he is doing the Lord’s work, but his delusions have blinded him to the fact that he is the true monster, one that slips away to terrorize another day.
Mark of the Devil does threaten to explore religious hypocrisy, especially with the character of Lord Cumberland, but this exploration is far from complex and it certainly is never elaborated on. Cumberland claims to be a man of God, but then turns around and murders or rapes anyone who dares challenge him. Some man of God! Yet it becomes increasingly clear that Armstrong isn’t really interested in trying to make the viewer think, he just wants them to cheer along as one-dimensional characters are reduced to quivering bloody pulps. Bursting forth from the sea of blood and filth is a beautiful score conducted by Michael Holm, a soothing tune that could very well have inspired the Riz Ortolani’s hypnotic score for the grindhouse shocker Cannibal Holocaust. You can’t help but think the music was conducted for another film but somehow ended up in here. Overall, on a very basic level, Mark of the Devil is entertaining enough, but too often it is dull, repetitive, or just plain goofy. The poor dubbing alone will keep you giggling and some of the overacting, especially from the background characters, is flat out painful to watch. Mark of the Devil is immensely popular among grindhouse fanatics, but it failed to win this exploitation fan over.
Mark of the Devil is available on DVD.