“Twins of Evil” is the last installment of the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy”, by Hammer Films. It bears little resemblance to the series’ original source material, J.S. Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” but rather seems to try to portray a sort of “prequel” to the infamous tale. Despite its place in said series, it is actually a slight improvement over its predecessor, “Lust for a Vampire”, which was arguably risible. What saves it is an interesting plot concept and good supporting actors. Well, that and of course the Collinson Twins.
Madeleine and Mary Collinson are identical twins from Malta whom, jointly, had made a splash as Playboy’s first twin Playmates of the Month for their October 1970 issue. Apparently, producer Michael Style saw their layout in said issue and approached writer Tudor Gates about changing their Current project, “The Vampire Virgins” (a/k/a “Village of the Vampires”, a sort of Witchfinder-General-meets-the-Karnsteins story) and convinced him to tailor the script to include the twin sisters.
What we end up with is an interesting juxtaposition of the evils of deviltry and debauchery compared to the evils of austerity and religious zealotry. The story opens with Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing in the most intense role of his career), a sort of Witchfinder General and leader of a band of Puritan zealots in nightly raids where they accost young women on the roads at night or invade the homes of people whom they deem as devil worshippers (i.e., mostly unmarried women who are sexually active) and “…purify their spirits so they may find mercy at the seat of the Lord—by burning them!”
The one person they cannot seem to touch and yet want the most is the Count Karnstein, who is openly debauched and defiant but is protected by the emperor. He is also a descendent of the great cacodemonic Karnstein clan (try saying that quickly three times in a row!) and pines for the bygone days when his ancestors were worshiping Satan and wreaking havoc on the land with impunity. His manservant, Dietrich, tries unsuccessfully to find amusements for his “Excellency”, but always seems to come up short.
Ultimately, he presents him with a faux-satanic ritual, which is interrupted by the Count himself, who denounces it as a charade and the participants as charlatans then sends them all away, minus the sacrificial peasant girl whom he sacrifices for real in an off-the-cuff oblation to the Lord of Darkness, after giving Dietrich a quick verbal lashing and family history lesson about the infamous depravity of his ancestors before dismissing him for the night.
Initially, his offering seems to go unrecognized, but after he gives up and retires to sit by the hearth, he is visited by none other than his foremother, Mircalla (a/k/a Carmilla) Karnstein, who makes love with him (does that make her an “in-cestor”?) and turns him into a vampire then disappears from the rest of the movie. This cameo role was offered to Ingrid Pitt who so notably portrayed Carmilla in the first entry in this series, 1970’s “Vampire Lovers”, but she refused it, which is a shame, as I believe that she would have given it a gravitas that actress Katya Wyeth does not seem able to impart to the role, brief though it is. Even so, the scene depicting her transmogrification from wisps of smoke rising from the sacrificial slab into the shrouded specter which assails the dejected and unwary Count is quite effective.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town…
Gustav Weil comes home from a night of burning innocent women to be greeted with the sight of his fashionably attired nieces (the Collinson twins, with vocal overdubs—their Maltese accents were apparently too thick for Hammer’s liking– as Maria and Frieda Gellhorn) who have come from Venice to stay with him and his wife Katy (actress Kathleen Byron, who is renowned for her role as the insanely jealous Sister Ruth in 1947’s “Black Narcissus”, taking things down a notch for this role as the worrisome aunt) since the death of their parents. Upon seeing them in their matching green velvet dresses and feathered hats he says “What kind of plumage is this…for birds of Paradise?” After which he proceeds to admonish them for not showing more respect for the memory of their recently deceased parents, reminding them of the 4th Commandment’s advisement to honor one’s parents. Maria, the gentler of the two is obviously hurt by the whole incident, but Frieda is defiant setting up the dynamic for the rest of the film. Essentially, Frieda quickly tires of walking on eggshells around her overbearing uncle and decides to seek out Count Karnstein and live the wanton life she hears her Uncle Gustav railing against to Aunt Katy in the kitchen at night, whilst sweet and demure Maria cowers under her bed sheets.
Frieda gets what she wants and becomes a vampire and runs amok with Count Karnstein draining everything that crosses their paths but keeps her conversion a secret from Maria and gets her to lie for her when she is found to be away at night. Maria even pretends to be Frieda and gets two beatings (one intended for Frieda and one for letting Frieda sneak out). Eventually, once Weil gets wise that one of his nieces is a vampire, Frieda tries to swap places with Maria so that she can keep from being executed but the village schoolmaster/heartthrob, Anton, falls for the sweet Maria and tries desperately to tell Weil that not only does he have the wrong girl, but he is going about things the wrong way…
“Burning purifies!” shouts Weill.
“Not if you know anything about vampires!” counters the schoolmaster, before schooling him on the varied ways to dispose of the undead.
Eventually, Weil takes his advice when he confronts Frieda, the Count and his mute bodyguard, Joachim, and although he does seem to have a moment of clarity near the end of the movie, neither he nor his most dedicated cronies get away scot-free with all of the suffering they caused with their witch hunting.
All in all, the movie is successful as an entertaining Gothic yarn if not entirely as a sequel to the original “Karnstein” franchise and especially not as a historically accurate account of the era. To my knowledge, there was no notable Puritan community in Austria, as they were British in origin and were marginalized after the Great Ejection of 1662. Puritanism was alive and well at this time, however, across the Atlantic, in New England, where Cotton Mather (of Salem Village) was unsparingly sending convicted “witches” to the gallows.
However, if you can suspend your belief for the duration of the 90 odd minutes it takes to get through this final entry in the Karnstein Trilogy, I am betting you will have a fun time marveling at the Collinson Twin’s coy portrayals as the very embodiment of Sigmund Freud’s Madonna-Whore Complex, and the overall Gothic atmosphere of one of Hammer’s last great films before they fizzled out a few years later ere the close of the decade. Synapse Films has just released a handsome Blu-ray/DVD combo with a restored and remastered print of the movie which is full of extra goodies and for you folks that like to read your movies, in 2011 British Horror writer Shaun Hutson wrote a novelization of the screenplay, which seems to have gotten some decent reviews.