Twins of Evil (US - BD RA)
Gabe goes on another Hammer Horror vampire hunt with Peter Cushing...
In December of 2010 Synapse films began releasing ‘The Hammer Horror Collection’ with a Hammer Studio rarity called Vampire Circus. Reactions were positive all-around and the thought of more Synapse Hammer Blu-rays was positively tantalizing. Now, after what feels like an eternity, Don May Jr.’s studio has finally released the second in their promised collection – John Hough’s slightly less rare Twins of Evil (aka: Daughters of Dracula). The plot concerns two beautiful, recently orphaned identical twins, Maria and Frieda Gellhorn (Mary and Madeleine Collinson), who move to the village of Karnstein to live with their uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), a fanatical puritan and leader of the local witch-hunting ‘Brotherhood.’ Karnsein’s Count (Damien Thomas) is an evil man who secretly practices Satanism, eventually using black magic to transform into an undying, blood-drinking vampire. Unhappy with her new life, evil twin Frieda seeks escape and tragically falls under the spell of the newly vampirized Count. Now, overcome with an insatiable hunger for human blood, Frieda tries to hide her secret from her sister and escape her uncle’s witch-burning grasp.
As already stated in my Vampire Circus review, despite claims of horror geek credibility, I didn’t start watching the Hammer films in earnest until relatively recently. I was familiar with most of the studio’s Dracula and Frankenstein series, but otherwise had only seen a handful of their massive output. I’ve made an effort to learn, but films like Twins of Evil have eluded me, thanks in no small part to its lack of US DVD availability. Like Vampire Circus, Twins of Evil was released in an era when Hammer was attempting to reinvent itself. The studio’s earlier hits already stood apart from other period horror thanks to a use of stunning colour photography, ample sexual innuendo, and use of graphic, bloody violence. But, by the late ‘60s, competitors like Roger Corman, Mario Bava and Paul Naschy had caught up, and Hammer was forced to embrace youth culture. This led to more blatant sexuality, more modern settings, and more psychedelic imagery. For years, even the hardest of the hardcore Hammer fans had a habit of pooh-poohing this era, but in time the greater horror community has embraced the likes of Dracula AD 1972, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.
Twins of Evil belongs in an additional sub-category of Hammer films, because of its trivial attachment to the Carmilla-inspired Karnstein Trilogy, a series that includes the taboo-smashing lesbian/Sapphic vampire features The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire. I already wrote pretty extensively about the Sapphic vampire sub-genre when I reviewed two personal favourites – José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres and Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness. The short version of those ramblings state that The Vampire Lovers, a genuinely great film even outside of its wonderful exploitation elements, was so fresh and exciting that it led to a huge rush of Sapphic vampire movies (many of them also inspired by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla) from all corners of the globe and still inspires similar features to this day. Hammer knew they had something special and put a pseudo-sequel into production before The Vampire Lovers’ box-office numbers even came in, which eventually led to a second pseudo-sequel. Hammer films tend to be divided by series; meaning follow-ups to popular films are sold as genuine sequels, creating a confusing tapestry of story concepts that rarely really connect. This is actually one of the studio’s unsung charms. It’s quite fun to attempt to bridge the plotlines through the Dracula and Frankenstein films in particular. Twins of Evil is the third film in the Karnstein series and a prequel, though unfortunately, it’s only connected to the other films by character names and Easter eggs.
The Vampire Lovers, Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos were all based on familiar Hammer vampire concepts, but each feature definitely unique touches (story gimmick, image quality, setting, etc) that removed them from the busy catalogue. Quite often, Twins of Evil feels a bit too much like its Dracula series predecessors, but manages to separate itself with ‘witchfinder’ subgenre elements. Surprisingly enough, these tropes hadn’t already been adopted by Hammer (at least not as I can recall), and would never really be touched upon ever again. The concept was inspired by subversive British, puritan witchfinder movies like Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (aka: The Conqueror Worm), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw and possibly Ken Russell’s The Devils (which was released the same year as Twins of Evil). There might have also been a bit of inspirational runoff from Michael Armstrong’s grotesque, West German-produced Mark of the Devil, a frontrunner entry in the dubious ‘torture porn’ genre. Screenwriter Tudor Gates cleverly applies the subgenre concepts, including the ever-present anti-authoritarian subtext, to the traditional vampire hunter character, and turns the charming hero (i.e. Van Helsing) into an antagonistic religious zealot. The overall storyline verges on the boring, thanks to the familiarity of its vampire elements, but the narrative is just convoluted enough to keep the jam-packed (some would argue over-packed) narrative moving swiftly through duller bits. Gates likely had something more complex in mind, judging from the sheer quantity of story and the relatively large ensemble cast. The final effect is too busy for its own good, but is mostly more entertaining and definitely more suspenseful than Lust for a Vampire.
Twins of Evil was television director John Hough’s second feature film and he would not direct for Hammer again. Instead, he became better known for the distinctly Hammer-like near-classic, The Legend of Hell House, the distinctly un-Hammer-like car chase favourite Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and three Disney live action features with a touch of Hammer flavour – Escape to Witch Mountain, Return to Witch Mountain and Watcher in the Woods. He’d also direct the underseen John Cassavetes vehicle The Incubus, but was largely demoted to B-productions later in his (apparently still ongoing) career. Twins of Evil sees him alternating between spooky Gothicism and the more quaint naturalism of a traditional period piece, which obviously sets the film apart from the bulk of the studio’s ‘70s-era work. His direction isn’t outstandingly artistic or as gorgeously evocative as Hammer favourites Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis’, but is consistently dynamic thanks to creative camera placement and use of zoom and editing. In the end, Hough’s only major ‘failure’ is, arguably, his lack of raunchy appeal in Hammer’s most raunchily appealing era. There are only a handful of naked breasts here (pun intended), and really not much in the way of bloody violence until the climax, which categorizes Twins of Evil as more of a straight period horror film than a Karnstein-series-worthy exploitation film (according to the documentary included with this Blu-ray release I’m not alone in my rather adolescent disappointment and Hough found his insistence on implying sexuality a bone of contention throughout production).
Peter Cushing returns to the trilogy here after being unavailable for Lust for a Vampire and his presence alone sets this cast a few steps beyond that of Vampire Circus. Uncle Gustav Weil isn’t Cushing’s most loquacious or entertaining character, but he is one that gives the actor a chance to play someone that isn’t clearly defined by either good or evil, and could be Cushing’s most underrated role ever. Identical twin leads Mary and Madeleine Collinson were clearly hired for assets outside of their acting skills (the film was entirely re-written to fit around the twins after the producer saw their Playboy spread), but their occasionally stiff line readings end up adding a strange ambience to their performances. Most importantly, it’s easy to tell the difference between the two characters, as Madeleine turns to evil grins and scenery chewing in her pursuit of lustful things (though, of course, she’s no Ingrid Pitt). Lucio Fulci and Antonio Margheriti favourite David Warbeck is perfectly charming and dramatic in this early role, but does little to stand-out, aside from being devastatingly handsome. The cast’s weak element is Damien Thomas, who does his best mixed impression of Christopher Lee’s Dracula and the smarmy modern types that would appear in Hammer’s ‘70s output, but comes up short as a bitchy, oily pseudo-villain.
Vampire Circus wasn’t just Synapse’s first Hammer release, it was their first Blu-ray release full stop. There have been some kinks to work through, but I’m surprised to say that the studio’s learning curve seems to be less steep than even exploitation Blu-ray frontrunner Blue Underground, who has suffered through some DNR and CRT scan related growing pains. This newly remastered 1080p Twins of Evil transfer shows definite signs of age and wear and changes up the overall quality quite a bit throughout, but despite these shortcomings and a lack of consistency I really can’t imagine the film looking any better. I’m also thankful for just about every lick of grain here. The size of the grain occasionally thickens enough to make the frame look simply dirty, but for the most part, we’re talking about a thin, dancing veneer that reminds us we’re watching a real movie, not some over-DNR’d attempt at faux-digital cinema. In terms of outstanding film-based artefacts the only real problems are some soft and especially grainy frame edges and occasionally dulled and dirty solid blacks (which are otherwise rich and deep without too much crush). Compression artefacts and noise are a minor issue, specifically in the form of banding effect blocks on some of the more complex colour blends, along with some hints of telecine noise that likely wouldn’t accompany a 35mm projection. Detail levels are quite impressive, more impressive than the Vampire Circus release, and usually only limited by the use of relatively shallow focus and the film’s age. Besides obvious textural improvements, more subtle details, like wisps of smoke and barely concealed nipples are made clear. Colours aren’t quite as vibrant as some of Synapse’s earlier releases, but appear mostly natural and consistent, outside of two or three sudden shifts in yellowness. There are problems with greens showing up in the warmer hues, specifically skin tones, but overall separation is solid, especially blood reds (blood, in this case, being a bit more vibrant than its real world equivalent), soft greens and the omnipresent nighttime blues.
Twins of Evil remains true to its source material and is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound without any surround sound bells or whistles. Like most similar films from the era, the bulk of the track is devoted to dialogue and music, leaving a rather minimalist collection of incidental sound effects. The dialogue is clear and relatively consistent in terms of volume and general sound quality. There are cases of noise reduction creating issues with odd silences spiked by vocal hiss. Composer Harry Robertson, who also worked on The Vampire Lovers and Lust for the Vampire, wrote a particularly aggressive, almost swashbuckling score for the film (there is huge, hopefully purposeful homage paid to the Ennio Morricone’s Ecstasy of the Gold here). His music doesn’t run over the entire film, but when present, its boisterous horns and heavy strings command every inch of this track. The compact nature of the mono mix threatens to flatten the complex and noisy music, but the uncompressed DTS-HD track keeps the sound pretty tight and keeps high-end distortion to a minimum. A stereo spread and a bit of LFE support would be nice, but there’s otherwise little need for remixing the track. This disc also features an isolated DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono music and effects track, which presents a slightly crisper version of Robertson’s score and should please the film’s fan base.
This release’s extras begin with The Flesh and The Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil (84:40, HD), a surprisingly long and in-depth documentary covering all three films in the Karnstein Trilogy with obvious emphasis on Twins of Evil. Subject matter includes Hammer’s attempt to reinvent themselves with more sexual imagery, the changing of the corporate and executive guard at the studio, the mix of elements that produced the Carmilla-inspired trilogy (including the fascinating history of the original novel and lurid recreations of its text), the history of Sapphic and plainly female vampire movies, the production of The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire, eventually leading into the basics of the Twins of Evil production (writing, casting, directing, setting, etc). The impressive team of interviewees includes director John Hough, actor Damien Thomas, Hammer historians Wayne Kinsey and Ted Newsome, Gremlins and Howling director Joe Dante, horror writer Kim Newman, Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas, Sir Christopher Frayling, author and Carmilla historian John-Paul Checkett, and film historian Eric Hoffman. It also includes archival interviews with Hammer executive Sir James Carreras and Fantale Films producer Michael Style. This is a genuinely great documentary and almost worth the price of the disc on its own. I kind of wish I would’ve watched it before writing my review, though, as I find myself repeating things already covered here.
The Blu-ray exclusive extras also include The Props that Hammer Built: The Kinsey Collection (23:30, HD), a featurette that explores author/Hammer historian Wayne Kinsey’s private collection of miniatures, scripts, stills, costumes and props from the studio’s films (divided by film lot), a motion still gallery (14:00, HD), the US theatrical trailer (2:30, 1.33 HD), the US Twins of Evil/Hands of the Ripper double feature trailer (2:40, 1.33 HD), three TV spots (1:10, 1.33 HD) and an extended musical sequence (1:10, SD).
Twins of Evil falls just short of classic status, but is easily one of Hammer’s better and more rewatchable efforts. It also looks and sounds pretty great on this Blu-ray. Synapse Films could’ve gotten away with a simple remaster job, but they’ve gone all-out and included a fantastic, feature-length documentary in the special features section. This disc is absolutely worth the asking price for even passing studio fans. Hands of the Ripper and Countess Dracula are the next two films of Synapse’s Hammer list, the former of which is one of the studio’s most underrated ‘70s period releases. I also notice that, so far, all of Synapse’s Hammer titles were made available on Netflix’s instant stream before their Blu-ray release, which makes me wonder if perhaps Demons of the Mind and To The Devil a Daughter, or, less likely, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell and/or The Vampire Lovers might be on their docket down the line.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality, but are taken from the included DVD copy, so they'll give you an idea of what to expect.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 10th July 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English and Isolated Music and EFX
Extras: The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil, The Props that Hammer Built, Motion Still Gallery, Deleted Scene, US Trailer, Double Feature Trailer, TV Spots, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Hough
Cast: Peter Cushing, Damien Thomas, Dennis Price, David Warbeck, Madeleine Collinson, Mary Collinson
Length: 87 minutes
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