Bloodsucking Freaks on Bloody Screens Aglow is a recurring blog series about Gothic horror media that inspired Project Vampire Killer, my novel about vampires, cinema-as-sorcery, space weed, and the glorious Gothic ascendant.
I discovered Hammer movies in my early 30s, having heard about and seen clips of them for years, but never quite understanding the scope of their influence on horror and filmmaking in general. I knew about Lee and Cushing, of course, but it was not until finding a used copy of Horror of Dracula in a second-hand media store that I got to see them acting in their prime. What followed is an ongoing journey to see as many of the films that the studio produced as possible. Hammer continues to loom large in my imagination, not least of all over my writing of Project Vampire Killer, and continues to cast a shadow as tall as Christopher Lee’s Dracula himself across my vision of the Gothic horror ideal.
Twins of Evil (1971) has a bit of a reputation: it was later-period Hammer and therefore supposedly not as good as earlier titles, it lacks Lee’s presence, and it’s more of a skin flick than a horror movie, due to the casting of pin-up girls Madeleine and Mary Collinson in lead roles. It is, despite these half-truths, quite simply one of the best films the studio produced, and one of my favorite vampire films, full of gorgeous photography of haunted forests, cemeteries, and a demon-infested castle, with plenty to say about desire and systems of control.
The opening scene features Cushing as Weil (pronounced “vile”), a religious leader at the head of a raving lynch mob of puritanical zealots hunting for servants of Satan. Dressed in puritanical black, they hunt a woman who, by their estimation, is guilty of deviltry. In a striking scene where they burn her alive at the stake, the film immediately and forcefully establishes its themes of sex, violence, and repressive religious and social conditions. This scene—and the others like it to follow—would inform my depiction of the fictional movie Witch Hell in Project Vampire Killer, complete with a gaunt-faced Cushing lookalike leading an ad-hoc inquisition in colonial New England.
Cushing had played villain for Hammer before, most notably as Dr. Frankenstein across several films in that lurid series. But his turn as Weil in Twins of Evil may be his best. He is a monster, surely more terrifying than the elusive servants of evil he pursues at the fringes of the vaguely German-Austrian town he and his bloodthirsty churchmen haunt. His depravity, fueled by sexual repression, is contrasted by the arrival of his nieces, the radiant Frieda and Marie (the Collinsons) fresh from Venice, who are entrusted to his care and authority after the deaths of their parents. He is stern and disapproving, chastising them for not wearing black (and for their revealing outfits). His repressive attitude and absenteeism does of course inevitably drive the more spirited of the two twins away—and into the arms of a very real vampire.
The Collinsons are fine enough in their roles as beautiful maidens subject to the predations of evil within and without the home, but Madeleine Collinson gets more to do as Frieda. She has designs on escaping their repressive household and throwing in with the debauched Count Karnstein (a scenery-chewing Damien Thomas) at his mountaintop castle. Marie remains chaste and loyal—for all the good it does her, considering the events to follow—serving mostly as a wet blanket as her sister dives headlong into devil worship and vampirism.
Count Karnstein is a fine Hammer vampire, but is not the film’s true antagonist. Rather, he is the other half to Cushing’s Weil. They are the film’s true twins of evil. Karnstein is debased, his pleasure centers burned out by a life of privilege and luxury, having become something un-human because of his station, profoundly narcissistic and ever seeking greater thrills, conflating others’ pain with his own pleasure. Weil’s pathology runs in parallel, finding religious ecstasy in the suffering and fear he inflicts upon his neighbors, especially the comely women he so easily condemns to death for crimes such as not being married or living too far from the village.
Twins of Evil skirts the traditional good/evil dynamics of other vampire films, providing us instead a view into a fallen world where the authorities are split into factions that sometimes come into conflict, but that spend most of their energy policing and terrorizing the common people. That Frieda seeks out forbidden pleasures can be understood considering her age and relative innocence—and, based on her dialogue, the constant sexualization she has been subject to since she was a little girl.
Beyond its subversive themes, the film is visually splendid. The cinematography, costumes, and sets go a long way to keep our attention. Fog-covered forests, a castle dining room-turned-sacrificial chamber, cultists adorned in purple robes, a backlit double-headed goat statue, a ghostly resurrection of a long-dead countess—there are many colorful and artful images to sell the atmosphere of horror. Creative camera work, clever lighting, and a good pace help the movie stay interesting through the entirety of its runtime, leading all the way to the bloody carnage of the final reel.
There are moments throughout the film where you can see Weil beginning to question his convictions and actions. These are mostly small, subtle moments conveyed by Cushing’s nuanced performance. That his life ends in an orgy of violence is appropriate, and perhaps tragic, that he may have lived long enough to realize the error of his ways. No matter. There are heads to lop off. There are vampires to kill, real and imagined.