With Mary and Madeleine Collinson making a rare public appearance at Vampyria II, Bloodstone takes a closer look at this British classic and discovers a lot more than just cleavage...
As the second of Hammer's Karnstein trilogy (preceded by 'The Vampire Lovers' and followed by 'Lust for a Vampire') 'Twins of Evil' has an integral part to play in the legacy of Hammer Films, and as the midpoint of the trilogy is, for most peoples' money, the best of the three. The Studio that Dripped Blood had an affinity with the vampire for almost 20 years, and while not all quite met the mark, 'Twins of Evil' is deservedly famed as one of its true highlights.
The story revolves around orphaned twins Maria and Frieda (Mary and Madeleine Collinson), their puritanical guardian Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing) and the dashing Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), who is made a vampire after blood from a Satanic ritual murder rouses Mircalla, Karnstein's vampiric ancestress. As Frieda joins the legions of the undead, her innocent sister Maria takes the blame for her twin's wickedness, almost being burned at the stake by witch-slaying Uncle Gustav in the process, until hero Anton (David Warbeck) steps in with a bit of common sense and a crucifix to save the day. Frieda is finally trapped and beheaded, Count Karnstein is impaled and rots dramatically away, and the dubiously-motived Gustav is similarly impaled on a thrown axe and plunges to his death. Good apparently triumphs over evil, though the image we are left with is not the most positive one we could have been given. Instead of Maria and Anton safely received back into society, the film's final moments focus our attention on Karnstein's rotting head.
'Twins of Evil' is a morality play in the grand old mediaeval fashion. The stark figures of good and evil are frustrated in their efforts by ambiguous characters who commit personal evils in the process of protecting the greater good (Gustav). The contradictions of a split personality are also emphasised in the use of twins – one purely good, the other wilfully mischievous and quickly seduced to pure evil. It is a morality play because it deals with the private morality of individuals – the bored aristocrat corrupted by Satanism who gets his come-uppance, the rebellious young woman exploiting her sexual power for the first time who is condemned and destroyed as the most evil of beings, the religious fanatic who seeks to purify the countryside from an imaginary menace of witches – and the wider public morality – religion without excess as typified by Gustav's wife Anna, and education for social improvement in the characters of Anton and his schoolmistress sister. That the plot hinges upon the battle between God and the Devil, the living and the (un)dead, the light and the darkness, is the final seal on the mediaeval morality play angle this film – perhaps unconsciously – adopts.
Vampires are often portrayed in films – especially by Hammer – as ambiguous characters. We know, as the viewer, that they should be regarded as manifestations of pure evil, and yet their promise of tabooed sexuality and experience tempt us away from the morality in which we spend most of our lives. It is this seductive evil that is encapsulated in Damien Thomas' Count Karnstein. Although not as sexually predatory a vampire as Christopher Lee's Dracula was to become, Karnstein is undoubtedly a sexy, seductive and highly persuasive vampire. And yet it is not he who seeks out the twins as objects of possible corruption – it is Frieda who seeks out the thrills of meeting him. The inference is always present that it is she who is in control of her destiny and her choices – she wants what she gets, and gets what she obviously wants.
Victorian morality still manifests itself today in Western society, particularly in England. Western society's fear of the sexuality of children and adolescents is the driving force of what makes us interpret Frieda's behaviour as evil. She seems the very match of her pure sister – upon meeting the twins for the first time both their aunt and the schoolmistress remark "I shall never be able to tell you apart" – and yet she is shown to be Hyde to Maria's Jekyll. And, horror of horrors, she actually seeks out sexual experience herself instead of having it thrust upon her by the burdensome demands of a boorish husband (the acceptable face of Victorian female sexuality). The perversity of her quest for sexual experience – the fact that she turns to a vampire who dabbles in Satanism for her deflowering – simply adds to the conceptualisation of her evil. Thus Frieda's true evil has more to do with the notion of her sexual nature than the surrender of her humanity by becoming a vampire!
The dichotomy of the split personality is here given two identical faces, a neat twist on the more common Jekyll and Hyde variety, where the two personalities look and act differently, and the confusion never exists as to which one is which, except of course in the mind of the split personality's better half himself. With twins the situation is visually confused, and the plot of the film makes clever use of their physical similarity to baffle the key plays for good and evil. And since there are two people there can be no blurring of guilt as there is with Jekyll and Hyde. Whilst Hyde commits evil deeds and Jekyll (since he is Hyde) has to take the guilt and ultimately the punishment for these deeds, Maria is ultimately blameless of her sister's crimes. They may look similar, but they are very distinct individuals, a fact that only really becomes obvious when one chooses so dramatic a path away from her sister. They are not alter egos of the same tortured mind, but both sane and reasoning people: the only difference is that one chooses to be good and the other chooses to be bad.
Film-makers can have great fun with twins, utilising all the familiar stories and myths about them – their shared experiences for example. This is the closest this film comes to laying some of the culpability for Frieda's sins at Maria's door. When Frieda is bitten by Karnstein, Maria awakes clutching her throat, seeming to know on a subconscious level that something has happened to her twin. Similarly when Frieda is beheaded, it is Maria who feels the pain of it and knows the moment of her sister's death. Additionally, the ruse of Karnstein's henchmen to transport Frieda out of jail by substituting Maria provides a visual reminder of how similar the girls look, and how easy it would be for a casual observer to miss the difference. Even when Maria is tied to the stake preparing to be burnt to death for his sister's sake, mad Uncle Gustav confuses her silent passivity to her fate with a confession of guilt. It is left to Anton to produce the all too familiar crucifix to attest to Maria's innocence, and finally the witch-hunting party turn their efforts to the destruction of some real villains for a change!
With its overtones of Puritan excess and religious mania, 'Twins of Evil' is a marvellous vehicle for Peter Cushing as Gustav, and the closest he ever came to playing Matthew Hopkins, England's celebratedly notorious Witchfinder General. The conflict of trying to do good by evil means, of trying to see justice done by taking unjust measures, has rarely been so finely explored as here. As arguably the most controversial and ambiguous character in the film – even more so than Karnstein – Gustav is in many ways the more villainous of the two, in that he dresses up his mania and excesses in religious piety and ultimately hypocrisy. Karnstein never makes any pretence at being a saint or even good – we first see him cavorting with a woman who is subsequently carted off by Gustav and his cronies and burned as a witch. Whilst Karnstein is the most obviously evil character, Gustav is insidiously the more evil because of his attempts to justify his acts, something which Karnstein never does, except to declare that it is his nature to do what he does. Part of this film's magick lies in its proof that Cushing – best remembered for his heroic role as Van Helsing to Christopher Lee's Dracula – could play the full range of good and evil characters. He was truly one of the greatest British film stars of all time, and this films stands as a great testament to his ability as a character actor.
In between the polarities of good and evil, in between the light and the darkness, lie all the worst psychological traits that mankind is heir to. The conflict between what we are expected to do and what we want to do are never more clearly exemplified than by the behaviour of the two girls, and this struggle spills over into the rest of the film's main characters. Human life is a constant struggle, a constant battle between doing what society wants you to do and the individual drives that compel you into sometimes contradictory stances. The only ones in 'Twins of Evil' who do not suffer remorse or regret, who are not plagued by fears and petty grievances, are the vampires. It is easy to see why Frieda is so easily seduced by their promises. As the picture of nervous angst she rebels against everything required or expected of her: she openly flirts with Anton; she dresses provocatively; she stands up verbally to her uncle and aunt on occasion; she goes out at night when expressly forbidden to do so; and the assumption is there to be drawn that it was Frieda's decision for her sister and herself to come out of mourning clothes so shockingly soon (according to Gustav's standards). She flaunts convention in any way she can, and openly confesses her sins to her shocked and terrified sister.
But, like all good morality plays, evil is always conquered by the powers of goodness. Although in most conventional vampire films religion is seen as the conquering good, in this film the emphasis is pushed more onto education and learning, onto intelligence rather than faith. Faith, as typified by Gustav Weil, can be corrupted, but the intellect cannot. Anton suffers before finding the strength and wit to battle against the vampires – his sister died at the hands of Karnstein and his gang of nasties – but when he does decide what to do he follows his course through steadfastly, seeking redemption not only for his dead sister, but for the woman he loves (Maria), for himself and the rest of the village. He takes the role of Everyman, put upon the Earth to conquer the evil in humanity for the sake of all others. In mediaeval morality plays this figure acted almost as a Christ figure, waging a personal war against the sins he sees around him, and acting as final redeemer and saviour for the rest of humanity. Played with obvious believability by the late David Warbeck (in one of his earliest film roles), Anton is a sympathetic figure, intelligent but still innocent of the evils of the world, on a crusade to educate all for the benefit of all. He is the ideal spirit of a new age which will stamp out the curse of vampires once and for all.
David Warbeck was one of the great British character actors, specialising mainly in low-budget horror roles, and 'Twins of Evil' was probably the most high profile film he ever made. How strange it should be that his first major role and his last should have been in British-made vampire films. From his days as Anton for Hammer to his enjoyable cameo in 'Razor Blade Smile', horror and vampires seem to have had a special place in Warbeck's heart. His rare talent for finding humour in the most horrific of scenes, his powerful and sardonic voice, his entire Britishness – all these things set him apart from the majority of character actors in his genre. Much respected on the convention circuit, he is also sadly missed by many.
For twins Mary and Madeleine Collinson, the opportunity to star in a Hammer film was a rare and special one, and one which they both remember with fondness. "Working for Hammer Productions was a wonderful experience. The atmosphere on the set was friendly and everybody was helpful and very professional," enthuses Madeleine. "I think the story about identical twins, one good and the other bad, was original as a concept and obviously was a great success. There was never any doubt as to who should play who: although we are similar we are different enough in some respects. I could never have played the goody goody Maria was. I photograph harder than my sister Mary. I loved playing the evil twin and Mary played herself!"
The twins were found by Hammer following their centrefold shoot for Playboy magazine (the first 'twins' feature ever to appear in that publication), and after the film they moved to Milan to continue their modelling careers. After a brief stay in the US, they returned to Europe. Madeleine now lives in Malta, Mary in Italy.
On the subject of vampires they are enthusiastic. "The idea of living forever by sucking blood sounds inviting. We all would love to live forever. Vampires have always proven to be mysterious, frightening, and fear is one of the most exciting sensations that we all like to feel. Whether vampires are real I couldn't begin to answer. But why not? Dracula still has lots of thrills to bestow upon his adoring public. The new generation of youngsters find vampires fascinating. Dracula is the aristocracy of horror films. May he live forever."
In conclusion, it is fair to say that 'Twins of Evil' is one of Hammer's most complex and in-depth films, and also one of its most entertaining. All the central characters are well-moulded and obviously cast to perfection, the script is well thought out and has a lot to say about social conditions and the nature of religion, education and sexuality, above and beyond the vampire story which is familiar to all. It is a challenging film, pushing boundaries and daring to be controversial at times. It has a grim sub-plot about the witch hunts of Puritan Europe, but balances this with plenty of gentle humour and occasional moments of tasteful nudity. If you want a vampire film with substance, character and imagination then this is the one.
see also on this site: His Vampiric Eminence Vampyria II Vampyria Overview Vampire Society
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