Hammer Films, the British studio that revived the classic horror film in the late 1950s with a lusty mix of gothic repression, lurid debauchery, sensationalistic set pieces, and bleeding color, struggled to keep up in seventies as rival studios became even more lurid and censorship standards brought nudity into mainstream cinema. The Hammer formula was getting tired, and so were the directors, so new blood (so to speak) was brought in.
Twins of Evil (CAV), the third film in what has been called Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy,” is scripted by Tudor Gates (who came to Hammer by way of Mario Bava) and directed by John Hough (who came from television, notably “The Avengers,” where he learned sleek style and visual wit).
It’s another twist on Sheridan Le Fanu’s female vampire story “Carmilla,” this one announced right in the title. Playboy centerfolds Madeleine and Mary Collinson play the titular twin orphans, beautiful young women who arrive from the cultural capital of Venice to the repressive, superstitious, northern European town of Karnstein. This isolated village is ruled by a debauched Count (Damien Thomas) and terrorized by a severe Puritan sect of witch hunters that calls themselves “The Brotherhood.” Led by the obsessive Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), who sees sin everywhere, they behave no better than a lynch mob: too terrified to confront the politically protected Count, the only true evil in the land, they target beautiful single women and burn them at the stake, ostensibly to end to evil killing the townsfolk but more clearly purging their own lust.
The religious piety and sadistic punishments of these “holy men” targeting seductive maidens differs from the Count, who also likes to torture young women, only in the master they serve: the Brotherhood “purifies” sins for God (but just whose sins exactly?) and the Count sacrifices his victims for the Devil. Both, clearly, get far too much enjoyment out of it. The undercurrent of repression and hysteria roused by sexual desire from so many past Hammer horrors is alive and well and even more pronounced here. Just as clearly, the ripe young twins — one virginal and pure and religious, the other rebellious and sexually hungry and drawn to the dark charisma of the Count — will be caught in the middle of this battle.
Peter Cushing, never less than a complete professional in any of his Hammer roles, is as good as he’s ever been as the pitiless zealot, a true believer shaken who is shaken to his core when he’s been proven wrong on the verge of killing an innocent. While his followers are generic zealots with dubious spirituality, Cushing’s Gustav Weil never falters in his blind devotion to brutal judgment, and Cushing lets us see the blow to his conviction is not a matter of ego but genuine remorse, making him an unlikely tragic hero. There is solid support from veterans Dennis Price (as the Count’s henchman) and Kathleen Byron (as Weil’s wife).
But the potential of the story, with its presentation of holy warriors as evil hypocrites and a “Corsican Sisters” connection between the twins, is never fully explored. Gates’ script gives in to a conventional climax that lets the Brotherhood off the hook for its reign of terror and its sadistic murders of innocents. Hough hasn’t quite mastered action dynamics (though the sloppiness in those scenes may be a result of post-production negotiations) and fails to pull convincing performances from the Collinson girls as their roles evolve from innocent girls from abroad to actual characters. (British horror film historian Kim Newman reports that the girls, who were from Malta and had thick accents, were dubbed by British actresses.) Damien Thomas is a more complicated case, convincingly debauched and enjoying every minute of his decadent reign but lacking the power and strength of a memorable villain, while David Warbeck (later to make his name in a handful of Italian horrors) is simply too weak to hold his own against the conviction of Cushing.
Even with these problems, however, Twins of Evil earns its place in the Hammer canon of cult horrors. Director Hough presents a handsome picture with moody atmosphere and dramatic images. He curiously delivers more tease and décolletage than actual nudity, but he knows how to execute a set piece, whether it’s a seduction by a voluptuous Playmate or the beheading of a vampire. The images of maidens burning at the stake are horrific and made all the more effective by the men gazing upon their power over these women who defy their sense of religious order. It both feeds and purges their repressed lust while Cushing, ever the true believer, prays for their redemption. Those moments are as arresting and affecting as anything in the Hammer hall of fame.
Twins of Evil makes its American disc debut on beautifully mastered Blu-ray+DVD Combo pack from Synapse. Mastered from a vivid, bright, undamaged print with only minimal artifacts, it is accurately presented at 1.66:1, with thin black horizontal bars on either side of the screen, with clean DTS-HD 2.0 mono sound.
Both the Blu-ray and DVD editions include the feature-length documentary “The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil,” which at 84 minutes is almost as long as the film itself. The well-made production, directed by Daniel Griffith, is an exhaustive look at the film and its antecedents with a wealth of interviews with notable horror experts (Kim Newman, Ted Newsom, Tim Lucas, David J. Skal, Christopher Frayling, Joe Dante) and director John Hough, with archival interviews with actor Damien Thomas and Hammer studios executive Michael Carreras (among others). In fact, it errs on the side of inclusion, with a very long sequence on Le Fanu and his story “Carmilla” that isn’t all that essential to the backstory, but it’s hard to fault it for too much affection for the subject. The only real drawback to the production is that it reminds you of better films from the same source material.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray disc is the featurette “The Props That Hammer Built: The Kinsey Collection,” a deleted scene, a motion still gallery, and an isolated music and effects track. Both discs include the original trailer but the Blu-ray features bonus TV spots.
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Twins Of Evil [Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack]