Twins Of Evil is Hammer's golden masterpiece. A beautifully arch slice of gothic horror. It is, at once, shocking and playful. On the surface it appears to be a conventional Hammer canvassing all the elements that made their movies so popular (ie- evil aristocrats, fangs, bright red paint = blood, castles, loud orchestral scores, and of course pretty girls in loose aparrel), probe a little deeper, however, and this film delights with a thematic core which is rare in the horror films they produced. A film which deals with religious hypocrisy, moral decay and duality; this is an utter gem to behold.
This film serves as the final instalment of The Karnstein Trilogy, each story centring on an evil descendent of the Karnstein line. The first is a luscious adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla filmed as The Vampire Lovers (1970) and starring an iconic Ingrid Pitt as a lesbian vampire preying on young virgins. Then came the rather lightweight Lust For A Vampire (1971) wherein a mysterious blonde attempts to seduce and lay waste to an entire school of good english girls. Odd that the third part should be the greatest, this is usually unheard of - think the Godfather or Alien sagas.
Twins Of Evil focuses on the bitter enmity between the aristocratic satanist, Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), and zealous puritan, Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing); both commit attrocious acts of immorality in the name of either Satan or God. Into the mix come Frieda and Maria Gellhorn, Gustav's blossoming nieces (the eponymous twins), who arrive as a cat amongst the pigeons, inadvertently setting this religious war to boilng point. The film leaves behind both its predecessor's obsessions with lesbian erotica and replaces it with a hardcore religious polemic.
This is not to say the movie hasn't got its share of sexual feeling, Count Karnstein's abominable rituals are lustily depicted. Indeed, Mary and Madeline Collinson's Gellhorn twins represent the sensuous beating heart of the film, the Maltese-born Playboy centrefolds are perfectly cast as the siblings. One is good and virginal, the other- evil and sexual. These inexperienced actresses conjure up tasty performances and are always a joy to watch. They seem to relish their roles as these polar opposites, Madeline in particular shows great force as the rebellious Frieda, intrigued by what dark pleasures lurk behind the walls of Castle Karnstein. The presence of these glamorous twins add a visual splendour to the proceedings. The movie's most effective theme is also hinged on their troubled relationship, the dichotomy of the virgin and the whore. The fact that they look the same but are so different gives us pause for thought. This theme of duality coarses throught the entire narrative: the sisters are gentle/aggressive and, as I mentioned, chaste/sexually free... then there is the religious duality going on around them, forces of GOOD and EVIL both impossible to tell apart. There is also the valued aristocracy and the disposable peasantry, which isn't really explored. For this, check out Hammer's Countess Dracula.
Peter Cushing's performance has been noted as his 'coldest, harshest characterisation to date' which is unsurprising as his wife died two months prior to his signing up. His portrayal of the leader of the Brotherhood, a rabble of angry puritans who spend their evenings hunting down heathen girls and burning them as 'witches', is more believable than Vincent Price's rendition of the infamous Matthew Hopkins in The Witchfinder General, which in itself is superb. Cushing expresses the passionate self-belief and religiosity of the man, never recognising tat his practice of christianity is nothing more than brutalistic. His judgemental and cruel demeanour possesses none of the actual love, mercy or compassion of Christ. Gustav feels more superior to those around him, his holy calling elevates him above the towns-people. It is an expertly crafted character study which has been sorelyoverlooked with the passing decades. If Piper Laurie's mother in Carrie had a dream man, this would be it. Cold, heartless and brimming with boiling retribution.
Cushing's villain is counterbalanced by the David Warbeck's Anton Hoffer, the modern-thinking schoolteacher, clearly playing the movie's conscience and voice of the people - he is thoroughly disturbed by Gustav's brand of spiritual cleansing. Anton Hoffer is the conventional hero (to Maria Collinson's heroine) but is also the weakest link in the story. Warbeck's screen time is marginalised in favour of the film's triangle of villains (Gustav + Frieda + Karnstein) but this is also the reason the film is an enduring classic.
The other, more typical, villain is Damien Thomas's Count Karnstein - a petulant aristocrat who grows bored of his satanic rituals (as you do) and decides to reincarnate the spirit of Mircalla (re: anagram of Carmilla) and surrender his soul to Satan, thus Mircalla turns him into a vampire/servant of satan. Karnstein is clearly the object of Cushing's religious venom, but is protected by his nobility. Damien Thomas's performance is fun and overly theatrical (which really shouldn't work, but does), there are no redeeming features, he is evil with a capital 'E'. The writer, Tudor Gates, could have easily introduced a more ambivalent edge to the Count's 'evil' (as modern writers are fond of doing) perhaps making Karnstein a misunderstood hero, therefore allowing us to project all our anger toward Cushing. This could have reduced the movie to liberal, anti-religious hogwash; fortunately, Twins Of Evil is more dense in its breadth of character. The film's stance is not simply a 'liberal' one, it suggests Gustav's fears are real, he's just looking in the wrong places for it.
The film presents an argument pertinent to the time it was made, just after the sexual revolution. It is at once a condemnation of religious extremism and intolerance and a sober warning against excesses, as expressed through Karnstein - someone who has wilfully forsaken all morality. Karnstein is what the liberated children of the revolution could have become and indeed did in the case of Charles Manson and his sex cult. On the surface, though, this is a hugely enjoyable vampire romp and in my opinion - the greatest horror movie of all time.
If The Exorcist is America's anthem of 70s horror, this is Great Britain's. Sumptuously shot and expertly acted, this is pure horror driven by a sense of purpose. It preaches and at the same time entertains us. If you are a fan of horror and haven't seen this, then you need to. The one tragedy is that Mary and Madeline Collinson never became the kind of icons they deserved to be, sadly disappearing from our screens.