By the late 60s and early 70s, Hammer Films was beginning to loose some of the popularity that the studio once enjoyed. They started trying to compete with the wave of exploitation horror that was beginning to emerge, which led to the studio cranking up the sleaziness in their pictures. In 1971, one of Hammer’s final triumphs would be director John Hough’s Twins of Evil, the third installment in the Karnstein Trilogy, which also featured 1970’s The Vampire Lovers and 1971’s Lust for a Vampire. Steamy, seedy, extravagant, and violent, Twins of Evil is a hugely entertaining horror film that retains Hammer’s gothic visual style while upping the amount of sex, nudity, and graphic violence for a crowd craving some exploitation insanity. Starring an aging yet wickedly sharp Peter Cushing and the beautiful former Playboy Playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson (who also happened to be real life twins), Twins of Evil is a thrilling combination of the vampire film, satanic horror film, and witch-hunt thriller, all expertly balanced by screenwriter Tudor Gates. It’s also extremely atmospheric and loaded with Hammer’s beloved castles, heavy fog, crucifixes, tangled woods, and rotting cemeteries.
Twins of Evil introduces us to innocent Maria (played by Mary Collinson) and rebellious Frieda (played by Madeleine Collinson), two identical twins who have traveled to the town of Karenstein to live with their uncle, Gustav Weil (played by Peter Cushing). As it turns out, Weil is the leader of a local witch-hunting group called the Brotherhood, who tracks down young girls who have been accused of witchcraft and burns them at the stake. As the twins settle in to their new home, they happen to hear about a wealthy local by the name of Count Karnstein (played by Damien Thomas), who is well known for practicing the dark arts and coming from a family of Satanists. One evening, Count Karnstein plays host to a satanic cult, and through a barbaric ritual, they happen to contact the spirit of Countess Mircalla (played by Katya Wyeth), who proceeds to turn Karnstein into a vampire. The next day, Karnstein is travelling through town when he bumps into Frieda, who has become smitten with Karnstein’s evil reputation. That evening, Frieda accepts an invitation to Karnstein’s castle, where she gets turned into a vampire and tortures a young girl with Karnstein. After Frieda attacks a member of the Brotherhood, Weil captures his niece and is forced to lock her up until he can decide her fate. His plans change when a local schoolteacher by the name of Anton Hoffer (played by David Warbeck) approaches him about the possibility of vampirism running rampant through the town.
Easily ranking as one of the most fun horror films that Hammer Films ever released, Twins of Evil is an exotic breed of vampire film. The first half is a witch-hunting horror film ripe with hair-raising scenes of Cushing’s Weil ruthlessly running down young girls, tying them to a stake, and burning them to a crisp. Though the film has a heavy B-movie vibe, Hough doesn’t hold back exploring the senseless brutality of these witch-hunts. After finding a man dying in a foggy graveyard from a vampire bite, Weil and his Brotherhood attack the first girl they spot wandering through the woods and drag her off to face a cleansing fire. It really makes for some alarming glimpses of religious extremity at its absolute worst. For a stretch, Hough lays off some of the witch hunting in favor of a satanic horror film set to growling organs, hooded high priests, human sacrifice, and a cry for Satan that would make the climax of Rosemary’s Baby blush. Hough uses the satanic pit stop to glide straight into vampire mayhem that is simultaneously bloody and sexy. The true strength of the film is the way it seems to be able to switch subgenres on us in the blink of an eye.
Performance wise, the actors and actresses seem to have been encouraged to have as much fun with the material as humanly (or inhumanly) possible. Cushing is at his absolutely cheesiest (that is meant as a compliment) as the perpetually serious Weil, an antihero willing to burn an innocent victim at the stake just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ll loathe him at first, but as the film progresses, you’ll be forced to admire the way he sticks to his beliefs. As far as the Collinson twins are concerned, they actually prove to be a pair of competent actresses for a pair of Playboy Playmates. The standout of the two would be Madeleine as the wicked Frieda, who enjoys flirting with the dark side. Hough seems pressured into showing off their bodies for the camera, something that I’m sure Hammer insisted on considering they have Playboy Playmates in the main roles, but the Collinsons don’t seem to mind too much. Damien Thomas gives a vile turn as the satanic Count Karnstein, who grins and snarls through a pair of vampire fangs and shrugs his shoulders in boredom over a satanic ritual that fails to impress him. He can pull off seductive, creepy, and charismatic like a real professional. David Warbeck also holds his own as the kindly schoolteacher Anton, who basically becomes the true hero of Twins of Evil.
While Hammer’s earlier horror films were stone-faced and relentlessly somber, Twins of Evil seems to have a sense of humor about itself. The soundtrack, while exceptional, is wildly over the top, resembling something you might have heard in an Italian spaghetti western. Its all mighty trumpets and ominous organs blasted for maximum effect. Visually, Hough sticks to Hammer’s gothic calling card, but at times he seems to be really laying it on thick, especially in the early scenes when stuffs a gigantic crucifix into a handful of shots. Then there are the overdramatics and the not-so-subtle symbolism that chew on the screen. Cushing screams and shakes his fists at the sky while yelling, “God has sent me TWINS OF EVIL!!,” and during a steamy make-out scene, one character suggestive strokes a nearby melting candle. These winking moments could have been a bit distracting, but Hough has a way of making them strangely charming. Overall, while it certainly drives a stake right through the heart of subtlety and its strongly self-aware, Twins of Evil is still a scrappy little horror movie with plenty of blood, sex, and nudity to go around. It’s a smooth blend of multiple subgenres that all compliment each other quite well in the end. Twins of Evil ranks as one of Hammer’s strongest films in their horror vault.