I can imagine in the context of the time, with Hammer Films entering its final creaky decade and with the stunt casting of twin Playboy Playmates, that Twins of Evil would’ve been received as one of Hammer’s lesser efforts. No matter; time and distance have been kind to Twins of Evil. The Collinson Twins carry none of the baggage of their time, having faded from the public eye, and Hammer’s old-fashioned gothic approach feels appropriately classic now, not as dusty as it did in the wake of eye-opening contemporaries like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.
Synapse has brought the film to Blu-ray (in a Blu/DVD combo pack), the first time the movie has been available since the days of VHS (Synapse also did the same for Hammer’s Vampire Circus, which is a great disc, even if the feature isn’t as strong as Twins of Evil). For Hammer fans, Twins of Evil is a must-own. The HD transfer is vivid with sharp contrast and lively, organic film grain. It’s not that Twins of Evil has never looked better — it’s that no Hammer film I’ve seen has ever looked better. Synapse ups the game in the special features department by including a feature length documentary (also in anamorphic HD) that specializes on Hammer’s three-film approach to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla story.
The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil features some background history on Hammer, with a gallery of experts (including author David Skal and Twins‘ director John Hough) to guide us through the making and release of Twins of Evil. Hammer adapted Le Fanu’s Carmilla as The Vampire Lovers, playing up the softcore lesbian vampire aspects inherent in the work, then franchised out the character with limited success in two sequels — Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. I was shocked at how thorough the documentary was, especially in these days of shrinking special features. You really are getting two films for one price, with the usual featurettes and galleries as frosting on the bloody cake.
That said, Twins of Evil is barely connected to the Carmilla cycle, and can be enjoyed entirely on its own. The main villain is Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), a hedonistic cad dabbling in Satanism, who also happens to be living in Carmilla’s old digs. Two orphaned twins (Mary and Madeleine Collinson as Maria and Frieda, respectively) end up under the care of their stern uncle, Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), who is trying to flush out the evil influence of Count Karnstein in his village, one burned witch at a time. A “witch” to Gustav is any woman caught consorting with the Devil, which pretty much means that anyone who beds with Karnstein is marked for death at Gustav’s hands. All of this talk of the Devil and lust gets the rebellious Frieda more and more curious about Karnstein until it leads her down a path that will put her at a crossroads with her puritanical uncle.
Carmilla shows up for just a bit as Countess Mircalla (an anagram), an ancestral vampire who blesses Karnstein with her curse before disappearing from the story entirely. Karnstein gets a new thrill from his supernatural powers, and works to seduce Frieda to the world of the undead. Twins of Evil is a slightly misleading title, as Maria is nothing but virtuous and kind-hearted, but it may be in reference to Gustav’s view of them both as wanton children who deserve (offscreen) beatings to rid them of the Devil’s influence.
Cushing is given a lot to work with as Gustav Veil, a man who is neither the villain nor the hero of the piece, but something in between. His harsh hand may be what drives Frieda to the dark side in the first place, as a means to rebel, and it’s his crisis of conscience that provides the second half of the film with its moral conflict. If pressed, could he kill the very girls he’s been entrusted to protect? And what if he’s wrong about Maria’s complicity with Frieda? Cushing is a riveting personality, and when he’s given actual character work, he always shines.
Damien Thomas, a dead ringer for Jimmy Fallon, is acting to the rafters. Almost hilariously over the top on first viewing, subsequent viewings seem to temper Thomas’s performance, perhaps due to its hammy consistency. He’s overacting, but he’s doing it with style and commitment. The Collinson’s are a magnetic screen presence, naturally beautiful and appropriately precocious, but also slightly strange. The reason for their oddly mannered performances comes from the spot-on English dubbing over the girls’ heavy Maltese accents. It’s exceptionally good dubbing, but it does give their line deliveries an oddly stilted quality.
This was John Hough’s first crack at Hammer horror, and it’s a good one. Hough keeps the action moving briskly, never letting the peekaboo nudity or the red paint gore supersede the story. Besides one noticeable gaffe (a vampire’s victim is discovered to provide foreshadowing, despite no vampires at this point in the story), Twins of Evil is amongst Hammer’s best. If you’ve never given Hammer a try, this is an excellent place to start; if you’re already a fan, then grab this disc.