Horror Bites - The Burning


Hammer's final item on the billing for the so called 'Karnstein trilogy' is an entertaining entry in the series, though it does raise a few questions. The twins themselves are not both evil, and this is obvious from the outset, without any room for surprises. One is good and virtuous, and one is selfish and sadistic. So where does that leave us? The intriguing element to all of this is actually that the two faces of darkness are in the hero and the villain involved; one being evil for the sake of their own self righteous cause and the other being a more traditional evil Count. Perhaps an odd choice when the title points us in another direction, but one worth discussing.

From the beginning this feels more like a witch hunt story than a vampire tale. To accompany the lurid violet title cards we get a scene in which a band of puritan fanatics force a woman from her home and burn her at the stake. It's a pretty dramatic opening accompanied by some great music by Harry Robertson. They're led by Peter Cushing as Gustav Weil (pronounced vile - what a name) who seems to do this kind of thing every night of the week. How far does his jurisdiction range, and how many devil worshippers can they possibly have left to find at this rate? Whatever the logic it's not a problem for him to carry on this way, as those who question him by contacting the church are eyed as suspicious themselves.

Meanhile Gustav's two nieces Maria and Frieda (Playboy models Mary and Madeline Collison) arrive from Venice after the death of their parents. They both express concern at their uncle's temperament after he scolds them when they're not dressed suitably for mourning, and neither seem that sad about being orphaned. However Frieda is the one who wants to escape all of this and live a more exciting life. She doesn't seem inherently bad at this stage, but it's soon obvious she has no qualms getting up to no good after being spotted in the town by Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) who's reputation proceeds him.

You'd imagine that there would be some conflict here with Maria not being quite as good as she first appears or Frieda perhaps showing hesitation when escaping from her family. But strangely the focus is more on the Brotherhood and the nobility who clash early on when Karnstein interrupts one of Gustav's raiding parties and denies them a victim for the pyre. Thomas really chews the scenery here, and I can't deny it's a lot of fun seeing him rave about Satan and throwing out his castle guests after they fail to do any real black magic. But it does sometimes feel like the vampire plot came from another story they had planned and it became attached to all this witchfinder material later.

Cushing himself is great as usual, offering a cold hearted performance as the self righteous zealot leading his men to murder the locals whenever the mood for torches and tinder takes them. They seem to operate on hearsay alone, and find it really hard to have an actual trial in the second half of the story when the group has to be reigned in. It's interesting to see a story essentially without a hero beyond a token romantic subplot. Gustav is certainly not a source of real justice in the town. As things progress it's clear that the Count is the truly evil one, but it's only when Frieda is suspected that Gustav starts to think about his actions. But by this stage things have gone wildly out of control since they had never actually considered vampires as a reality.

In terms of bloodsucking monsters there are some moments that are better than others. The spirit of the Count's dead ancestor rising from the body of a sacrificed woman is an imaginative visual moment, and the idea of a vampires curse spreading this way is a novelty. It would have had more impact if we hadn't seen her grave before this (they show it after too in case you forgot) but it's an atmospheric and ethereal scene. Elsewhere things are a bit muddled since bodies found with bite marks show up before the Count becomes immortal, something that never clarified. But this is a story about girls from Italy moving to a town in Germany where there's a Brotherhood dressed like American puritans, I suppose you can't take it too seriously.

It's another Hammer production so there's plenty of the usual crimson blood, plunging necklines and mild nudity. Some moments are more ridiculous than others, and a candle being stroked in a phallic manner during one sequence will certainly raise a chuckle. Generally though it's played for tension and there's a certain harshness to the violence since the local reign of terror is being pushed from two fronts. Beyond all the burning women there are moments of impalement, decapitation and sacrifice that are all fairly sudden without any of the usual camp. It's a stark looking film with grey castle walls, the black and white Brotherhood costumes, and all the bleak woodland surroundings. There are some fairly gaudy sets in the Count's Satanic basement where the colours contrast and the inverted crosses glow in the dark, but it's fairly restrained elsewhere.

Purely as entertainment it's a decent effort, although it could have done with tighter plotting and a better use of the whole twins gimmick. Outside of one sequence in which Frieda is swapped for Maria during a trial they don't get that much to do. But it's a good mixture of old and new with a central conflict between two memorable enemies. In a few years Hammer would come unstuck as the new wave of American horror features was rolled out, so it's a shame this sort of thing didn't evolve further. It's an essential for fans of Cushing or the period, but for everyone else it's still got enough bite to remain thoroughly watchable.