The aristocracy of this country is decadent. Their whole lives are devoted to sinful pleasures. The pursuit of lust. Is it any wonder that the devil comes amongst us?
Gustav Weil is a busy man, riding through the woods daily with his crew to fight vampires and the witches who love them. While Gustav knows that the rich and powerful Satan-worshiping dandy, Count Karnstein, is a source of evil in the community, he is protected by the emperor, so his band of brothers choose to run down lovely, young, defenseless maidens so they can rough them up before declaring them witches and burning them at the stake.
Gustav's twin nieces, who have recently been orphaned, arrive to stay with their upright Aunt and Uncle. They are from Venice, where the weather is apparently very warm, as they need to wear low-cut dresses and flimsy, see-through nighties to stay cool. While the girls are difficult to tell apart by appearance, it's clear that Frieda is naughty and Maria is nice.
Their arrival does not interrupt Uncle Gustav's hectic schedule of hunting down and burning more innocent girls with his posse.
When Frieda overhears her Uncle describing Count Karnstein's wild parties up at his castle on the hill where men and women strip naked and hold pagan rites, she decides it might be a cool place to check out.
One night, Count Karnstein is feeling bored and decides to sacrifice a peasant girl to the devil, which inadvertently raises his dead wife, who makes him a vampire instantly with one bite.
When Frieda invites herself to Karnstein's castle to party, he puts the bite on her, and she also becomes an instant vampire. According to Karnstein, you've got to be naughty to become a vampire, and only the good and innocent die from the bite.
Her first order of business is to punish one of Karnstein's village playthings at his behest by sinking her newly grown fangs into her soft, pillowy flesh.
Meanwhile, Uncle Gustav continues to burn more innocent girls with his gang.
Choir master Anton is understandably upset about all the pretty girl burning, and he and his sister Ingrid note that Gustav has pretty, young nieces who've escaped burning at the stake. She calls him out for showing an obvious interest in Frieda and questions why not Maria, who looks the same but is nicer. He admits she is nice, but gets animated when talking about Frieda's burning fire inside and mysterious quality.
Frieda sneaks back into the house right before her uncle returns, and Maria complains about having to cover for her sister's absence and getting a beating from Uncle Gustav for it. Maria senses that Frieda has changed, but her twin connection doesn't allow her to know that her sister's become a vampire.
Gustav accosts Anton for making a complaint to the church about him, and Anton tries to educate him on the proper way to kill vampires, informing him that burning doesn't do the trick, but a stake through the heart or beheading is the only way to dispatch one. After Gustav warns him not to interfere with the brotherhood again, he makes a veiled threat against him and his sister, prompting Anton to send Ingrid away to stay with an aunt.
While Anton takes on the difficult task of having to give extra choir practice to a group of lovely ladies, his instruction is interrupted by Gustav and his merry men bringing in and unveiling his sister's vampire bitten corpse.
While the Brotherhood holds court, Frieda stupidly feeds on a screaming brother outside their hall, alerting the others, who encircle her with crosses bared.
Her uncle declares that the devil has sent him twins of evil and Frieda is taken to jail.
Count Karnstein pays a visit to Maria, who's been given sedatives by her aunt to calm her, but is repelled by the cross she's clasped to her breast. In her delirium, she thrashes about and drops the cross, allowing him to steal her from her bed to exchange her with her imprisoned sister, who's been found guilty by the brotherhood and sentenced to burn.
Karnstein tells Frieda she'll be the virginal Maria, imagining the havoc she'll cause, and instructs his servant Joachim to help change their clothes.
Anton interrupts the brotherhood, warning that killing Frieda will also kill Maria. Gustav says he can't do anything for Frieda, but that Maria is at the house. Anton finds Frieda, pretending she's Maria, in bed, who attempts to seduce him, while the brothers drag the real Maria out for burning. Anton is wise to her when he sees she's not reflected in the mirror, and after a provocative tussle, he narrowly escapes her fangs by tossing the cross Maria dropped on the floor earlier onto her naked chest.
As Maria is being bound to a stake for burning, Aunt Katy tells Gustav that Frieda was seduced by Count Karnstein and couldn't help being evil. Anton arrives just in time to save her by telling him he has the wrong girl and should use the cross to determine that he's telling the truth.
The brotherhood is worried the emperor will burn their houses if they go after Karnstein, and Anton takes them to task over their willingness to burn young girls and old men, and not have the cojones to seek out the evil that's been practiced at Karnstein castle for centuries. He claims the emperor protects Karnstein because he's afraid of the devil, and gives a rousing speech that has the men running off to sharpen stakes and prepare lances and axes for beheading.
Karnstein and Frieda seem to have dressed for the occasion in traditional red and black vampire garments, as they watch the villagers approach, seemingly unaware that they have a lot of sharp, pointy things, since Karnstein tells her not to be afraid of her uncle's fires which will not destroy them.
When Joachim sees the rabble in the forest, he runs in to the castle to warn Karnstein by miming stakes and axes. Karnstein gets angry and knocks Frieda down, and then helps her up so they can escape through the tunnels, while instructing Joachim to hold them off.
This is the point where I should advise that if you haven't seen this film, you really should not continue reading before seeing it for yourself, as the ending is particularly nasty and delightful. Consider yourself warned.
Joachim does a bit of damage before he's taken out.
When the vampires emerge from the tunnel, Karnstein bravely sends Frieda ahead while he keeps watch. Uncle Gustav appears and grabs hold of her head and removes it quite handily.
Karnstein demonstrates what a scaredy-cat he truly is by shrieking and running back to the castle to barricade himself. Gustav attempts to break in but is unable, and shows his tender side by covering Frieda's headless body with his cloak and telling his men to take her to the chapel.
Maria gets a pain in the neck, sensing something's wrong with her sister, and runs off, while Aunt Katy tells Anton, who runs off to catch up to her. She finds Frieda's shoe and Karnstein grabs her. Anton tries to reach her, but the Count locks the door and drags her back through the tunnels.
As the villagers swarm the castle, the count appears and lifts Maria to toss her over the railing to the ground below where they stand looking up at him in horror. Gustav grabs an ax from the wall and approaches the Count, who sets Maria down, and laughs, seeming less fearful than he was moments earlier.
While it would seem an easy kill shot, Karnstein moves his head quickly out of the way when the strike comes, and the ax lands in the door, where he extricates it and throws it into Gustav's retreating back.
As Gustav withers, Karnstein grabs him and tosses him to the ground below, where he lands unhappily on the stairs.
As Karnstein prepares to bite Maria, Anton skillfully tosses a spear, landing it right in his heart. He rushes up the stairs to her and they watch as the Count transforms.
Gustav's lifeless body is arranged by his brothers as Maria and Anton look down from above.
This is an enjoyable film that treats us to vampires, witch hunting and satanic ritual. While the obvious draw is the titillating value of the twins, I think there is some interesting commentary lurking beneath the exploitation. I found it interesting to compare Gustav preying on young girls in a misguided attempt to stamp out evil, as opposed to Karnstein preying on young girls for the pleasure of doing evil, and wondering which is more heinous.
Frieda complains about what hell it is to live with Uncle Gustav, who makes the girls go to bed early and doesn't allow them to go out and party with the local bad boy Count. Throughout the film, we see that women are powerless and controlled by the men around them, which is truly horrifying. In Gustav's world, if a woman is single and refuses to marry, that makes her dangerous and in need of destruction. Independent females are to be feared and mistrusted. Indeed, the possibility that these young women may be practicing witchcraft may frighten him simply because they are women with power. When Frieda gives herself up to Count Karnstein, she is unable to see that he is no different from her uncle, controlling her and demanding that she do as he pleases.
It is also interesting to note that Gustav's gang goes after the weak and powerless, while refusing to attack the source of evil because he had the emperor's protection, suggesting that the rich and powerful are able to escape justice due to their position.
I enjoyed the gothic atmosphere and grisly effects, which come nonstop at the end, making for an exciting finish. Peter Cushing is always a delight to watch and this is a movie I'd watch again, but that goes without saying, since Hammer Horror is near and dear to my heart. I expect I'll be revisiting more films from Hammer studios in the near future.