Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Passings: Ingrid Pitt, Actress and Author

Hammer Films--Britain's legendary horror film factory throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies--pushed the genre into the modern age with swatches of rich color (emphasis on the crimson, of course) and a willingness to push the envelope of content. Suddenly, all of the latent sensuality and shocking violence insinuated in the Golden-Age Universal thrillers of the '30's and '40's was spelled out. One of the key figures in that massive shift, actress and author Ingrid Pitt, died yesterday at the age of 73.

Born in Poland in 1937, Pitt's real life was filled with enough drama to rival any of the movies enriched by her presence. She survived internment in a concentration camp as a child, then was forced to flee communist Berlin as a young woman--on the night of her planned stage debut (the British officer who rescued her eventually became her first husband). A few years later she was discovered by producers watching a bullfight, and her career as an actress began.

Pitt's first high-profile film role came in the 1968 war epic Where Eagles Dare, opposite Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, but she made her biggest mark (and, I'd argue, did her best work) as the lead in horror movies.

Hammer cast her as the lead in The Vampire Lovers, a 1970 adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu's short story Carmilla. Even from a studio renowned for frank content, the movie turned heads. Its charged and explicit sexuality changed the landscape of genre films irrevocably, and turned the subgenre of lesbian vampire tales into a cinematic staple.Viewed today, The Vampire Lovers looks downright quaint, but with hindsight it reads more and more like one of Hammer's last really good gothic chillers; solidly directed by Roy Ward Baker (who, sadly, passed away recently himself), and played to the hilt by Pitt.

Her work as the rapacious Carmilla endures. Sure, she's sexy as hell (clothed or no), but the moment in the movie that haunts most profoundly is its most subtle. During a funeral, Carmilla watches sadly, knowing that all around her will die even as she lives on: It's the kind of reflective moment that you don't often get in horror films, and Pitt taps into a deep vein (no pun intended) of empathy to bring it to life.

I'm also in thrall with her great work in the title role of Countess Dracula, a retelling of the Elizabeth Bathory saga in which she manages to make the notorious blood-drinking countess alternately terrifying and sympathetic, and her small but indelible turn as a vampirized actress in the entertaining horror anthology The House That Dripped Blood.

Pitt cannily created a mini-industry around herself for the last two decades of her life, appearing at horror conventions, writing multiple books (fiction and non-), and even organizing a goth dating service (Carmilla the Vampire as Matchmaker? Pretty sublime). All of the late-in-life huzzahs proved richly-deserved: she was an uninhibited and lively writer, and she managed to become one of the few women to carve out a real, multi-layered persona in horror cinema. Brava, Ms. Pitt.