Go, Pussycat! Go! The Wild World of Ingrid Pitt

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“Through the good times and the bad times in my life I have learned that however much hatred and however many obstacles one meets, with an iron spine one can make it”

-Ingrid Pitt *

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Eurohorror scholar and journo Kat Ellinger’s new SHOCK column focusing on horror’s legendary ladies.

There was no one else quite like Ingrid Pitt, she was a force of nature, an Amazon who took on male dominated horror cinema and carved up the territory to make it her own. She was, as her THE VAMPIRE LOVERS co-star Madeline Smith once described to me during an interview, “very continental”, when placed compared to some of the more straight laced home-grown stars of British horror film. And because of this she had a power and a presence that many of her contemporaries lacked. As well as a memorable career in horror film the actress also starred in many other roles- for cinema and TV- including WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968)- next to Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood- and the gargantuan epic DOCTOR ZHIVAGO ( 1965). Cinema was her life.
The Polish actress was a remarkable woman. Stories of her early years are far more horrific than any of the roles she played for the genre. As a child she survived three years in Stutthof, a Nazi concentration camp, during World War II, together with her mother. Later, the two- who had only just escaped the gas chamber due to a malfunction- went on to flee a woodland execution by the skin of their teeth. After the war they trekked for a year to be reunited with Pitt’s father, moving from one refugee camp to another. It was during the context of such extreme hardship that the star’s iron spine and tenacious spirit were forged.

The actress would then have to escape Communist rule from East Berlin, fleeing to the States after marrying an American soldier, before finally moving back to Europe to pursue a career as an actress. Later in life she survived breast and cervical cancer, but sadly passed away in 2010, aged 73, of heart related problems.
For this writer, Ingrid Pitt was nothing short of an inspiration. Growing up in the 80’s on the British staple diet of Hammer Horror frequently aired on the BBC, the star immediately stood out amongst the many corset busting starlets. Here was a woman who didn’t cry and faint, or run cowering behind the men folk for protection. She was powerful, fascinating, and strong.

And it is for this very reason she has been chosen as the first subject of this new SHOCK! Column: Go, Pussycat! Go! – celebrating the careers of women working in cult horror and exploitation.

So, let us celebrate the career of one of classic horror’s most enduring female icons, discover just what made her such an imitable presence in the roles she played and explore her beautiful legacy. Just what made Ingrid Pitt so special? Read on to find out…

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Although not an actress particularly associated with Spanish horror, it was here that Pitt got her first break into feature film. The star’s first moments on screen carved into the annals of genre history when she took a reasonably sizable role in a little known oddity- directed by José Antonio Nieves Conde- called THE SOUND OF HORROR (1966). The film itself is nothing to write home about if you go by story alone; a super low budget potboiler set in the Greek mountains, featuring a group of people “terrorised” by a “dinosaur” that has been accidently unearthed by archaeologists, and is now out for blood. The creature in question picks off the group one by one, as they barricade themselves in an isolated cottage. One would think that a whopping great prehistoric lizard would be pretty easy to spot, and therefore evade, in an unpopulated rural area. Well maybe, if it wasn’t invisible at least; as this one evidently is (in one of the lamest ploys to avoid the cost of FX work, ever). Never fear, there are some moments of “horror” to behold, even if you don’t really get so much of a whiff of the monster; like the odd footprint in the sand, weird noises, women screaming- lots of women screaming. It’s all very bizarre and mildly entertaining to a point, if only for the novelty value. And yet, despite this, the film is an important one. For it isn’t just that Pitt can be seen in her first horror role here, but that her co-star among the “timid wives” section of characters is none other than Jess Franco muse and fellow icon, Soledad Miranda.

Now that really is something.

The significance of these two particular actresses together on screen cannot be understated. Although it isn’t for anything they do in their consecutive roles for SOUND OF HORROR; this said, there is a mighty fine scene in which the two lay down some groovy dance moves that provides reason alone to scout out this rarity. Here, in a five peseta B-flick, they are just there for the garnish. There to scream their pretty little heads off, and hide behind the big strong men, hoping to get rescued (a fine job they do in their parts too). However, just 4-5 years later both women would have worked to turn the genre on its head. Subverting typically male roles to portray women as vampiric sexual predators; redefining the position of female sexuality as a source of power within the medium of horror cinema: Pitt resurrecting Sheridan Le Fanu’s CARMILLA, for Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970). Miranda playing out a hybrid of Countess Bathory and Dracula, in Jess Franco’s female-centric reformation of Bram Stoker’s classic tale, VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971).

Following her stint in SOUND OF HORROR, Pitt remained living and working in Spain for some time; juggling the life as a jobbing actress with that of a single parent to her daughter Steffanie. She left her marriage to an American soldier; selling her car at the airport in the States, leaving for her native European soil with just her dreams of making it as an actress and little else to her name. Spain was kind to her for a while (even granting her regular work as a presenter on TV), helping her to establish herself in the industry, until union problems saw the gigs all but dry up and Pitt return to the US in search of another role.

Initially lured back to the States on the promise of a non-existent screen test by a seedy producer, and left to work in a diner to earn her fare back to the Med, it would seem an unexpected twist of fate would guide the actress into another genre related role. Just as she was about to give up her dreams, it was discovered she had been serving her homemade plum pudding (not a euphemism!), and sharing her woes, with none other than producer/director W. Lee Wilder (brother of the ever so slightly more famous Billy Wilder). Quite taken with the actress, he offered her a place in a low-budget feature he was shooting in the Philippines: THE OMEGANS (1968). Hoping for her break, the actress agreed, and obscure horror history was made.

THE OMEGANS is one of those ripe little slices of cheese that everyone seems to have either forgotten about or never heard of in the first place. There is a reason for this; it isn’t really very good by any standard measure, but again remains of novelty value to fans of the leading lady. Pitt is the only female member of the cast, shining out in a role that sees the rest of the players remain largely apathetic for the duration. Playing the seductive wife of an aging artist, the typical femme fatale, her character is wrapped up in an illicit affair with a younger man; sticking with the husband because she likes his cash, even if she craves the excitement a lover provides. When the trio find themselves trekking out to the jungle as part of a larger exploration party, they ignore the warnings of locals that the water in the area is cursed. More fool them; a guide is soon dead, and Pitt’s character is attacked by a “glowing ape” in the middle of the night. The cause for this: the mineral phosphoresce; anyone in contact with the water gradually ages and is rendered physically hideous by its effect. The husband, keen to get his own back on his cheating wife, and her lover, encourages them ( both blissfully unaware of the danger) at every moment to get into the death pool on the ruse of posing for a painting, with predictable effects. The last ten minutes or so does see Pitt in some interesting make-up, making THE OMEGANS somewhat worthwhile; however, the constant to-ing and fro-ing to the jungle and back, lack of sex, violence, or presence of anything much else (other than swathes of pointless dialogue) for the large portion of the running time, make this one for the patient. This said, it also demonstrates, even this early on in her career, Pitt had an undeniable screen presence that could not be contained by something so irrelevant. It wouldn’t be long before she was on to bigger and better things.

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THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) was a turning point for British horror; as well as being responsible for altering Pitt’s career trajectory, propelling her eventually into the realms of genre icon. Her performance as the libidinous Marcilla/Carmilla Karnstein became the signature for which she is most remembered. The studio had been looking to change direction in order to meet general audience demand for more sex and violence, delving right into gothic literature for inspiration. Here they found Sheridan Le Fanu’s daring novella CARMILLA; a flavoursome (for the time) tale with strong hints of lesbianism, focusing on the relationship between an innocent young girl and predatory female vampire. The original story predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years, making it one of the founders of vampire literary tradition. It is also one of the many instances of pure gothic that places femininity at its core; an aspect that Hammer studios often overlooked in their earlier dabblings with the subgenre.

For the contemporary filmic reworking by Hammer, Roy Ward Baker took up the directorial spot. The filmmaker, unimpressed with Hammer’s insistence to hot things up for American investors AIP, treated the project with the utmost seriousness. Tudor Gate’s script provided a solid foundation, which was combined with strong casting- including a small but pivotal role for horror legend Peter Cushing. Because of this, it is not surprising that the film has gone on to be considered by many as one of the standout features to come out of the studio’s early seventies experimental period.

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Pitt was perfectly cast as Mircalla/Carmilla Karnstein; the actress putting in a self-assured, performance that oozed carnality, providing a direct contrast to Madeline Smith’s fresh faced ingénue Emma Morton. Perhaps the greatest injustice to the film is that it is often dismissed as nothing more than lurid early seventies cheesecake. Of course the lesbian angle(something both Pitt and Smith denied knowing was in the script when they were shooting), breast biting and nudity is there to titillate, but within this remit Pitt was able to subvert typical gender convention as never seen before in British horror film. Toward the end of the sixties there had been a move toward female driven plots- for example THE WITCHES (1966) had placed two women head to head on opposing sides of good and evil. There had been some experimentation with female monster movies-, such as THE GORGON (1964) and THE REPTILE (1966) for example. There had also been a flirting with fluid gender boundaries in offbeat pieces like FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967). However, the studio still had a long way to go. Pitt explained in her interview for Crumpet! A very British Sex Symbol (2005) “ It was very unusual that women were important in Hammer films” .

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Christopher Lee made a name for both Hammer and himself, when he played the infamous Count Dracula in the vein of a ruthless sexual predator. Elsewhere in the studio domain, female parts were largely relegated to victims or mindless instruments of evil in a paradigm dominated by male power. Pitt’s trick was to channel the same spirit as Lee, while managing to keep a sense of pathos (as an outsider desperate to be loved), and strong sense of femininity for her role. Pitt, talking to the Sci-fi channel in 1998- about her first major role for Hammer- specified that she wanted to become a female “counterpart” to Christopher Lee’s male sexualised vampire, outlining that women “only get remembered as horror queens when they play predators, not victims”.
For her next foray into the genre, the actress found herself heading to Hammer rivals Amicus; a company known for their trademark series of portmanteau films that combined traditional gothic elements with contemporary settings. The film in question was THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971); following DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) and TORTURE GARDEN (1967) in what was to become a series of Amicus anthology films.

Pitt would get the last word in the final segment, THE CLOAK, her chapter handing out the punch line to a wraparound story concerning the disappearance of movie star, Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee); the actor apparently vanishing soon after renting a creepy old house. The film focuses on four chapters, each one telling the tale of a different tenant at the property, all meeting predictably sticky endings as they fall victim to an apparent curse. Pitt’s role as Carla casts her as a glamorous film starlet, with the segment focusing on the clever device of a film within a film (fittingly a vampire one no less). The theme delivered with a big dose of tongue in cheek, and obvious love for the genre. Although this was just a small role for Pitt, it was one that further cemented the star’s figure into the imaginations of British horror fans as an icon and sex symbol, and one that continued to draw in an army of fans powerless to resist her undeniable charm.

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Following up with a hat trick, the actress would take centre stage back at Hammer, starring in COUNTESS DRACULA (1971). For this, Pitt would play the notorious serial killer with a penchant for bathing in virgin’s blood, Countess Elizabeth Bathory. The actress is on record a number of times stating she felt that the film could have been more graphic, as well as disapproving of being dubbed by another actress for the role. Regardless of this, the actress still made it memorable for all the right reasons.

The story focuses on the recently widowed, aging Countess, quickly gaining a reputation from the local villagers as a cold and callous ruler. However, the extent of her unscrupulous and selfish behavior is fully tested when she stumbles on the fact that exposing her skin to virgin’s blood will take away visible aging. When she bathes in the blood of the virgin victims- the stand out scene from the piece sees Pitt completely naked, her body daubed in blood- it enables her to pose as her daughter, Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), who she has imprisoned at a secret location, and all so she can engage in a passionate love affair with a much younger man, while posing as the girl.

If any role stands as a testament to the fact the actress was much more nuanced than people gave her credit for, this is the one. In order to believe the story, the audience has to accept that the 33-year-old Pitt is posing as her 19 year old on-screen daughter. Clearly the actress is not 19 years old, but she does successfully manage to exhibit- when posing as the younger carnation of the Countess- the energy of youthful glamour, and giddy excitement in her new lease of life. Her alter-ego, on the other hand, the wizened old Countess- with a make-up that reportedly took over three hours to assemble each day, and was prone to damage during filming- is sneering, callous and cruel by contrast. While COUNTESS DRACULA is not without its critics, or its flaws, the interesting facets of the character, and Pitt’s strong lead, do make the film one of the more memorable assets in Hammer studio’s seventies output.

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The next instalment for the actress took her to the wilds of Scotland, on a non-studio film, shot completely on location, Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s THE WICKER MAN (1973)- described as THE CITIZEN KANE OF HORROR MOVIES by CINEFANTASTIQUE. THE WICKER MAN is the perfect cult film; often misunderstood, distribution problems from the outset threatened to bury it, and the key message of crazed paganism within the idyll of a “safe” rural community proved a little too out there for audiences at the time of its release. In fact it took a consequent run in the States, and a lot of personalized promotion from director Hardy and actor Lee, to finally get things into gear. Of course, once the film took off, it literally rolled like a stone gathering moss, eventually becoming one of the most loved British horror films of all time.

The central premise of the film focuses on a mysterious community living on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland: Summerisle. Devout Christian copper Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) is called to the location by an anonymous tip-off to investigate the disappearance of a young local girl, Rowan Morrison. What he finds there is a community of neo-pagans, led by the erudite Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and some strange local customs he finds deeply disturbing. As the locals prepare for the coming of May Day festival to bless their crops for the coming year, they indulge in wanton displays of public sex and nudity, the children are taught the phallic aspects of the Maypole, folk songs take on a sinister new meaning, and live frogs provide the cure for the common cold.

It is within this glorious sphere of folk horror perfection that Pitt’s swan song was to play out. Starring as The Librarian, the actress’ continental brand of unabashed sexuality made her perfectly cast as one of the more liberated residents of Summerisle. Seen in just a few scenes, she is a perfect contrast to Woodward’s uptight prudish portrayal of an enraged Christian; especially when he bursts in on her completely naked in a tin bath and she makes no attempt to cover her modesty. The star taking her place next to Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento, as they prepare their sacrificial victim to meet the infamous “Wicker Man”; her parting shot sees her, along with the rest the main cast, singing and swaying in unison, smiling with joy in the face of the shocking destruction of human life.

Pitt’ s involvement in the project came through her marriage to Rank executive George Pinches. In the actress’ autobiography LIFE’S A SCREAM, she described the union as a “marriage of convenience”, cataloguing her former husband’s increasingly controlling behaviour as the reason for the decline in her career toward the end of the seventies. After finding herself “persona non-grata” in the British film industry- something the actress outlined as being a conscious effort of George’s part- Pitt moved to South American, with her new husband, racing car driver, Tony Rudlin The two set about working in theatre and film production, coming back to England in the eighties, where the star was able to develop her career as a writer: a career that would allow her to publish several books.

Although Pitt returned to cinema here and there, taking later roles in genre entries such as the short GREEN FINGERS (2000), MINOTAUR (2006) and New Hammer’s BEYOND THE RAVE (2008), nothing quite touched the legacy she built at the peak of her career. Speaking to The Independent in 1997, talking about her career in British films, she mused, ” The scripts were very good, and they’ve now become cult pictures. It is divine, because people just love them; it reconfirms me and it keeps me alive for ever – like the vampires I play. When I meet people they do not recoil in horror about how I’ve aged; quite the opposite: they say wonderful things, and I let them lie to me as much as they like. They see a 30-year-old film and somehow they see me as I was then. So loving and kind. I’ve never met a weird horror movie fan.”

Towards the end of her life the actress worked tirelessly to continue connecting with fans. Reports surrounding her death suggest she was traveling to a fan club dinner when she collapsed. Unlike so many others who tried to reject their association with the genre, Pitt embraced it, celebrated it, and reveled in it, building a legacy that continues to live on well after her death.

*The Autobiography of Ingrid Pitt: Life’s a Scream (p.280)(1999)
Marshall, Andrew G.) Ingrid Pitt: The queen of horror, acting out a lifetime’s dread. The Independent (Sunday 10 August 1997).