“You know what sells films, sweetie: tits and cheap lighting. What in the hell is this artsy-fartsy brass bed in the middle of the desert crap? How in the hell am I suppose to recycle this into another film? And we’re calling it ‘Cemetery Girls,’ got it?”
— Roger Corman schools Stephanie Rothman on the fine art of exploitation filmmaking (not really, we are trying — and failing — at being funny)
This is the type of review I enjoying writing for B&S About Movies, as it was born out of chatting about film with our loyal readers whom reach out to us via review comments, our feedback form, or social media.
The review begins when I had chats with Mike Perkins, professional librarian extraordinaire, who, in working with B&S About Movies’ friend and contributor, Mike Justice of The Eerie Midnight Detective Agency site, solved the mystery of the short-lived career of ’70s actor Peter Carpenter (which we discuss within a two-fer review of Peter’s work in Vixen! and Love Me Like I Do).
Then Mike Perkins and I got to talking about Peter Carpenter’s he-was-there-then-he-was-gone doppelganger in actor Gene Shane . . . and, as with Pete, there’s little-to-nothing known about Gene’s life after he wrapped up career his with The Velvet Vampire. As with Pete: Gene only did four films: the others are Run, Angel, Run! (1969), the lost Bernard L. Kowalksi* flick with David Janssen, Macho Callahan (1970), and Werewolves on Wheels (1971). Unlike Pete: Gene branched off into legit TV series, with the ratings-toppers The High Chaparral and Bonanza (1969), but he got his start in the short-lived, forgotten series The Guns of Will Sonnett and The Outcasts (1968).
And so ends the resume of Gene Shane . . . well . . . if we believe the Digital Content Managers of the IMDb, which list Gene starring as “Jesus” — of all characters — in the 2004 Larry Buchanan quasi-documentary, The Copper Scroll of Mary Magdalene (see his Jim Morrison romp Down On Us, aka Beyond the Doors, for more on the ‘Buch’s paranoia-docs lifespan). Ah, but ye DCM’ers of the IMDb, busted again, ye are: that film is actually The Rebel Jesus shot in the ’70s and shelved. Buchanan finally got around to editing it for its 2004 release — when he died. (Oh, get this: the film also stars Garth Pillsbury from Peter Carpenter’s Vixen! — so there’s that to mull over.)
So, what does that mean?
Well, Gene Shane, aka Duece Berry in Werewolves on Wheels, if you’re keeping track, like Peter Carpenter before him — vanished from the face of the Earth after four films, with The Velvet Vampire, in fact, as is his last work (plot spoiler: or is it?).
Cue Mike Perkins to the B&S About Movies cubicle farm: he’s already on The Case of Gene Shane. So stayed tuned . . . for the ‘Perk will find out, and when he knows, you’ll know, right here on the pages of B&S About Movies.
Alrighty, then. Let’s unpack The Velvet Vampire.
Finally . . . The Review!
So, yeah, Roger Corman, who bankrolled this through his New World Pictures shingle, didn’t like the end product — so he dumped The Velvet Vampire into Drive-Ins on a double-bill with Jose Luis Merino’s (awesome!) Spanish-Italian co-production Scream of the Demon Lover (1970). Meanwhile, USC trained writer and director Stephanie Rothman — who previously served in both capacities on The Student Nurses for Corman — was disappointed on how Corman handled the movie, as well as its box-office reception. Mind you, this response is from the guy who rips off Star Wars by way of The Magnificent Seven — then recycles Battle Beyond the Stars over and over again in (the even worse) Space Raiders and Forbidden World, but in the cooler Galaxy of Terror and not so bad Android.
Rothman roots with Corman run deep: It was after a viewing of The Seventh Seal that she decided to become a filmmaker. And she reached her goal: She was the first woman to be awarded the Directors Guild of America fellowship. So Corman gave her a job . . . directing It’s a Bikini World, then she worked on Gas-s-s-s and The Student Nurses. But she wasn’t interested in making a sequel to The Student Nurses or making The Big Doll House . . . she pitched The Velvet Vampire.
So Rothman left New World for Dimension Pictures, where she . . . well, for you Eddie Romero fans: she wrote his 1973 Philippines-shot ditty, Beyond Atlantis (Patrick Wayne! John Ashley!), then directed Terminal Island, The Working Girls and Group Marriage. Oh, and by 1978, she wrote — and had her name removed from — Starhops, which shouldn’t be confused with Gas Pump Girls or Lunch Wagon, but is of the T&A Van Nuys Blvd. variety.
In an interview, “Feminism, Fantasy and Violence: An Interview with Stephanie Rothman,” in the Journal of Popular Film & Television, Rothman spoke of The Velvet Vampire: “It’s not a traditional horror film nor a hard-core exploitation movie. In some places it was booked into art theatres. In others it had [a] one week saturation release in drive-ins and hard-top theatres. There was no consistent distribution pattern for it because people responded differently to it and I think that may be part of the [film’s failure].
Stephanie, screw Roger. We friggin’ love this movie!
Oh, and let’s not forget: Bram Stoker isn’t behind the implied soft-core shenanigans, here. Stoker’s Dracula came out in 1897. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla came out 26 years prior, in 1872; it was reprinted for its best-known and accessible distribution as part of Le Fanu’s short-story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872). Another great female vampire tale rife with (implied) sex and lesbianism that draws from Le Fanu’s works is French director and screenwriter Roger Vadim’s And Die of Pleasure, aka Blood and Roses; another is the early ‘70s “fleshy” variations of The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil, aka “The Carnstein Trilogy” from Hammer Studios. . . .
Oops, back to the film at hand . . . er, that is, neck.
I love how The Velvet Vampire starts: We have the eyeball-melting Celeste Yarnall (my heart is weeping, again; sigh, Celeste) walking alone across a city-at-sleep: she’s decked out in a mod-red dress. And a ubiquitous biker tough (the always-welcomed character awesomeness of Robert Tessier in an early, pre-The Longest Yard roll) tries to mug-rape her. (Yeah, right, Robert, that’ll work.) Next thing you know: Diane LeFanu (yeah, know your Sheridan LeFanu and “Carmilla” from In a Glass Darkly) causally washes her hands in a park fountain.
Then Mr. LaFanu heads on over to an art gallery (run by Gene Shane as Carl Stoker; who’s part of the plot twist; yep, “Hi, Bram!”) filled with erotic wares — as real-life blues artist Johnny Shines preforms his song, “Evil-Hearted Woman.”
All this in the first five minutes? I’m hooked.
We haven’t even gotten to the dune buggy-innuendos. Or the (simply stunning) phantasmal, desert-surrealism scenes. Or the woman-on-woman sucking-snake-venom-out-the-leg (thigh, but no triangle-of-death shot) scene. Or the hints of cannibalism and necrophilia. Or the subtle, implied lesbianism.
So . . . our vamp, the divine Ms. LaFanu, picks up Lee Ritter (Eric Stolz-lookalike Michael Blodgett from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Disco Fever), a sex-swingin’ married guy at the gallery and invites him and his put-upon (very hot blonde) hippy wife, Susan (more heart-weeping for Sherry Miles-DeBoer of The Phynx), to her secluded desert estate — conveniently located near an abandoned mine and an old graveyard (filled with the long, mysteriously-dead miners). Sharon’s attended to by her slave: Juan (Jerry Daniels; some U.S. TV, but Lee Majors’s The Norseman).
What raises Stephanie Rothman’s vamp-fest above most of the cliche vampress romps of the ’70s — and puts it, for me, on level with my beloved Hammer’s “Carnstein Trilogy,” as well as the great Count Yorga and greater Lemora, Lady Dracula — is that Rothman eschews the conventions of yore: Ms. LaFanu lives in the desert and embraces the sun, she’s a voyeur (as the couple has sex), has a reflection, sucks down raw chicken livers, and jumps into her hubby’s grave and pines for him as she cries on top of his pine box. And she may not even be a vampire: just a psycho with a blood fetish/illness. And, unlike those Hammer-Euro vamp-babes of old: she’s bisexual and blood is blood, after all.
What the frack, Rog? I have no idea what you didn’t like, here, desert brass beds and the sexuality of snakes, be damned.
Oh, this friggin’ epic movie!
Rothman does a wonderful job symbolism-editing Ms. Ritter’s desert snake bite moment with Ms. LaFanu sinking her fangs into Mr. Rothman. Meanwhile, Rothman’s cinematographer, Daniel Lacambre, really knows how to work a lens under the baking sun, inside mine shafts, and empty mansions — and the later L.A. train station chase. The love scenes between Yarnall and Blodgett couldn’t be more artful, tasteful, and exotically shot — without degrading into Russ Meyer-removed sleaze. (Which is probably why Corman hated it: too arty and not “exploitative” enough. Whatever, Rog. Don’t you have some unimaginative stock footage to recycle?) Again, the desert-surrealism of the Ritters in bed in the middle of the desert wasteland: don’t tell me Don Coscarelli wasn’t inspired by Rothman’s frames. That’d be like saying Sam Raimi wasn’t inspired, i.e., ripped off, Equinox to make Evil Dead.
Critics, both pro (Frack you, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times) and just-run-of-the-mill codgers, slag the acting — especially Blodgett’s. Granted, no one, besides Celeste Yarnall, is jumpin’ on the A-List (well, maybe so; Yarnall retired for a spell from acting after working with Burt Lancaster in ’73’s Scorpio; but did a LOT of U.S. television, prior), but everyone’s thespin’ fine. And I distinctly remember — because I had a mad-as-hell boy-crush on her — Sherry Miles in reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies, Adam-12, The Partridge Family, and Police Woman. You don’t book all of those jobs by not being good at your job. (I was supposed to be married to Sherry by now — and playing second guitar for the Monkees. Sigh, childhood dreams.)
And that’s what this not-really-a-lesbian-vamp-flick is: a dream. I love this movie . . . and a bag o’ chips. Thank god Corman didn’t wrestle it away from Stephanie Rothman to add more boobs and lesbian-love to screw up a perfect horror film.
Yes. Perfect. Don’t debate me on this point.
You can free-with-ads stream The Velvet Vampire on Tubi TV. There’s also a non-commercial rip on Daily Motion. As you can see from the trailer, you can purchase the restored DVD from Scream Factory, as well as other imprints.
Stephanie, Sherry, and Gene, Oh, My!
Did you know Sherry booked — then lost — the role of Bobbie in Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge to Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas). So, yeah, Sherry thespian-rocked it. No worries, though. Sherry ended up in Your Three Minutes Are Up with Beau Bridges, Harrad Summer for Steven Hilliard Stern (This Park Is Mine), and The Pack with Joe Don Baker for Robert Clouse (The Ultimate Warrior), great films, all.
If you’re keeping track, and a Stephanie Rothman completist: She also wrote and directed Blood Bath (1966), It’s a Bikini World (1967), something called Group Marriage (1973) (which we never heard of), the Escape from New York precursor, Terminal Island (1974) (which we’re absolutely convinced John Carpenter ripped; inspired by Watergate, my ass, John), and the soft-sexer The Working Girls (1974).
Stephanie also wrote our much-loved Patrick Wayne-Sid Haig adventure-cheapy Beyond Atlantis (1973), and the late-’70s T&A’er (see William Sachs’s Van Nuys Blvd. for the breakdown on that genre) Starhops (1978). Oh, and before Corman gave her the reins, between ’65 and ’66, she served as a producer on Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Beach Ball, and Queen of Blood. You’ll also see her production-credited on Corman’s Gas! Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. Be sure to check our the extensive Wikipedia page dedicated to Stephanie’s life and insights; it’s a story of hard luck and bad knocks. She deserved so — as you’ll see from The Velvet Vampire — much more. What a movie!
Speaking of Wikipedia: Yes, there will be an all-new Wikipedia page created for Gene Shane — as well as Peter Carpenter. That’s Mike Perkins-money-in-the-bank . . . and a bag o’ chips.
But, uh . . . have we been Shane-duped?
There’s also an actor known as Gene Otis Shayne, often credited Gene Otis Shane or Gene O’Shane (1936 – 2017). An Al Adamson stock player, he made his feature film debut in Uncle Al’s own vamp-romp (woefully inferior to The Velvet Vampire), Blood of Dracula’s Castle (1969), and a biker-romp, Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970).
I never gave it much thought, until now. Outside of the brown vs. blue eyes, they look like the same guy, to me. The plot thickens . . . but I’ll leave this in Mike Perkins’s capable hands. I am still coming down from blowing my brain cells with three back-to-back Robert Rundle** film reviews (long story). I can’t handle the information download of Gene Shane-Duece Berry-Gene Otis Shayne-Gene Otis Shane-Gene O’Shane as being the same person, not after the tales of Rundle.
We’ll keep you posted on . . . The Case of the Two Gene Shanes. (Dah-da-dun!)
* We did a three-day tribute to the films of Bernard L. Kowalksi, click the link, won’t you?
** The analog triad of Cybernator, The Divine Enforcer, and Run Like Hell . . . will make you run, like hell.
Update February 2024: Never Say Never, meho. Once it worms into our brains . . . we finally rolled out our many-times-threatened Roger Corman tribute with a month of reviews released by his New World Pictures shingle. Yeah, if you enjoyed our two-month Cannon Films blow-out, you know we won’t let any canister of celluloid unturned on ‘ol Rog’s oeuvre. Clicking through the link will populate all of those months’ reviews, which includes a second take on The Velvet Vampire, as it additionally name checks several other female vampers to enjoy.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.