NEW WORLD PICTURES MONTH: The Velvet Vampire (1971)

At some point in the late 60s, female vampires started to rival their traditional male ancestors. Sure, Dracula’s Daughter and Brides of Dracula were unleashed in 1936 and 1960, but they were tied to a man. The world of female vampires first rose in Carmilla-influenced movies like Blood and Roses and Daughters of Darkness, as well as Eurohorror like the films of Jean Rollin (Rape of the VampireThe Shiver of the Vampires, Requiem for a Vampire), Jess Franco (Vampyros LesbosFemale Vampire) and Jose Larraz (Vampyres), not to mention the ever-growing female desire within the world of Hammer (Twins of EvilLust for a Vampire, The Vampire LoversCountess Dracula), Crypt of the Vampire and strange regional and world cinema like Let’s Scare Jessica to DeathValerie and Her Week of WondersLemora and The Blood Spattered Bride.

Carmilla was first filmed all the way back in 1932 as Vampyr and that story — beyond inspiring so many of the films in the last paragraph — informs The Velvet Vampire. Never think that Carmilla was inspired by Bram Stoker’s better known novel; it predates Dracula by 26 years.

Director Stephanie Rothman was seeking a movie to make after The Student Nurses and the first thought was The Student Teachers, which she wrote with her husband Charles Swartz. Then producer Larry Woolner wanted to make a movie a lot like Daughters of Darkness and Rothman and Swartz wrote this modern day tale of a female vampire.

The vampire at the center of this movie, Diane Le Fanu, is played by Celeste Yarnall, who was in Henry Alan Towers and Jess Franco’s Eve and Beast of Blood; before retiring from acting to be successful in real estate, writing books on holistic pet care, teaching nutrition and breeding of Tonkinese cats, she had Elvis sing “A Little Less Conversation” to her in Live a Little, Love A Little and acted opposite David Soul in the Star Trek episode “The Apple.” Before this film, she turned down rules that had nudity. But when she got divorced and had a young daughter, she decided to do this movie to pay her mortgage.

She told Alex Ander On Film, “I had just had my daughter on July 4th 1970 and was still breastfeeding when I did the movie, so I brought my daughter with me and everyone was very accommodating, just a joy to work with. It was my first experience having a female director and it was remarkable especially concerning the sexual scenes. Stephanie was very sensitive. She closed the set during the more explicit shots, and there was often just Michael and I and the cameraman. We had a skeletal crew that made sure everything was in place. And then of course, the robes came off…”

Her role is named after author Sheridan Le Fanu, the author of Carmilla — Carl Stoker (Gene Shane), the author fanged character in this movie, gets his name from the Dracula author — and she lives in the desert, luring people into her embrace while never leaving behind the preserved corpse of her husband.

She’s invited Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and his wife Susan (Sherry Miles, The Pack) into the desert, where she rides around in her dune buggy and eventually seduces them both. But Lee’s just a means to an end; Susan is who she really needs. But is she a vampire? Sure, she sucks the venom — and blood — of Susan, but she mainly just eats bloody pieces of chicken livers, has a reflection and walks by day. Yet place a crucifix in her way…

There are moments — like the dream sequence where the young couple makes love in the midst of the sand dunes as Diane emerges through a window to attack them — that feels like the sunbaked California remix of Jean Rollin’s artistic blooddrinkers. It’s also the exact opposite of the kind of film that you’d think it was, an exploitative lesbian sex and blood movie. It has all those things. It just feels classier than it should.

That may be why Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader said, “Given the genre (horror) and the budget (extremely low), it may seem perverse to say that Stephanie Rothman’s 1971 film is among the best women’s films ever made, but so it is.”

When she appeared at a screening of this film at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women in 2008, she told Ben Sher, “The freedom that existed was the freedom to take what were the genre expectations and do unexpected things with them. Do things that would make them seem relevant to a wider audience than the usual fans of exploitation films. So we included political opinions and we tried to make the stories have more psychological depth. We tried, given the restrictions of the genre, to address some ideas that were ignored by Hollywood and by most other films made at that time. As long as we met the sub-distributors expectations, they didn’t mind if we exceeded them in other ways. In fact, they were happy if we did things that were controversial, because that would give them publicity in the papers. That’s not why we did them, but that was certainly why they accepted these things. As long as the theater wasn’t burned down, it was all right if we exceeded the conventional expectations for this kind of film.”

The Velvet Vampire played with Scream of the Demon Lover, which is exactly the kind of sex and horror you expect, not that that’s a bad thing. Rothman never really got the respect she deserved by Hollywood when she was working within it. Indeed, in that earlier referenced interview she claims that MGM brought her in for an interview to discuss this movie when they were making The Hunger with Tony Scott and wanted it to feel like her movie. She replied to them, “Well, if you want a film like The Velvet Vampire, why don’t you get Stephanie Rothman to make it?”

I’ve seen this movie described as stylish trash. While that sounds like the kind of movie I love, I continue to rail against the idea of so bad it’s good and guilty pleasures. This film is gorgeous, steamy and looks and plays way better than it should given its budget and origins. We should celebrate it as a success, not place it into a ghetto of film so that we can feel better about having to celebrate a movie with more humble or commercial origins.

You can watch this on Tubi.

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