Hello, and welcome back for a brand new Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! After a short hiatus to accommodate our Hellraiser fundraiser in September, I’m ready to get back in the saddle trying to catch up little by little with my horror blind spots.
I’m very excited this month as I’m joined by Annie Rose Malamet of Girls, Guts, & Giallo, a “podcast and live screening series about subversive, controversial film.” Malamet brings a wealth of knowledge on queer history and kink to give her analysis a unique perspective, and you may have caught her on the PBS show The Historian’s Take and more recently on Shudder’s Queer for Fear documentary.
Admittedly, I’ve never been well-versed in the sapphic vampire films from the ’70s, so I was hoping the self-proclaimed “ONLY lesbian vampire expert” (and based on her work on the subject, it’s best to believe her) would bring one to the table. She did not disappoint with Stephanie Rothman’s 1971 film, The Velvet Vampire.
The movie follows Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan (Sherry E. DeBoer), who meet the mysterious Diane (Celeste Yarnall) at a party, where she invites them to join her at her estate tucked away in the middle of the desert. The couple, who already seem to have problems in their relationship (primarily because Lee is kind of a dick), only find themselves in more turmoil as it turns out that Diane is a vampire with intentions on both of them. Will they succumb to her wiles? Will they survive their visit? Will Lee stop being such an asshole?
Before we find out the answers to those questions (with a blanket spoiler alert as we’ll be discussing major plot points), as always I like to find out about my guest’s first time with the film in question. Annie, do you remember your first time watching The Velvet Vampire? What impact did it have on you initially and has that evolved over time?
I first saw this film back around 2015 when I began studying lesbian vampire films. I think at the time I didn’t think it was as fun or sexy as the other movies I was watching. But I’ve since learned about the film and its history, which has made me appreciate it much more.
My understanding of the erotic vampire films of the ’70s is that they were generally European in flavor and typically directed by men. Is The Velvet Vampire an anomaly in that it’s directed by a woman and takes place in the American desert, or are there more flavors of this subgenre than I initially thought?
You are correct. The Velvet Vampire is one of the few American lesbian vampire films. The lesbian vampire was more a Euro-cult tradition. There is so much vampire lore and history in Europe, as well as the literature. Most lesbian vampire films are based on two European figures: the novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, who was an Irish author, or Countess Elizabeth Bathory. The Velvet Vampire is the latter, a riff on the Hungarian noblewoman who is said to have bathed in the blood of over 300 women to maintain her youth. Of course, by the time we get to Diane in The Velvet Vampire, the Countess is more of an “in” reference than anything.
There are a few more contemporary American lesbian vampire films like Bit, Neon Demon, and The Moth Diaries.
I really appreciated the American flavor Rothman incorporates into the film. Rather than greet Lee and Susan with a horse and buggy, Diane greets them in a dune buggy. Instead of the classical gothic organ for the score, we get a lot of really interesting blues guitar licks. Are these all just aesthetic choices, or is Rothman looking to explore American sensibilities through framing the story this way?
Oh, I definitely think so. This film is set in the California desert for a reason. It’s the American answer to the Euro-cult sexploitation films of the time that utilize gothic European settings. This of course starts with the rise of gothic literature in the mid-19th century with the castles and manors of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, and carries over into Southern Gothic in the states with authors like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
Daughters of Darkness is set at an off-season Belgian resort that evokes this idea of a crumbling European society post-World War II that still clings to the pageantry of the gentry. In the gothic in general, the geographic or architectural backdrop is integral to the transgressive, psycho-sexual themes. So in The Velvet Vampire, we get some California gothic in a sun-soaked desert that plays with the surreal nature of that landscape. I love a sun-drenched horror film, and there is something about this one that is distinctly Californian.
There’s something really unsettling in Rothman’s approach to this film. On one hand, she certainly incorporates the romantic, erotic elements that we associate with vampire flicks. But on the other hand, the deaths are really quite harrowing. Her bites don’t elicit sensual moans, but rather manic screams that were really effective. Do you think Rothman is trying to dispel some of those romantic vampire myths?
That’s an interesting question I hadn’t thought of. It’s hard to say if that was intentional or an acting issue, haha. The reason I sort of err on that side is because the film is so erotic in a host of other ways. For example, those great dream sequences where Diane visits the couple in their bed that’s now transported to the middle of the desert.
For a movie centered on vampires, I was surprised to find that no one in this movie sucks harder than Lee. He spends most of the movie belittling Susan every chance he gets and just generally being smug and terrible all the time. Am I looking at this through 2022 eyes, or was this a deliberate statement from Rothman?
It was completely deliberate. Stephanie Rothman was a kind of protégé of Roger Corman’s, and she made a few exploitation films with his production company before this like Blood Bath, It’s a Bikini World, and The Student Nurses. Despite making this kind of sleazy “men’s” fare, she would always try to inject a feminist message into these “lowbrow” sexploitation films. In the case of The Velvet Vampire, Rothman explicitly set out to make a feminist satire of the lesbian vampire genre. The movie begins with a rape revenge and ends with a woman losing her mind in public. It skewers some of the typical tropes while also utilizing them in a way that’s quite clever. Contemporary filmmakers interested in satire should take heed.
That ending is pretty wild. For as menacing and ruthless as Diane is throughout the film, including murdering Lee and stalking Susan, Rothman seems to lean into the tragedy of her demise as she’s ganged up on by a group of people shouting at her with crosses. There’s also something to the visual of a bisexual woman being literally demonized by people waving religious imagery. Are we supposed to see this as a tragic ending?
I think it’s definitely meant to be an indictment. I’m not sure about “tragic,” but I see it more as playing with lesbian vampire tropes and adding a new element to the formula. The lesbian vampire typically dies at the end of these movies. There are a few reasons for that: (1) As most stories are based on Carmilla where the vampire dies at the end, it is in that tradition. (2) Because of the history of the Hays code in the United States, which specifies that the villain has to die at the end of the movie. (3) Men are threatened by the idea of a queer woman triumphing over them. The titillation is all well and good, but we can’t let it get TOO out of hand, if you know what I mean.
I see the ending of The Velvet Vampire as a conversation with that ongoing trope. What if the lesbian vampire’s death was not brought about by a man? What if instead, a repressive society was how she met her end?
Where does The Velvet Vampire sit for you in the pantheon of lesbian vampire films? You’d mentioned earlier that upon first viewing you didn’t enjoy it as much as other films in the subgenre. Has it become more of a staple, or more just an interesting entry because of the way it veers from the quintessential films of its day?
I now love The Velvet Vampire. It is an important film in the pantheon, and I consider it a staple for learning about the genre, which is why I chose it to discuss with you. I think I wasn’t as interested in it because I’m just not as jazzed about American film. But learning about the history, studying the tropes as well as the gorgeous aesthetic choices, I’ve come to love this movie and consider it just as important as Daughters of Darkness (1971) or The Hunger (1983).
I always like to ask my guests about whether or not they think a modern reimagining of a film would work. You’d mentioned movies like Bit, Neon Demon, and The Moth Diaries have continued to carry the spirit of the American lesbian vampire story, but do you think there’s room for a retelling of The Velvet Vampire? If so, how would you want to see it approached, and do you have any suggestions for who should be involved?
I am kind of famously anti “modern reimaginings,” so this is an interesting question for me. I’m not sure it would work because the gender politics are so deeply rooted in 1970s American feminism/women’s liberation. It could easily come off in 2022 as trite.
With that said, if it were going to be reimagined, there would have to be major updates to the feminism at the core of the film. The hetero couple should be “unicorn hunters” that get more than what they bargained for, or something to that effect. Even still, it’s hard for me to conceptualize this out of Stephanie Rothman’s hands. I definitely would want her to direct this fictional, new version of her film. I would want it to be produced by a company that isn’t through a streaming platform, as I find Hulu and Netflix films abysmally lacking in style or edge. Someone like my friend Michael Kennedy, who wrote the film Freaky, would be a perfect fit for the screenplay as a queer American writer whose sensibility is rooted in comedic horror. Given her recent standout performance in Hellraiser, I’d like to see Jamie Clayton as Diane.