Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Stephanie Rothman's film is an intriguing, titillating mix of old horror motifs and some that were new or just particular to her time. In the early 1970s the desert was probably a spookier place for many viewers than it might be today. That's because it was Manson Country, and there are other Manson signifiers in the background, such as the dune buggy the title menace drives through the desert and the ghost town the characters visit -- a stand in for the Spahn Ranch. At the same time, the desert was a visionary landscape for many people, as Zabriskie Point and other films can testify, and it plays that visionary role here as well. But the novelty of the setting doesn't obscure some traditional gothic trappings. The main setting of The Velvet Vampire is pretty basic: a strange house where a guest doesn't know her way around and often loses track of her one companion. But if the film is gothic it is still quite modern -- or Seventies modern -- in its emphasis on sexual anxiety and dysfunction -- and topless actresses.

We start with a husband and wife, Lee and Suzy Ritter, visiting Carl Stoker's art gallery, where they meet Diane Le Fanu, who takes a fancy to the young people and invites them out to her desert home for a weekend. Those last names are just too cute, but that's about as campy as the movie gets, and it plays pretty straight from there. The Ritters' car breaks down in the desert, but Diane arrives in her dune buggy to bring them home while having their car taken to a nearby garage.

The Ritters aren't quite compatible sexually. Lee is more demanding, and there are things that Suzy won't do. There's a scene in their guest bedroom where Lee seems to be requesting oral sex, only to learn that Suzy doesn't feel like it. He goes to sleep in a huff while Diane takes mental notes from the other side of a two-way mirror.

V is for Velvet Vampire, and for Voyeurism.

The bed and the mirror then form part of a desert dreamscape. Here Lee and Suzy make love, only to be interrupted by Diane, who steps through the mirror and summons Lee from the bed. I saw this fullscreen on a streaming video, but even in that diminished state I recognized the quality of the art direction, which must look much better in a proper presentation. But Suzy isn't concerned with aesthetics. She wakes from the dream in an alarmed state, only to learn that Lee has had the same damn dream.

V is also for Visions (above and below)

Suzy likes her stay less and less as Diane openly flirts with her husband ("I'd like to drive your dune buggy," he says significantly; "I'd love to teach you how," she answers). She isn't keen on visiting an abandoned mine, and she gets attacked by a bat for her trouble. When they visit the ghost town, she isn't interested in exploring and decides to sun herself in the middle of the street. For that she gets bit by a snake, but it's Diane who saves the day by eagerly sucking out the poison, and from that point, Suzy starts to warm to the place.

V is for Viper, whatever that may be crawling up Sherry Miles's leg.

There are odd things about Diane. She enjoys steak tartar, which I suppose counts as an acquired taste, but we later see her gobbling raw liver to Lee's disgust. But cats eat raw liver, she says, and aren't we all just animals? Again, an acquired taste, but how about the way she and her servant Juan treated the mechanic who came to the house, and the way they treat the mechanic's girlfriend who shows up at the graveyard snooping around. What's with Juan holding the girl down and Diane biting her neck? And what about Juan telling Suzy that Diane took him in when he was just a child? He and Diane look about the same age, but shouldn't Diane be older? How come her husband's grave has 19th century dates on it? Well, that one Diane can answer: the original dates referred to hubby's grandfather, and since hubby had the same name they just moved him into the old grave when he died. But of course.

But these things aren't bugging Suzy the way they first did. Even the sight of hubby banging their hostess on the living room floor doesn't faze her as much as we might have expected. Suzy actually seems to be turned on by it, and Diane notices this. Something registers in the collective subconscious, too, because the dream of the desert now has a sequel. Previously, Diane had bared her breast to the naked Lee while Suzy pouted in bed. Now, Diane leaves Lee standing in the wind and goes back to the bed. She takes a knife and makes a small cut on Suzy's naked breast, and commences to suckle away. Our waking couple realizes a shift in the balance of power, and Suzy gets a kick out of Lee's swelling jealousy.

The stage is being set for something, since Diane has decided to discharge poor Juan with extreme prejudice. She's going to need, or may just want a new companion, but who's it going to be? She starts to make moves on Suzy: "Have you ever noticed how men envy us?" she asks, "The secret pleasure that only we can have?" Before long, however, she's spread out on a bed inviting Lee to join her. But she'll be back on that bed shortly extending the same invitation to Suzy....

The Velvet Vampire is a low-budget chamber piece for three principal players and a small supporting cast. It's very much a period piece, but doesn't seem as dated as other contemporary horror films. It's simplicity, combined with a little economical surrealism, is all to its advantage, though it stumbles at the end when the story breaks its bounds and extends to a Greyhound bus station and the streets of Los Angeles, where a final chase between vampire and victim plays out like an attempt at guerrilla theater, with a handful of cross-wielding hippies recruited as not very enthusiastic extras. There's also a final twist that'll probably be obvious to everyone as soon as the scene begins, but the film works well enough before the last five minutes to excuse the loss of focus.

And V is for Vigilantes, Vindication and Vengeance.

I wonder whether I feel that the film falters because it doesn't take the expected path of a Seventies vampire film. The Velvet Vampire is almost but not quite a lesbian vampire movie, more of an aggressive tease without any consummation. On one level, the one on which I'm a sexist beast, I was disappointed by that, but the script probably reflects a lingering sexual conservatism that flinches from homosexuality -- or it may simply reflect the fact that director and co-writer Rothman was a woman who considered lesbianism icky. I don't really know anything about her life or career so I can only speculate. In any event her story choices don't disqualify the film, and I'm not sure I wanted a lesbian scene with Sherry Miles, the actress who plays Suzy. She starts out obnoxious, but as the script makes her character more interesting her limits as an actress become even more obvious. She has a deer-in-the-headlights quality that if anything makes it understandable that she recoils from the sexual temptation that more daring actresses embraced around the world in this period. As the Velvet Vampire, Celeste Yarnall more than makes up for Miles's inadequacies, and her enigmatic characterization keeps viewers interested in figuring out exactly what Diane is all about.

So it wasn't quite what I was hoping for in my prurient fashion, but it was pretty good anyway and something that any Seventies horror or vampire cinema fan will find interesting if not just plain entertaining.

Back in the day The Velvet Vampire was part of a double feature, twinned with Scream of the Demon Lover. Bittercinema has uploaded the trailer for that double bill.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I'm very fond of The Velvet Vampire. It has that wonderful 1970s mix of exploitation, artiness and trippiness, a combination that sadly we will never see again. And as the first vampire movie written and directed by a woman it has a certain historical significance.

I quite liked the ending.