Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wendigo Meets VAMPYRES (1974)

Last weekend I distracted my friend Wendigo from his current reading to take his first look at Jose Ramon Larraz's lesbian vampire extravaganza. He's plowing his way through L. J. Smith's Vampire Diaries novels, the books that inspired the current hit series on the CW. Aimed as they may be at teen girls, he likes them and, as vampire stories, likes them better than the Twilight series. They have more real horror and violence in them and are less romanticized (and less erotic) than Stephanie Meyer's books. In other words, they're more adult in some ways, and less in others -- while the TV show is more adult than the novels. He considers Meyer a better writer in literary terms, but in genre terms Smith is her superior in many ways. Going from those books to Vampyres, I thought, might be quite a leap for him.

Vampyres is an English film with a Spanish director and it has that certain European sensibility that shows serene indifference to the how and why of many things. So we spent a lot of time afterward pondering what exactly was supposed to have happened. Let's stick with some facts on screen.

We open with two lovely ladies making love in an English manor. The top-hatted shadow of a figure climbs the stairs as the gloriously nude women please one another. Since I tend to emphasize the lesbian side of the lesbian-vampire genre, I could watch this all night, but the story must get started, so let's let the shadow enter the bedroom, where it becomes a hand with a gun in a POV shot shooting our heroines (my heroines, at least) full of bloody holes.

But our lady lovers enjoy a happy ending of sorts. They are now vampires (or vampyres, I suppose) who play a hitchhiking racket. Fran, the dark haired one (Marianne Morris) thumbs a lift from drivers on the road to the manor while blond Miriam (Anulka) watches from the woods. While Fran enjoys the ride, Miriam hustles back to headquarters to join in the forthcoming bloodbath, after which they arrange things to make the men look like car-accident victims.

Before that's fully established we're introduced to Ted, a man checking into the local hotel. The old clerk seems to recognize him even after some years away, but Ted corrects him; he's never been there before. Soon enough he's on the road where Fran waits for her next ride. He picks her up and notes that she looks familiar to him somehow. But he never follows up on that and she never really responds to the suggestion. Anyway, most of the movie will deal with Ted's captivity in the manor as Fran bleeds him slowly, tiring him with arduous sex while Miriam grows slightly jealous. They pick up other drivers for quicker fixes, glutting themselves on one poor soul in a particularly messy scene that shows how their bloodlust seems to fuel the women's sexual attraction to one another, or vice versa. Fran and Miriam make up when Fran lets her share a helping of Ted, the blood and the sharing inspiring them to pleasure each other orally right next to his dazed form. Despite his weakened state, Ted realizes that something is very wrong here, what with the mirrors being papered over and that guy from the other night ending up dead in a car wreck.

Ted (Murray Brown) tries to meet cute with Fran (Marianne Morris), not knowingthat a fate like this guy's (below) may await him.

On this information alone we could speculate about what's going on, but there's a wild card in the story. John and Harriet are tourists traveling through in a camper. Sharp-eyed Harriet notices Fran and Miriam working their hitchhiker racket early in the picture, and later notices them scampering through a cemetery just before dawn. Her suspicions grow despite John's indifference, and aren't dispelled when she finally meets the ladies while painting a landscape on the manor grounds. Fran approaches her and says, "I always knew we would find each other. By this sign I will recognize you." She plants a thumbprint on Harriet's head. This is never explained, but by the time we realized that it wouldn't be we were getting used to that.

Everyone's a critic. Fran contemplates Harriet (Sally Faulkner, left) and her artwork.

John and Harriet are an objective element in the story that complicate any attempt to figure out what's happening. There are hints dropped throughout the picture, including a comment at the end about "the criminal returning to the scene of the crime" that lead Wendigo to suspect that Ted is either the man who killed Fran and Miriam or perhaps a reincarnation of the same. But neither Fran nor Miriam betray any knowledge of Ted as their killer and are interested in killing him later only to prevent him from reporting their racket to the police. The ending is vague enough to leave an "it was all a dream" option open, but that would require Ted's dream to take the form of the movie Vampyres as we see it, including the scenes with John and Harriet long before Ted meets them. That seems unlikely but it isn't impossible. In simplest terms, Ted is a man with a mysterious past who has a mysterious experience. As for Harriet and Fran's recognition of her, and Harriet's superior awareness of the vampyres, Wendigo has no clue whatsoever.

So how are Fran and Miriam vampires? Wendigo explains that murder victims traditionally were liable to return as vampires because they died unconfessed, through no fault of their own. But not every murder victim starts sucking blood, so perhaps the women's presumably adulterous, definitely sinful affair may explain their "curse." Of course, once you read enough folklore you'll realize that there are way too many ways you can become a vampire, and the Vampyres method is a relatively reasonable one. Otherwise, they're bound by folklore only by their implicit invisibility in mirrors and their apparent torpor after glutting themselves, while their apparent need to reach their graves by dawn (complicated by said glutting) is a vampire rule that dates back only to F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Another arguably folkloric element is the way watches and clocks stop at Fran and Miriam's house, which could also encourage a "dream" interpretation of events.

As for their being lesbian vampires, Vampyres differs from the Hammer "Karnstein" films, as Wendigo remembers them, in establishing that our protagonists were lesbians before they were vampires. Lesbianism and vampirism seemed like a good match at the time, with censorship going by the boards, as representations of female transgression and dangerous sexual power. It evokes male fear of modern succubi, sexually liberated and insatiable women whom men cannot please without possibly sacrificing all their vital powers. Of course, misfit that I am, I was rooting for Fran and Miriam all the way through the picture. Wendigo isn't as much of a girl-girl fan as I am, and isn't usually keen on the mix of sex and horror, but he thinks that Larraz mixed the two fairly well, especially by emphasizing how crazed and feral the ladies get when they feed on blood. Morris and Anulka convey quite effectively both the animalistic and erotic aspect of their bloodlust. Wendigo adds that their bloodlust could be partly explained by the especially bloody manner of their demise, as if they're perpetually trying to get back the blood they'd lost

Writing the still-mysterious elements of the story off as "dream logic," Wendigo thinks Vampyres is a well-done blend of European-style eroticism and traditional gothic horror. The loose ends do nag at him simply because he'd like a settled idea of Ted's backstory, not to mention the significance (if any) of Harriet, but the direction, cinematography and lead performances are good enough to outweigh his objections. Larraz has made a nicely atmospheric film with great locations and sets that Wendigo can recommend to horror fans in general, not just erotic-horror buffs.

Here's a trailer, uploaded to YouTube by DarkScoreReviews.


Rev. Phantom said...

Not only one of my favorite Eurohorrors, but one of my favorite Vampire movies. Great write-up, this one is certainly not going to be everyone's cup o' tea--but I dig it.

dfordoom said...

I can't really improve on Rev. Phantom's comment. One of the classic euro-vampire movies, even if it is technically a British film.