Sunday, October 11, 2009

Suck it! Day 11 - Carmilla and Vampyres

There has always been an element of sexualization in vampire stories, and some of the stories featuring male vampires have had a homoerotic tinge, but lesbian vampires have been a genuine staple of the vampire canon, dating back further than you might think. Obviously, these tales were ripe for harvesting by the exploitation flicks of the 1960s and 70s. But they got their start in the 19th century and have found their way into more mainstream horror as well.

The source of this tradition is a novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu called Carmilla, preceding Stoker's Dracula by fifteen years. The story is told from the POV of a young woman named Laura, whose strange houseguest, Carmilla, turns out to be a vampire. Carmilla preys exclusively (in the novel, at least) on female victims, and she develops a very close friendship with Laura, so close that the lesbian overtones are unmistakable.

Le Fanu's novella has found its way into several films, and today I submit a lesbian two-fer. First, the pretty faithful 1970 adaptation of the story by the Hammer house of horror, The Vampire Lovers. Then, a film that is not so much an adaptation of the novella, but a more general exploration of lesbian vampires, called Vampyres (or Daughters of Dracula) - Bonus Factoid: This one was one of the films screened at the very first Butt-Numb-A-Thon.

The Vampire Lovers

I don't like to call this exploitation, though it does contain a fair amount of sensuality (most notably in the form of bared bosoms), because it lacks the seedy feel of most exploitation fare. It's also rather beautifully shot. It is, however, definitely a standard bodice-ripping, bosom-heaving melodrama. It's quite a faithful, perhaps even expanded, rendition of the book, and the performances are uniformly strong for this type of film. I mean, when you've got Peter Cushing, you're halfway home, am I right?

Some variations on the theme - Carmilla/Marcilla/Mircalla, the vampire, can freely walk about during the day, though the sunlight is too strong for her eyes. She doesn't eat, but she does drink wine - red, of couse. There's the usual aversion to garlic and crosses, and she even reacts rather strongly to the singing of Christian hymns. Something that makes me laugh is a line of voice-over in the pre-credits sequence, wherein the narrator matter-of-factly informs us of the two ways to kill a vampire - in this case, stake through the heart or beheading - as if he were reciting from a textbook. And, like Dracula, Carmilla has an almost Svengali-esque hold over her victims.

Vampyres (or Daughters of Dracula)

The only relation this film has to the Carmilla story is that it also explores the lesbian vampire trope. Vampyres' vampires, Fran and Marian, live in a rundown manor house with an excellent wine cellar, and they lure passing travelers back to the house, seducing them, plying them with wine, drinking their blood, and ultimately killing them. They don't bite. Instead they cut their victims with a knife or shard of glass, and drink the blood from the wound. And when we see it, the blood-drinking is very violent and sensual.

There is a subplot with a vacationing couple who have parked their camper near the house and see the women lurking around (it isn't explained, but the women seem not to be able to stray far from the house). The woman and man are the classic believer and skeptic, respectively. She is suspicious and afraid of the women; he thinks she has an overactive imagination.

An interesting element of the story is that the vampires don't really have any supernatural characteristics. They don't have special powers, and they don't have any sort of restrictions, other than being bound to the house and not eating (though like Carmilla, they do drink wine). And there's no knowledge base for how they can be killed. In fact, unless I missed it, I don't think they are even dead in the end.

This movie might strike some as little more than soft-core porn. It is very frankly sexual, but it's fairly intellectual as well. It raises all kinds of questions that it leaves the viewers to try and work out on their own. Is Ted the man who shot Fran and Miriam in the very first scene, did that bind them to the house as ghosts, and is that the connection he has with Fran? What's the connection, if any, between them and the vacationing woman (who, I might add, has one of the most intense death scenes I've ever seen)?

I can only imagine what a hit this must have been at BNAT 1 at around 6am.

See you tomorrow, when we'll see what a man named Cronenberg can add to the mix.

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