Stephanie Rothman, 1971
Starring: Celeste Yarnall, Sherry Miles, Michael Blodgett
The lovely Diane Le Fanu (a reference to Carmilla’s writer Sheridan Le Fanu) meets young married couple Lee and Susan at the Stoker gallery (get it?). Lee is attracted to Diane and accepts an invitation to vacation at her home in the desert. Though initially reluctant, Susan becomes attracted to her as well and both husband and wife share reoccurring dreams about being seduced by Diane. At night, she watches them through a two-way mirror and feasts primarily on raw meat and liver. Bodies begin to pile up and strange things occur, though Diane offers flimsier and flimsier excuses to Lee and Susan.
The Velvet Vampire was directed and co-written by Stephanie Rothman. Rothman went on to direct The Working Girls, Student Nurses, Terminal Island, and had worked with executive producer Roger Corman and his production company New World previously to The Velvet Vampire. As with a handful of other female horror directors, much as been made of Rothman’s gender and the “feminist” perspective within the film. Though the main character is an independent woman who preys upon a series of mostly useless and unintelligent men, I think this reading is mostly imposed on the film due to the gender of its director.
Erotic, dreamlike, and more steeped in hippyish mysticism than supernatural horror, The Velvet Vampire has nearly as many successes as it does failures. There’s some lovely cinematography from Daniel Lacambre of the Joshua Tree, California location, a subdued, fitting score, and enjoyable dream sequences. It also has a lagging, barely sketched out plot, terrible acting, laughable dialogue, and plenty of events that make absolutely no sense. Susan and Lee are grating, deplorably stupid characters and I spent much of their screen time hoping one or both would be rapidly and violently dispatched by Diane. Alas.
Though Diane is obviously the titular velvet vampire, the film is unclear about the rules of vampirism. She eats raw meat and galavants around in the sun, though she occasionally has an insane desire for blood and at the conclusion of the film it is the sun, reflected off of a cross, that kills her. The sexual elements are sometimes on the level of softcore porn, but are mostly vague and laughable. There’s a particularly hilarious and/or painful scene where Diane, Lee, and Susan sit down to dinner and Lee and Diane flirt openly. They have a graphic conversation about driving a dune buggy “up and down, in and out... through the sand dunes.”
Lee and Susan have a reoccurring, shared dream where their bed is transported to the middle of a desert wasteland and Diane appears through a full-length mirror. These sequences are oddly similar to scenes from the terrifying art-house porn film Through the Looking Glass (1976). Even more oddly, The Velvet Vampire’s alternate title is Through the Looking Glass. I’d be interested to know if the director of the latter film, Jonas Middleton, had seen The Velvet Vampire before making his own, thoroughly disturbing and superior movie.
Inspired by the success of superior Belgian film Daughters of Darkness (1970), this U.S.-Philippine co-production was a commercial failure, probably because it attempted to blend erotica, art house, and horror, something that worked a lot better in Europe than in the U.S. Roger Corman released it as a double feature with Scream of the Demon Lover and it was barely seen for a decades until it developed a small reputation as a cult film.
Though there are a number of boring, long scenes, some truly wacky things happen. They go on a dune buggy ride through the desert, Diane spies on the couple through a double sided mirror, and stays up late eating raw chicken liver. There’s something weird going on with her dead and supposedly mummified husband and for some reason that I feel like they must have explained, but I could never figure out, a Native American, Juan, has abandoned his tribe to serve Diane. Anything suspicious or questionable that Diane does is laughably explained away with the flimsiest of excuses, which Lee and Susan are quick to believe.
Celeste Yarnell (Fatal Beauty) is clearly the driving force behind the film and the atrocious acting from the rest of the cast makes her seem far more charismatic than she probably was. Sherry Miles is just grating to watch as Susan and Michael Blodgett (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is almost equally as bad. Gene Shane (Werewolves on Wheels) has a small role as a creepy art dealer and plays a part in the silly twist ending.
The film looks decent despite some silly ‘70s fashion and style. The desert setting goes a long way and I suspect this is one of the first vampire flicks to use that setting after, of course, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). I’m a little fascinated by the horror-western hybrid, which is probably why I had such high hopes for The Velvet Vampire. It wasn’t terrible, but it failed to meet my expectations. Nonetheless, it is an interesting entry in ‘70s horror and is one of the few American films to address the lesbian vampire, something running rampant in Europe during the period.
Also known as Cemetery Girls and Waking Hours, The Velvet Vampire is available on single disc DVD or as part of Shout Factory’s two-disc Roger Corman collection, Vampires, Mummies & Monsters. Also included is the superior Lady Frankenstein (1971), Time Walker (1982), and Grotesque (1988). The Velvet Vampire comes with a nice commentary track from Celeste Yarnail.