Vampires are a B-movie staple. Whether produced by Hammer Films or Roger Corman, off-Hollywood audiences never seem to tire of them. They’re a monster that’s just human enough to be alluring but still dangerous and thrilling.
While the film vampire has had strong erotic undertones since at least Bela Lugosi’s 1931 portrayal of Count Dracula, the 1970s turned up the temperature with a cycle of women-led vampire exploitation films. In many cases, the vampires are lesbian or bisexual, and there’s always plenty of nudity.
Stephanie Rothman’s 1971 entry in the genre, The Velvet Vampire, follows many of the tropes of its contemporaries. Produced for $160,000, Rothman made the film for Roger Corman’s recently formed New World Pictures. In a 1981 interview for the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Rothman explains, “At the time the decision to make a horror film was really a commercial decision. The Hammer films were doing very well.”
In some ways, The Velvet Vampire follows the conventions of other exploitation films being produced at the time. For example, Rothman notes about the need for nudity, “We agreed that it was going to be an erotic vampire. It was very important at that particular time — nudity in film was then quite new — and it was, perhaps, one of the most rigid requirements that we had to meet.”
However, in other ways, Rothman took liberties to suit her own aesthetic sensibility. Her influences include Jean Cocteau and Georges Franju, and she injects surrealist moments into the narrative, particularly with the recurring dream sequences.
Our vampire, Diane (Celeste Yarnall), watches her house guests — husband and wife Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan (Sherry Miles) — through a two-way mirror as they lounge nude in bed. When they go to sleep, the camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Diane’s eyes, then back to a medium close-up of the couple sleeping. Then, a very slow dissolve to a bed in the middle of a desert landscape. The bed has red satin sheets and a white fur coverlet, and a mirror similar to the one in their bedroom stands off to the side. Lee and Susan are in the bed, caressing and kissing each other.
There are several elements that do not copy but do recall the French filmmakers that inspired Rothman. First is the leisurely dissolve, a motif Rothman repeats many times throughout the film. The dissolves are so slow, we have several seconds of superimposed shots, lending an ethereal atmosphere to some of the sequences.
Secondly, the mirror motif was directly inspired by Jean Cocteau. Rothman says, “Jean Cocteau once said, ‘When you look in a mirror you see your own death.’ That’s the idea we worked with when the couple look into the mirror, behind which the vampire is observing them.” The stark mirror propped up on the sand gives me the feeling of a de Chirico painting.
Rothman has also talked about making her films with a feminist lens, though she’s not dogmatic. We see this both in the narrative structure and in her treatment of nudity. It was important to her to make a horror film where women were more than just victims, and this informed the decision to create the triad between Diane the antagonist, Susan the protagonist, and Lee as the foil. When the film starts, there is obvious sexual flirtation between Diane and Lee, but this slowly shifts as the film progresses, with Susan finding herself more and more drawn to Diane.
With the nudity, we see almost as much of Michael Blodgett’s body as we do of Sherry Miles. This is a very intentional choice on Rothman’s part, and something she does deliberately in multiple films. She talks about how it important it is to have balance between male and female nudity within a film: “When a person is nude they are vulnerable. To have a dressed person with a nude one is to tell you immediately who is the vulnerable one. When both people are nude, I don’t think there’s that kind of objectification and reduction into making one just a piece of flesh. You’re not making the same kind of statement.” When we see Lee and Susan reclining nude in bed, it feels very natural, with a comfortable dynamic that one expects between a husband and wife.
Most of the people Diane kills are men: the attempted rapist from the opening scene, the mechanic, and so on. However, we do see her kill one woman and also attack Susan, though it’s ambiguous whether she means to kill Susan. If we are to believe Diane (and I’m not sure we should), she wants to turn Susan into a vampire and thus a companion. Diane’s bloodlust so far doesn’t exactly inspire trust, but in the end her fixation on Susan does feel different than her manipulations of Lee. Perhaps this is part of Rothman’s feminist lens on the story — a subversion of the usual victim trope — though the closing scene of the film is not very hopeful.
Tony Williams (1981) Feminism, Fantasy and Violence, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 9:2, 84-90, DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1981.10661895.
Watch The Velvet Vampire at the IU Cinema on April 7 at 10 pm as part of the series Radical Acts: The Cinema of Stephanie Rothman. Other events in this series include an onstage conversation with Rothman on April 6 at 7 pm and a screening of The Student Nurses followed by a post-film Q&A with Rothman on April 7 at 7 pm.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.