Classic Corner: The Velvet Vampire

Adrift between the arthouse and the grindhouse, Stephanie Rothman’s 1971 The Velvet Vampire is a titillating semiotic exercise. The movie is a horny dissertation, sending up gender roles and inverting the vampire mythos with results both provocative and ridiculous, sometimes simultaneously. Produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, it’s got all the blood and T&A required of a horror movie made for the drive-in circuit, but with a moodier, more European sensibility that failed to connect with audiences at the time. Yet The Velvet Vampire has developed a devoted cult following over the decades, especially among filmmakers. Director Anna Biller basically built a shrine to it with her 2016 pastiche project The Love Witch, and you’ll find more than a few traces of its DNA in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s rumored that the last remaining 35mm print is owned by Quentin Tarantino, because of course it is.

As opposed to some moldering, shadowy castle in Transylvania, The Velvet Vampire takes place in the blinding sun of the Mojave desert, where Celeste Yarnall’s sultry Diane LeFanu haunts a Spanish-style ranch house in the middle of nowhere, driving around the grounds in her dune buggy during the day, lounging languorously atop her dead husband’s casket after dark. We first see her being attacked on a city street – a fatal mistake by her would-be rapist – before blithely washing the blood from her hands in a fountain and attending an art opening at the Stoker Gallery. (See what they did there?)

It’s at the gallery that her eye is caught by an annoyingly beautiful –and annoying in general– young married couple. Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan (Sherry Miles) are trying to spice things up a bit by pretending to be strangers cruising each other at the exhibit, obnoxiously talking over a live performance by legendary bluesman Johnny Shines with crude pickup lines and double-entendres so single-minded they probably only qualify as “entendres.” Most would look at these wannabe swingers and see sad signs of the country’s intellectual decline. Diane sees fresh meat.

It doesn’t take much doing for her to lure this not-so-happy couple out to her estate, where the two dumb blondes suddenly start having lurid dreams of Diane seducing them away from each other. Our hostess spies on them sleeping together at night through a two-way mirror, lurking in a red-curtained chamber with a human skull placed just-so on an end table. The Velvet Vampire is foremost a triumph of aesthetics and design, with a refined soft-core Goth sensibility that’s a treat for the senses. The sumptuous score by Roger Dollarhide and Clancy B. Grass III creeps up over the action in waves, with sinister, finger-picked strings suggesting forbidden delights.

Oh my, those dreams. Lee and Susan both find themselves seeing the same thing when they fall asleep – a big, billowy bed with a wrought iron headboard atop a desert dune, where they writhe away on top of each other, until Diane arrives. The Velvet Vampire is knowingly ridiculous and revels in it, especially when a sunbathing Susan is bit by a rattlesnake on the thigh. (Any guesses who volunteers to suck the poison out?) The film is abominably acted by Blodgett and Miles, whose stilted, amateurish line readings only add to the picture’s illicit “am I watching a porno?” charms.

Rothman was the first female filmmaker to receive a fellowship from the Director’s Guild of America, coming up when there were few women working behind the camera at all and even fewer working in exploitation. Her 1970 The Student Nurses, also for Corman, remains one of the more fascinatingly subversive drive-in movies of the era, chock full of all the jiggle and boobs one would expect from such a title, but accompanied by a fierce, feminist agenda. The pre-Roe picture has an abortion subplot handled more forthrightly than any Hollywood director would dare today, and good golly does that film dislike cops. 

There’s a similarly radical sensibility at work in The Velvet Vampire, foregrounding female desire while flipping the script on more than just the old vampire tropes about darkness and light. It’s a Dracula tale in which the count is a countess and Mina Harker happens to be a himbo who outlives his usefulness quite quickly. So delectable is Yarnall’s performance as Diane that you dread the movie’s inevitable surrender to genre requirements, luring our stylish sex bomb Nosferatu away from her parched lair (vampires should never take the bus) to be felled by an everyday mob of tacky Angelenos wielding religious trinkets. Diane deserved better. As did her director, who quit show business in 1978 and got into real estate. Rothman is said to have specialized in commercial properties, but I’m hoping she also secretly sold Spanish ranch houses in the Mojave.

“The Velvet Vampire” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel, Shudder, and various other outlets.

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