It’s October; the air is getting crisp, and horror is in the air. The time of year when major film releases of the Horror genre abound. This year perhaps more so than any other in the recent past, calls for indulgence in our guiltiest pleasures in horror as we host at home movie marathons, to ward away the worries of the world outside, cocooned. In these stressful times, I turn to some of my favorite tropes for comfort in my familiar frights….Evil Dolls, Satanic Witches, and Vampire Lesbians.
Vampire Lesbians as a trope has been around for quite some time in film. In 1936, Dracula’s Daughter showed a surprising amount of lesbian subtext. But the trope really hit its stride just as we were exiting the Swingin’ 60s, heading into the Libidinous 70s, bringing us artfully presented, beautiful and sensual Vampire Lesbians. Hammer Films embraced this trope, and continue to have a cult following. In general, expect no deeper social commentary in this realm of exploitation films than entertainment made with the ever present Male Gaze in mind. Sex sells, and this is part of the bread-and-butter of the Horror genre. But beyond the interest in creating a product that sells, there is still a subversiveness to the content that sprung forth from a time when queerness was less visible and socially discouraged. I am sure I am not the only queer person who had discovered deeper truths about who they are, by way of the Horror.
I decided to have a triple feature this week. As an LGBTQ person, and an avid horror film fan since I was a kid. Not to give away my age, but I grew up watching the Creature Double Feature and similar productions on TV, growing into a teen who was enamored of Vampires…and beautiful women. Dangerous and wild creatures of the night have a soft spot in my heart. So I picked three of my favorites, which I’ll share with you now, and I will do my best to avoid spoilers. And perhaps you should know – these films all provide ample views of tender and mortal flesh. But we’re all adults here, so, onward!
My first choice was a classic Hammer Film, “The Vampire Lovers” (1970). Set in the 18th century, the tale takes us down a path where a beautiful female vampire named Camilla (Ingrid Pitt) drifts from place to place, becoming “close friends” with young women in the village, who suddenly begin growing weaker, and wasting away from a mysterious illness. The costumes are a treat. The aesthetics of the scenes in which Camilla shows her affections here read as toned down Playboy pinups filtered through some Jane Austin. It’s Gothic sense of drama, the reveal where we see the bite marks on the breasts of her victims, it titillates, as it was meant to. That theme of a woman, in all her feminine glory, holding power over her victims, menacing and predatory is of course, fated to not last. Hammer Films shaped that trope expertly, with just the right lighting for that glimpse of naked flesh aimed at catching the Male Gaze in the act of looking, while my queer self comes along for the ride. Fairly subdued in comparison with other films of the trope, but a cornerstone in the mass production of monster movies made for low key sensual enjoyment.
My next film choice was “Vampyros Lesbos” (1971). A German film directed by Jesús Franco, it gives us an particularly artistic presentation of vampire erotica. Pushing raciness further, there is more nudity and odd, but sensual, performance art and dance by the main character, a club owner and performer named Nadine (Soledad Miranda). An American living in Istanbul encounters Nadine and so begins our story. Linda (Ewa Stroemberg) has a passionate, if dreamlike affair, being seduced and fed upon by Nadine. There is quite a bit of elegant framing of the feminine form in this movie, and certainly a lingering appreciation of the vampiric powers of seduction that is part and parcel of the Vampire legend. There are conniving psychiatrists and manipulation, madness and hysteria, and plentiful eye candy throughout. The soundtrack itself is also a fun retro-creepy mood setter, with groovy beats and rhythms with distorted and growling vocals. Don’t expect depth here. But the Euro-centric and cosmopolitan environment depicted certainly shows us a freer expression and comfort with Queerness, once again created for mass consumption of a presumably cis and hetero male audience, with no doubt many young queers on the sidelines like me, with stars in their eyes. Such were the times.
I love the Vampire Lesbian trope and there are so many campy and tantalizing movies in this category. I wanted to move towards modern creations with newer twists to suit the changing times, and to move away from simply wrapping up some nudity and fangs in a nicely packaged product intended to be devoured by a heterosexual audience. Luckily, I didn’t have to look far from home to find just such a movie, that holds not only queerness, but feminism, in mind while still indulging the tastes of the trope. My third film choice, which garnered 8 wins and 13 nominations for awards in indie film festivals, premiered in the Boston Underground Film Festival in 2016. “Blood of the Tribades” (2016), directed by Sophia Cacciola and Michael J Epstein, revels in the Vampire Lesbian trope, but with a satisfying twist – rather than seeing the oft scorned fem vampires becoming the vilified Other by the film’s end, the vampire women in this film are portrayed as fighting against patriarchal oppression that had condemned and exiled their free spirited femme tribe. A delightful romp, it does a spectacular job at tributing the 70s Vampire Lesbian films that came out of Europe in all of it’s campy glory. This film highlights soft naked femme flesh for the viewer, certainly. It also reverses the trend that caters to the (hetereosexual) Male Gaze alone, acknowledging those of us who want to see the balance shifted and turned to face us by showing the sadomasochistic drama of punishments that befall offending men who fall out of grace of Bathor, their vampire god. Indeed, you are going to behold full on, glorious male frontal nudity, a refreshing change that redirects the expected sexualized gaze in a new direction. Ultimately, feminist rage holds court. In between all of the scenes of sensuality and torment there’s an enjoyable tale to be had, and for once, I’m more than delighted at seeing the Lesbian Vampires walk away with the advantage. Blood on warm, nubile skin, glimpses that tease, blatant sexualization delivered with camp. I must admit, to being both indulged in carnality and enlivened by destruction of the Patriarchy in “Tribades”, but to see the one thing that always irks me – the lesbian is forever the evil temptress playing into the predatory queer trope – always disappoints me in my enjoyment of typical Vampire Lesbian movies. To see that finally turned on its head, gives me life, as they say.
Now pardon me, I’m not yet done revelling in my queer gothicness, so off I go to continue my binge. Pull up a chair, there’s plenty of popcorn!