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Fantasia Obscura: ‘The Velvet Vampire’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you have to live with the knowledge that your first time wasn’t the greatest…

The Velvet Vampire (1971)
Distributed by: New World Pictures
Directed by: Stephanie Rothman

For years, the vampire film was an “all boys’ club.”

The standard set up involved a male (presenting) vampire who was fixed on a woman, a damsel who was fair and pure(-ish) being protected by the men in her life. And even when women did more than scream in the film, the people behind the camera were men. We got F. W. Murnau directing and writing Nosferatu, where Ellen sacrifices herself to trap Orlof; we got Lambert Hilyer and Garret Fort directing and writing the messily executed Dracula’s Daughter; and Roy Ward Baker and Tudor Gates directing and writing The Vampire Lovers, an adaptation of Carmilla, which was originally written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

Were we really asking for much for a female reinterpretation of the boilerplate with this film? Well-l-l-l…

Please note that there will be some spoilers here.

Our film opens in the present in Los Angeles, at the corner of a modern church building. It’s daylight, but the scene transitions to night time as we watch a woman dressed in red walk past the building.

The woman is surprised by a burly biker (Bob Tessier), who tries to have his way with his victim. Unfortunately for him, she’s more than a match, stabbing him in the side before going on to her destination, the Stoker Gallery…

Okay, breathe; it’ not worth that much hyperventilation…

At the gallery, we meet fun couple Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan (Sherry E. DeBoer, credited as “Sherry Miles”). They’ve been married for two years and are doing the whole “one-night stand role play” just as the woman eases her way into their conversation. We find out that she’s Diane Le Fanu (Celeste Yarnall), a good customer of the gallery, according to the owner Carl Stoker (Gene Shane).

Faster than you can say “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” Diane has invited both Lee and Susan to visit as house guests out at her place, in the middle of the desert. There’s all of a micro-argument between the couple before they end up going out there anyway, somewhere out in the Mojave where you can find a nice surprise that you can bring your alibis to

Later, after an encounter at the gas station with a mechanic with an attitude (Paul Prokop) while his old lady (Chris Woodley) and the gruff gas station owner (Sandy Ward) look on, the car dies in the middle of the dessert. Diane rides to the rescue in a dune buggy, and brings them to her hacienda, where over dinner the buggy is discussed in an… interesting manner…

Our fun couple go to bed mad at each other after that, while Diane and her house staff of one, Juan (Jerry Daniels), get a house call from the mechanic. Diane turns his service call into a meal delivery when she makes a snack out of him.

As soon as she finishes her snack, Diane goes to a room in her house adjacent to where she put up her guests. There she can keep an eye on them as they sleep, or other things a couple out in the middle of nowhere might do to pass the time, ifyouknowwhatImean…

It’s from this comfy chair that Diane can start going inside the heads of her guests while they’re asleep, and mold their dreams to her wishes:

At first, Susan is anxious to get out of there, and every instant Lee spends in Diane’s presence makes her more anxious to have left there already. And yet, even after catching Lee making love to Diane and getting bit by a rattlesnake while she was sunbathing…

Yes, you read that correctly…

After all of that, there’s a change of position. Lee wants to get away from the house, while Susan decides she wants to stay a while. And in fact, when the moment comes, and Diane calls Susan into her bed, Susan is quite willing to surrender to her host, at least until she finds Lee’s body, his throat ripped open with blood oozing from the wound.

The mood so utterly ruined, Susan flees the house, ultimately getting a Greyhound bus out in the middle of nowhere (which, even in this day and age, you can still do). She gets aboard the bus, thinking that she’s gotten away from her vampiric host, until she takes her seat on the bus…

This leads to one of the best scenes in the film: Susan is trying to get away from Diane in the Los Angeles Bus Terminal. It was shot guerilla-style, with hand-held positioning doing close up on DeBoer as she runs through the terminal while Yarnall is still in the frame, pursuing her without actually exerting herself. It was a genius bit of staging that Rothman probably would not have set up had she gotten permission to shoot the scene beforehand, which conveys a sense of desperation through the chase scene.

Stephanie Rothman, undated photo

This sequence gives the viewer a good idea as to how Rothman impressed everyone to become one of the few female directors helming a pic back in that time. Rothman was the first woman to receive a Directors Guild of America fellowship after studying film at USC, which brought her to the attention of Roger Corman. She became the first woman Corman puts in the director’s chair for one of his productions, doing reshoots on the troubled production that ultimately became Blood Bath. She would go on from there to direct and write the cheap-sploitation films It’s a Bikini World and The Student Nurses, before taking the helm here.

And she brings a sensibility to this vampire film that shakes things up in the genre. We get a female vampire who’s not going through the same steps one in a film helmed by a man would. Unencumbered by what we’d seen before, we get an entirely different undead, shot in the dusty desert where the shadows of the southwestern dunes at sunset can be just as evocative as a nighttime Gothic Europe can be. Her set-up for the dream sequences and the seductions pull you in gently before the dread can cause alarm. (The fact that the title of the film includes “velvet,” an older term associated with Sapphic love, is part of the subtle direction of the audience into a place where they won’t realize what’s going on about them until it’s too late.)

And yet, despite all of this effort by Rothman puts into the film…well, sadly, it just sucks!

For all of the effort put in by Rothman and her cinematographer, Daniel Lacambre, she had going against her a cast that just could not do the material any favors. Aside from Yarnall, the rest of the principal cast was barely engaged with the script, something we don’t see in any of Rothman’s other films. The worst offender was DeBoer, whose delivery feels like a bad first table read. Yarnall noted in an interview that Blodgett was drunk most of the time on set, and yet he was more into his character than DeBoer was into hers.

One wonders how much better it could have been had Rothman had more control over the script. She only carries an “and” credit for the screenplay, shared with her husband Charles Swartz. The main credit goes to Maurice Jules, whose first screenplay this was. If there were any discussions about the script during shooting, it feels like she lost to Jules much of the time, and so Rothman had to make do as best she could.

Unfortunately, the best wasn’t. When the film premiered, it was placed on a double-bill with Scream of the Demon Lover and received spotty distribution afterwards. The movie would prove to be divisive, with fans of arthouse cinema and feminist studies scholars championing it while the general horror fan community shied away. In later years, the film would achieve cult status more so for helping to pave the way for Gale Ann Hurd, Ava DuVernay, Patty Jenkins, and Greta Gerwig, despite being an otherwise lackluster movie.

Sure, the first step was a bit of an embarrassing stumble, but considering how far the journey went, that first time was memorable…

 

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