Monday, October 27, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 22: The Velvet Vampire (1971)

The film that opened the floodgates was unquestionably Hammer Studios' The Vampire Lovers, but whatever the reason the 1970s were lousy with what have been termed as "lesbian vampire" movies. The grand majority hailing from continental Europe: Vampyros LesbosDaughters of Darkness, Female Vampire, and Vampyres just to name a few off the top of my head.

Of course, most of these were actually bisexual vampires, but most people have a hard time believing that bisexuals are real in 2014 so good luck convincing them in the 1970s.

The films all tended to be on the surreal side, full of dream imagery and more importantly dream logic, and usually featured an innocent heterosexual couple falling into the clutches of a seductress vampiress (or two). And, from an exploitation perspective, they were all riddled with female nudity.

So it's only natural that someone would make an American attempt at a "lesbian" vampire movie, and even more natural that Roger Corman would have some involvement. It's also not that surprising that the film would be hilariously terrible.

For starters, when I said "dream logic" in reference to the subgenre of lesbian vampire movies, that could easily be seen as a euphemism for "total lack of logical character behavior or sensible plotting." That is true whether we are talking about the European films or this example of an American imitator.

We get a hint of this right off. A beautiful woman (Celeste Yarnell) in a red dress is walking down the strangely empty sidewalk outside a plaza in Los Angeles. We will later learn she is Diana LeFanu, and our titular vampire--and about the only actor in the film who's not utterly incompetent. At the moment, though, she is just some random woman who is suddenly attacked by a guy who is a dead ringer for Snake from The Simpsons. Snake pulls a knife and tackles her to the ground, clearly intent on sexually assaulting her--until she stabs him with his own knife. Diane then washes the blood off her hands in a nearby fountain and continues on to her earlier appointment at The Stoker Gallery.

Yes, really.

At the gallery, a bunch of clay sculptures of people are on display, while blues artist Johny Shines (himself) plays "Evil-Hearted Woman," which is singled out in the opening credits. I like to imagine that the sculptures are the work of Dick Miller's character from A Bucket of Blood, but the artist is never adequately identified. At any rate, two vapid blondes are admiring the sculptures, Susan Ritter (Sherry Miles) and Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett), and Lee is using it as an excuse to hit on Susan, who responds to everything he says to her with a half-hearted, "Yeah."

This thrilling conversation is interrupted when the gallery owner, Carl Stoker (Gene Shane), introduces them to Diane--who immediately addresses them as a married couple. Meaning that the awful flirting was some kind of a game the couple plays, I suppose. Diane is, bizarrely, very intrigued by the couple and invites them to her place out in the desert. Lee is game, because Diane is gorgeous and he's incredibly incapable of subtlety, but Susan is more than a little reticent.

Nevertheless, the next day the couple drives themselves out into the desert. The first sign of trouble to come is that the "Last Chance" gas station they stop at is staffed by a rude mechanic who refuses to pump Lee's gas (Que Horror!) and the station's owner, who is perfectly willing to pump gas--but responds to a request for directions to Diane LeFanu's place with a flinch a few degrees subtler than a Transylvanian bartender being asked where Castle Dracula is. He still gives the directions, though, without the expected warning to stay away.

Doesn't matter, anyway, as the couple's car breaks down and Diane unexpectedly comes to their rescue in her Dune Buggy. Yes, a vampire driving a Dune Buggy in the California sun, as you might expect of a movie from the 70s. [In response to my comment about this during our viewing, my girlfriend replied, "So will people look back at the 2000s as the decade where vampires played baseball?" I could only disgustedly groan in response]

Steal her look: stupid hat, black gloves, red sweater, blood of the innocent, and Dune Buggy.
At her desert home, Diane treats her guests to dinner served by her Native American manservant, Juan (Jerry Daniels). Had this been a Jess Franco film, Juan would have been named Morpho and been a lot less talkative. And yes, Juan seems for all the world to be Latino but Diane talks of how her family raised him and he left his tribe on the reservation to live with her, and to the best of my knowledge Latinos weren't forced to live on reservations even in the mid-20th Century.

The dinner also features Diane and Lee exchanging sexual innuendo via talking about...driving her Dune Buggy. Calling it a single entendre is giving the writing too much credit, as the only way it could be less subtle is if one of them said, "And by 'Dune Buggy', I mean vagina." Susan is not amused, but also oddly not all that angry that her husband was seconds away from grabbing their hostess by the breasts and making honking sounds.

This will not be the first time we are left to ponder if this is by the movie's design or the fact that Sherry Miles couldn't act her way out of a wet paper bag.

That night, Lee and Susan cuddle naked in bed while Diane watches them through the most-obvious one way mirror that ever existed. The little viewing chamber is delightfully garish, too, with red curtains and an end table with a skull on it beside her chair. Se takes some time out from perving on them to try and seduce the rude mechanic from earlier, who had come over to "fix" her Dune Buggy. The actual Dune Buggy, not the figurative one. But he rebuffs her advances so she has Juan kill him. Susan hears the man scream after he somehow impales himself on a pitchfork (!) fleeing from Juan, but Lee assures her it was just a coyote (!) because he's a moron.

And then the film gets intentionally trippy: Lee and Susan share a dream, set to music that badly wants to be The Doors' "The End" when it grows up, where they are naked in a bed with a wrought iron headboard and red sheets in the middle of some dunes. A mirror is nearby and Diane walks out in flowing red robes and takes Lee by the hand and leads the naked man away. When Susan and Lee wake up and realize they both had the same dream, but slightly different interpretations--he was pulled away in her dream, in his dream she pushed him away--they decide to...go Dune Buggying with Diane.

Diane takes them to an abandoned mine. She explains that the mine was closed many years ago because miners were turning up dead, seemingly a result of animal attacks. After hearing this the couple still happily agree to join Diane in exploring the mine. When Diane gets too far ahead, Lee tells Susan to stay put and goes to find their hostess. And then Susan is attacked by a fake bat that a Hammer Dracula film would have turned down and an empty mine cart moving on its own. So being suddenly grabbed by Diane is actually a relief. Diane is excited to show the others that she found more of the same stone as her necklace, bloodstone (naturally), but Lee and Susan just want to leave the mine behind.

Okay, so an abandoned mine was a bad choice for a fun vacation. How about an abandoned Old West Village set? Susan has decided that she's had enough of wandering around in condemned structures and waits outside, stripping to her bikini to get some sun. Meanwhile, Diane and Lee put the moves on each other inside an old saloon. However, a sidewinder sneaks up on Susan and her screams put a stop to all that fooling around. Somehow the snake bites her on the inner thigh before Lee can fling it away with a stick. (Points to the film for not having him kill it) And then Diane pulls the old bullshit remedy of cutting the bite and sucking the venom out. Notice the last few gulps she doesn't spit out, of course.

Lee is all set to leave but now Susan--the one who was bitten by a Goddamned rattlesnake, remember--wants to stay because she's having a grand old time. Rather than taking this as a sign the venom has affected her, Lee concedes and they stay. First, though, Diane takes Lee to visit her husband's grave in a patently bogus cemetery. See, her husband died a week after they married and she's grieved ever since. She explains that she wishes she could leave, but that would require leaving her husband's grave and he can't be moved because he was mummified by Juan's tribe and would rot away outside the desert.

Lee doesn't see the fact that Diane's husband has a headstone proclaiming he died in 1875, yet, but he does get a taste of weirdness when the girlfriend of the mechanic appears in the graveyard to interrogate Diane after his whereabouts, which Diane feigns ignorance of. Lee is safely back at the house, though, when the girlfriend returns with a shovel, since she had early noticed one grave was fresh. Hilariously, the foley artist layers all kinds of owl hoots and coyote howls on the soundtrack here, but if it was supposed to be night then nobody tinted the footage. So the woman is digging up a rave and uncovering her barely buried dead boyfriend in broad daylight, before she is grabbed by Juan and then Diane bites her neck to drink her blood.

Our resident oblivious couple have the shared dream again that night. Only this time, Lee finds himself running toward the bed in slow-motion as Diane carves a symbol into Susan's breast. But when Lee wakes up, he goes downstairs to find Diane sitting in a ludicrously froofy robe and eating a whole raw chicken, liver first. Lee comments that that's a damn weird thing to do. Yet somehow that doesn't stop him from having sex with her, which Susan witnesses--and just watches.

The next morning Susan is understandably terse with Lee, who responds by fessing up to sleeping with Diane the previous night in the same way one would admit to drinking the last of their spouse's milk. For some reason he decides to take Susan over to see Diane's husband's grave. But unbeknownst to him, Diane has pulled back the cover over her husband's grave--which has no dirt in it--and lie on top of his coffin. Juan finds her and she confides in him that she is hungering more and more for blood and he tells her will help her and maybe even get her some of his people to feed on (!), but naturally she doesn't see the point in waiting and pulls him into the grave when he tries to pull her out. So Lee and Susan find Juan's drained body when they arrive shortly afterward.

Of course, he won't be her last victim, because you know she can't eat just Juan.

When Lee and Susan confront her about Juan's dead body and the fact that her husband's grave shows he died in 1875, Diane spins a bullshit story and then promises to call the cops. However, Lee calls the station that is supposedly fixing their car at Diane's request and finds out she told them not to fix it. And, anyways, the station owner tells Lee he can't fix it with a missing mechanic. Lee goes to confront Diane in her bedroom and finds out that her bed is the one from the shared dream. He does not react by rushing out the door and grabbing Susan on the way, but instead gets on the bed and allows himself to be seduced--and then drained of blood.

Completely drained of blood? Completely drained of blood!

Susan, who had been sunbathing, comes inside and can't find Lee or Diane. But she does find Diane's poorly hidden spy room--and Juan's body, lazily half-hidden behind the red curtain. When she charges into Diane's room, she also reacts to the bed by being seduced. Almost. See, Diane is terrible at hiding bodies and Susan hears Lee's body shifting behind the curtain behind the bed. Finding your husband's dead body in a woman's bedroom is a real turn-off. And, after stabbing Diane in the hand in self-defense, she flees into the desert and luckily happens upon the station owner driving around.

His reaction to finding a terrified woman running through the desert in nothing but a bikini and penny loafers is to ask, "Come on, in or out?" And when decides on "in", he gives her his coat and then complains she didn't thank him for stopping.

At any rate, Susan makes her way to a bus stop and catches a Greyhound to Los Angeles--only to find Diane is on the bus already, dressed in what can only be described as Madeline cosplay.

So, this, but replace the dog with a blonde woman who has no sense of self-preservation.
Once they get to Los Angeles, Susan tries to get a police officer to help but it's no good and then she finds herself running from Diane throughout the station. She finds a phone booth and rotary-dials Carl Stoker, who promises to come to the station at once when she breathlessly tells him what's happening. Only Diane is waiting outside the phone booth, and Susan has to escape by--opening the door and getting Diane's hand caught in the door.

I think Susan would be in more danger from the actual Madeline.

Susan runs out of the station and finds herself next to a huge cross...and notices that Diane freezes, transfixed in horror, at the sight of the cross. So Susan grabs a bunch of crosses and crucifixes from a street vendor and hands them out to a mob of strangers who, for some reason, immediately accept that Diane is a vampire and help Susan out by crowding around her and pulling off her cape so she can die from a combination of crosses and sunlight (which, um, suddenly bothers her, apparently). For all the mob knows they just terrified an innocent woman into having a heart attack but, hey, "dream logic."

At Carl's house, he and Susan discuss the curious case of Diane LeFanu. He claims Diane had a rare blood disease that required regular blood transfusions and that she must have believed herself a vampire as a result. Then Susan notices that Carl has the same dagger that Diane did, and then manages to cut her palm with it like an idiot so Carl can reveal the totally shocking twist that he's also a vampire!

This is a stupid, bizarre movie. Roger Corman was apparently not pleased with it and the director, Stephanie Rothman, admitted that the film's inability to decide if it was an old-school horror movie or an exploitation flick may have doomed it. I vote that it was doomed by terrible acting, a meandering mess of a story, and then the fact that it couldn't decide on a tone.

Some of this can definitely be attributed to a desire to copy the style of the European films I mentioned before, but not understanding why that style works in context. There's dream logic and then there's having your characters be complete idiots. Plus, the European films actually made an effort to be erotic in some capacity. Celeste Yarnell is beautiful, but just having her stand before the camera and occasionally be naked does not automatically add up to "erotic."

The Velvet Vampire is bad, plain and simple. Which I suppose I should have guessed by the title, since I personally find the touch of velvet to be equivalent to nails on a chalkboard. The movie tried to warn me, and I didn't listen.

And that's another thing--for a movie called The Velvet Vampire, I sure as hell can't recall its vampire ever wearing a single scrap of velvet!

That concludes day 22. Go see what my compatriots chose for V by clicking the banner above.

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