Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

Art or Exploitation? The Case of The Velvet Vampire

Despite stilted dialogue, atrocious acting, and, at times, a nonsensical script, 1971’s The Velvet Vampire is an oddly enjoyable vampire film. And notable, too, as it was directed by a woman — at a time when exploitation films usually relegated women to just one side of the camera.

Its director, Stephanie Rothman, was the first woman to be granted the Directors Guild of America fellowship, a prestiguous award given to a student director. She became an assistant to Roger Corman in 1964, and is primarily known for the cult classic The Student Nurses in 1971.

The Velvet Vampire was sold as exploitation film, despite its art house aesthetic

Also released in ’71 was The Velvet Vampire. Directed and co-written by Rothman, Velvet Vampire is the story of a California couple (actors Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles) invited to spend the weekend at the desert estate of sun-shy Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall). As LeFanu begins to seduce the couple, we learn she is a century’s old vampire pining for her dead cowboy husband while splitting her time between voyeurism and dune-buggy rides. If it sounds silly, it is. But hang on, it gets sillier: the ending (SPOILER) inexplicably finds total strangers outside of a bus station grabbing crucifixes to help the heroine immobilize LeFanu and destroy her by sunlight (despite her only having to otherwise wear a hat, apparently, to avoid such a death earlier in the film).

What it lacks by way of script, The Velvet Vampire is redeemed by artful sequences of seduction that are part dream and part hallucination — more in line with European art-house films of the time than straight-up sex and violence exploitation flics (with which this movie fell into distribution [and subsequent financial failure]). It probably didn’t help that numerous other vampire films were released around the same time. Hammer Studios had released Lust for a Vampire in 1971. Count Yorga returned that same year in the aptly named The Return of Count Yorga. Jean Rollin released his third vampire movie in 1971: Le Frisson des Vampires. Spain gave us La Noche de Walpurgis (released in the U.S. as The Werewolf vs. The Vampire Woman). And Germany, not to be left out, entered the already crowded vampire market with Gebissen wird nur nachts (U.S. Title The Vampire Happening). All in 1971.

Like Rollin’s many bloodsuckers, Rothman’s velvet vampire is certainly erotic. Not so much exploitation. While the film is not shy in showing boobs and bare bottoms, there are no bared fangs or gratitutious violence. The Velvet Vampire is still a genre piece with a sensationalized plot, nudity, and (a small degree) of violence that capitilizes on a pop (sub) culture trend aimed at drive-ins and small theaters. That is, exploitation. But it plays more as art house than grindhouse.

One particularly effective dream sequence finds the husband lured from the comfort of his wife (and brass bed) to tread on desert sand, pulled by the vampire who, in flowing red gown, is literally in a tug-of -war with the wife.

A human tug-of-war from The Velvet Vampire (1971)

In this regard, Rothman upends the trope of the female victim for an inversion of straight dynamics where the female vampire, as oppossed to a male (in, for example, Dracula films), holds all the power — over men and women; the only real threat comes not from a Van Helsing, but from another woman (who, despite being a “dumb blonde” character, manages to figure out how to escape, and ultimately destroy the vampire by film’s end). There is the suggestion of lesbianism, but it would seem Rothman is more concerned with pushing female empowerment than exploring sexual identity.

In a 2008 interview with UCLA’s CSW Update Newsletter, Rothman talks about The Velvet Vampire, the limitations of the genre, the expectations of distributors of exploitation films, but also a certain degree of freedom that, in hindsight, critics have come to see as art. She says:

“The freedom that existed [with The Velvet Vampire] was the freedom to take what were the genre expectations and do unexpected things with them. Do things that would make them seem relevant to a wider audience than the usual fans of exploitation films. So we included political opinions and we tried to make the stories have more psychological depth. We tried, given the restrictions of the genre, to address some ideas that were ignored by Hollywood and by most other films made at that time.”

Indeed, it is sexual dynamics and the psychology of seduction that most modern viewers (at least those with an open mind that can ignore some of the silliness) come away with after viewing the film. But Rothman, weighed down by a sexist system that raised up many of Corman’s other acolytes (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich, to name just a few), was never given the opportunity to break out like others and make major motion pictures. Her final directorial credit was The Working Girls, released in 1974.

Director Stephanie Rothman
Director Stephanie Rothman

Unlike Alice Guy-Blaché (whose The Pit and the Pendulum (1913) may have the distinction of being the first “horror” film ever directed by a woman [from the first woman director!]), Rothman — and others like her trying to break through the glass ceiling of cinema that had built up in the years following silent film — were rarely given a chance. There are some: Barbara Loden, Elaine May, and a handful of others whose films of the early seventies were critically acclaimed. But they are exceptions to the rule. In the end, Rothman was stigmatized by the type of films she made — an irony that the trend toward exploitation in the seventies that got her started also prevented her from developing into the kind of filmmaker for which she clearly had the ambition and talent.

In a 2008 interview from Interview Magazine, Rothman cites an example that demonstrates why her career as a director was so short:

I couldn’t get any work…  When it came to feature films, I was once invited by an executive at MGM to go and meet her, which was in the days when there were very few female filmmakers at all… she said to me, “…We’re getting a new script ready for a first time director who we want to use and we were talking about the fact that we would like it to be a vampire film. Something, you know, like The Velvet Vampire that Stephanie Rothman made.” My response when I heard that was, “Well, if you want a vampire film like Stephanie Rothman made, why don’t you get Stephanie Rothman?”

Exploitation flics and genre pics boxed Rothman in. Still, The Velvet Vampire shows what could have been. And, on its own, it is a curiosity in the then (and still) crowded market of vampire films.

All in The Timing: Halloween and Horror FIlms

DRACULA (1931) Poster Style C
Poster style C for DRACULA (1931)

As hard as it is to believe in our era of Halloween holiday mania, horror films timed for release in October is a relatively recent phenomena. Arguably one of the biggest of the early classic horror films, Universal Studios’ DRACULA was released on February 14, 1931* — timed to be in theaters for Valentine’s Day. Billed as “The Strangest Passion the World Has Ever Known,” DRACULA was sold as a bizarre love story. Lugosi’s vampire was promoted more as a ladies’ man than boogeyman. FRANKENSTEIN would follow later in 1931 — in late November. The trend would continue for Universal into the forties. SON OF DRACULA missed the Halloween mark by 6 days in 1943 (released November 5th). Even Hammer’s House of Horror a little over a decade later failed to take advantage of the Halloween holiday. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN? It was released in June of 1957. Roughly a year later, Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (U.S. title) hit theaters in May of 1958. Indeed, the trend for horror films seemed to be release when the weather got warm.

In a “release reversal” of sorts, I Know What You Did Last Summer hit theaters on October 17, 1997 — just in time for Halloween.

Summer seemed to suit William Castle. Though his gimmicky flics were released at all times of the year,**  summer was by far the season when his films were most commonly in wide release.  Younger audiences craving air-conditioned respite during the stifling months of summer vacation were treated to films like Castle’s TINGLER in the summer of 1959, and 13 GHOSTS in 1960.

Roger Corman’s “Poe cycle” of films were similarly summer releases. HOUSE OF USHER in June, 1960. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, released in 1964, was another June release. While the concept of the Blockbuster had yet to be conceived and given a label, studios must have realized by the mid fifties that May through July were peak times for releasing movies.

Take 1955 as an example. Two very different and quite successful movies, THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH and LADY AND THE TRAMP were both released in June. MISTER ROBERTS, a comedy-drama that would be among the most popular movies of the year, would follow in July. Hollywood, it seemed, was learning that audiences were primed for the moving pictures when the weather got warmer. Kids were home from school, families took vacations, and drive-ins were at peak capacity. Certainly, there seemed to be some seasonal strategy at play.


Even Christmas would become a prime movie season strategically. Many point to the success of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s comedy ROAD TO RIO , released to theaters on Christmas Day, 1947, as the first to prove it.*** The film was a hit, and the theory was that, with everything else closed, the movie theater was a place to go for those not celebrating the holiday in the traditionally Christian religious way.


On the flip side to summer was the dead of winter — a time of year that has since come to be known as the “dump months.” January and February became the time when studios would release films not anticipated to be Academy Award worthy, (or big earners… or feared to be torn apart by critics). Even late August into September would become a time when movies thought to be less than successfull were relegated to a late summer release.****


But Halloween? Both 1968’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and 1974’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE — two classics of the genre — premiered on the first of October of their respective years. In plenty of time for the Halloween season. Still, the reasons for October releases for each of those pillars of the genre don’t appear to have been strategic.

CHAINSAW reached a distribution deal in late August, making late September or early October the soonest it could be released. Otherwise, there’s no evidence from Tobe Hooper or any associated with the film realizing an October release was the perfect time.

NIGHT, which premiered on October first in Pittsburgh (the city in which it was filmed) was widely released to theaters on October 14, 1968. But Joe Kane’s Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever makes no mention of a strategy for its October release date either. Beyond local television horror host Bill Cardille promoting it on his Chiller Theater show, there appears to have been no Halloween holiday connection at all. No extant quotes from George Romero, his cast, or crew, reveal any reason why the film was released in relative proximity to the holiday. It’s highly unlikely anyone planned much of anything by way of timing and promotion for such a low budget, independent film.

Then came 1978. And everything changed with the release of HALLOWEEN on October 25.

Reputedly first conceived by Executive Producer Irvin Yablans on a flight taken one Halloween night — the idea was given to John Carpenter and Debra Hill who produced a script called “The Babysitter Murders.” Yablans soon thereafter had the idea to call the project “Halloween,” and the rest is history (history that can be read here). It was also Yablans who apparently wanted to get the movie into theaters in time for the titular holiday. Carpenter apparently agreed to this plan, and he has even been quoted as saying “Halloween night. It has never been the theme in a film [before].” So the entire production worked backwards from a pre-determined deadline.

Ad from the first time HALLOWEEN was shown on television (click to see text of ad).

HALLOWEEN II and HALLOWEEN III follwed suit in 1981 and 1982, respectively. The original was even shown for the first time on television the night before Halloween in order to coincide with the release of the sequel (see photo at right).

From there, many studios found that releasing their horror films in October meant a bigger box office. Stephen King’s SILVER BULLET and the cult classic RE-ANIMATOR were both released in October of 1985. The holiday tie-in TRICK OR TREAT followed in October of 1986. PUMPKINHEAD in 1988. Even the remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) made its way into theaters during the month of October.

HALLOWEEN kills, released October 15, 2021 in the U.S.

From there, dozens upon dozens of horror films to this day have been released in time for the Halloween season. Including the latest installment in the adventures of Michael Myers: HALLOWEEN KILLS (being released in the U.S. today).

In the end, it is not surprising to anyone that Halloween is prime time to watch horror movies. But it is curious that it seems to have taken until the late nineteen seventies for the holiday and the genre to be inexorably tied to the time of a film’s release.


The connection between horror films in general and showing them on TV or around Halloween definitely goes back to the early days of television. Someone may find the exact day the horror movie marathon debuted, and with whom (though I agree with one author that thinks the origin may be lost to time). But until someone finds that evidence — an episode of Vampira or Zacherle perhaps with those hosts of horror showing a string of films on or near October 31 and tying the holiday to the event? — the first time it was done will remain a topic for another blogger to address.

But I will leave you with something of a substitute for pinpointing early television’s first Halloween movie marathon, and give you a bit of good old host-of-horror-from-my-hometown (Philadelphia). It’s Zacherle — after he moved on to NYC — on All Hallow’s Eve, 1967. Enjoy the dance party.


* The NY premiere of Dracula technically happened two days before Valentine’s Day, which stirred up interest in the film for its romantic release

**HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL for example came to theaters in February in 1959. (curiously, it’s 1999 remake was released two days before Halloween!).

*** One year earlier, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE missed a (wide) Christmas release.  It was planned for January, 1947. It’s premiere, however, was pushed up to December 20th of 1946 — not because of Christmas, but to meet the deadlines for consideration for the Academy Awards. But the film was not widely released  to theaters until January 7, 1947. Also in 1946? MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Released in May.

*** In a 2015 New Yorker article, James Surowiecki suggested that the lack of interest in going to the movies during the “dump months” may be the result from moviegoers’ lowered expectations — caused by the studios themselves (a self-fulfilled prophecy of sorts).