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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.

Bad Things Come in Threes: The Weird Sisters of Dracula

Greg Hildebrandt's The Harem
Greg Hildebrandt’s gorgeous illustrations for DRACULA include this one entitled “Johathan (sic) dreams of the vampiresses” (Unicorn Publishing, 1985)

That Bram Storker deliberately chose to put three vampiresses in his 1897 novel DRACULA has been written about many times before. Some scholars point to the power of three, finding ancient symbolism in the number, or a mirroring of Lucy Westenra’s three suitors — Holmwood, Morris, and Seward — in the attraction Jonathan Harker feels toward them.  Some even argue that the vampires that tempt Harker represent an inversion of the Holy Trinity. But the reason Stoker chose to have not one, or two, but three female vampires tempt Jonathan Harker may be as simple as this: he worked in the theater. And from theater he took his inspiration.

First things first: what to call these three.

SISTERS, DAUGHTERS OR BRIDES?

Introduced in the third chapter of DRACULA, the vampire brides, as they have come to be known (but are never mentioned in the novel as such) are referred to in the fourth chapter as “those weird sisters” (from Jonathan Harker’s Journal, June 29). Two are dark (hair presumably?), with “aquiline noses, like the Count.” The other was “fair as fair can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.”

As Leonard Wolf questions in his annotated edition of DRACULA, one wonders if the resemblance to Dracula of the first two suggest they may be related to him (sisters? daughters?). Of the three, the blonde, his apparent favorite, may be his wife. After all, the other two defer to her for right of first bite: “Go on! You are the first,” says one of the dark-haired sisters, “and we shall follow; yours is the right to begin.” Is she Dracula’s wife? Are the others his children? Is the Count a polygamist!

That they are called sisters by Harker (and later in the novel by Van Helsing) is telling. Nowhere in the book are they referred to as brides, though in popular culture, they have become to be known as such. In the taking of blood (or exchange, as when a transfusion of Holmwood’s blood temporarily aids Lucy), perhaps Stoker was suggesting a type of husband / wife relationship. Or a perversion of traditional marriage, perhaps.

This much is certain: the sexually suggestive aspect of the vampire that may well be born of the repressed fantasies and insecurities of an Irishment writing in the late nineteenth century certainly finds its most open expression of sexuality in the films of the twentieth.

AT THE MOVIES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

Filmic versions of the novel definitely suggest Dracula having a sexual relationship with the vampire women. Perhaps it is from the movies that the term “brides” comes. But the vampire women of Todd Browning’s 1931 production are definitely not the source of the label. These vampires are uncredited. And they are more ghostly than provocative. Ethereal. Creepy. Sexual in suggestion. But not in action.

In both DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA (1953) and Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the sex is there, but there are not three vampire women. Only one in each of these adaptations. And neither is called a bride.

Valerie Gaunt, in the latter, is credited only as “Vampire Woman.” And though Hammer would go on to make a sequel entitled BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) — originally scripted under the more appropriate title “Disciple of Dracula” — there are only two, not three, vampire women: Greta and Gina. Over a decade later, Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) — though bearing the title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE upon its release in America in 1979 — credits not three but four “vampire girls.”

Vampire Brides of COUNT DRACULA (1977)
The Brides — credited as such — of BBC television’s COUNT DRACULA (1977). Susie Hickford, Sue Vanner, and Belinda Meuldijk

Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, would reinstate the three brides in his made-for-television adaptation of the novel in 1974, with the three vampire women referred to as “vampire wives.” Close, but not exactly brides. Of course, none of them are referred to as “sisters” either. It is not until 1977’s production COUNT DRACULA starring Louis Jordan that we may have the first instance in film or on television where the vampire women are actually credited as “Brides of Dracula.”

The Three Sisters
The Brides of Dracula are referred to as such in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). From left to right are actresses Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu

Perhaps more famously, Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) also refers to the vampire women as brides as the end credits roll. It is in Coppola’s film that the brides are very definitely highly sexualized, and made to appear like women in a harem more than the ghostly figures of earlier productions. Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu are exotic, alluring, and layered deep with eastern-European garb and language.

As for Frank Langella’s turn at the titular Count in Universal’s 1979 “remake,” the vampire women aren’t even there (as it is based upon the Balderston / Deane stageplay).

STOKER, THE STAGE AND MYTHOLOGY

Regardless of how the label “brides” came to be, there’s still the issue of why Stoker chose to call the vampire women “sisters,” or, specifically (for Harker) “weird sisters” in the first place.

Working for the famous actor Henry Irving since 1878, Stoker would have been familiar with his employer’s repertoire ten years on. That year, 1888, saw Irving (who many suggest inspired certain aspects of the character of Dracula) purchase the Lyceum Theater. Among the first of performances was a revival of his Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters of Macbeth
G.J. Bennett, Drinkwater Meadows, W.H. Payne as the witches (1838) from the Folger Shakespeare Library

In Act I, Scene 3, the first of the witches that go one to prophesize Macbeth’s rise and fall, asks of the seocond: “Where hast thou been, sister?”

It might be as simple as that.

Borrowing from the Bard, Stoker may have been intentionally drawing comparisons of his vampire women to the witches of Macbeth.

And Shakespeare? He most likely drew his inspiration from  Greek mythology: the Moirae — Lahkesis, Atropos, and Clotho — who dictate the destinies of humankind by spinning, drawing out, and cutting the threads of each life.

THE POWER OF THREE

None of this is to say that the Greeks, the Bard, or Stoker didn’t subconsciouly make the choice of three women because the number itself holds some sacred or semiotic significance.

Omne trium perfectum. Everything in threes is perfect or whole.

The primary colors.

Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

In rhetoric, there are the rule of threes: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; veni, vidi, vici;  stop, drop, and roll.

Sets of three just seem to make sense to us. We’re hard-wired to respond to them.

Across cultures, the number three is of undeniable importance. That it is applied to a group of vampire women is thus no great surprise. Literary critics have noted numerous supposed subconscious drives that led to Stoker to his choices — including the three vampire women. Whether it is us that only see the connections to the power of three, or Stoker (knowingly or not) who found significance in numbering his “sisters” as such, is immaterial in the end.

It would seem that putting anything together in sets of three is only natural — or supernatural — as the case may be.