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.