Monday, June 27, 2011

The Lesbian Vampire: Villain or Victim? Part 1

I am participating in the Queer Film Blogathon over at Garbo Laughs.
The entire list of participants will be posted here:

I want to explore the meme/trope of the Lesbian Vampire in horror films as the ultimate outsider and compare how she is more often portrayed as a tragic figure than that of a monster.  This can be extended to the Homosexual Vampire too (Lestat, or any of Rice's vamps) and even due to race (Blackula).   This of course will necessitate a discussion on the Evil or Dead Lesbian Cliché and whether or not even a sympathetic vampire still qualifies.

Why this trope?  Well if nothing else I need to blame Carmilla.  Long ago I had heard of this notorious film called "Blood and Roses" and I really wanted to watch it.  I had to be high school or younger.  I had already had a stead diet of vampire movies, mostly Dracula clones, under my belt and I wanted something new.  Plus my dad had this book that included a still from the movie that really was not something that ever scream horror to me.

Looking at this picture you can't tell who is the victim and who is the vampire.

I never found a copy of Blood and Roses.  But I did learn it had been based on a book and that book was at my library.  I got a copy of Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla and read it all in one night.  I was dragging the next day, but at the end the story I felt bad for Carmilla.  To me she had grown up in this family of evil and all she ever really wanted was someone to love.  It happened to be a female someone, but really that is all she wanted.  She had been cursed against her will to become something that society could not accept; at least that is how it occurred to my teenage mind then.  Still though, I mourn for Carmilla and what she lost.

I learned soon after there were other movies like this, and it was not long before a pattern emerged.

Let be honest and upfront here, what is the primary motivation for including a lesbian vampire in a horror flick?  Simple to get her in a position with the heroine/last girl and fill theatre seats.  Frankly it is no different than what you might find in most Women in Prison movies.  But I content that due to source material, namely Carmilla and some movies, the Lesbian Vampire trope evolved into much more of  a tragic figure.

It make more sense to do this all chronologically rather than when I saw them.  And depending on the size I might need to split this up into multiple posts.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)
I reviewed this movie at length back in the October Horror blogathon, but I want to get to the salient bits here. Marya Zaleska is the eponymous daughter of the Count. At some point he cursed her with vampirism and now she must also drink the blood of humans.  First thing we have here in our trope building is a woman forced into her new unlife by a man.  I am not trying to make any messages here, but I do have a point I want to get to.  Secondly this existence is not something they want.  While Drac is gladly nibbling on the necks of any young lass that happens by, Zaleska is much more tortured about it.  Like the literary Carmilla she is part of her family's curse.  Like Carmilla, what attracts Zaleska's interest is the lovely Janet.
Universal played up the implied lesbian vampire subtext here, even with original promotional material claiming "save your women from Dracula's Daughter!".  I think in a lesser actress' hand Zaleska would have been seen as an evil predator, but Gloria Holden was not a lesser actress.  The effect again is one of profound saddness for this character.  She does not want to be like she is.  The question is though are supposed to assume that is also true for her attractions to other women?  This movie is unclear, since, in true Celluloid Closet tradition Zaleska is killed and Janet is saved by her man.  In fact this movie is one of the subjects in the movie version of the Celluloid Closet.
It would be years before we get another good portrayal.

Blood and Roses (Et mourir de plaisir) (1961)
I can't properly review this one because to this day I still have not seen it.  But I have seen a number of Vadim's films and read a lot of commentary on the movie itself.
There is less connection to the novel Carmilla than later attempts, and the Carmilla of this tale is less sympathetic than say future versions, though the relationship between the two girls is more deeply developed.

The Vampire Lovers (1970)
This movie is like a perfect storm for the Other Side.  Based on the original novel, it is Hammer, has Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Kata O'Mara, Pippa Steele and Madeline Smith, there is even a Faux Dracula there.
Honestly I am a bit surprised I have gone into this movie deeper than I have here.  The tale of the Karnstein's would be perfect for Ghosts of Albion or Buffy.  But I digress.
Ingrid Pitt's Carmilla is a tragic figure here, manipulated by forces beyond her control, either by her "mother" the Countess or the mysterious figure that lurks in the background (always assumed to be Dracula, played by John Forbes-Robertson who played D in the Seven Golden Vampires) and her own bloodlust.  Now here there is no doubt that Carmilla is supposed to be evil.  She casually uses and tosses away Mdme. Perrodot (Kate O'Mara) and she did kill Laura (Pippa Steele) but yet to me there is something underneath all of this.  Carmilla is still a tragic figure.  She was damned, but maybe the least of the damned.  Not as much as in the novella, but it is there.
Vampire Lovers goes into areas only hinted at in Dracula's Daughter and Blood and Roses.  The look that Carmilla gives Mdme. Perrodot can not be confused with anything else other than pure lust.

Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
One can not talk about this trope and not bring up Jesus Franco's Vampyros Lesbos and the haunting performance of Soledad Miranda. And haunting is the right word.  Soledad brought not only an ethereal quality to the roll, but she was also killed in a car crash after filming, but before the film was released in America.

Based on Dracula (which Franco and Miranda also did a version of with Christopher Lee) though with the gender's of Dracula and Harker switched.  Which changes the whole dynamic.  There is a languid quality about this tale.  Unlike Count Dracula, which attempts use what he can of Harker and then tosses him aside, Condesa Oskudar makes attempts to push away Linda because she knows there is an end to their tale.

This is a surreal film really.  And again one can't help but feel that the character of Condesa Oskudar is a sympathetic one. Had she not been a blood sucking vampire, albeit one that likes to sunbathe, then this movie might have been more like a Room in Rome.

There is a lot of sexploitation in these movies. Let's not pretend otherwise. But that doesn't mean that the stories themselves have to be.   Tomorrow I'll bring up some more movies that take this trope much further and we still need to answer the question here are we seeing these women as subtle examples of the alienation they must feel or are these examples of the Evil/Dead Lesbian Cliché, or are they both?

Come back tomorrow for Part 2.


christian said...

In our World of Darkness games, the female vampires (most recently a Daeva) who fed off other females, was equally likely to feed of men. It all came down to what food resource was handy. The way I understood it, for a Daeva, limiting one's feeding options to a single gender was reducing one's feeding opportunities needlessly.

Roger G-S said...

Can't wait for The Hunger ...

Vulnavia Morbius said...

A lot of lesbian vampire movies try to have it both ways. I remember having a certain amount of whiplash when The Blood Spattered Bride changed course from a thoroughly feminist film in its early goings into a pretty regressive one at the end. In contrast, Vampyres finds its sympathy at the end. Go figure.

Caroline said...

Thank you so much for your contribution. I haven't seen any of the films mentioned here but I wish I had. Certainly the trope of the lesbian vampire is also seen in classic film, only the "vampire" part is more symbolic (I'm thinking of Hitchcock's Rebecca). I'm really interested in the parallels you draw between women being forced into vampiredom and whether they are also "forced" into lesbianism due to their outcast status. Can't want to read your continuation of this!

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@Caroline I think the issue here is there is one woman that is "forced" as you put it and one that is the "forcer". This of course ties in with all sorts of ugly stereotypes about gays and lesbians. I think a movie like Vampyres, as cheesy as it is, breaks this cliche.

Trey said...

I'd echo the appreciation of Vampyres. It has some of the faults of its era, true, but it is effective and (given the sort of movie it is) subtle is some ways.

Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

An incredibly rich history. Fascinating. I am wondering how the girl-vampire Claudia from the Rice novels fits into this schema... is she the epitome of what you're talking about or is she moving the trope in a different direction? Thanks!

David Steece said...

Wow, another great post!
Well, if nothing else, this blogathon has demonstrated to me that there are a lot of movies I need to see! Thanks for all the great thought/research you put into this one. Tying them all back to Camille was clever, and a great place to start your investigations into LGBTQ themes in the films.

Grand Old Movies said...

Interesting analysis of the vampire lesbian film and its relation to patriarchy, especially in the woman inheriting a 'curse' from the (male) head of family. I like how you point out that the vampire is really a tragic figure - but then, is it tragic to be a vampire or to be a lesbian? It seems that, in either case, the woman is placed in a position out of her control.

If you haven't yet seen it, I recommend Carl Dreyer's 1932 film, VAMPYRE (on a Criterion DVD), which was also (loosely) based on LeFanu's "Carmilla," and also concerns issues of lesbianism and vampires. It has a strange, dream-like atmosphere that's unforgettable.