Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Lesbian Vampire: Villain or Victim? Part 2

I am participating in the Queer Film Blogathon over at Garbo Laughs.

Today I want to continue the topic of the lesbian vampire trope in film.  Why this trope and say not the homosexual vampire in general?  Well the easiest answer is of course I am most familiar with this one.  While there are examples of male homosexual vampires in film, using the same sub-text as the lesbian vampires, and both sub-genres do have a history of literature behind it, the lesbian vampire seems more prevalent.

The obvious reason is that male film makers tended to see women more as victims and a vampire has a sexual element to their predation.  Also the vampire is the ultimate other, someone so far outside that they are nolonger alive, no longer a person.  This the same history that many gays and lesbians (and African-Americans and Jews and Hispanics and....just pick an era) have also felt.  Naturally the two have become related.

The male homosexual vampire though can also be summed up in one name; Lestat.  Watch the movies, read the books and then come back.   That is all great and everything, but Lestat does not have the presence in film history as Dracula or Carmilla.  Though as the 70's wore on and Hammer was feeling the pressure to do more and more we got a new set of lesbian vampires.

Daughters of Darkness (1971)
I spent a week back in 2009 talking about Elizabeth Bathory. Now I will contend, just based on the reports as we know them, that Bathory was not a lesbian but rather a sexual sadist that happened to have targeted young girls.

That all being said, she is most often represented in movies, like she was here, as a lesbian and one that does not care much at all for men.  Of course credit goes to Delphine Seyrig and her portrayal of the immortal Countess.  This movie presents Elizabeth along with her companion Ilona (Andrea Rau).  Elizabeth begins to prey on new bride Valerie while sending Ilona out to tempt her new husband Stephan.
There is nothing really subtle here.  Stephan is portrayed as a useless thing that later can only consumate his marriage by beating Valerie.  When he kills Ilona in an accident in the shower he is portrayed as incompetent and something to be discarded.  All the while Elizabeth holds court and seduces Valerie away.  The ending is jarring,  more "Celluloid Closet" style vengeance maybe? Valerie, with Elizabeth's voice is now off picking up a new couple to continue her immortality with.  
There are traces of we will later see in The Hunger here.  The cool, sophisticated, European, woman. She might have some royal blood in her somewhere (pardon the bad metaphor) and she is certainly worldly.  She has companions, maybe male and female, but it is in her female companions she lavishes the most attention on even if I dare say it, the most love.    This is not the rampaging monster of Dracula or even Orlock. Carmilla, Bathory and later Miriam Blaylock are exotic creatures almost unique to themselves.

Of course there is still the issue of sex.

Vampyres (1975)
I also spent a week with this movie last year.  Vampyres is everything I have been talking about turned up to 11.  There are two beautiful women who spend most of the movie in some state of undress or in bed with each other or someone else.   They are obviously lovers and were killed in the midst of their lovemaking to come back as vampires.  They kill men, mostly, till another woman discovers them.  They then run off together in the end rather than get killed.

This movie could very well be prime example of this troupe and cliché in action. Innocent women are killed by an unknown gunman to come back from the dead to kill others.  It is almost textbook Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché. Almost. While it certainly falls into cliché it also subverts it just a little. From the movie you get the feeling that Fran would rather not kill these men. Miriam of course only cares for Fran.  The novelization of this film makes this clearer, but we should go by what we have on screen.
Despite my enjoyment of this film and the material it has given me for my various games it is not a great film and as a film about lesbian vampires it is no Carmilla to be sure.   While I felt sorry for these women and felt they were trapped in an existence they never chose for themselves, I am not sure that is the intent of the film maker. I see two tragic figures.  José Larraz saw two pretty girls that he got to film naked. Now to be fair there is some good in this movie.  The actresses, while not great, certainly have enthusiasm for their roles and they can pull of the tortured vampires well.  It is a cult classic for a good reason and I still enjoy watching it.

The Hunger (1983)
Ah the Hunger. I swear this movie is just as responsible for the whole "Vampire sub-culture" as Vampire:TM and Lestat.   Bauhaus, David Bowie, Catherine Denueve. No wonder Poppy Z. Brite once described this as "the mandated first date movie of lesbian goths".   Based on the book by Whitney Strieber (when he wasn't writing about aliens) this is a very interesting tale.  First. The word vampire is never said (that I recall) in the movie.  It is also never said in the book, but I could be wrong on both counts.

Instead of a full review let's look into what is going on here.  Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve looking FANTASTIC) is a millennias old vampire that needs a companion to stay alive.  They feed on blood together (the scene in the beginning of the film where they pick up the couple while Peter Murphy sings is almost iconic) to stay alive, but only Miriam has eternal youth.  Her companion John (David Bowie) is showing the first signs of his aging process. Miriam soon has her eyes on lovely Dr. Sarah (Susan Sarandon) as his replacement.
David's years catch up to him and Miriam sets about to turn Sarah.  The scene where Miriam plays Sous le dôme épais might very well be one of the best seduction scenes in any movie, let alone a horror movie and never mind that is also between two women.  Sarah is introduced into a new world after her sexual encounter with Miriam.  Death later follows, Sarah's boyfriend Tom is the first to feed Sarah's new hunger and then Sarah herself.   The ending of the movie is not the same as the book and frankly I never quite "got it".  So let focus on Miriam and Sarah.
It is easy to feel Miriam's loneliness here. A scene in flashback of Miriam in Egyptian dress feeding in what must be the first time, gives us an idea of the passage of years and the number of former lovers she keeps in her attic.  The Hunger's lesbian overtones have been talked about at length by Susan Sarandon in the DVD commentary and in the movie The Celluloid Closet.  The Hunger does owe a lot to both Carmilla and Vampyros Lesbos in terms of visual style and how they wished to portray the characters. The question is now is Miriam sympathetic enough to avoid falling into a cliche where she needs to kill, however slowly, her lovers?  The novel handles this better by making Miriam a seperate species. She is looking for a cure that might help her and her future lovers and thinks Sarah is the one that will discover it.  It is not particularly a feminist movie or statement, but more about loneliness felt by one person that happens to also be female and bisexual and able to kill anyone she needs.

The Clichés
One thing we need to look at seriously is the potential of clichés in these movies.
In nearly every case the story is this.  "A female vampire seduces a younger, more innocent female victim in order to bring her into a life of vampirism like herself." Now replace the word vampire with lesbian and read it again.  Are we seeing a subversion of an ugly stereotype or a reaffirmation of one?  Can be both.

The Female Vampire as The Other
The female lesbian vampire is the ultimate Other.  Outside of life, outside of "male normality" and outside of conformity.  Zalenska, Carmilla, Bathory and Miriam Blaylock are all European royalty,  they do not have to conform to society.  Their victims are more common place women, each with (largely ineffectual) men in their lives, but are seduced away.  Away into what?  Well that is what we should ask ourselves. Is this a subconscious reaction to the fear of The Other?  Or from my point of view are the film-makers purposefully making us feel for these character because they have no choices?  Is that just as bad? I don't hate you because you are a monster, I feel bad for you.   Frankly I'd rather be hated than pitied.
Jumping across the race and gender divide let's look (breifly) at Blacula. I have mentioned before that Prince Mamuwalde is a sympathetic character. He was destroyed by Dracula only share in his curse.  Here despite being a Prince himself, he is reduced in status by Dracula because of his skin color.  Plus Blacula is such a sympathetic character probably in no small part due the acting ability of William Marshal who got this role from playing Othello.

Which leads us to the oddest conclusion.  Vampyres, from José Larraz (who admits all he wanted to do was make a vampire film with pretty girls in it) might be the most "feminist" movie in the lot.  The girls, Fran and Miriam are already together and in love then they are killed to come back a enact some vengeance.  There is no seducer and victim between them they began and ended as equals to each other.

The Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché
Are these movies part of the dead/evil lesbian cliché?  By definition any vampire is dead. And if they have to kill to live on for themselves then they are also by definition evil.
Details of this cliché are listed here: http://thekittenboard.com/board/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=2539

At some level they are all guilty of this.  Again, Vampyres takes a different route by showing yes the women were murdered because they were together, but they came back to get revenge on their murderer.  This puts it closer to The Crow and other revenge movies.  Dracula's Daughter and in some cases Carmilla and The Hunger show that our vampire is conflicted, even feeling she has no choice or is trapped in this life/unlife.  The lines start getting a bit blurry.  In the end I give them a barest of passes only because of the times in which they were made and the fact that most of these are B movies.  I would naturally expect better from any movie coming out now.

For a good example of what we can get now, even though it is not a vampire, we have Madame Vastra (a Silurian) and Jenny (her human lover) from Doctor Who.

Come back later as I wrap this up and bring it back around to RPGs.


Unknown said...

Ah, the Hunger! I really need to watch it again. The scene in the Goth Club pretty captured the mood of Vampire: The Masquerade perfectly.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

I say it was the other way around. Vampire tried to build an entire game out of the first few minutes of the Hunger. They succeeded rather well.

Stefan Poag said...

I suspect one of the reasons we have 100 vampire lesbian couples to every 2 vampire gay guys is that the average US audience probably tends to get pretty uncomfortable with watching 2 guys getting it on, vampire or not. Hollywood worships focus groups.

Aubyn said...

I'm also wondering if the prevalence of the lesbian vampire trope has any relation to hidden fears/desires concerning the idea of female penetration and sexual aggressiveness. The sexually and physically aggressive female is typed as deviant.

This is a great series. I'm enjoying it, so far.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@Rachel: Yes. Any woman that expresses ANY sexual desire beyond the passive MUST be a monster! ;)

I think that is certainly where she got her start, and some of the non-lesbian female vampire stories certainly due play out that fear. Even as late as 20th century in literature.

I have noticed a rather disturbing trend, almost a micro-trope if you pardon the pun. We now have ANOTHER set of female vampires. The Child vampire. This certain has it's roots in Interview with a Vampire and can also be seen in other film (the Blade TV series comes to mind). So unlike the typical sexually aggressive vampire we now have a sex-less vampire or worse one where her sexuality is somehow incongruous to her form.

That is a whole other set of pathologies though.