When you hear the word “vampire”, what comes first to mind? Sharp fangs? Black capes and the classic vampire/victim pose? Inhuman creatures stalking their prey in the night? Furthermore, which characters come to mind? The housemates in What We Do In The Shadows? Eli from Let the Right One In? Count Orlok? Carmilla? The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night? Whatever comes to mind, we all have our own images that quickly pop into our heads in relation to the word. The focus on this piece is to describe and analyse the portrayal of the seductive female vampire in two oddly compelling films directed by women: Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (1971) and Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned (2012). There is a noticeable delicacy to each film’s atmosphere, which I find is there due to its respective female director and their contributions in writing (Rothman is co-writer while Cassavetes is the only credited writer). With over 40 years between them, there are several differences not solely in the portrayal of the seductive female vampires and their sexuality but also in vampire tropes.
These female vampires all lust after something and whether it is sex, blood or companionship they are determined to get it. At the beginning of The Velvet Vampire, we are introduced to Diane (Celeste Yarnall) as we hear heels against hard concrete as she walks through town. Suddenly a man grabs her from behind with the intent of sexually assaulting her, which is a fatal mistake. This cuts to a beautiful scene of Diane’s reflection as she is washing her attacker’s blood off her hands in a public fountain. She then picks up a compact mirror and focuses her gaze directly at us. We follow Diane to an art gallery where she quickly meets the young married couple Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan Ritter (Sherry Miles). Diane invites them to spend the weekend with her at her desert home in the Mojave Desert which they accept, but they are not prepared for her real plans.
The Velvet Vampire is without a doubt a product of its time as it is filled with hippie counterculture and attitudes. When speaking of The Velvet Vampire it is worth mentioning the climate in which Rothman worked in. While there is no doubt about the fact that she had talent, she has stated several times that while she was not happy making exploitation films, it was the only way for her to find work. Given the genre and low budget, she did not have much to work with, but her artistic vision as a filmmaker is still visible. Rothman was well aware of why audiences came to see these low-budget films and she tried to justify scenes of sex and violence as she continuously subverted as many of the tropes associated with the genre as she could.
Inspired by European horror films from the likes of Jesús Franco and Jean Rollin, Rothman included themes of female sexuality and voyeurism into her dreamlike atmospheric film while portraying an active female vampire. A difference from other exploitation films from the same decade is that Rothman’s film does not solely rely on graphic sex scenes and female nudity to allure viewers. While sexual activity is displayed, it is never particularly graphic and the male character is shown nude just as often. Rothman managed to use her limited resources and make excellent use of the isolated desert setting to create something beautiful. The Velvet Vampire is a campy film and its remote desert landscape is a stark contrast to the gloomy castles, fog and darkness that we are used to seeing in other films portraying vampires. The isolated desert setting further ensures that escape is, while not impossible, definitely not easy.
Diane uses seduction to lure her victims and if her advances are rejected, she sends in someone else to take care of it more violently. She is so laid back with her confidence while always coming across as very professional. Diane herself is not a traditional vampire, she is without fangs and when covered from head to toe in clothes and accessories, she can move freely in the sunlight. Although she does drink human blood to stay alive and has an aversion to crosses, but her reflection can be seen in mirrors.
Something else captivating, besides the landscape and Diane, are the dream sequences that are frequently shown. The dream sequences are surreal and even better as we learn that Lee and Susan are having the same dreams in unison. These dreams, with their richness in colour and never-ending sand dunes, starts with Susan and Lee kissing in a bed as Diane in a red dress walks through a mirror towards them. She grabs Lee’s hand and he instantly follows her. As their dreams intensify, they are soon indistinguishable from reality. The next dream picks up where the last one ended, with Susan watching Lee undress Diane. Suddenly, Lee wakes up and after thoroughly making sure that Susan is asleep, he leaves their bedroom. At the same time, we see a wonderfully dressed Diane (wearing a pink marabou negligee with huge feathery details attached to each arm and the neckline — a look for sure) carrying a raw chicken. Lee sees her lifting a piece of raw liver and lowering it in her mouth just as you would imagine someone feeding you grapes. They end up having sex and Susan later walks in on them. While Diane has a secret room where she watches Lee and Susan, the film’s theme of voyeurism is not solely limited to that. When Susan sees Lee kissing Diane’s naked body, she can not look away even when Diane’s eyes meet hers. However, the two-way mirror that Diane looks through could also be a reminder that the film is an exploration of female sexuality through the female gaze. This, in turn, can remind us of the beginning when Diane looks right at us through the reflection of her eye in her compact mirror.
Once the husband is no longer of interest for Diane, there is a hint of further sexual feelings but Rothman stops short of allowing her women to fully express their potential attraction. In another dream, Diane abandons Lee and he is left alone with the dress she was previously wearing. Instead, we see Diane joining Susan in bed with a knife. While Lee watches and starts running in slow motion towards them, we see how Diane pierces Susan’s body with the knife to mark a cross over her right chest. Is it a marking on Susan’s body that she belongs to Diane now and not Lee? As a reminder, this dream takes place after Susan has been opening up more to Diane to Lee’s displeasure. Furthermore, Diane leaving her red dress with Lee while joining Susan in bed with the same red dress could speak to Diane changing her attraction. Red is a colour that can be associated with danger but it can also indicate feelings of passion and desire. With the abandonment of her red dress with Lee, she leaves her desire for him behind and moves on to Susan who excites her. There might also be a change in power since Lee during the whole weekend doesn’t seem to care much about Susan and he only reaches out to her if he can gain some pleasure from it. With not only Diane but also Susan changing attention from Lee towards each other, Lee’s sexual dominance and ego are severely threatened.
However, it is hard to tell if Diane is bisexual or not and the same goes for Susan. In the film, we see Diane and Lee having sex but there is also tension between Diane and Susan. However, when Diane and Susan kiss, it is hard to tell if it is solely for survival or if Susan is actually attracted to her. When Lee expresses that Susan wants Diane, Susan answers “maybe I do, how does it feel?” and another time she tells Lee that “how could I put you down for something I could do myself” in regards to having sex with Diane. Nevertheless, it seems like Diane’s true heart forever remains with her deceased husband.
In Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned we are introduced to female vampire Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) while she is watching Indiscretion of an American Wife. We hear words of love being expressed in the film as the empty halls and rooms in the huge residence are shown. This establishes the house, but mainly lonely Djuna’s isolation from the real world. She is a lonely creature who fears her own nature in comparison to free-living Diane. However, things change when she meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia). One day they lock eyes with each other and everything is changed forever. The sort of attraction portrayed between Djuna and Paolo is maybe not as intense as the first time Edward reacts to Bella’s scent in Twilight, but it is quite close as it is instant. They can’t break eye contact with each other and when Djuna quickly leaves, Paolo follows. At a nearby bar, she tells him about her skin condition that prohibits her from being exposed to sunlight. However, he can not stop thinking of her and she can not stop thinking of him and what follows for the next few days is a consuming attraction with each other.
In Kiss of the Damned, even more so than in The Velvet Vampire, sex is more directly linked to vampirism as the film is filled with various scenes depicting sexual activities or just highlighting strong sexual desires. When Paolo ends up at Djuna’s doorstep one night, she doesn’t let him in despite the fact he is begging to be invited in (an interesting reversed detail since a well-used vampire trope is that vampires need to be invited in). Despite refusing to let him in, they begin to kiss each other through the gap from the chained door. We get a shot from above, with these two people so desperately trying to stay in each other’s separated position but also wanting to merge as one. They slide up and down, but suddenly Paolo retaliates back as Djuna accidentally bit his tongue.
Paolo is not easily scared off and the next time he visits Djuna, she reveals her true nature. Paolo, convinced that vampires do not exist, is very confused. As evidence, Djuna is chained to her bed with heavy chains as she says that is the only way she can’t hurt him. It quickly becomes evident that Djuna’s fangs come out when she is aroused. She is grunting and moving around in her underwear trying to break free. Instead of running for his life, Paolo unlocks her chains despite Djuna telling him not to. Paolo embraces her and they have sex as he willingly gives into the sensation of her fangs penetrating his jugular. The difference here from the usual vampire attack is that Djuna tells Paolo that she is a vampire in advance. As a montage of their new life together is shown, the universe’s rules for vampires are established. Chances are that they will live forever, but they can die by sunlight, decapitation and fire. They won’t get older or sick and if they get hurt, they heal almost immediately.
As Djuna and Paolo quickly settle into comfortable domesticity, everything changes when Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) arrives. She is reckless and challenging – in other words, bad news. It is quickly established how Mimi is the opposite of Djuna. While Djuna took herself out of the city to an isolated location choosing to feed on animals, Mimi has fully embraced her nature as a vampire with a blood-drenched rebellious smile. She enjoys sex with both women and men and she seduces anyone she wants.
One of my favourite scenes in the film includes Mimi and a stranger having sex on a dumpster behind a building. Soon she presses her face into the man’s neck to take a bite. We then get a shot of the boy with his mouth open and wide-open eyes as he is slowly falling down to the ground as Mimi is gazing soullessly down at him. The shot of Mimi is from below with her looking directly at us with blood gushing out of her mouth. Then she casually walks away, leaving the body, with some flesh probably stuck between her teeth and definitely blood still all over her mouth. This shot of Mimi with blood gushing out of her mouth looks so stunning, and it could refer to vagina dentata. Vagina dentata is often seen in horror films, as a play on the fear of castration whether it is symbolic or actual genital castration. This shot of Mimi from below, as we are looking up at her, with her open mouth, bloody lips and visible teeth might be perceived as a graphic image of the vagina dentata. She might not have performed actual castration, but in a more symbolic way the man was powerless while Mimi dominated him.
Whether it is a random man at a nightclub or a couple she invites with her back home, nothing seems to be off-limits for Mimi — not even Paolo. One day when he is in the steam shower, Mimi joins. They have sex and he seemingly stimulates her orally. When Mimi isn’t seducing people, she tries to tempt other vampires into giving in to human blood for her own personal gain.
Despite specific portrayals of female sexuality, there is an interesting portrayal of the pain and pleasure being present during a vampire’s bite. In Kiss of the Damned, when Djuna bites Paolo, he is completely immersed in the sensation as he is moaning his way through the mixture of vampiric bite involving pain and penetrative sex involving pleasure. Pleasure and pain is a blurry mixture which results in some kind of double pleasure for the receiver of the bite. To compare it to The Velvet Vampire, which includes a female vampire not engaging in seduction for the sake of love but instead for her own pleasure, things become slightly different. During the first night in Diane’s house, Lee is begging Susan to perform oral sex. When Susan apologetically says she doesn’t feel like it, Lee pushes her away, grabs the duvet and turns to his side seemingly annoyed that his wife doesn’t want to pleasure him. This might be returned to later when Diane once again has seduced Lee and asks, “Want me to?” —referring to oral sex. As she watches the couple at night, she knows how to easily control Lee. As Lee is closing his eyes and turning his face toward the camera, Diane bites him. At first, he does not notice it but looks pleased like it is a heightened form of pleasure he is experiencing. After a while, Lee changes his face and is frightened.
In The Velvet Vampire, Diane is totally okay with seducing victim after victim to feed as she is aware of her true nature – more reminiscent of Mimi than struggling Djuna in Kiss of the Damned. Mirrors are not widely used in The Velvet Vampire but there is a noticeable use of mirror images in Kiss of the Damned. In the scene of Djuna and Paolo kissing through the door before being interrupted by Djuna’s fangs, we see them from each side of the chained door looking at each other’s reflection in the mirror. Djuna is in conflict with a sexual attraction despite the fact she should not engage in it as her fangs come out when she is aroused. She is self-conscious about everything Paolo might discover about her“ugly” nature.
“Susan, have you ever noticed how men envy us?”
“Envy us, how?”
“The pleasure we have that only we can have. We can’t help it. It’s just our nature, the way we are. And in their secret hearts, they hate us for it because they can never know what it’s like”
This conversation is exchanged between Diane and Susan as they grow closer. I think both The Velvet Vampire and Kiss of the Damned and their presentation of female sexuality speaks to the female director behind each project. The female body is not on display to allure others (viewers included), but instead used to showcase sexual impulses within vampirism. Diane and Mimi are in full control of their desires living as they please and Djuna is in control of her way of life, neglecting her true nature. The female vampires we meet are all seductive and sensual, but while Diane and Mimi indulge in pleasure for themselves, Djuna rejects her darker self. Since her fangs appear when she is aroused, she resists her desires and sexual pleasures and instead gives in to loneliness and isolation. Mimi, not one to give up her sexual pleasures as to not kill humans, gives in to temptation instead of restraining. While this is an extreme example since they are vampires, there is still something empowering to be interpreted through this regarding giving in to your own female sexual pleasure and acknowledging it for yourself.
The female vampire has specifically embodied cultural fears about independent women and female sexuality that is no longer controlled by others. Despite the fact that these characters in the end often pay a terrible price, they can be understood as characters without the restrictions normally imposed on women. To some, whether it is fictional or not, nothing is scarier than a woman knowing her worth and owning her own sexuality. Some even hate us for it.
by Rebecca Rosen
Rebecca Rosen (she/her) is a writer from Sweden with a university background in film, TV and gender studies. While enjoying everything from extremely silly to gory, she thinks that it’s better if you care a little bit too much about what you’re watching than not at all. You can find her on Twitter.
Categories: Women Film-makers