Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest, most memorable, and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that will leave a lasting impression for centuries to come.
Vampire films have a large place in the heart of horror exploitation films. It is not hard to see why. Vampires are sexually explicit in their nature and their thirst for blood is interchangeable with erotic desires. In addition, vampire films usually involve blood rituals and graphic killing scenes. The Velvet Vampire, a 1971 cult film directed by Stephanie Rothman, is among these ranks. Filled with blood, breasts, and sexually charged characters, The Velvet Vampire is a unique exploitation film, as it tells the story from a feminist perspective.
The Velvet Vampire tells the story of Diane LeFanu, a wealthy woman who is a regular patron of the Stoker gallery. References to vampire literature are used in a playful manner to give a nod to the genre, but also add to the campy fun of the film. Diane meets a young married couple, Lee and Susan, and invites them back to her estate in the middle of the desert.
Now, it’s not an everyday occurrence to have a vampire living in the middle of the desert, nor is it common to see one riding around in a doom buggy in broad daylight. However, Diane does because she makes it very clear that she does whatever she wants from the start of the film. Diane (Celeste Yarnell) is a beautiful woman and uses her beauty to assert her desires. She manipulates Lee’s (Michael Blodgett) obvious and embarrassing crush on her, she feeds Susan’s (Sherry E. DeBoer) insecurities by placing her in danger. Diana has taken control of the situation. While it is not clear if she merely intends Lee and Susan to be a feast for her bloodlust, it is unmistakable she has invited them over for sex.
Rothman’s film stands out in the way sexuality is used between the characters. Banking off the free loving aesthetic of the 70’s, Diane is flirtatious and charms both Lee and Susan. However, before meeting them, she is accosted in the street. A strange man knocks her to the ground and tries to rape her. It is important to note, that while he tries to undress her, Diane’s breasts are not exposed in this scene.
Exploitation films usually go all in on nudity using any excuse to show breasts, rape is not an exception to this. Yet, The Velvet Vampire reserves the nudity for consensual situations where the sex between characters is enjoyed and invited. In fact, Rothman reserves the more intimate act of a vampire kill for characters with whom Diane has a connection. Diane stabs her would-be rapist and does not spend any time with this act.
Diana’s home is a place where anything goes. Diana often puts herself in the place of the voyeur and watches Lee and Susan during their most intimate moments. Married only two years, Susan is upset by Lee’s attraction to Diana, but at the same time she also feels a bond with Diana. Lee is pretty casual and open about his new relationship with Diana. “So I got laid, what’s the big deal? “ He says to Susan. Susan responds that she will just do what she wants in turn.
The Velvet Vampire is not a particularly scary film, but it is funny and clever. Rothman’s vision does compelling things with color. The blood and Diana’s style is offset with the desert background while there is a great contrast with shadows in her estate. Watch this film at a key party while pretending to be a sexy vampire.
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