Horror Films 101: The Vampiress.

Carmilla, illustration from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872

The vampiress. The very word itself is seductive. From its first syllable vamp we arrive at the image of the aggressively sensual woman, the predatory femme fatale. Then, as if to underscore her dangerous nature, the word ends with an echoic warning: esssssss. The hiss of a snake.

She’s lurked in the shadows of our collective unconscious for just under 150 years. The legend of the female vampire, as we presently know her, began with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla, a story that predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-five years. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Stoker’s masterpiece, but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the vampiress. Much like her male counterpart, the female vampire is a captivating creature possessed of unearthly powers and the ability to shape-shift into various forms. Almost invariably, she is lesbian or bisexual. It is this latter characteristic which makes her an especially compelling figure. Embodying the male heterosexual fantasy of the ‘femme’ lesbian, her predatory seduction of women is inevitably thwarted by the male hero wielding a pointed, and most assuredly phallic, stake.

OK, I’ll spare you my feminist/queer politics tirade. We’re all grown-ups here. Let’s leave the sexual politics aside — though it does warrant a passing mention — and check out some of my all-time favourite films featuring the female vampire.

1. Roger Vadim’s 1960 vampire film Et mourir de plaisir (translates literally to ‘And to die of pleasure’ but released under the considerably less evocative English title Blood and Roses) is perhaps one of the most stylish and artful treatments of the Carmilla story. Impressionistic and dreamlike, it’s impossibly convoluted plot and bevy of look-alike Gallic beauties make it a gorgeous mess of a film.

2. Britain’s Hammer Studios released The Vampire Lovers in 1970 during a period of increased competition in the market, prompting some film studios to add more graphic content in order to attract an audience. They found it in this softcore account of female vampirism. The cheekbones are high and the bosoms heaving in this campy classic. Ingrid Pitt stars as the sultry Marcilla and Peter Cushing cashes a paycheque in this slap-n-tickle vampire romp.

3. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is chaste by comparison to The Vampire Lovers. The emphasis of the film rests on story and atmosphere rather than bosoms or gore. Contrary to its title, it’s not especially scary. It does, however, have one memorably creepy scene that involves the female vampire emerging out of a lake.

4. Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) opens with a near-perfect sequence that interweaves an eventful trip home from a Goth nightclub with Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy and a violent monkey attack in a research facility. Stylish and profoundly erotic, it’s a clever update to the mythology of the female vampire. Oh, and it features David Bowie. And Susan Sarandon’s breasts.

5. Although she’s only an ancillary character in Dracula (1979), the appearance of Mina as a vampire is an effectively creepalicious moment in this otherwise lacklustre version of the Dracula story. This scene also boasts Donald Pleasence and Laurence Olivier (??!!) in the role of Van Helsing.

One thought on “Horror Films 101: The Vampiress.

  1. Pingback: Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part III. | Lady Lazarus: dying is an art

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