It was a little difficult for me discuss Anna Biller’s recent camp cinema triumph The Love Witch in full detail, at least partly because I don’t have the full mental library of reference points she was pulling from for the film’s psychedelic goth erotica pastiche. There’s an endless sea of cheap, sexed-up, psychedelic horror from the late 60s & early 70s that I don’t know nearly enough about to speak with any kind of critical authority. The Velvet Vampire easily fits that bill, though, and as soon as I saw the trailer my mind went straight back to Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. The interesting thing about watching The Velvet Vampire in this context is that because it’s a Free Love era horror picture directed by a woman, Roger Corman protigee Stephanie Rothman, it already has some of the feminist underpinnings foreign to the genre that Biller would later bring crashing to the surface in such a pointedly satirical way. The Velvet Vampire is by no means a forgotten pillar of fiercely feminist cinema; it’s just as much of a compromise between thoughtful art house horror & sexploitation smut as anything you’d expect to see from its spooky erotica peers. Its feminine gaze & dreamlike tone within that genre framework did help me better understand where The Love Witch was coming from culturally, though, a quality I expect to find in plenty more titles as I slowly catch up with Biller’s encyclopedic knowledge of this corner of schlock.
This dirt cheap, Corman-produced horror (alternately titled Cemetery Girls) starts by following a female vampire’s POV, an odd choice for a protagonist, as she’s threatened with sexual assault and stabs her would-be attacker, a nobody biker, to death in public. She calmly washes her bloody hands clean in a fountain while blues singer Johnny Shines wails onscreen about how she’s an Evil Woman (another odd choice). Later, we see our “Evil Woman” scouting potential victims at an art gallery and convincing a young married couple to visit her place in the desert for the weekend. The horny dolt husband (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls‘s Michael Blodgett) drags his perpetually annoyed wife out of the hellish desertscape just so he can ignore her and openly flirt with their vampiric host. They don’t even try to hide it either. While sitting down for dinner, the titular vampire describes her dune buggies to the lout right in front of his not-having-it wife, “It’s slow getting started. At first it takes a little manipulation. But once it’s warmed up it really comes alive. And you have to watch out. It’s really hard to control.” Subtle stuff. During the day she takes the couple sight-seeing to such exotic locations as a desert shack and an abandoned mine (fun!). At night she calmly watches them sleep & fuck from behind a false mirror and invades their dreams to seduce them individually with her feminine wiles. She’s not harvesting their blood for her own sake, though. She merely needs it to sustain the mummified, undead body of her husband, whose open coffin she visits often.
The frustrating thing about The Velvet Vampire is that it’s almost something truly great. The dreamscape seduction scenes have a surreal Altered States quality to them that makes them immensely exciting and there’s a few stray moments of cinematic beauty elsewhere in shots of the titular vampire eating raw liver in her lingerie or lying naked in her husband’s coffin. The film’s also slightly transgressive in its third act shift toward lesbian seduction once the husband is no longer interesting as a plaything, especially in the vampire’s monologue about men’s envy over the power of female sexual pleasure. The film doesn’t follow through on any of its genuine art film impulses, though, so it’s much easier to take delight in its campier touches like its rubber bats, loosely defined vampire rules (sunlight’s apparently not a problem), and inane dialogue (listening to a man scream in pain, the dolt husband shrugs it off with, “It’s probably just a coyote.”). Because The Velvet Vampire is so beholden to the slow & stoned hippie energy of its era (as opposed to the much more alive go-go erotica of The Vampire and the Ballerina), though, it’s difficult to get too excited about the film’s occasional pleasures that languidly float by onscreen. However, as some insight into the kind of territory Biller might’ve been mining for The Love Witch, it was invaluable, especially since it clued me in that female filmmakers have been working in the genre as long as it’s been around. Their work is just a lot harder to come by.