Les Vampyres

Most "erotic horror" films are about vampires. There are some obvious reasons why this is true, the biggest being that vampire legends strongly resemble sexual power games: the vampire stalks, bites, sucks and either leaves you in a lifeless heap or turns you into its slave. Quick rule of thumb: if the sun's out, it's daytime TV; if the sun's down, it's vampires.

It's true that there have been some attempts at sexy Frankenstein films, and even one or two notorious erotic zombie movies, but these are mostly curiosities. The character of the vampire, on the other hand, has largely been redefined by its appearance in movies -- going from the loathesome, sub-human parasite in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, through Christopher Lee's feral, sexy, predatory Dracula; finally becoming a sort of antihero, a symbol of unrepressed sensuality, represented by prettified Goth kids with expensive wardrobes.

Frankly, the vampire subgenre has lost most of its appeal for me. There are a handful of vampire movies that I hold in high esteem -- the original Nosferatu is first on my list of Favorite Vampire Films, followed by Paul Morrissey's Blood for Dracula; Jean Rollin's "erotic vampire" films also interest me -- they are tinged with sadness and the sense of irrevocable loss, which I think is entirely appropriate for the subject. But now the market's overwhelmed with dross, from Coppola's wasted opportunity, through Craven's misbegotten Dreck-ula 2000, through the innumerable direct-to-video vampire flicks from Seduction Cinema and Eros. While this high crap quotient seems to be equally true of every other horror subgenre (especially, of late, the Giant Snake sub-subcategory), I find few others as tedious as the vampire film: stripped of their mystery, vampires are nothing more than poseurs in need of orthodontia, and I'm sick of them.

Now that I've had my little rant, it's time for me to consider yet another vampire flick. This one has the added distinction of being an out-and-out porn film -- not a porno-manqé like Jess Franco's Loves of Irina, not a soft-core teaser like Club Vampire, but the real thing.

The movie is James Avalon's Les Vampyres, and it caught my attention for a couple of reasons:
  • First, I got it cheap. I found the 2 DVD set in a Used bin for a pittance.
  • The title intrigued me. Les Vampires was the name of a groundbreaking French silent serial, directed by Louis Feuillade in 1915, and Vampyres is the notorious sex-horror film by José Larraz, so a film called Les Vampyres conjures up all kinds of associations. I wasn't expecting any actual references to either Feuillade or Larraz, but it's a good, evocative title... and one could hope. Before I bought the movie, I looked it up on line, and saw that several reviewers actually did make reference to Feuillade. That, most of all, made me decide to go back and get it.
  • The movie apparently has a strong following. Of course, this has nothing to do with the film's relationship to good cinema, but it was at least interesting that the (appropriately self-gratifying) adult film industry gave it several awards, ranging from Best Picture all the way to Best Video Box Design1.
  • It seemed from its description, and from reviews on line, to be far more seriously intended than most skin-horror flicks, and more professionally put together than, for example, the wretched Seduction Cinema films.
  • The liner notes promised a Director's Commentary track. I always wondered what a commentary track would sound like on a porn film.
  • I relished the opportunity to wallow in smut. Yay, smut!
When I actually sat down and watched the film, I was in for a number of surprises. First of all, the film bears no relation to Feuillade's serial at all, as far as I can tell. The title isn't French. Instead of "Les Vampyres" as in <bad phonetic french>Lay Vomm-PEER</bad phonetic french>, it's Les (as in "Baxter", as in "Tremayne", as in... oh, you get the idea) Vampires.

The next surprise was that even though the film had no relation to Feuillade, it was in fact very closely modeled after Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness. It's obvious that writer/director James Avalon knows Kümel's film, and has quoted and deliberately mis-quoted it in places.

Les Vampyres starts by intercutting between a car driving down a lonely stretch of California road, and a nameless stud cavorting in the near-dark with two, er, rather affectionate women. The girls take the exchange of body fluids much too far. The timeline here is deliberately if pointlessly jumbled: the car speeding through the night represents the aftermath of the encounter, as a soft, heavy object is tossed out into a ditch.

Next, we're introduced to our main characters. Avalon teases the horror genre a little bit here, by shooting our "hero"'s approach as though he were a sinister stalker, and by having him kiss his girlfriend on the neck. Later, during the couple's character-establishing screw, she begs him to bite her. Bad jokes, yes, but also foreshadowing.

Our couple celebrate the boyfriend's recent promotion by going on a trip up the coast. Just at sundown, they stop at a quaint little inn along the route. Here we step completely into Daughters of Darkness. As the couple are signing the guestbook, in front of the vaguely sinister receptionist, in walks a mysterious woman. She's played by an actress called "Syren", and while I can't be sure if she's trying to do an impression of Delphine Seyrig or simply going for the generic European Vampire effect2, she does a pretty good job playing the hypnotic seductress. As soon as the girlfriend sets sight on her, she goes into a reverie, spellbound by the stranger... Unlike Daughters, the strange woman is here accompanied by two sultry female companions rather than one (for obvious reasons). One of them has the short dark hair of the similar character in the original. Against my expectations, it turned out that she was almost completely peripheral to the story, while the other woman, a longer-haired girl with lighter brown hair, had the more significant part.

Gradually, the girlfriend (played by "Jewel Valmont"3) finds herself disturbed by the atmosphere of the inn. It seems as though someone is watching her, and whispering to her from the shadows. More specifically, she finds herself compelled by the strange woman and her companions. Her boyfriend, in the meantime, has something else to be disturbed about, namely the string of recent castration-murders in the vicinity. It seems young males have been turning up dead with their bits gnawed off.

We in the audience know what's really going on. We even get to see the vampire henchwomen dispose of another victim. But Delphine... er, sorry, Syren has a grander plan, which combines Daughters of Darkness with the post-1974 Dracula mythology4. It turns out that Ms. Valmont is the re-incarnation of Syren's lost vampire lover, executed by torch-bearing peasants hundreds of years ago. Syren hopes to reawaken the vampire in her, to which end she schemes to separate her from her boyfriend.

In Daughters, the vampire companion's attempt to seduce the "hero" was thwarted when he tried to get her into the shower. Vampires, you may recall, are vulnerable to running water. Avalon winks at the genre film buffs in the audience by having the guy meet his vampire seductress in the shower. This is probably the cleverest moment in the film, which largely fizzles out after that. Syren arranges to have Jewel catch her boyfriend in flagrante, and uses her disappointment to trigger memories of her past existence (ho hum). This leads to a stagy flashback that was singled out as the Best All-Girl Scene of the year, suggesting to me that 2000 must have been a slow year for porn. I'm sorry, but I keep thinking of the claustrophobic atmosphere of 1935's Dracula's Daughter, with its subtle lesbian undertones, and how much more memorable it is than the hardcore shenanigans of Les Vampires. The key to erotica is the sense of desire, and desire has a tendency to turn to boredom pretty quickly once it's fulfilled. I think that eroticism works best in horror when it is continually, hopelessly thwarted.

Avalon then brings things to an end with one last encounter, as all three women move in on the "hero". The poor slob can't believe his luck, until the time comes for the ladies' dessert. This should have been the most tense and concentrated sex scene (because it involves a character we know, and whom we know is doomed; and because of the scene's place at the climax of the whole film), but instead, Avalon compresses the action. He fades in and out of it, to suggest the passage of time, and then ends it (and the film) very abruptly.

This is a poor way to end the film, which until the end has been weighted down with the usual succession of repetitive encounters. It also carries no emotional weight. Oh, well; at least Avalon manages to carry over a sense of style from the body of the film into his explicit set-pieces.

Now, about those set-pieces...

I've already explained my position on the assumed relationship between porn films and horror films, but I wonder if anyone's ever thought about the extreme similarity between porn films and musicals5. Both present a simplified narrative structure punctuated by special performances. In the case of a musical, these "interruptions" take the form of songs, choruses, dances, etc.; while in porn films, the story grinds to a halt for sex. These elements break into the flow of the movie pretty dramatically. A movie will often compensate for this by simplifying the narrative and letting the inserts carry the weight. The performances themselves usually fall onto one of two types: realistic or unrealistic. By "realistic", I mean the performances are somehow integrated more or less believably into the story. A recent musical that adopted this approach at least partially is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For an example of this method used in skin flicks, there's Stephen Sayadian's Café Flesh, in which the sex scenes were supposed to be actual stage shows. The "unrealistic" approach is where the characters break out of the real world entirely. They forget the constraints of realism and either burst into song or into rut; the vast majority of both kinds of film fall into this type.

The trouble is (feel free to disagree with me), music is much more varied and interesting than sex6. It's difficult to balance good storytelling with the demands of an "adult" audience. Avalon is aware of this trouble -- in the "behind the scenes featurette" that accompanies the disc, the interviewer asks a harried Avalon how he feels about people fast-forwarding through his best work -- and to be fair to him, he does try to find that balance. But as usual with films of this type, I found myself growing impatient at the sex scenes. Most of them went through their listless gamut: first we have to do this, then we do that, then for variety we do this... and the participants squeal inanities until the predictable conclusion. Yawn. They're also inconsistently lit, going from dim twilight to bright illumination for the "good bits".

I thought the most irritating lapse was the decision to introduce a character as a potential vampire hunter, complete with holy water and stakes, only to have him drop both his guard and his trousers at the first luscious vampirette he encounters. By a certain point, I got bored and tried out the disc's "multi-angle" feature. Supposedly, some movies (porn in particular) are shot from a number of angles at once, so that if you want to see a scene from an alternative vantage point, you can simply change camera positions. In this case, the "other" angles didn't seem to fit. I think the "multi-angle" inclusions are actually the same scene on a 30 second delay.

(Or maybe it's just a problem with every player I've tried it on. Snort.)

So in the end, what we've got with Les Vampires is a pretty good, reasonably enjoyable vampire soap opera (thanks in large part to memories of its inspiration, Daughters of Darkness), interrupted by some glossy if uninvolving sex. What we don't have is a convincing horror film. Considering that the plot revolves around bloodletting, castration, lost loves and death, Les Vampyres comes off a little... anemic. This is especially true when you compare it to previous, similar films, including not only Daughters, but also Vicente Aranda's Blood-Spattered Bride, Larraz's Vampyres, even Franco's Irina, and especially Jean Rollin's magnificent Lips of Blood. Certainly the relationship between the hero and his long-lost vampire sister in Rollin's film is far more erotically charged and poignant than anything in Avalon's, even if there's nothing explicit in the French movie.

These days, commercial porn films are usually shot on video and go straight to the store shelves, where I'm told they make up a sizeable percentage of total video sales and rentals nationwide. Though the glory days of the 42nd Street grindhouses and shabby inner-city porn theatres are over, the industry's practices are still recognizeable. The "product" is still made and distributed as cheaply as possible, with little regard for Quality Control. Whereas most of the creative input to the films themselves used to go into the titles and posters, today it goes into designing the video box and the ad campaign. The idea is usually still the same: sell the idea that the product is much better than it really is, and leave the poor consumer unsatisfied and wanting more.

Now, in this case, the distributors had a fairly good product on their hands. Apparently they came up with a pretty good "marketing concept", because as noted above, they won an award for it. I don't know what the box looked like originally, but it can't have been the one I have, which is BORING: it's very plain and uninteresting, no different from many other "sexy vampire" video covers (be they PG-13 or X). Anyway, with a halfway acceptable product and a good ad campaign, you'd figure there was little they could do wrong.

But, of course, it wouldn't be an adult video product if they didn't rip off the customer at least a little. The disc specs clearly state that there's a Director's Commentary track on disc one. There is no Director's Commentary. That alone is enough to make me very mad. Next, the box trumpets the inclusion of a special "Les Vampyres" digital comic book. This "extra" turns out to be a cheaply produced rehash of the movie -- it's an embarrassment.

The remaining extras on the second disc turn out to be reasonably entertaining. There's a cheaply-done "Making Of" featurette which is fascinating for all the wrong reasons; and (most interesting of all) the Cast Bios turn out to be taped interviews with the players. The two leads, Jewel Valmont and Syren, present themselves with humor and intelligence. Unfortunately, the guy behind the camera has a tendency to condescend toward them, which I found grating. Presumably these interviews are little candid snapshots, though they may very well be "part of the act"; in any case, the two leads seem to have enjoyed working on a film that allowed them to demonstrate more of their acting ability.

Weighing the pros and cons, I know this: if I had shelled out full price for this 2-disc set, I would feel very much short-changed. The film and the only extras worth mentioning would have fit easily on a single disc. The absence of the promised commentary is an out-and-out cheat. I've also had a lot of trouble with the movie disc itself: there seems to be something about the way either certain chapter stops or "multi-angle" scenes are encoded that's caused headaches for two different players.

And now, I think I'm going to go back and watch Blood for Dracula again. That's a film whose attitude to sex and vampires I find much more interesting.

1. This last award is probably the most significant. The makers of adult films are notorious for being much more concerned with the marketing materials than with the quality of the finished product.

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2. Physically, the two actresses don't resemble each other at all. Syren is a dark brunette, while Seyrig as Countess Bathory was a pale blonde.

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3. In a production featuring players named "Jack Hammer", "Brandon Iron", "Misty Rayne" and "Brick Majors", "Jewel Valmont" almost manages to sound like a name from the real world. Almost.

She recently changed her name to "Ava Vincent".

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4. I dislike sentimental vampires, and I blame Dan Curtis' version of Dracula (starring Jack Palance) for turning the vampire into a tortured soul pining after the reincarnation of a lost love. That idea worked very well for Boris Karloff as Imhotep in the 1931 Mummy, but it got old and moldy with the Mummy series of the 40's. These days in horror cinema, you can't swing a dead princess without hitting yet another Reborn Lost Love. Phooey.

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5. OK, so someone's certainly thought of this before. I'm still ridiculously pleased with myself for thinking of it.

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6. Unless you're actually performing, in which case I'd have to say the experiences are remarkably similar.

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