Guest review by Jessica Ritchey
It's rare that a single short story can give life to an entire genre. But the ever popular and delightfully distasteful world of lesbian vampire flicks can trace their genesis to "Carmilla" by J. Sheridan Le Fanu: a wonderfully florid and sinister tale that, unlike many of its fellow Victorian counterparts, was not so concerned with propriety that it elided over the actual meat of the story. Adaptations have generally riffed on the most salacious details, particularly as film censorship standards relaxed to an all-time low in the sixties and seventies. But the story itself (like the legend of Countess Báthory, perhaps the second biggest influence on the genre) is rich in meaning and angles to explore... from male fear of female power and agency, to the lurking human dread of our past — not really past at all but walking with us, eager for us to repeat the same mistakes — and our seeming inability to escape it.
The Blood Spattered Bride and Vampyres make an interesting duo, both in what they have to say on those fears and in how they differ. The Blood Spattered Bride is actually a loose adaptation of "Carmilla" from Spanish director Vicente Aranda. An unsettling haze hangs over the film from the start. A young newlywed couple arrives at a hotel. The bride notices a pale, beautiful young woman with crystalline blue eyes watching them from a car. The bride arrives in the room first and no sooner has set her things down before a figure leaps from the closet and smothers her to death with her own veil. He then rips open her dress and begins to caress her body...
... and smash cut to the bride sitting there quietly waiting for her husband. It's the first taste of how the line between fantasy and reality will be flimsy at best. Further, if that was just a virginal bride's reverie of fears on her wedding night, her worries had some just cause. She asks her husband to be gentle with her dress, and he responds by ripping it off her — in the same manner as her phantom attacker. She's alarmed, but ignores her misgivings; and they have a few happy days as a couple when they venture on to the husband's familial estate.
But all is not well here either. There are some odd touches — for example, the fact that the only family portraits in the house are of male ancestors; or the bride spotting a familiar-looking woman, wrapped in gossamer veils, at the edge of the property.
These touches of unease pale in comparison, though, to the open cruelty of her husband as it reveals itself, from an odd smack, to being too rough during sex, to trying to force her into oral sex during a walk on the grounds. So it's not that surprising the wife starts to see the veiled woman more and more... nor that she becomes taken with the story of a female ancestor, who killed her husband on their wedding night when he tried to force her to do "unspeakable things." And it certainly can come to no good when, in most the most memorable image of the film, the husband stumbles across a woman, nude save for a snorkel and goggles, buried in the sand on the beach. The woman has no memory of how she got there, and he decides to bring this now very familiar-looking stranger home.
The director whose work I was most reminded of while watching this was Jess Franco. And he has done variations on this story before; but as much as waking dream dark narratives are his specialty, I'm glad this project is Aranda's. He seems interested in grounding the everyday cruelties of the husband in the reality of the off-handed way of how badly some men can treat women. This is important because it takes the gay panic angle of the narrative and provides a contrast between his abuse and the tender scenes between the wife and Carmilla. And when he finally turns to another man for help, it makes that man's ranting against "abominations" feel like so much hot air — it's not the love between the two women that's abominable, but rather their growing hunger for blood. And when the husband finally "triumphs" it feels cheap, ugly, and rushed as it plays out on screen. His hatred and violence was the real destructive force that Carmilla, whatever she was, took advantage of.
José Larraz's Vampyres comes from an interesting American/British/Spanish background, and is surprisingly the more libertine film. It's set in a grandly decaying mansion in the English countryside, where a pair lure men to dine with with them, then leave their bodies in their wrecked vehicles for the police to find in the morning. The two women are a striking study in contrasts: the older one dark haired and robust, the younger pale and wan. This will be become more interesting over the course of the film, as it's clear the younger one is the leader of the duo, and holds clear sway over the older woman. Into this cozy situation arrives another honeymooning couple who who make the fateful decision to camp on the edge of the house's property.
The couple's relationship is much healthier than in Bride, which makes the husband's refusal to listen to his wife all the more galling and dangerous. She notices from the start that things are not right: the pall of death that hangs over the place... the odd hours the two women keep, trudging through the woods around their campsite. And when one of their intended victims stumbles into their camper, bloodied and begging for help, the husband still doesn't take her seriously enough to pack up and return to civilization immediately, setting the stage for a bleak finale.
It would be a stretch to call either of these films feminist, but both carry a real sympathy for their female protagonists. For all the trading in nudity and sex, both films are suffused with a real melancholy for how difficult it can be to be a woman in a male dominated society. And how the greater danger, and tragedy, doesn't come from anything fanged and lurking in the dark — rather, it comes from the figures that a woman should be able to trust the most, and who let her down. The real bite in this pair of films is how the actions of men either force women towards monstrousness through cruelty; or, that by failing to listen to them, they leave the women helpless victims to it.