The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The twenty-fourth entry into this disreputable canon the lesbian vampire piece of cinematic chamber pop, Vampyres…
Alternate Title: Daughters of Dracula
The defining baroque stylings of the briefly prolific “lesbian vampire” films that populated Eurohorror in the mid to late-70s were directly descended from British studio horror that rose to prominence under the Hammer and Amicus banners. Only where the sexuality was often hinted at in those Technicolor nightmares, here it took center stage; hypnotic titillation in the place of old school horror house antics. Directors like Jean Rollin churned out softcore sleaze such as Lips of Blood and Fascination, never truly interested in producing frights as he was exploring the half-tasteful exploits of nude woman-on-woman bloodsuckers. Rarely one to miss an oppurtunity to lather on the perversion, notorious exploitation maestro Jess Franco dove into the plasma pool, delivering the bluntly named Female Vampire, in which the titular bisexual nymphomaniac mixed gore, semen and vaginal fluids without so much as batting an eyelash. It was a swell time to be alive for anyone with a penchant for pervasive smut.
José Ramón Larraz was a comic book artist (known primarily for the action series “Paul Foran”) turned filmmaker who was no stranger to erotic horror shows. Beginning with Whirlpool (1970) and Deviation (1971), Larraz blended sex and violence with inexorable glee. Deviation in particular seemed to set the stage for his later blood spattered lesbian romps, as upper class brats, spiraling into a debauched orgy of flesh and drugs, lure a young blue-collar girl into their den of vice. Larraz had a rather exacting eye for capturing the English countryside, knowing that a touch of dew or thick hanging fog was all he needed to act as visual garnish for the main carnal dish. In this sense, Vampyres feels like the film he was building toward even this early in his career (only one other work – the erotic ghost story La Muerte Incierta – separates the lesbian leeches from his debut pair of thrillers). It’s a movie that understands the value in getting lost down a long dark hallway, not knowing if deviancy or death await once you reach the heavy chamber door at its end.
Vampyres is just as much a haunted house picture as it is a response to the mainstream risqué sexuality of more lurid Hammer titles (The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil). Narrative isn’t of paramount (or even tertiary) importance to Larraz, who uses Diana Daubeney’s screenplay as a blueprint for drifting gothic miasma. In the opening scene, our two beautiful heroines, Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka Dziubinska), are gunned down in their shared bed by an unknown shooter. Though incongruous with everything that follows, the opening actually sets the tone for the proceedings quite well, as the women inhabit their dwelling for years on end, luring travelers for them to seduce and feed upon. The lavish, looming mansion Fran and Miriam call home could’ve easily been used in yet another adaption of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”, only here it’s haunted by the murdered spirits of “abnormal” deviants (one brief glimpse at the exploitive marketing reveals this is also how the movie was sold), their thirst for heterosexual blood utterly insatiable.
For some modern audience members, Larraz’s rather blatant act of titillation will be too much for their ‘enlightened’ sensibilities. After all, Vampyres was a movie made for and sold to Times Square audiences looking to get their rocks off watching two lovely ladies share a bloody Stevie Nicks kiss*. However, taken in context of the loose story the picture weaves, the two beautiful creatures of the night could be viewed as a spell, cast down for being killed while they were in the throes of naked passion. The victims Fran and Miriam choose are straight men and couples, turned on by the girls’ ghostly appearances in the woods and cemeteries. Their plasma is essentially depleted for letting erotic curiosity get the better of them. The vampire lovers become a spectral curse; doomed to castigate all those who treat their love for each other as something peculiar, punishable, or simply there for them to get off on. Could Larraz be consciously scolding anyone who buys a ticket to his film with the sole intention of becoming aroused by the bloodsuckers’ carnal escapades? Probably not. But the opening (which seems completely out of place upon its initial unfurling), adds a weird storytelling framework in which these damnation thematics can be considered.
There’s something musical about the way Vampyres moves – the itinerant rhythm of being lost inside of an enveloping evening. You feel around in the dark, hoping to find any way to create light, but only discover cobwebs and dust within reach of your outstretched fingers. Like some of the best pieces of ornate chamber pop, it’s the work of an artist operating on their own distinct wavelength, while still attempting to splatter paint within a somewhat commercialized outline. Yet by never sacrificing an almost pure visual approach to the ethereal microcosm he’s created, Larraz invites the viewer to get lost in this sea of tweedy sexuality. Undeniably something of a deep cut, Vampyres is nevertheless essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in the elegant perversions of popular forms and culture.
*During the entire runtime of Vampyres, this writer had Spencer Krug’s lyrics “teary eyes and bloody lips, make you look like Stevie Nicks” running through his head.
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement