The return of the Vampire — tall, dark, and irresistibly male — has not yet revived interest in a surprising phenomenon of the 1960s and early 1970s: the lesbian vampire film. Although the archetypal vampire in this culture is Dracula, often accompanied by submissive brides and female followers, lesbian vampires have a long and worthy history in literature, legend, and film.
Two sources for the lesbian vampire myth have been used extensively by filmmakers. One is the Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a sixteenth-century Hungarian noblewoman who was reputed to have tortured and murdered 650 virgins, bathing in their blood in order to preserve her youth.
The second source is Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1871), an intensely erotic novella recounting the story of the Countess Millarca Karnstein, who lives through the centuries by vampirising young girls.
One of the earliest classic vampire films, Carl Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ (1932), is a very free adaptation of ‘Carmilla’ purged of all suggestions of lesbian sexuality. ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ (1936) includes a muted lesbian encounter between the reluctant vampire-woman and a servant girl, suggesting a vital class dynamic to the lesbian vampire myth.
When the seducer is another woman, she must derive her power from her class position rather than her sex. ‘Blood of Dracula’ (American International, 1957) combines this class element with the classic stereotype of the schoolgirl/teacher lesbian relationship. The socially dominant teacher (who herself is not a vampire), through scientific experiment, turns her powerless student into a bloodsucking monster.
Several other films prior to 1970 — ‘La Danza Macabra’ (1963), ‘La Maschera Del Demonio’ (also called ‘Black Sunday’, 1969), and I Vampiri’ (1957) — also feature female vampires who exhibit greater or lesser degrees of interest in their sex. Two films based on ‘Carmilla’ — Roger Vadim’s ‘Et Mourir de Plaisir’ (‘Blood and Roses’, 1960) and ‘La Maldicion de los Karnsteins’ (‘Terror in the Crypt’, 1963) — exploit particularly well such conventions of the gothic horror genre as historical settings, mysterious castles and aristocratic characters, as well as the dream sequences of surrealism, to draw us into their fantasy landscapes.
Although, like all vampire films, these pre-1970 examples express nostalgia for death and a subtle “juxtaposition of erotic and macabre imagery,” after 1970 filmmakers began to explore the explicit connections between sex and violence, not only in a heterosexual context but a lesbian one as well.
One impetus for these films was certainly the desire to capitalise on the market for pornography since the lesbian vampire genre can allow nudity, blood, and sexual titillation in a “safe” fantasy structure.
The English company, Hammer Film Productions (responsible for the Christopher Lee Dracula series as well), based its exploitation trilogy — ‘The Vampire Lovers’ (1970), ‘Lust for a Vampire’ (1971), and ‘Twins of Evil’ (1971) — on the ubiquitous ‘Carmilla’. These Hammer Film Productions connect the proven conventions of the genre — a gothic girls school, black magic, moonlit lakes, and period costumes — with modern expectations of overt sex and blood. A final ‘Carmilla’ of the period was ‘La Novia Ensangrentada’ (1972).
On the other hand, ‘Countess Dracula’ (1971), ‘La Noche de Walpurgis’ (1970), and ‘Blood Ceremony’ (1973) were each inspired by the legend of the Countess Bathory. ‘Countess Dracula’, another Hammer Film Productions, is particularly interesting in that the vampire countess attempts to consume the personality and body of her daughter, a suggestive parallel to the version of mother-daughter relationships popularised by Nancy Friday (‘My Mother, My Self’) and Ingmar Bergman (‘Autumn Sonata’).
Finally, a number of films developed lesbian themes independent of either ‘Carmilla’ or the Countess Bathory. American-International graduate Stephanie Rothman is moderately sympathetic to lesbianism in ‘The Velvet Vampire’ (1971), although she stops short of allowing her women full expression of their attraction. She also introduces a feminist twist: the vampire halts in her pursuit of the female victim to attack a rapist. Jean Rollin’s ‘La Frisson des Vampires’ (1970), on the other hand, is a striking articulation of the male fantasy of the “butch” lesbian, complete with metal chains and black leather boots.
He also makes explicit a theme that is implicit in most of these films and in our culture as a whole: that lesbians and homosexuals are narcissists capable of making love only to images of themselves
Hammer’s vampires seduce young women strikingly similar to themselves. Rollin’s lesbian is finally reduced to sucking the blood from her veins.
This brief filmography suggests that lesbian vampire films use many of the stereotypes that have been attached to lesbianism at least since the nineteenth century: Lesbian sexuality is infantile and narcissistic; lesbianism is sterile and morbid; lesbians are rich, decadent women who seduce the young and powerless. However, the fact that the lesbian vampire myth returned with such force and popularity in the films of the early 1970s suggests to me that an additional factor may have been added by the specific historical developments of the 1960s and 1970s: feminism and public awareness of lesbianism.
The lesbian vampire, besides being a gothic fantasy archetype, can be used to express a fundamental male fear that woman-bonding will exclude men and threaten male supremacy. Lesbianism — love between women — must be vampirism; elements of violence, compulsion, hypnosis, paralysis, and the supernatural must be present.
One woman must be a vampire, draining the life of the other woman, yet holding her in a bond stronger than the grave. Pirie, excusing the negative stereotype of the female vampire (which he notes appears at exactly the time women were challenging such degrading images), argues, “The function of the vampire movie is precisely to incarnate the most hostile aspects of sexuality in a concrete form.”