Stephanie Rothman’s 1971 film The Velvet Vampire belongs to a subgenre I’ll call “desert horror,” the conventions of which are probably self-explanatory. The plot is almost certainly intentionally standard vampire stuff: married couple Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan (a heartbreakingly childlike Sherry Miles) are drawn into the strange, seductive web of Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall), who lives on her own private desert enclave somewhere in California. While there, they discover she may be harboring an uncanny secret which is already evident by the title of the movie itself.
The plot of The Velvet Vampire may not hold too many surprises but as with the other Rothman film I’m familiar with (1966’s Blood Bath, which required Jack Hill to come in and make less weird), it’s the atmosphere rather than the story that draws the viewer in. I’m a sucker for a good title sequence, and Velvet opens on a gorgeous close-up of a ruby red bloodstone that starts things off on a chromatically appropriate visual note. Any vampire movie made in color can and should be judged by the quality of its reds, and The Velvet Vampire has some of the best I’ve ever seen.
After the title sequence our next splash of red comes in an opening scene that introduces us to Diane LeFanu killing a rapist and then washing his blood of her hands in a fountain. The inversion of the usual sexual dynamic seen in traditional vampire films is obvious, but the execution of it is when it becomes unforgettable, particularly in a close-up of Yarnall’s eyes reflected through a compact makeup mirror, creating a visual bookend with the close-up of another character’s eyes that closes the film.
Writing about The Velvet Vampire is in some ways an exercise in the proverbial dancing about architecture since so many of its effects depend on its hallucinogenic desert energy and not any individual visual aspect or theme. But it has a sexual frankness that makes it seem like a commentary on the vampire genre itself rather than merely an example of it, even as it was obviously intended as a commercial exploitation film for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The fact that it was not a commercial success isn’t exactly surprising, it seems to occupy a weird space between horror and a more artistically-minded reverie, a daydream that gradually flows into a nightmare.
Vampire women might be an inverse of the expectation created by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its myriad screen offspring, but Diane LeFanu belongs to a long tradition started by another classic vampire story: Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (whatever subtleties The Velvet Vampire may contain, its allusions to classic vampire authors are not among them. One early scene takes place in the “Stoker Gallery”). Carmilla has been adapted for the screen many times but I’m not sure if any more direct adaptation captures the spirit of the book better than The Velvet Vampire, not only in its sexual ambiguities but its fixation on dreams as well. As in Le Fanu’s story, Diane LeFanu seems to be able to influence and direct her victims’ dreams, and Lee and Susan seem to dream in concert with each other rather than separately during their stay at her home.
If The Velvet Vampire didn’t satisfy a traditional horror audience, it also disappointed anybody looking for a straightforward dirty movie too. The film has plenty of sex and nudity (and a two-way mirror looking into Diane’s guest bedroom, a surefire hook if there ever was one) but as with the horror it feels suspended in a dry-heat haze, enjoyable but at a remove from the expected conventions of the genre. Everything in The Velvet Vampire feels at a remove, in fact, even the late revelation that Diane may just have been a delusional woman with a blood disorder rather than an immortal vampire feels like a half-hearted stab at a narrative trope that’s never particularly convincing even when it’s being attempted for real.
I can’t say for sure how influential The Velvet Vampire ended up being on later horror films, although it does have something of a cult following now, especially as Rothman has become more and more revered as a secret genius of exploitation cinema. But it’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking of another low budget desert horror classic that came out just two years later: Messiah of Evil. That film is worth its own Neotext essay but it seems to have taken a page or two from Rothman’s command of empty space — in both the narrative and visual sense — to create its own strange nightmareland effect. And both films seem to be keyed into a hidden menace buried within a bohemian artistic hipster lifestyle, perhaps in subconscious response to the then-still-recent Manson murders, the ultimate example of counterculture run amok that left an imprint on horror for decades afterward.
With all the refracted psychedelic weirdness, tongue-in-cheek humor, and dune buggy rides in The Velvet Vampire, it can be a fun challenge to try and figure out what its actual moral point of view might be. Is Diane a gothic heroine or hedonist monster? The climactic sequence (set in a beautiful 1970s Greyhound bus station, reportedly without permits) has Susan being rescued from Diane by a bunch of crucifix-wielding Christian hippies, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her downfall at their hands (and crosses), which makes Diane LeFanu another in a very long line of monsters whom you’re never really happy to see get killed in the end.