Wednesday 30 November 2022

Art for art's sake? Vampyres (1974)

Sally Faulkner

Vampyres is one of the biggest cult films of its era, a lesbian vampire thriller with few holds barred and one which kicks off as it means to go on with the bloody murder of two women as they make love in an old dark house, in the silken sheets of a grand old bedroom. It’s an extraordinary start to the film and, you have to wonder, if it was director José Ramón Larraz’s main idea for what is essentially a vampire mystery film. Firstly, it doesn’t seem to fit with any of the traditional origins for vampires, ghosts yes, but not the undead who feast on human blood and secondly, there is no explanation of why this was done to the women and how this fits into the narrative, for a long time I was expecting it to be a flash forward.

I’ve seen Larraz’s work before, notably The House that Vanished (1973) and, whilst he’s so good with building atmosphere and disquiet, there are elements of exploitative violence that I found too much. The best actor in Vampyres is Sally Faulkner who plays a young married woman, Harriet, who is caravanning near the decrepit mansion where the two vampires haunt. She delivers a naturalistic performance that anchors the film’s unreality and narrative acceleration towards the abnormal and all of the director’s horror tropes rely on her counterpoint, otherwise it’s just a bloodbath.

All of this may have been despite rather than because of Larraz’s direction with Faulkner made to feel uncomfortable during the making of a film, an experience she described as unpleasant. Despite her experience on stage and screen, felt the director was disrespectful: "It was not that we were seeking star treatment… José was very single minded and not supportive—he was particularly critical of me." Maybe he wanted to rile one of his more able cast members and perhaps that was for the benefit of certain aspects of his film, but it’s hard not to view this as unpleasant and unnecessary. You get actors in to perform and not just react José.

Murray Brown and Marianne Morris

So, for me these aspects undermine the overall impact of a film that contains many fine moments of weirdness and tension. But maybe I’m too squeamish, although there were certainly enough critics at the time who agreed though with David Pirie, in The Monthly Film Bulletin, opining "it is rare for sex and violence to be so completely and graphically integrated in a British movie..." whilst Screen International's Marjorie Bilbow described the film as "A let down for horror addicts, with fringe benefits for voyeurs."

In between the bloody beginning and some supremely unpleasant scenes towards the ending, we’re treated to an Angle-Spanish take on Daughters of Darkness with less style and more red sauce. We meet Harriet (Sally Faulkner) and John (Brian Deacon) as they head off on holiday with their caravan in tow. They pass a cloaked woman at the side of the road trying to catch a lift although Harriet says she spies a second behind a tree, as with many things to come, John overrules his partner’s judgement, he’s very much in the normal world, a calming presence as is always required in these films were the unthinkable only happens slowly. The two park up in a field overlooking the mansion and there’s a strangeness in the night when Harriet sees lights on in the house and a hand clutches at their window… or does it? John thinks no, of course.

Anulka Dziubinska

The next day, a man called Ted (Murray Brown) stops his car to pick up the glamorous hitchhiker in the exact same spot and she reveals her name as Fran (Marianne Morris) and the two chat as he drives her towards her home, the large shadowy mansion featured in the film’s introduction. She invites him in and, being made of flesh and blood, he can hardly refuse and, after wine and some preamble, they embrace and he decides to stay the night.

He awakes in a daze with a strange wound, he shrugs it off and makes his way to the caravan for some Dettol and a large plaster. Just as we think Ted’s ready for a lucky escape, the memories of last night’s good time cause him to wait for Fran’s return and near dusk she arrives with the blonde Miriam (Playboy model Anulka Dziubinska, in her first film role) along with another young man, Rupert (Karl Lanchbury). The evening’s revels begin and, whilst Ted is passed out, the women kill and feast on the body of this new male body before showering together to wash his blood away if not their sins.

Intrigued by the comings and goings, Harriet follows the two women as they make their way across the countryside in the morning towards a graveyard where she loses their trail. Ted meanwhile had roused himself enough to drive away and he passes a road accident in which he sees the mutilated body of Rupert… Unable to calculate two plus two, Ted is also unable to resist returning to the house where surely his blood count and increasing number of questions will increase his chances of dangerous driving.

Murray Brown's Ted feels drained and confused...

Harriet meanwhile is more and more resolved to find out what exactly is happening even as John tries to get her to focus just on their caravan, tins of corned beef and gas stove. The various pennies are going to drop at some point and perhaps then we will properly understand the beginning.

Dusty verdict: I can see why Vampyres has a cult reputation for its flexing of various vampiric tropes and its focus on female dominance and male victims, even though Hammer has already been there, albeit less explicitly. There has been some re-evaluation in recent years with film scholar Leon Hunt noting that "the male heterosexual narrative of Vampyres, is an explicitly masochistic one," as the male characters in the film are relegated to "props" used for the vampires' sexual encounters with each other. However, I’m not sure I buy that given the amount of female flesh and degradation on show. This is exploitation no matter how much academic revisionism might try and find new meanings.

As I said earlier, it has a good atmosphere and some good performances, notably Sally as well as Murray Brown and Marianne Morris who is really acting for two alongside Anulka. There’s also a surprising cameo form one of the greatest silent film actors, Bessie Love who worked with DW Griffith and everyone else from the 1910s onwards, is shown as the wife of a rich American about to but the cute, haunted house. What could possibly go wrong…


The amazing Bessie Love, sixty years in film...



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