The Velvet Vampire
November 30, 2020
1 Hr., 20 Mins.
oger Corman was disappointed with The Velvet Vampire (1971) when he saw the final cut. The film, distributed by his recently formed New World Pictures, was directed by Stephanie Rotham, who was part of a cadre of young and fledgling filmmakers Corman put to use in the course of his career to help them get their own started. Rather than make The Velvet Vampire in the recognizably pulpy style on which
Corman built his name both as an impresario and a director himself, Rotham went in a different direction. She turned in an almost narcotic horror movie — a sensual, not overtly sexual, vampire film trapped in what feels like a dream state. It’s the type of atmospheric slow-burner meant to put us in a kind of trance — in line with the way its vampiress heroine does the people she victimizes.
But, of course, a movie that does not cater to exploitation-movie tastes is unacceptable in Corman land. The Velvet Vampire is never conventionally “shocking." Sex and violence are rendered rather tasteful, at least compared to other Corman-backed fare. In most cases, disappointment from the B-movie bigwig might seem like a red flag. But it’s obvious, watching The Velvet Vampire, that that disappointment was probably more rooted in irritation over a lack of commercial viability than a lack of quality. The movie is sumptuously shot and costumed. It's a dreamily aestheticized feature you want to move around inside.
Corman’s disapproval should be considered something of a subversive badge of honor. Even though Rotham knew what sort of movie the production company supporting her wanted her to make, she took a risk and leaned into what interested her, not the drive-in audiences to whom the movie would eventually be mostly shown. In addition to being shinily made, it also, like all good horror, feels especially attuned to its era. It presents a worst-case scenario to a common narrative in that free-love-loving era — usually complementary to the interests of straight men — partial to swinging.
The Velvet Vampire revolves around a young married couple, priggish Susan and vacuous, inconsiderate Lee (Sherry Miles and Michael Blodgett). While wandering around a Los Angeles art exhibition one evening, they meet Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall), a sharply-cheekboned, niftily-dressed art collector. She has such a strange hold over the couple the second they meet that one might say there’s an uncanniness to it. It's like there’s something else going on underneath the surface. The three have barely had a conversation before Diane is inviting the only-recent strangers to her secluded, private desert estate. Doesn’t matter that they don’t know anything about her: the invitation is accepted. (With enthusiasm by Lee but with a healthy amount of skepticism by Susan.)
This set-up is so fast and clean that the simplicity, in other hands, might evoke the first scene of a porno — unconvincing and unnaturally to the point. When else is a major gesture like this one received with this little hesitation? But Rotham tacitly assures us that this meeting and subsequent invitation are indeed strange. Is Diane really just a very-friendly art collector who likes inviting strangers over for intimate weekend stays at her desolate desert palace? It can’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that Diane is actually a centuries-old vampiress — a persona that naturally affords someone a preternatural ability to easily lure someone anywhere they please. That Diane has set up shop in the desert seems impractical at first — she can’t step outside without being covered head to toe — but then it strikes us as ingenious on Diane’s part. Who is going to ever suspect a succubus doing bad where the sun shines brightest, let alone where very few people dwell? (The nearby town’s emptiness is not coincidental, if you know what I mean.)
The Velvet Vampire covers what will unavoidably be a weekend to remember — unfortunately not for its sun-dappled fun and the glow of a new friendship. Lee and Susan are both shallow and uninvolving characters. They're irritating — they never transcend the stock types they’re embodying. Susan is rarely anything other than shrill and frantic. “You don’t want to do anything,” Lee casually says to her after she declines one going-on. Lee is perennially meatheaded and uncompassionate; Blodgett plays him so without spark that he isn’t even humorously vapid.
But Diane, played with alluring placidness by Yarnall, is a terrific creation. She’s magnetic as she moves from tableau to tableau (a paradisic poolside; a secret room encircled in a red curtain and accessorized by a skull and a candle) in stylish outfits (a red jumpsuit complete with a little red handbag; a hot-pink nightgown with perfectly placed fluffs), almost slinking along with Clancy B. Glass III and Roger Dollarhide’s ominous and groovy score. Diane is so in control that it’s like she’s more impressed with her own well-tended-to craftsmanship — her efficiency at killing — than the actual thrill of vampiric seduction. That must have started dimming a few decades ago. But Yarnall, who almost gets more beguiling as the film wears on, gives a performance that isn’t so one-dimensional that we don’t wonder if Diane is at all lonely out here in the desert. How must she feel, hamster-wheeling through the same routine for an eternity?
In an early scene in the movie, before we’ve gotten to know her as an immortal villainess, we see Diane walking down the corridor of an anonymous city building one night. She is accosted by a man we barely see the face of. He tackles and then tries to rape her. But almost immediately, she lethally knifes her attacker. She remains calm throughout the ordeal. Moments later, she’s sedately washing his blood off her hands in a nearby fountain. A moment of what could have been powerlessness evolves into an easy meal. Diane’s cool indomitability, and, as the movie will confirm, the ease with which she disposes of terrible men, is something to behold. Aside from Rotham’s gorgeous aesthetics, it's what makes The Velvet Vampire worth the watch. B+