Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his wife Susan (Sherry Miles) meet the mysterious Diane (Celeste Yarnall) at an art exhibition. It's the sort of art exhibition that has blues singer Johnny Shines sitting in a chair and playing a song as part of the proceedings, but Lee just ignores that.

Instead, he is instantly slobbering all over the attractive Diane like a badly trained dog and is all too willing to accept an invitation to pack up Susan and spend a weekend in Diane's desert home.

The Ritters are quite a pair: Susan is vapid and spineless, while Lee embodies the always horny egotist arsehole archetype perfectly. So it is not too disturbing to this viewer to learn that their nice host is in truth a vampire who plans to keep one of them around as her new partner. When she's not drinking your blood, Diane is one of the more romantically inclined of her species. She even keeps the corpse of her husband preserved in the desert to prevent it from decaying and has a Native American servant she doesn't nibble on because he's something like her adoptive son.

All this the Ritters will only learn piecemeal between riding in Diane's dune buggy, being watched from behind a mirror and being seduced by Diane, first in dreams, then in body.

The Velvet Vampire was directed by Stephanie Rothman, one among many talented people who learned much about filmmaking from Roger Corman, for whose New World Pictures the film was produced. Of course, there can't have been much of a budget, so the production had to make do with an impressive, sometimes uncanny desert location, some very bad actors and an at times problematic script that mixes recurring dream sequences, a slightly feminist subtext (which I didn't find as convincing as in Rothman's The Student Nurses), bad dialogue and would-be intellectual depth.

Fortunately, Rothman has the visual imagination and technical proficiency to make not only a reasonably good-looking film but one whose world seems to drift the more in the direction of the dream-like the longer its characters lose themselves in the already dream-like desert (or Diane's world, if you wish). Even before, Rothman delivers moody treats like the minimalist recurring dream sequence featuring a bed, a desert, a mirror, two naked protagonists and Yarmall in a red dress.

The film's look and mood were much needed to help me get over its less impressive aspects. Miles and Blodgett are terrible actors. Both don't have one single line in the whole movie they don't butcher. Their performances would give the amateur hour a bad name, making it difficult to empathize with their characters like the script seems to want it.

Celeste Yarnall is better than her counterparts. She at least possesses the looks for the weirdly seductive vampire she is playing, if not always the needed charisma to make the fascination for her the other characters show absolutely believable. Where Miles and Blodgett just seem unable to speak, Yarnall is trying a bit too hard, putting too much theatricality into moments that would work better without it. On the other hand, that's what we are used to from movie vampires since time eternal, so I'm not sure if I should blame the actress or the vampire archetype.

All of the characters are also cursed with some very problematic dialogue. Most of the time, it strives for the type of overearnest depth that usually has its source in a combination of badly digested philosophy books and one joint too many. For my tastes, it barely escapes being ridiculous enough to ruin the film, but I wouldn't blame anyone who couldn't cope with it. Additionally, there is a truly hilarious scene full of supposedly sexy double talk about dune buggies that beggars believe. Not that I'm really complaining about the latter, mind you.

Despite its flaws I found The Velvet Vampire well worth my time. As always, I'm the kind of guy who can ignore things like acting flaws and the near-absence of plot if the movie I'm watching has enough of a mood and personality of its own, both things this film has in spades. There's something about the film's rhythm and texture that makes it as seductive to me as Diane is supposed to be to its protagonists.


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