Lesbian Vampires Have Always Been Cool as Hell

In honor of James Franco's new sapphic adaptation of 1996's cult flick "Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?" we look back at how the popular erotic bloodsucker trope has evolved in film.

|
Jun 17 2016, 4:10pm

Screengrab via "The Hunger"

"Lesbian vampires!" Tori Spelling squeals in a promo for the inevitable 20th-anniversary remake of her cult-classic Lifetime movie Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? "I was totally shocked!" She had a right to be. While the original Mother plunged Spelling's heroine into a love affair with a twisted man, the version that premieres Saturday is helmed by appropriation artist and cultural ubiquity James Franco. So this time, Spelling will play the mother of a college girl who falls for a sapphic bloodsucker.

Franco's choice to reimagine a piece of hetero camp detritus as a girl-on-girl love story seems obvious, considering his enthusiasm for trashy tropes and fixation on queer culture. But he's hardly the only filmmaker keeping the lesbian vampire film, a 70s B-movie staple, alive. From teen horror like 2011's The Moth Diaries to 2014's Vampyres, a Spanish-language remake of the 1974 sexploitation flick of the same name, lesbian vampire movies have survived well into the 21st century.

Read more: Lesbian Terrorists Use Porn as Propaganda in This Radical New Film

Mainstream attitudes towards women's and queer sexuality have evolved rapidly over the past four decades, though. Films like Blue Is the Warmest Color and Carol are only the most recent reminders that lesbian lust no longer needs to be hidden in supernatural storylines to make it past censors. So what purpose does the lesbian vampire serve now? And why does our appetite for this archetype seem as immortal as the creatures themselves?

The lesbian vampire film dates back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Theda Bara's largely lost silent-era oeuvre gave the female vampire an early heyday, but the character got its first (exceedingly coded) big-screen lesbian twist in 1936's Dracula's Daughter—Universal's sequel to its iconic 1931 film Dracula. Though that landmark film was nominally based on a Bram Stoker short story, most later lesbian vampire movies have drawn inspiration from Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla or the much-mythologized biography of the bloodthirsty 16th-century Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory.

In the 1970s, the convergence of the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, and what was then known as the gay liberation movement fueled an explosion of low-budget lesbian vampire films. "The early 70s was a huge lesbian minute," explains Andrea Weiss, a documentary filmmaker, writer, and the author of Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film. "All these lesbian activist groups, all these women coming out. Even straight women went through lesbian phases because it was the thing to do."

But the pulpy erotica of British horror house Hammer Films and the trippy softcore of European directors like Jesús Franco and Jean Rollin weren't expressions of this new lesbian awakening— they were, in large part, a male temper tantrum about it. "At the same time as [the lesbianism depicted in these films] was a turn-on for men, it was also an expression of anxieties about what was going on in the early women's movement," says Weiss. The queer female vampires of this period, who often sucked male neck, too, looked like classic horror pinups—all boobs, lips, and hair. And the films often framed them as societal menaces in need of vanquishing by a male hero. Hammer's 1970 Carmilla riff, The Vampire Lovers, might be the ultimate example of this formula: Ingrid Pitt's Eastern European bloodsucker seduces and slowly siphons the life out of innocent girls until a cadre of men comes together to chop off her head and restore the patriarchal order.

Theda Bara as the Vamp, 1918. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Not all of these films were quite so simplistic. Justine Smith, a critic who writes a column on love and erotica in cinemafor the film site Vague Visages, calls Belgian director Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness (1971) a "nearly positive representation of a lesbian love affair that still falls into tropes associated with lesbian fiction in general"—presenting "older lesbians as predatory and lesbian romances as doomed." According to Smith, stories like this "focus on letting us in on the 'exotic' appeal of lesbianism but then backpedal into reestablishing the status quo of heteronormative fiction."

Once the initial shock of women's lib wore off, male directors' (and audiences') lesbian vampire mania subsided as well. But the films that did get made in the 80s and 90s were often more sympathetic—and just better—than what came before. Leah Deyneka, who co-edited the book Dracula's Daughters: The Female Vampire on Film with Douglas Brode, cites 1994's Nadja and particularly 1983's The Hunger as two of the trope's greatest artistic successes. The latter casts Catherine Deneuve as an immortal who turns her attention from her suddenly aging lover of 200 years (David Bowie) to Susan Sarandon's young doctor character. Though the vampire always represents an exotic "other," Deyneka finds that "in something like The Hunger, the 'other' is extremely attractive. I don't see it as this ugly or perverse thing."

Jon Abrams, editor-in-chief of the horror and cult film site Daily Grindhouse, finds a feminist slant built into The Hunger's casting. "In another movie, it's easy to imagine Bowie could have played Count Dracula," he says. "Here, Catherine Deneuve is the alpha figure, and Bowie's character's importance in the story is ultimately supplanted by Susan Sarandon's character. It's presented as a sort of evolution in the course of the story, but socio-politically speaking, in the context of the era, it has its own electric charge."

Most horror movies still present female desire as pretty monstrous.

Around the same time as The Hunger provided Deneuve and Sarandon's canonical sex scene, queer women started embracing 70s sapphic schlock as camp. Weiss recalls that when she gave lectures about the lesbian vampire trope in the 80s, lesbian audiences "would be falling in the aisles" over the film clips she showed. The previous decade's activists were "very young and earnest and angry. There wasn't a lot of room to laugh at these images the way we can laugh at them now," she says. "That took a little bit of time."

Though their porny appeal remains undeniable, the fact that we still watch and make lesbian vampire movies today owes a lot to their reappropriation as camp, which relies on both our awareness of the cliché and our ability to cherry-pick the aspects of the films that truly are liberating. Some of that power is inherent in the vampire genre as a whole. "The vampire can turn its victims into new vampires," says Abrams. "A vampire doesn't necessarily destroy a person, like a zombie does; it makes a person like itself. It corrupts. After a zombie attacks, there's nothing left. After a vampire attacks, something new is created. The new vampire feels liberated, even if the humans left behind are horrified to witness the transformation."

Even lesbian vampire films that were created as wank material can have an empowering subtext. According to film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who co-edits the journal Senses of Cinema and has written four books on gender, violence, and horror cinema, "The assumption that the enduring legacy of lesbian vampires is purely the domain of straight-guys-getting-their-rocks-off in the traditionally scopophilic sense collapses under the reality of what drives the lesbian relationships in these films. It's about power for these women as much as sex. By opting out of heteronormativity, no matter how scantily clad or busty things get, there is fundamentally an articulation at work in these films that patriarchy is a norm that can be rejected."

From "The Vampire Lovers." Screengrab via YouTube

Cultural journalist and horror aficionado Alison Nastasi, an editor at Flavorwire, credits the trope's staying power to its subversion of gender roles more than heterosexuality. "Vampires are autonomous and generally depicted as loners," she says. "And there's something really appealing about being that fearless and self-interested—particularly when it comes to women, who are often pigeonholed into the role of selfless nurturer or as someone lesser than." Nastasi concedes that plenty of these movies follow a misogynist trajectory, ultimately punishing the woman for her selfish appetites. "But I'd still like to think the lesbian vampire is more appealing as a symbol of unabashed female sexual expression—women simply not giving a fuck."

Of course, there's also the distinct possibility that we still love lesbian vampires because our attitudes haven't evolved as much since the 70s as we'd like to think. "Female desire and lesbian desire are still very much stigmatized or, at least, misrepresented, largely because they're seen from the perspective of men for the most part," says Smith. "Most horror movies still present female desire as pretty monstrous and fall back on tropes that are nearly a century old at this point."

That would explain why the lesbian vampire movie is in limbo at the moment—different corners of the entertainment industry just keep churning out variations on the theme that aren't reactionary or subversive so much as crushingly self-aware. This century, a camp sensibility has yielded blunt-edged spoofs like Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009), but straight-faced approaches have turned out even worse, with The Moth Diaries and 2004's Eternal leaning on all the expected references.

"Have we made progress?" Smith asks. "Yes, I think we have. But I can't even think of a particularly revolutionary lesbian vampire in the past ten years."

She's right. And that's likely a result of the film industry's defining problem in 2016: There simply aren't enough female directors working right now to constitute a subversive bloc in any given genre. (It's worth noting that I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho director Mary Harron made the disappointing Moth Diaries.) Weiss remembers that the German lesbian filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger was planning to pair up Tilda Swinton and Isabelle Huppert in a vampire movie (based on Elizabeth Báthory), but the project seemed to stall out around 2010. "That would have been an amazing reversal of all the lesbian vampire films that have come before," Weiss says.

Read more: The Radical 80s Film That Predicted Today's Political Clusterfuck

If there's one place you can find sexually progressive vampire stories, it's on the small screen. True Blood fan favorite Pam, a pansexual bloodsucker played by Kristin Bauer van Straten—a dead ringer for Deneuve—balanced delicious cruelty with endearing loyalty. And Deyneka notes that supernatural teen shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, and The Originals feature "actual queer characters [whether human or vampire] that are positive role models" (even if the series also have an exasperating habit of killing off their relatable lesbians).

James Franco's Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? will also air on television, and at the movie's New York premiere, he seemed to share the preoccupations of many teen drama creators. "I thought vampires would be a great screen, or metaphor, or filter, to talk a lot about issues of growing up, identity, all of those things," he said. Franco's track record makes it doubtful he'll be the one to deliver a truly subversive take on the lesbian vampire trope—but plenty of camp-hungry viewers will tune in anyway, thrilled to watch him try.