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Vampyres
Tonight's Feature Presentation

VAMPYRES (1974)

Starring: Marianne Morris, Anulka, Murray Brown, Brian Deacon, Sally Faulkner

Written and Directed By: Jose Ramon Larraz (official but false writing credit to Diana Daubeney)

The Short Version

This is what they’re talking about when they say “exploitation horror.”

Everyone remembers the sex and skin, but Vampyres is also an effective piece of gothic horror.

A bloody one, too.

Don’t ask questions; seriously, they’re not important.

Vampyres is bloody, gothic awesomeness that’ll also get your own blood flowing.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR.

No question; this one’s too tasty to be anything else.


Pairs Well With...

VAMPIRE VINEYARDS PINOT NOIR.

Yes, it’s a real winery.  Yummy, yummy dark red pinot noir.  Just make sure you know the intentions of the nice lady who offers you a glass before you drink it.

“Could you give us a lift?  It’s not far.”


I’ve seen Vampyres called the best lesbian vampire flick ever made.  This distinction, I think requires some tweaking.

For one thing, there’s the no-so-minor fact that the ladies in this movie aren’t lesbians.  They’re bisexual, and there is a difference.  (If you don’t see that there is one, I will boldly guess that neither of those represents your own lifestyle or that of any close personal friends.)  I think it’s enough to simply classify Vampyres as an exploitation/erotic horror flick, bi/homo/hetero orientation notwithstanding. 

And with that expanded category in mind, I will still agree that Vampyres is the best film of its kind out there.

Is Vampyres a flawless movie?  In the traditional sense, certainly not, and even in the permissive sense, it’s got some minor problems.  However, it does succeed completely in all of the categories that are important to its niche, and that’s what counts.

Our movie begins with an admittedly unnecessary scene that for some reason vexes a lot of people.  Specifically, we find our two leading ladies, whom we will come to know as Fran (Marianne Morris) and and Miriam (Anulka) enjoying each others’ company in bed.  An unknown man walks into the room and shoots them, apparently dead. 

What ends up vexing people about this scene is an inability to decide where this fits into the story that follows.  Realistically, the answer is “it gives the movie an opportunity to open with a lesbian nude scene,” but if one actually pays attention to the dialogue much later in the film, it’s made abundantly clear that this is a flashback to how the ladies met their end as mortals.  At the end of the day, Vampyres will leave a lot of questions unanswered, but really, folks, this is not one of them.

Anyway.  Roll credits.

This next scene is the one that makes no sense, and that could reasonably have been cut from the film.  A man we’ll later come to know as Ted (Murray Brown) checks into a hotel.  The hotel manager makes a big deal about swearing he’s seen Ted before, and Ted denies it.  Though Ted will play a major role in everything that happens later, this scene never factors into it.  I can only suspect that it was thrown in as a red herring to make the audience suspect that he’s more aware of things than he actually turns out to be.

Sound like a mess so far?  Surprise!  It’s not.  After this initial trip-up, we get to the real movie, and there is nothing at all ham-handed about it.

Cut to an English country highway.  John (Brian Deacon) and Harriet (Sally Faulkner) are a young couple out for an RV trip.  As they drive along, they see a woman standing alongside the road hitching for a lift.  They pass her by, continuing on until they find a clearing near what looks to be an abandoned English country estate.  Since the building will make a great subject for Harriet’s painting, this is where the couple decides to set up camp.

Best that they didn’t pick up the hitchhiker, who turns out to be none other than Fran, with Miriam waiting back behind the trees.  It seems that whoever gives these ladies a lift home – which just happens to be a not-so-abandoned-after-all country estate – never comes back alive…

Most exploitation flicks fail for one of two reasons.  Some fail because they end up falling short on one of the categories they’re supposed to be representing; in the cases of an exploitation film like this, sex and horror.  Others fail because even if they do mange to play up both elements sufficiently, they end up doing so by essentially making two different films an splicing them together, creating, for example, a genre flick with completely inexplicable sex and nudity.  Vampyres manages to avoid both of these traps.  The sexual content that is its selling point delivers as promised (and then some) on every level, and yet, the film also stands perfectly well as a normal piece of effective gothic horror.  What’s more, these elements rationally coexist in the film, and each part – the sex and the horror – is necessary to the other to make things work.  (Sure, it’d be possible to recut the movie in either direction and have something serviceable, but those results wouldn’t play nearly as well as what you get with the two combined.)

Let’s have a look at each element separately first, and then we’ll come back and fit them all together.

Since I know that this is the one you’re really waiting for, I’ll start with the sex and nudity.  Without question, Vampyres handles these elements better than any exploitation horror flick I’ve seen to date.  This movie pushes the envelope as far as it’ll go without entering the realms of farce or softcore; the sex and nudity are both memorable and striking, and yet, neither one ever feels out place.  When someone gets naked, it’s natural to the moment, and when things get busy, the audience is never made to feel as though it is being pulled out of the movie to watch a standalone sex scene.  Nor do those scenes look at all silly; they’re as hot you will ever see without crossing the line into pure softcore, and even then, Vampyres has many of those flicks beat, too.

But let’s not forget the horror, either.  The gothic horror golden age that had been epitomized by Hammer Studios and AIP was either dead or in its death throes by this point, depending on whom you ask, but Vampyres makes a serious go at bringing back its spirit.  Director Jose Ramon Larraz (who also wrote the movie; he credited his British wife to satisfy requirements for a UK production quota) plays heavily on the atmosphere, directing Vampyres entirely as a straight-up thriller.  The estate location is marvelous (it would later be used for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, of all things), and even though limited resources keep the production focused on just a few rooms of it and part of the grounds, he makes the most of what his location has to offer.  (His story even gives a plausible enough explanation of why only part of such a grand locale is being used.)  It’s gothic and mysterious without being musty, and plays wonderfully as a horror setting.  This is further enhanced by excellent cinematography, and pacing that maintains appropriate levels of tension and release throughout the film.  When it comes to maintaining atmosphere, Vampyres stands up against most straight-up gothic horror as well as and often better than any of its contemporaries.

For some, of course, effective horror is defined more by blood than atmosphere, and Vampyres has that base covered, too, literally.  The blood flows liberally and exquisitely throughout the film, even going one better on the bright red traditions of Hammer.  However, as with the sex, the amount of blood that flows never feels silly or goes over the top; it always makes sense to the scene, and never takes away from either the atmospheric or the erotic elements.

Speaking of which, let’s bring it all together now.

The essence of the modern vampire as first articulated by Bram Stoker is the combination of physical lust and blood lust, and rarely if ever has that combination been shown as effectively as it is in Vampyres.  For Fran and Miriam, sex and feeding are intrinsically similar acts.  When shown attacking their victims, there’s always a sexual quality to it, even when that attack does not occur during an act of copulation.  At the same time, there’s always a definite hunger to the film’s erotic moments, even when vampiric feeding isn’t involved.  And when those two things are combined… wow.  Forget the old euphemism of “swapping spit;” when these two ladies kiss with mouths wet with the flow of their victims’ blood, it’s one of the most horrifically erotic scenes you’ll ever see, regardless of whether you have any sort of fetish yourself or even if deep down you find the thought repulsive.  (Hence “horrifically erotic.”)  Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever seen sex and violence so perfectly combined in any film of any genre.  (Paul Verhoeven and Basic Instinct, eat your hearts out.)

Stepping back now and taking a look at our ladies as vampires, Fran and Miriam (how solidly British can two names get?) represent an interesting take on the classic monsters.  They definitely srink blood to survive, but they don’t get at it by poking into their vicims’ bloodstreams with fangs.  Instead, they slice their victims open with a dagger (preferably after first getting said victims drunk on spiked wine and having a hot shag as an appetizer) and eagerly lap up what pours out.  They don’t sleep in coffins, don’t turn into bats, and though they clearly don’t like daylight all that much and cover up as much as possible when walking out in it, it doesn’t burn them to cinders right away, either.  (Nor did it do so to Stoker’s Dracula; in the novel, daylight merely weakens his powers.)  This has led some to question whether they are less “vampires” in the true sense and more “hungry ghosts.”  It is indeed an interesting question; in the end, I personally have decided that there’s no real need to draw a distinction.  They are what they are, and what they are is interesting.

Indeed, aside from the flashback at the start which is confirmed as such at the end, there is absolutely no backstory given for any character in this film.  For some films, this would be a major handicap, but in the case of Vampyres, it’s part of what makes the movie work.  Vampyres exists entirely in the present, and that only furthers the depth of the film’s mystery and enriches its overall atmosphere.  It’s gothic horror with a twist: Vampyres is one of the rare atmospherically gothic horror pictures that does not rely on its past to work.

The atmosphere also works because you see at least one of the film’s primary “good guy” characters (if there can be said to be such a thing here) completely buy into it.  Unlike what happens to all of their other hitchhiking scam victims (hold that thought), Ted is not killed after his initial soiree with Fran and Miriam.  Indeed, Fran even allows him to survive a second night, over Miriam’s objection.  It takes no genius to figure out what went on the night before, and yet Ted doesn’t leave.  Many take the opportunity to facepalm here and ask “why?”, but to me, the answer is simple: he’s fallen under Fran’s spell, which on his side of the screen is the same thing as the audience buying into to the film’s atmosphere.  It also allows the further question of what Fran’s intentions are for him.  It’s obvious that she enjoys his company; is she simply keeping him around as long as possible before the inevitable happens?  Does she mean to turn him so she can keep him forever?  (Can she even turn him, or anyone?)  We never find out, and the fact that we never do again is one of the most satisfying things about this film for me.  Though it does take care to answer its most important ones, Vampyres still allows some of its questions to stand, just like life does.

This isn’t to say that Vampyres is perfect or that some of its unanswered questions aren’t just plain vexing, mind.  For one thing, the odd treatment of Harriet by our vampire ladies when they first see her (“by this sign” et.al.) is never explained and never makes any sense, especially given what happens to Harriet by the time all is said and done.  The biggest leap in logic, though, stems from their method of getting victims in the first place.  Each and every day that we see them, they go out to the road and pick up one or more hitchhikers for the purpose of making a meal out them that night.  They then cover the crimes by simulating auto accidents with the bodies.  Given that we learn that Fran and Miriam originally died in the house we see them living in during this movie, we can assume they’re not nomadic.  This means they’re killing at least one person a day every day.  This presents a lot of problems.  This seems like an out of the way road; is it really that well travelled and are the odds that they’ll be picked up every day that good?  Second, it seems like this is a well-established gig they’ve been at for a while.  Wouldn’t the cops get suspicious after the first few dozen accidents?  Or, even if the accident thing is new and they usually just bury the bodies, wouldn’t the local cops notice a spike in the disappearance and death rate that makes Compton look like a safe neighborhood?

Do yourself a favor.  Don’t ask these questions.  Just accept what is and enjoy the nice erotic horror show in front of you, ‘k?

Before we go, some mention should also be made about our two leading ladies, Marianne Morris and Anulka.  It should go without saying that both are gorgeous.  They also do a very good job in the film overall, and for my money, Morris plays the sexiest vampire in erotic horror history.  If you have this on disc, your copy should include some extras that have interviews with these two actresses; they’re worth watching.  Along with learning that both were told that there would be “a little nudity,” you’ll also catch the tidbit that each had the opposite hangup of the other: (at the time) recent Playboy Playmate Anulka was unnerved by doing violent scenes, and Marianne Morris was unnerved by doing the sexual sequences (to the point of having to get tipsy before her shower scene with Anulka).  I find this particularly interesting because on the screen, to my eyes, Anulka seems to relish the violent scenes with her performance, and Morris goes more all-out playing the sex bomb role.  Perhaps it’s simply their way of trying to make up for what they perceived as their own weaknesses; either way, again, both do a very fine job indeed.

Bottom line, even three and a half decades later, Vampyres stands as the best exploitation/erotic horror flick out there.  What’s more, Vampyres weaves its erotica and horror elements together into a unified, cohesive whole, with each element making the other all the more effective.  If this genre represents your kind of thing, Vampyres is a flick worth owning, and if you’re even a little curious, Vampyres is worth watching to find out.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011

More From The Bar! | Bram Stoker's Dracula | Baba Yaga | Blood Sabbath |



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