The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Vampyros Lesbos is ... well, it's exactly what it sounds like. This '70s tale of lesbian vampires is well worth a bite.
Usually, a movie is just a movie: You buy your popcorn, you go home after and forget the whole thing. Sometimes, a movie is a thing you encounter at exactly the right moment, and it ends up influencing your mind and your life in weird and profound ways over the course of decades. As a young gay, I was obsessed with learning more about queer culture. At that time, the Internet search pretty much turned up the Dinah Shore Weekend, The L Word, and Ellen. Hm, golf, Los Angeles, and affluent rich people. Hard pass. If you looked into the past, you would come up with stuff like Radcliffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. Nothing in my life has ever made me think for a second that I didn't want to be gay—except reading a book that drags on for hundreds of pages about how awful and lonely it is to be gay. Yikes.
My point is, there wasn't a whole lot for me to hang onto, so I dove deep into books like The Celluloid Closet and became a master of deciphering subtext. Then, when I was 14, I discovered this mildly pornographic film about sexy ladies in black and red outfits living in solitude that literally said “lesbian” in the title, and life was never the same.
Vampyros Lesbos might be a good movie, it might be a bad movie, but it absolutely does not matter, because it had such an influence on me I can only view it as integral to the story of my existence. So, if you want unbiased criticism, you're going to need to go elsewhere, because I'm about to tell you about one of my all-time favorite things in this long, strange thing known as my life.
This film is very sexy, so the first thing I need to point out is that you should probably not watch with your family members. It's also not advised that anyone under the age of 18 should watch it—except for me when I was under 18 and totally watched it, like, a hundred times. The opening credits aren't even done before we see a naked woman lying on her back with her scarf blowing in the breeze. The first sequence of the movie consists of Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda) slowly dancing naked while staring at herself in a mirror before she turns around to make out hard with a naked lady mannequin. (Why, yes, it is the greatest thing I've ever seen, thank you for noticing. Also, very NSFW.) A blonde woman watches from the back of the room with her boyfriend. He seems a little uncomfortable while she appears to be experiencing a life-changing moment, but more on that in a minute.
Vampyros Lesbos follows the story of said blonde woman, Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg), who works at a law firm and has a mustachioed boyfriend who she kind of hates having sex with. It's not really his fault, though, because it turns out she's secretly obsessed with this woman she keeps seeing in her dreams—our friend, Nadine. After seeing Nadine perform at a nightclub, Linda has a separate encounter with her when she meets with her in a strictly legal capacity regarding a large inheritance that's been left to her by—you guessed it—Dracula.
Linda shows up at Nadine's place, and this is what she is greeted by:
Good morning. They go swimming and then sunbathe together. After a while, they discuss Dracula's will, at which time Nadine goes into full seduction mode and the two of them have sex. Nadine bites her on the neck, drawing blood. Linda wakes up alone, only to find a disconnected murder subplot in the basement that comes back around later but never really makes sense. Unsurprisingly, she faints and wakes up in a hospital. A lot of Nadine's ex-girlfriends are either in this hospital or have been treated there at some point, so you get a lot of a Van Helsing-analogue rambling about vampire stuff.
As is the case in many other vampire stories, Linda appears to be under Nadine's thrall and returns to the other woman to continue their affair. Nadine “breaks up with” her “girlfriend" (otherwise known as “a woman she left institutionalized and suffering") in order to be with Linda. Later on in the film, Linda is kidnapped by the man she saw commit a murder earlier, but eventually she escapes. Nadine and her friend Morpho try to flee, but they fail. This is all difficult to describe, because it really isn't a linear story. Nadine and Linda meet up again at the end of the movie—and predictably, tragedy ensues. I'm not sure if I've appropriately communicated this, but the plot of this film is incredibly disjointed. The most important thing about it is that Nadine, a ruthless vampire, develops a deeply tragic love for Linda, who knows the affair is wrong mostly because of how murder-based it is, and ultimately rejects Nadine in her most vulnerable moment. That is beautiful and heartbreaking, no matter how ridiculous certain aspects of the story might be.
The most fascinating things about the film are the direct parallels it draws between the characters. In some ways, Nadine resembles the man that killed his wife to “keep” her, Linda's boyfriend is comparable to Morpho, as they both leap to the defense of the women in their lives. Meanwhile, Linda could be described as the "Van Helsing," making moral choices despite her attraction to Nadine. This could easily be a result of bad characterization, but to me it adds an element that puts my mind into overdrive when I'm watching this film.
The soundtrack of this movie is the most famous thing about it, and that makes some sense because it is very good. Quentin Tarantino used one of its songs for his film Jackie Brown, a growling psychedelic number called “The Lion and the Cucumber,” because the incredible sexual overtones of this film ran over into the soundtrack. I highly recommend picking it up if you're a fan of weird psychedelia or strange old horror soundtracks. My favorite song is a dreamy organ number called “The Message” that tends to appear during Nadine's nightclub performances. It's a beautiful song, so slow and sensual that it fits perfectly with the surreal sexiness of those scenes. At other times, the soundtrack is slightly distracting and doesn't necessarily fit the film, but both are great standalone artifacts in their own right.
Miranda, who plays Countess Nadine Carody, is credited as Susann Korda here because there was some concern about associating her name with erotic films. There's not a lot of information on her life, but based on what's available it was short and very strange. According to an uncited summary on Wikipedia, Miranda began as a dancer, possibly dated famed bullfighter Manuel Benitez, released a series of Spanish-language pop albums, starred in over 30 movies from 1960 to 1970 (including six for director Jesús Franco in 1970 alone), had a son, married a racecar driver, and died at the age of 27 in a car accident only a month or so after the filming of Vampyros Lesbos wrapped. It's difficult to find out much about her, but Miranda's style and strange, slightly dreamlike onscreen presence have influenced my life in a huge way.
This movie has been heavily criticized for stilted acting, but permit me this defense. For starters, there's a lot of bad acting in most foreign horror films of the 1970s—and hardly anyone calls out Dario Argento's questionable casting decisions. Miranda does a great job in the role of Nadine, not to mention the other characters in the film are supposed to be mildly uncomfortable and uncertain, so any starts and stops actually kind of work. In terms of performances, one doesn't come to a film called Vampyros Lesbos with the expectation of watching Shakespearean actors. This is an entirely different kind of poetry.
In closing, I don't just love this movie; I literally am this movie, and will defend it to my last breath. It may be slightly problematic and weird and violent and directed by a guy and doesn't make any sense, but it's still more relatable for me than most movies about lesbians. If loving Vampyros Lesbos is wrong, I don't want to be right.