Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Vampyres (aka Daughters of Darkness, 1974)

José Larraz’s Vampyres commences with a heady blend of soft-core indulgence and reactionary refutation. Two luscious young lesbians make love in an old dark house, only to have someone walk into their bedroom and shoot them both dead with cold, punitive relish. Thus kicks off one of the most boldly carnal and moody of the many flesh-filled, hazily handsome horror films of the ‘70s. Somewhere out in the misty, autumnal landscape of rural England, various wanderers, like aloof, middle-aged Ted (Murray Brown) and camping couple John and Harriet (Brian Deacon and Sally Faulkner), are distracted by the sight of two beautiful, luxuriantly dressed females hovering on the roadside. Ted picks up the dark-haired, statuesque Fran (Marianne Moore), who directs him to the great, deserted house seen at the opening, where she claims to be living as a guest. The exterior is in deliriously gothic dilapidation, but within is plush and comfortable. Fran and Ted soon commence a dynamic sexual affair, his stern, reticent intensity finding accord with her purposefully vague pleasure-seeking, but when he awakens the next day, he’s alone, listless, and sports a deep gash in his arm.

John and Harriet, a gently bickering young couple on a motoring holiday, have set up their caravan a short distance away from the old house. Harriet is increasingly distracted and fascinated by glimpses of the two strange women, disturbed by the locale, and freaked out at night when she hears a scream and sees a hand slap against the caravan window during the night. When John investigates, he sees no sign of anyone. In spite of the mysterious events he’s experienced, and regardless of his deteriorating physical state, Ted returns to the house repeatedly to resume his vigorous copulations with Fran. She introduces him to her blonde offsider Miriam (Anulka), who’s brought another young man, Rupert (Karl Lanchbury) home, but when Ted strays out the following day, even blearier than he was before, he happens upon Rupert being extracted from his wrecked car. What the audience has seen, and he hasn’t, is the ecstatic rite that the two women had indulged during the night, as they cut holes in a gibbering, gore-splattered Rupert, and lapped his spilling blood with fevered hunger.

Fran and Miriam are vampires, the undead reincarnations of the two murdered women, ensnaring and exsanguinating the victims they flag down and then setting up their dead bodies to look like crash fatalities. That truth is far easier for the audience to discern than the characters. Apart from the attention-grabbing opening, Larraz maintains a creeping, menacing tone, drinking in the pastoral beauty of the locality in that very ‘70s fashion, where you can practically smell the dew, morning forests, and body fluids, and relocating the Hammer-style old dark castle and its deadly bevy into the midst of a drizzly, nondescript English countryside. Larraz finally stages a disorienting shift from latent to active menace with Rupert’s murder, half-way through the film. The obvious low-budget and resultant air of immediacy bolsters Larraz’s atmosphere of darkly sensual foreboding, which explodes into outright horror in several subsequent moments of raw bloodletting. Rarely in the history of the vampire subgenre has a director managed to blend the sexual and the horrific with such fervour.

Vampyres calmly depicts the travesty the ladies make of the bucolic landscape and familiar laws of society, as the on-screen hedonism shifts around the dial from the escapist bump-and-grind between Ted and Fran, through to harshly desexualised viciousness. The ladies ensnare and murder a gentleman playboy (Michael Byrne, terrific as ever in a brief role), and then John and Harriet when they try to help Ted, John slashed to death in his car by Fran, lying in wait on the back seat, and Harriet, stripped naked and sliced apart with barbaric joy. Fran’s delight in keeping Ted alive, preferring to take his blood in small doses, seems at odds with their generally ravenous, revelling bent, but it becomes clear that Fran, and then, in spite of her warnings, Miriam too, find Ted’s blood so great a pleasure it’s worth prolonging and denying themselves, even at the risk of his escaping their clutches. The story is filled with ambiguous points: why, for instance, does a hotel manager seems to recognise Ted in spite of his assured denial of having been in the area before? Why does Fran takes such a shine to him? Could he be the reincarnation of their murderer? Why do the two vampires approach Harriet and touch her forehead as a sign of recognition, saying they’ve waited a long time for her to come? Is she to be one of them?

Such intriguing touches certainly add to the enigmatic atmosphere, but it’s also clear that narrative integrity suffers from haphazard development, suggesting the need to touch exploitative bases finally outweighed Larraz’s artful vision, for some of these intrigues go nowhere. The script hovers uneasily between playing as a mystery, told from the viewpoint of the actually rather superfluous camping couple, and a simple, oneiric descent into fairytale consummation, in which Ted is the protagonist. The opportunism results in ungainly moments, like John and Harriet boffing in their caravan, a scene without any but the most obvious purpose. Some detail as to why the vampire ladies need to flee to their underground resting place when the sun comes up, and yet are often seen getting about in the daytime, would have been appreciated. Like a lot of other ‘70s horror films, Larraz’s work and the style of the cinematography evokes environment with an luster that seems quite unobtainable for directors today, and he trades on the counterculture-influenced era’s faint discomfort in perambulating across the countryside in search of adventure (although that was more typically a feature of American horror entries as in, say, Count Yorga, Vampire, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes etc) as Harriet reacts with half-explicable anxiety to a strange locale, before the perfect camper’s nightmare of something ugly lying in wait outside the caravan.

Larraz also channels a subtext of post-'60s social decay, replicating the pretensions to elegant decadence in some of what was then pop culture. The vampire ladies, in their styles and dress, suggest haute bourgeois hipsters as much as gothic queens, straight off some '60s album cover, and they could been seen as transgressive runaways from the real world, maintaining a rustic empire of sexual prerogative, one that comes with a heavy cost. A deeper reflection of a fatally dislocated society is detectable in the alienation that Ted suggests, and the rapacity of the vampires ladies and their mad trysts suggesting a generic, gender-warped reaction to Last Tango in Paris, a desire to retreat and regress into a perfect, fatal sexual wonderland. Vampyres is similar in spirit to Jean Rollin’s films, but whereas Rollin leavened his brand with a romantic and radically asocial side, his stories preoccupied with blurring demarcations of sexuality and society, Vampyres offers a familiar homophobic sense of revulsion in the image of its predatory, liberated sapphic couple as greedy, draining, irredeemably threatening monsters: the film is, then, deeply conservative in spirit. Larraz had gained attention in the same year with the Cannes-selected Symptoms, in which Angela Pleasance had played a repressed, psychotic lesbian. Nonetheless, Larraz portrays the horror in his paranoid vision with undeniable force and a trenchant mix of beauty and ugliness, and the notion that forcibly repressed identities will return in a darker, vengeful form, is well-explicated in the vampires’ relentless, callous violence.

The vigour of the actors helps: Brown, tense and dour, channelling some suppressed anger into his trysts with Fran, is an interesting figure of idolised/victimised fetish, no fawnish young man but a strong, experienced Alpha male, and the two fearless beauties, playing the comely savages avenging their own deaths by endlessly, tirelessly repeating the game of attraction and annihilation with the poor fools whose eyes they catch, leap in with unadorned ferocity. Scenes like that in which the two ladies take turn in lapping the blood flowing from Ted’s body and then kiss each other, sharing their private lust and his life force at the same time over his prone form, contain an electric sense of forbidden passion and erotic cannibalism unbound.

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