A look at Vincente Aranda’s hallucinatory lesbian vampire film
In the late 1960s, as the old guard died off and a new wave of filmmakers slowly, surely seeped into Hollywood – and Hollyweird – American audiences became hungrier for more daring sorts of entertainment. Political and social upheaval was swelling, the 6 O’clock news dragged dying soldiers from the front lines in Vietnam into people’s living rooms, films like Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy brought more explicit content into the mainstream and hardcore porn was championed by beloved prime time staples like Ed McMahon and Sammie Davis Jr. It was fertile ground for cinematic expression and with the vibrant, experimental films from Europe being suddenly embraced by this new American pack of creators, sexually aware, violent and earthy movies made for adults became industry standard. And with American distributors acting on this sudden liberal surge, European genre filmmakers began really pushing boundaries. Look at the work of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, the sexier side of Hammer Horror, Alain Robbe-Grillet , Dario Argento, Sergio Martino and others, all taking advantage of their homegrown movies being marketed around the world and all of them introducing more potent taboo-breaking imagery into their lurid narratives.
One of the byproducts of this unofficial “movement” was the “lesbian vampire” sub-genre, movies that fetishized – and naturally, exploited – the female form and female sexual desire for a primarily male audience’s titillation. But the thing is, many of these sorts of pictures were, by their very nature, feminist. Many of them – like my favorite of the pack, Harry Kumel’s 1971 Les Levres Rouge aka Daughters of Darkness – featured young women victimized by brutal men and then finding salvation at the hands and lips of a supernatural woman who “delivers” her from the barbarity of modern society and makes her immortal. And while many of these semi-progressive movies really just use feminism as a rack to hang their cheesecake on, a swell of them (like the aforementioned Daughters) were actually potent, sophisticated and intelligently designed works of art. And perhaps the most challenging and confounding Sapphic blood-sucker shocker of them all is Spanish director Vincente Aranda’s 1972 loose adaptation of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s oft-mined source story Carmilla, The Blood-Spattered Bride (aka La Novia Ensangrenata), a movie that was mutilated for its American release but whose original cut reveals it to be a deft, cerebral bit of European psychosexual fantastique.
The film stars doe-eyed Mirabel Martin (The Bell From Hell) as Susan, the blushing newlywed bride to a nameless, ruthlessly wealthy hunk (played by Night of the Sorcerers‘s Simon Andreu), who ends up in his looming manor for a relaxing spate of sex and generally gushy Honeymoon rituals. But almost immediately things start to feel “off”. As Susan goes to their room to unpack, a pantyhose-masked brute – who may or not be her husband – pops out from a mirrored closet, forces her down and savagely rapes her. Or does he? When minutes later her husband re-appears – Susan’s dress now un-torn, the young woman sitting on the bed looking haunted – it’s clear that Aranda’s film’s chief aim is to disorient and disturb and that its terrors unfolding here will be intimate and internal and upsetting. And for the next 80 minutes, the movie fulfills that prophecy. In spades.
As husband and wife begin to get to “know” each other better, Susan begins to see traces of the savagery in her man that she imagined in her opening sequence hallucination. She also begins seeing a beautiful, veiled woman from the corners of her eyes, lurking around the grounds. When Susan later notices that all the previously-hung portraits of her husband’s family’s women-members have been oddly relegated to the basement, she discovers that one of those paintings is that of the same woman she keeps seeing. Said elegant femme is the late Mircalla Karnstein, who murdered her sexually voracious mate on their wedding night and was entombed alive for her crimes. At this point an already meandering, abstract melodrama falls hard into full-throttle dream-state experience, with Susan being visited by the ghost of Mircalla, most alarmingly in a psychedelic sequence of strobing lights, colored gels and lite-lesbian antics. And when a mysterious naked woman appears buried in the beach one day, calling herself Carmilla, the story becomes a volatile, explicit bloodlust triangle, with the lithe Carmilla – who is a manifestation of Mircalla – drawing Susan into her sexual web and convincing her to eliminate all of the men in their lives. None of this ends well, naturally and the blood flows freely while composer Antonio Pérez Olea’s nightmarish soundscape snakes around in the background.
The Blood Spattered Bride is a film that demands attention, discussion and analysis. It lacks the frothy lesbo-vamp Gothic pageantry of Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, or the breezy pop art of Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos and the purring comic book evil of Daughters of Darkness, rather it feels far more dangerous. There’s ample nudity on display and sometimes staggering amounts of blood, but that’s not its focus. It’s certainly not for the average horror fan seeking an easy swallow. It’s an immersive picture, one that weaves a kind of spell that – if you let it take hold -is defiantly hard to shake.