10/2/2018 – Stephanie Rothman: The Velvet Vampire (1971)
Directed by Stephanie Rothman
We kick off the next thematic leg of the month with our look into the world of female directed films. As I’ve stated before I’ve devoted a feature in the past to this subject, but I found it woefully insufficient for the topic. I’ve wanted to watch more and spotlight a greater variety in the past and yet my grand total to date has been four feature films, one co-directed, and one short. It’s been partly my fault and the way things shook out last year where it got lost in the chaos of the month and partly a product of the small number of horror films that have been directed by women over the years.
I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing points from my earlier feature since it hasn’t gone anywhere, but it is worth a quick update. The updated Celluloid Ceiling report has been released and despite a gain in four percentage points for female directors in the Top 250 films (translation to approximately ten films), don’t get too excited; it was an anemic 7% last year and we’ve managed to get back up to the level we reached way back in 2000. There’s been more horror releases too in recent years from female directors, but best I can tell, not a single one in the past year was theatrically released. Considering that basically every study indicates that women are at the minimum more inclined to horror than other genres while most indicate that they make up the majority of horror fans, I find it hard to believe that the same shouldn’t be true of horror directors as well.
Trying to pick out the earliest horror films from a female director is not as easy as it sounds. Generally, lists will pull The Hitch-Hiker, a solid 1953 film noir Ida Lupino (also the first noir film direct by a woman), but I hesitate to classify it as horror and if we are going with a loose use of the term, the very good silent short Suspense, co-directed by Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber (who also wrote and starred in it) predates it by forty years. Lupino’s biggest horror contributions were on TV with her direction of the Twilight Zone classic episode “The Masks” as well as nine episodes of the Boris Karloff hosted anthology series Thriller.
Alice Guy-Blaché, who was arguably the first female director in any genre and invented narrative film, is likely the original claimant however. IMDB lists only 1914’s The Dream Woman of hers as horror, however, of her hundreds of her films, she also helmed a 1913 adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum (that’s only a fragment of it), a 1915 film called The Vampire, a 1920 film called Vampire. There’s also an argument to be made for Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid 1943 experimental short Meshes in the Afternoon being horror. The horror anthology film Three Cases of Murder from 1955 featured three segments, one of which was directed by Wendy Toye.
Today’s director however got her start the way so many other filmmakers did, genre or otherwise, under Roger Corman in 1964 after studying at USC and becoming the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America Fellowship. She served as an associate producer on Beach Ball, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, and Queen of Blood (best known now for its possible inspiration on Alien despite being not very good) where she would “write new scenes, scout locations, cast actors, direct new sequences and edit final cuts” by her own recollection. She would handle substantial reshoots on the horror film Blood Bath which earned her the first co-directing credit of her career as well as a shot at directing the late beach party film It’s a Bikini World.
She’d serve as an associate producer on the crappy sci-fi comedy Gas-s-s-s, before Corman left AIP to form his own production company, New World Pictures. The second film there was also to be Rothman’s sophomore effort, the nursesploitation film The Student Nurses. She would follow it up with today’s film (her most famous) before leaving with her husband to help form Dimension Pictures. Over a two year stretch of 1973-1974, she directed a series of exploitation films in Group Marriage, Terminal Island, and The Working Girls and wrote the sci-fi/horror Beyond Atlantis before leaving Dimension. Her career stalled after this as the opportunities dried. She sold two scripts that she was supposed to direct only for that to never come about with her only writing credit coming on the exploitation comedy Starhops. She’s received some acclaim over the years for the feminist themes she wove into her work in a subgenre not known for its great treatment of women, but her career was brief and one that never afforded her the opportunities to expand out of it that she desired.
Right off the bat, we got our first issue with movie availability of the year as Shudder (the one service that doesn’t post detailed lists of what’s coming and going from their service) removed today’s movie. It was a fact I found as I went to start it. Thankfully, YouTube stepped up to fill the gap, but the print available was not the highest quality and a scene in a mine was especially left to the imagination. I can’t comment on how it compares to the Shudder’s version, but I’d hope that it was better. To top it off, WordPress then went and deleted all my notes for the movie after I was done, so clearly this movie is possessed.
After an opening which flips the typical man attacking a seemingly helpless woman on its head by having the woman kill him instead. That woman, Diane, then invites a couple out to her desert home where she sets about seducing them both. Diane (played by Celeste Yarnall) is the clear highlight of the movie. She’s got such undeniable style and she projects power and control in her every scene. Despite being a vampire, a fact that the title makes abundantly clear, she chooses to live in the desert and protect herself with merely a hat and long sleeve shirts. Some might call that stupidity, I call it her clearly not giving a damn.
The couple isn’t particularly interesting, spending much of the movie in various stages of undress, but the film does try to give them color in the plot. The surrealist dream scenes can get a bit silly at times (namely a shot of the man running at least half naked through the sand), but for the most part they drew me in. The wife especially finds herself getting more fixated on Diane as the two investigate what killed all the miners years ago with neck wounds and why all the graves in the graveyard are so old.
The score is all over the place which sometimes works to enhance the surreal atmosphere and other times creates a tonal mess. Scenes in general can feel disconnected, but it seems to be more a problem with the choppy editing than anything else, denying a proper flow to certain scenes. The ending is complete nonsense with SPOILERS1
It’s an imperfect movie, but one I enjoyed despite its faults. I would love to have seen a better version to see the colors pop even more and see things more clearly, but there were still some interesting shots apparent even then. It also kept the exploitative moments in check and fairly evenly spread by gender. I’d hesitate though to recommend to those not already interested in the kind of low budget films of the era even with Yarnall’s captivating presence.
Bonus Episode #4 – A – 1970s: Superbeast (1972)
Directed by George Schenck
As far as I know there’s no relation to the Rob Zombie song, but with Rob Zombie there you never know. George Schenck’s one and only film as a director (he also wrote it) was filmed in the Philippines and was one of a number of ’70s American horror films shot in the country along with such films as Blood Thirst, The Twilight People (the one I’ve seen and it’s pretty bad), Night of the Cobra Woman, and Daughters of Satan (which Superbeast was shown with on a double bill), none of which have a sterling reputation to say the least. Schneck would later go on to write Futureworld and the story for Turkey Shoot but in 2016 he would go on to achieve his most ignoble achievement, be named co-showrunner of NCIS.
After a series of suspicious deaths and including a plane being forced to land for deranged passenger, a pathologist is sent into to investigate. She travels with a local man, but when her canoe plunges over a waterfall, she is knocked out and wakes up in the camp of doctor and a trophy hunter. The former is studying and trying to cure a group of humans whose bodies have de-evolved but whose minds appear to still think (even if they have the nature of a beast) while the latter is hunting his failed experiments. By de-evolved it mostly just means their faces are a bit more Neanderthal and they walk with a hunch and that’s about it SPOILER2.
It’s clear they weren’t even trying in their sort of reverse take on the Island of Doctor Moreau narrative (making The Twilight People comparisons more spot on) with the makeup as the most obvious. It’s just so dull and torturous. There’s a reason the Heart of Darkness narrative doesn’t feature Kurtz until the end. The film lacks any real tension as our lead just mostly seems disinterested most of the time. It tries to spice things up with scenes where she slips away in her subconscious, but they don’t actually build to anything and the philosophical discussions about the ethics of hunting certainly aren’t well written. The acting is abysmal, the direction uninspired, and it’s not even worth seeing for a laugh.
Bonus Episode #5 – A – 2010s: Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings (2011)
Directed by Declan O’Brien
The first Wrong Turn movie was a lousy backwoods horror film from 2003 starring Eliza Dushku that should have probably been forgotten to the sands of time. Since it made money, a sequel obviously had to be made four years later, only this time it would be reduced to direct to DVD as one would expect and handed it to first time director Joe Lynch. To the surprise of everyone, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End turned out to be pretty good, centering on a reality competition and featuring Henry Rollins among others. Lynch became a director to watch and though it took a while for him to have his break (the many delays and mediocre reception of Knights of Badassdom didn’t help), he finally did with last year’s Mayhem (which I may get to this year, we’ll see).
Seeking to prove that was a fluke, Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead was shat out two years later, amping up the exploitive elements and taking out any sense of fun from the second film. Any sane person would have tapped out here especially when the director of that film, Declan O’Brien, has been promoted to writer-director, but I’m not most people and dammit, I am drawn to horror series out of a sense of morbid curiosity and completionism.
As the title indicates, this film is a prequel to the series though I’m not sure why. It opens in 1974, introducing us to the teenage Hillicker Brothers, the cannibals at the center of the series. Inbred hillbillies, they can’t feel pain and were experimented on in a sanitorium. Does any of this have an impact on the plot? Nope! Instead they escape from the sanatorium along with a serial killer named Maynard Odet killing everyone in their path. It’s all needless backstory before the film flashes to its real setting 2003 (an eventful year for the brothers).
A group of nine college students get lost while traveling on snowmobiles and wind up at the sanitorium where it turns out the four have been using as their base of operations ever since. The film trades the distinctive setting of the series for… I’m not sure what it trades it for. Gratuitous shots of naked women having sex? Well that’s in line with the last one at least. Perhaps a fetish for barbed wire and an even more stock setting. It’s as if O’Brien didn’t want to make another “inbred hillbillies in the woods” and went searching for any identity other than its own. While trying to innovate a series is a good thing, having a group of dull, unlikable college students who wander off one by one and get brutally killed, even giving one of your hillbillies a giant drill that he carries around almost exactly like Leatherface is not innovating.
Bonus Episode #6 – A – 2010s: Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines (2012)
Directed by Declan O’Brien
Set immediately after the last movie (because apparently, we needed another prequel), the fifth movie trades the sanitorium for yet another setting. Five college students on their way to the Mountain Man Music Festival (Apparently rivalling Coachella and Lollapalooza in size, but it looks no bigger than a carnival from what little we see of it) on Halloween nearly hit one of the hillbillies while distracted and crash their car, getting arrested when two cops catch them kicking the shit out of him after he slashes them with a knife. Maynard is arrested along with the kids (who all but one is freed) and it is the goal of the rest of the hillbillies to save him.
Maynard is now played by Doug Bradley and the film gives him a more prominent role this time around, taunting the others and threatening them throughout as his three stooges kill their way through town. It addresses at least part of my issues in giving some definition to at least one of the villains and threatening to make somebody interesting in one of these sequels. Not that there’s anything unique as the film merely joins in the conga line of Rio Bravo descendants as a sheriff teams up with a town drunk, and a petty crim to defend against a horde trying to rescue one of their own. Plus, the three hillbillies are still acting as three basically indistinguishable goons where a better series like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not a difficult feat to be better than this) more clearly defines its various members besides a quirk or two which in more scenes doesn’t affect their actions.
There is consistency in these films besides being terrible in that for the third movie in the row we open on a sex scene and in the way they feature lots of shots of blood splattering up against walls to indicate how gory the film is. The gore in these films occasionally offers a kill or two that isn’t bad, but I can’t say that they are worth it. they are ugly, unimaginative, mean-spirited movies whose attempts at humor fail completely.
Next up: The first film of our final theme as we look to the cinema of Hungary and 2006’s Taxidermia.