Stephanie Rothman’s “The Velvet Vampire”: They desired her body, she craved their blood

By on November 29, 2017

The Velvet Vampire — one of the more visually arresting films you’ll find in our Horror category over on Night Flight Plus — was written and directed by Stephanie Rothman, who would become one of the few female filmmakers to specialize in helming low-budget drive-in sleaze exploitation films during the 1960s and ’70s.

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In the mid-Sixties, Rothman was one of just two women interesting in directing movies who was enrolled in USC’s cinema department, and she became the first woman to win the Director’s Guild of America Fellowship.

By 1970, Rothman had become Roger Corman‘s assistant/protégé at American International Pictures, scouting locations, and writing, directing and editing scenes in some of Corman’s films.

She shared a co-writing/co-directing credit with Jack Hill on Blood Bath (re-titled Track of the Vampire for TV) and had directed 1967’s It’s a Bikini World, one of the last beach party movies.

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After Corman established his new New World Pictures company, he hired her to direct the successful exploitation flick The Student Nurses, from a screenplay she’d written with her husband, Charles Swartz.

Corman then wanted her to direct a sequel, and he also had The Big Doll House, a women in prison project, in mind for her to direct as well.

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Rothman, however, wanted to direct a screenplay she’d written with her husband and screenwriter Maurice Jules.

It was an updated vampire story — titled Through the Looking Glass — in which a female vampire was the protagonist and not the victim.

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She was inspired by recently-released Euro-trash horror films she’d seen, especially Harry Kümel’s Belgian-French-German horror film Daughters of Darkness (Le Rouge aux lèvres), about a bisexual female vampire with an interest in sexual sadism, and also by Jess Franco’s softcore masterpiece of erotic lesbian vampirism, Vampyros Lesbos.

Corman liked their screenplay, but not its title, which was changed to The Velvet Vampire, and he gave Rothman a $165,000 budget to make her film.

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The Velvet Vampire stars Celeste Yarnall as a 125-year old bisexual, blood-thirsty vampire named Diane LeFanu, named after Sheridan Le Fanu, author of the Gothic novella Carmilla, a vampire story predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) by twenty-six years.

LeFanu meets a young, liberated married couple at an art opening (at “Stoker’s Gallery”) and invites sleepy-eyed Lee and his foxy wife Susan Ritter — played by Michael Blodgett (Lance Rock from Russ Meyer’s 1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and TV actress Sherry Miles —  out to her remote desert home for the weekend.

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Initially reluctant to go, Susan eventually gives in to her husband’s desires (he seems a little too interested in Ms. LeFanu), but once they’re out at her isolated Spanish Colonial manse, they both begin to suspect that LeFanu is pretty intent on initiating them into her world of perverse sexual pleasure (a plot predating The Rocky Horror Picture Show by a few years).

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Lee and Susan both end up having the very same sexy dream, and when Susan is bitten by a rattlesnake while sunbathing (while her husband and LeFanu explore an abandoned ghost town saloon), LeFanu saves the day by sucking the poison out of Susan’s leg.

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Seduction and sexual tension mounts, and LeFanu attempts to sleep with them both, but Susan realizes that her husband’s increasing attraction to LeFanu is leading to an inevitable showdown between the two women.

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The Velvet Vampire, went into production in February of 1971, shooting in the Mojave Desert town of Yucca Valley, near Joshua Tree, and in Los Angeles, two locations similar to those also seen in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1969 counterculture hit Zabriskie Point.

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Our favorite scenes here — dream sequences involving big beds and a floor-length mirror in the middle of the desert — reminded us a little of scenes in Anthony Newley’s 1969 film Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

It was apparently a difficult shoot, according to what Rothman said about the film at her UCLA retrospective:

“We were brushing against spiny Joshua trees and cacti. I can’t tell you how many needles we had to pull out of ourselves at the end of each day. Then the weather was so changeable: one moment it was bright and sunny and the next we were in the middle of a sandstorm. Equipment would get stuck in the sand and we’d have to push it out; the whole crew, everybody. I think there was a maximum of fourteen people on the crew, including the producer and director. So it was a hard film to shoot.”

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“In addition to that, the actress who played the young girl [Sherry Miles, a.k.a. Sherry E. DeBoer, the one-time heiress to the Hawaii-based Long’s Drug Store fortune] was very anxious and very difficult. I had to give her more reassurance than, you know, I thought I had in my entire being to give in a lifetime just to keep her going!”

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When Corman saw the final edit of Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire, he wasn’t too sure what New World should do with it, believing (perhaps rightly so) that there was too much nudity and sexual content for drive-ins and grindhouse theaters, and too much horror and blood for art-house theaters.

That may be one reason why its distribution — on a double bill with an Italian horror movie, Scream of the Demon Lover — was inconsistent, and likely never quite reached Rothman’s intended audience.

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Even though The Velvet Vampire — it’s also been released as Cemetery Girls, The Devil Is a Woman, and The Waking Hour — wasn’t a box office smash, it would go on to earn a cult following ever since its release.

The Velvet Vampire continues to be screened at festivals and retrospectives to this day, where audiences still single out Rothman’s striking use of color (particularly reds, oranges and yellows) and those hypnotic, erotic dream sequences accompanied by Zabriskie-ish acoustic strings, evocative of a psychedelic acid trip (Roger Dollarhyde and Clancy B. Grass III provide the groovy, funky/jazz/prog-rock score).

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Watch The Velvet Vampire on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.