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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bay of the Living Dead: "Carmilla" Is The Birth of Lesbian Vampires

Posted By on Thu, Jul 31, 2014 at 2:00 PM

click to enlarge DAVID MACDOWELL BLUE
  • David MacDowell Blue
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a monthly column dedicated to horror films and TV shows, past and present.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novella "Carmilla" was first published in 1871 in The Dark Blue, a publication of the period. The following year it appeared in Le Fanu's collection of short stories: In A Glass Darkly. "Carmilla" was a tale of terror that no doubt raised many eyebrows in its day: Countess Carmilla Karnstein was a vampire with a particular taste for the blood of young ladies.

Though not as well known as Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was published 26 years later, "Carmilla" remains a horror classic in its own right. Some could argue that Stoker in fact borrowed from Le Fanu's "Carmilla" — vampire hunter Baron Vordenburg has more than a passing resemblance to Dracula's arch-enemy Van Helsing.

"Dracula's Guest," a Stoker short story published two years after the author's death in 1914, was thought to be to a deleted chapter from Dracula. The 1936 Universal Studios film Dracula's Daughter claimed to be an adaptation of "Dracula's Guest," though the film told an entirely different story than what was initially published. But it did retain what may have been borrowed form LeFanu — a (at the time) shocking lesbian seduction scene in which the Count's thirsty daughter (Gloria Holden), posing as an artist, feasted upon the throat of a female model (Nan Gray) after asking the terrified young woman to remove her top.

The most famous, and faithful, screen take on Carmilla was Hammer Films' The Vampire Lovers, (1970). Polish-born Holocaust survivor Ingrid Pitt had a field day, and a brief brush with movie stardom, with her no-holds-barred performance as a lusty and sometimes nude Carmilla. Though she went to great pains to hide her vampirism, Pitt's Countess flirts openly with women, shocking behavior during the film's 18th century setting. Lesbian content was still considered daring, and titillating, at the time of the film's release. Shots of beautiful young ladies with bite marks on their breasts helped to fill theaters to capacity and made The Vampire Lovers one of Hammer's biggest hits from the studio's latter day period. It remains a fan favorite.
click to enlarge Nan Grey (left) with Gloria Holden in Dracula's Daughter (1936) - UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
  • Universal Studios
  • Nan Grey (left) with Gloria Holden in Dracula's Daughter (1936)
"Carmilla" recently rose from the grave, yet again, in a stage adaptation written by Los Angeles based playwright and film critic David MacDowell Blue. Blue's play, which recently enjoyed two seperate runs at Zombie Joe's Underground Theater in North Hollywood is both a faithful retelling and a revisionist take on theLeFanu classic. Blue set his version in Nazi Germany. Currently peddling his play to theater companies around the country, Blue spoke to SF Weekly about his love for Carmilla and the Gothic horror genre.
SF Weekly: What are your horror influences?

David MacDowell Blue: I'm a fan of the old stuff, black and white, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I prefer my horror more subtle and glamorous. Anything that can make me feel deeply a full sense of dread and desire at the same time, that's what draws me to horror. 

SF Weekly: What drew you to "Carmilla"?

Blue: Speaking of dread and desire, I've always had a fascination with vampires. Almost anything that deals with it will draw me in right away. The carnality combined with elusive beauty. Pain and pleasure combined. And in "Carmilla" it's very understated, almost innocent, the fascination between a supernatural girl and a mortal one. Plus I've always wanted to play a vampire. They're powerful, seductive and complex. 

click to enlarge Ingrid Pitt (left) seducing an unknown young lady in The Vampire Lovers (1970) - HAMMER FILMS
  • Hammer Films
  • Ingrid Pitt (left) seducing an unknown young lady in The Vampire Lovers (1970)
SF Weekly: How faithful is your play to the book? And how blatant is the lesbianism?

Blue: The show is set in WWII era Europe, and I would say it has a serious tone. I think vampires are implicityly erotic, and in such a savage, isolated and glamorous time period, that eroticism is heightend. Though the lesbianism won't be exploitive, I believe it will be handled in a realistic and subtle way, which I think is sexier. 

*****

SF Weekly also got a nice quote from Douglas M. Eames, the actor who played General Spielsdorf in Blue's play. Eames told us that he watched The Vampire Lovers as part of his preparation for his role as the General:

"The General is a tortured soul. He is obsessed by the death of his beautiful young daughter at the hands of what he believes to be ruthless vampires, and he will not rest until he has put her to death. His love for his lost daughter is counterbalanced by the brutality of his present occupation. Though the audience is tempted to see reality through his eyes, his obsessions have clearly driven him mad. How much can we trust his perceptions? Has his madness made him completely delusional, or is he correct in his beliefs? That's a very fun dynamic to play with. Needless to say, playing a Nazi vampire hunter will go down as one of the more unusual things on my resume!" 

More information on "Carmilla," and other projects by David MacDowell Blue, can be found on Blue's website.

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