By Corinna ‘Merm’ Tomrley
The first in an occasional series about Vamps I Love. Some will be vampires in films I’ve loved for years, others that are new to me. But it’s all gonna be deeply personal so live with it. I’ve got great taste so it should all be good.
These things are FULL of spoilers! So do not read this if you’ve not seen the films discussed and don’t want the plots ruined. But please go away and watch them quickly and come back and read it. Thanks!
This vamp I’m writing about is a new-to-me vamp. I’ve known of the film for decades but only just got around to actually seeing it. She is Carmilla in Vadim’s Blood And Roses, played by Annette Strojberg (then Annette Vadim).
Before I watched I was already a big Carmilla the Vampire fan because the source material for Blood and Roses is Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla. Le Fanu wrote a wonderful vampire tale about the fictional Karnstein family, riddled with vampires past and present. They are reincarnations of a main vamp and these chicks have names that are all anagrams of each other: Carmilla, Mircalla, Marcilla, Millarca … and there are others that I can’t work out or remember now. Arcllima? That doesn’t seem right. The stories were also the source material for my favourite vampire films (and ones that are hailed as the worst of Hammer by some, the best of Hammer by me), the Tudor Gates penned trilogy Lust For A Vampire, The Vampire Lovers and (lesser loved by me because there are less lezzies. Well, there’s one boob bite) Twins of Evil. And it’s also the source for the sublime Vampire Circus and the wonderful queer web series Carmilla. I will come to those another time, believe me, darlings.
For the record, Sherry was first with his vampires, predating fellow Irish writer Bram Stoker by 26 years. Sherry’s original vamp is a lez chick who only takes women as her victims/lucky things. What’s not to love?
So, I’ve literally just watched the film Blood and Roses. I’m instantly in bloodlust with this one. I’m writing this without reading up on it. I’m gonna write from my own brain and vampire loving stake-free heart. I would have read about it once upon a time because I first heard of it through the wondrous (though flawed) book Vampires and Violets by Andrea Weiss (I’ll write about that book too, sometime). But that was ages and ages ago, like over twenty years, so I’ve completely forgotten anything about it. The stills in V&V of two beautiful, 60s, European actresses with plump lips smoldering at each other were – for some unknown reason – enough for me to know I should eventually see this thing.
First impressions are that it is very watchable, charming, compelling, haunting and has one of the best sequences in cinema ever. And I was not expecting any of that, actually.
One woman too many? That makes no sense in any context.
Lez desire is depicted but it’s not quite as full on as Hammer. However, there is a lot of attempted (and realised) seduction and many beautiful moments around that. It is queered far beyond this ‘simple’ girl-on-girl desire as well.
In Blood and Roses we meet a couple of the Karnsteins in the present day (so, the 60s) in the form of young(ish) cousins Carmilla and Leopoldo. Leo describes the luscious Carm as his ‘first cousin and childhood playmate. The last descendant of the Austrian branch of our family’. She fancies him rotten and this is obvious from the start. But Leo is engaged to Carmilla’s friend, the equally gorgeous Georgia. But does Carmilla want Leopoldo… or Georgia… or both?
Leo tells the group of people gathered for the impending wedding that they have vampires in their family but not to worry, none have been knocking around for centuries. Carmilla disagrees and tells them that Millarca is still around. Leo says this is mythical pishtosh that the villagers tell (class issues in these films really needs to be written about at some point). Strangely enough, Carmilla looks the spit of a painting of Millarca that she shows flirtily to Georgia. She tells the tale of Millarca who just happened to be in love with her cousin, Ludwig. Oh dear… And although Millarca ‘died’ her body disappeared. As did Ludwig’s three fiancés… Oh dear oh dear.
“If Millarca was to return, how would she feel about me?” asks Georgia. Oh, honey, you’re gonna find out soon enough.
To cut a (not actually very) long story short: Carmilla is obsessed with Millarca, puts on her wedding dress and goes to her tomb and gets vamped (we never see Millarca, just here her and things get misty). Vamp Carmilla has a go at village girl, Lisa, (who dies. because she’s lower class…) and then sets her sights on Georgia. In the meantime, everyone realises that Carmilla has the hots for Leo… but it becomes very clear to Georgia that Carmilla pretty much fancies her too.
Oh, and after Lisa dies, Carmilla looks in the mirror and sees red blood on the bust of Millarca’s white dress. The blood is only in the mirror image, however. This fresh blood stain is a recurring motif.
The men in these things are usually very by the by and so dull but Mel Ferrer (ex Mr Audrey Hepburn), as Leopoldo, does very well. He’s pretty, doesn’t seem to think he’s above the material but is not being precious with it, is very sexy and you actually get why Carmilla fancies him. Oh, those cheekbones.
But our main interest is in Carmilla buzzing around Georgia and her unquenchable bloodlust for women. She doesn’t even once attempt to bite Leo (even though she’s surmised that Millarca has come for him) but she’s constantly attempting to nibble Georgia.
She almost succeeds in seduction a few times, but they are always interrupted. The most erotic is when they are in a greenhouse, caught by a storm. Georgia wants them to make a break for the house but Carmilla begs her to stay there with her. The women are already wet and look exquisite for it. Georgia tells Carmilla that she knows she’s in love with Leo and offers her confessional friendship. This is a rather generous position for her to take, considering, but also provides a lot of different layers of subtext. If she’s ok with it is she hoping to diffuse it by having it out in the open? Or is she – oh my – hoping for some kind of ‘arrangement’ where everyone is happy?.. Whatever permutations that may work out as. That’s what’s going on in my mind, anyway.
Good eyeliner game, Georgia
Georgia is told, rather enigmatically that ‘Carmilla is dead’ but she doesn’t understand what she is telling her. Instead, she offers Carmilla a rose of friendship which she clutches, meaningfully. Georgia holds another rose to her face and it makes a small cut on her lip. A teeny bit of perfectly placed red blood shows and Carmilla (and we) are entranced by it. Millarca’s voice in Carmilla’s head says it is not enough, she will want more, as Carmilla goes in to taste the blood from Georgia’s lip. Georgia doesn’t stop her. It is a soft kiss. But it is then they are interrupted, found in the storm and taken back to the main house.
Georgia is disturbed by what has happened but can’t stop thinking about Carmilla’s lips on hers. I mean, you know?
Then we come to an astonishing piece of cinema. Carmilla/Millarca goes to Georgia’s room explaining in voiceover that she is going to possess her. Georgia is finally being got by vamp Carmilla/Millarca and in doing so goes into a bit of a hallucinatory dream sequence thing. The colour film goes black and white and not only does it give it an otherworldly dream feel but it means that when she sees Carmilla and red ‘blood’ spreads across her white dress, it is all the more vivid and crazy amazing. This – presumably – animated sequence is beautifully executed as Carmilla just stands there looking stonily seductive and magnificent.
Next Georgia sees dead Lisa at the window who is calling to her. Only the outside of the window is water like a vertical pool from above but side on. If that makes sense. Hell, it’s a dream. Georgia opens the doors and instead of the water flooding in, she falls into the pool. Next, she moves out of the water past odd dancing couples outdoors and then finds herself in what seems to be hospital grounds. This part of the dream is one of the most ‘ordinary’ bits of the sequence and is the most surreal because of that. It’s the most vérité thing in the whole film. She walks past women sitting, looking at her, and is then dragged off by two nurses.
They take her into a room that is an operating theatre. We are now seeing colour film but we only know that because the doctors and nurses in the room (all women) are wearing thick, red rubber gloves. Everything else is bright white including their faces. A woman lays strapped down and spread-eagled on the operating table, naked, her breasts are bared, her crotch and face covered by cloths. A surgeon does something to her neck with a medical instrument. Georgia looks into the surgeon’s eyes and realises that it’s Carmilla. Only it’s not. She tells Georgia, ‘I’m Millarca. Carmilla is dead.’ And pulls the cover off of the patient’s face to reveal a dead clonelike, Carmilla.
They then go into spinny dancing in blackness and Georgia screams as she is bitten by the vampire. She wakes, screaming.
This sequence is trippy and immaculate, as exquisite a dream sequence as in all of cinema. I would say it’s even more stunning than Dali’s eyes sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. And that’s a damn fine dream sequence. It’s better than the surrealness of La Belle et La Bête that is not a dream but still otherworldly and extraordinary. I think the effectiveness comes partly because Blood and Roses is otherwise a matter of fact by the numbers film. A supersexy by the numbers film but there’s been little this trippy so far.
Carmilla/Millarca’s death is not drawn out. A demolitions team (because a boring part of the story) blow stuff up and it pushes her so that she ends up handily impaled on a stake-like fence post. The composition of the shot is gorgeous (and was paid homage to in Daughter’s of Darkness). And we see her blood-stained dress is the same as she saw in the mirror and similar to that which Georgia saw in her dream. So instead of those moments showing the blood of her victims, it is instead a premonition of her own bloody death.
The epilogue of the film has Leo and Georgia going off on a plane to their honeymoon. However, all is not ‘happy’ in the sense of the vamp is dead so all the norms can go on being norm and boring. Millarca’s voiceover tells us she is not dead but in Georgia now. Her possession of Leopoldo’s bride was successful. That is the only way that Carmilla could really be with him. So it’s a twist and a kind of heteronormative one but there’s still something incredibly subversively queer about what’s gone on. And an almost threesome between them all.
There were times in the film where some kind of poly arrangement seemed to be an almost possibility. Leopoldo shows his desire for Carmilla but she prevents it going further. Georgia tells Carmilla that she knows she’s in love with Leo and doesn’t seem threatened by it. Oh if only they all got together and no one would have had to die! Oh well.
There’s also the small fact that this obviously means that Carmilla’s death didn’t free Georgia of her vampness. It’s still there. So presumably she’s gonna be snacking on some dames on her holiday in the Caribbean…
Vadim was famously a shit to his women and there’s lots of dodgy stuff in his marriages and relationships like he forced them to sleep with other women and he moulded them so that they all looked alike (much like John Derek and his clone wives). But it’s one of those awful conflicting things because as horrible as he was as a person he produced some amazing stuff and often with his wives. Think And God Created Woman with Bardot and Barbarella with Fonda. (The latter’s script penned by one Tudor Gates…)
Annette Strojberg in B&R is not as charismatic or memorable as Bardot, Fonda or Deneuve but she is an adequate and watchable and fanciable lead. She doesn’t do much but then there’s not much to do in such a role. She sulks, she seduces, she gets blood on her. And she does it all beautifully.
Although this doesn’t have the wonderful campiness of the Hammer Carmilla films, it has instantly become one of my favourite vamp films ever. I wanted to watch it again, immediately, told everyone I could about it and obsessively looked for images online. And I can’t stop thinking about it.