Let us consider the term “erotic horror.” This sub-genre doesn’t have a very strong tradition in North America, despite the best efforts of Seduction Cinema and Misty Mondae. I exempt the films of David Cronenberg from this consideration, as they are hardly designed with titillation in mind – they are much colder, analytical works, and the label once applied to them – “venereal horror” – is still more appropriate. No, there just hasn’t been that much on this side of the pond, relatively speaking. Perhaps in its stead… there has been the phenomenon of the “erotic thriller.” And with very few exceptions, the less said about that category of late-night cable-fodder, the better.
Overseas, the story is considerably different. Europe and Asia have been simultaneously targeting fear and desire for decades. Readers looking for a good survey of the European scene owe it to themselves to track down Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984. There’s an enormous wealth of titles to choose from for a case study (and I don’t preclude returning to this topic), but the one I’d like to consider today is Vampyres, a 1974 effort produced in England, with an English cast, but directed by Spaniard José Larraz.
The opening scene is cryptic and violent: two women – Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka) – make love, and are then shot to death by a shadowy figure. Some years later, we encounter those same two women, alive and undead. They now pick up men through hitchhiking and lure them back to the house first for sex, then to consume their blood. One such man is Ted (Murray Brown), who finds Fran familiar. He is not killed after the their first night together, just a little drained, and he is unable to leave the house, first because of his fascination with Fran, and later because he is incapacitated. Meanwhile, a young couple is camping nearby, and the wife (Sally Faulkner) becomes convinced something is up at that creepy old house.
The problem with many attempts at erotic horror is that the assumption seems to be that as long as there is nudity and a bit of blood, you’re good to go. Particularly weak in these efforts is the effort made to actually scare the audience. Vampyres gets things right. A strong sense of dread is built up during the first act, as we spend most our time with the camping couple, hearing strange cries in the night, but now knowing exactly what is going on. Once the focus shifts to the two vampires, the horror ramps up suddenly. The bloodsucking is messy, violent, and orgiastic. Sex and violence are here utterly confused – there is no telling the two apart. Wounds are sloppily lapped at, bloody lips kiss, and knives upturn the phallic order of things. The killings are savage, and the climax is uncompromising in its brutality. These vampires may be sexy as all-get-out, but they are very much to be feared. The film is, of course, low-budget, but the sets are handsome, and the cinematography is often very striking. There are moments of quiet, ominous beauty, and there are shots where the camera seems to be savaging the victims as enthusiastically as the two women.
There have been numerous versions of the film available on home video over the years, many claiming to be uncut. With all due respect to the Anchor Bay DVD, it is not uncut. The definitive version is emphatically the release from Blue Underground (an outfit that, as has been pointed out elsewhere, is the Criterion of sleaze). This really is the first truly uncut home edition, and its collection of extras is pretty thorough: commentary from the director and the producer, interviews with Morris and Anulka, still galleries, trailers, a bio, and a .pdf reproduction of a short (and very thorough) book about the film.
So forget The Erotic Witch Project or whatever. Here is a brooding, gothic horror film that makes its eroticism part and parcel of its terror. Not only does it refuse to pull its punches, it clutches a wicked knife in its fist.