The Fruit Cellar: They Always Come Back...
I'll begin today's discussion with what I consider a statement of fact: Dracula is boring. That may be the most unpopular statement I will ever write, but I wholeheartedly believe it. How lucky are we, then, that twenty-five years before this abomination was published we were all blessed with another Irish vampire tale? Yes indeedy, I am talking about Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. This sweetly concise and beautiful novella (or short story, as some prefer to call it) was published in 1872 and spawned an entire subgenre of horror: the lesbian vampire tale.
Most horror fans are quite familiar with this subgenre, and films that fit into this category often fall on our top ten lists. (How many times have your nerdy friends referenced Vampyros Lesbos?) But the subgenre, like all others, is one that's oftentimes tough to wade through, with as much muck as gems. And if you're not too familiar with this subgenre, it's a difficult one to navigate without some guidance - especially if you're looking for that vampire theory and mythology that populates Gothic literature. Velvet capes and bloody fangs do not necessarily connote depth, so care must be taken when seeking a lesbian vampire tale with a little more meat on its bones.
I've been a fan of lesbian vampire tales since I read the aforementioned novella (upon which almost all of the films claim to be based), and I have spent years wading through the subpar (Vampyros Lesbos comes to mind again) and the majestic (Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is a prime example). But no other lesbian vampire tale has made quite the same impression as The Blood Spattered Bride.
Vicente Aranda's 1972 film is – in a word – a wonder. Of all the lesbian vampire tales I've taken to bed with me at night (and there have been many), this is the one I most treasure. Unlike those films whose hearts lie in the exploitation of a concept (half-naked women in sexually compromising positions), The Blood Spattered Bride is a film that uses that concept to create a film that is a meditation on sexual politics.
We open on a young couple travelling toward a hotel. Upon their arrival the bride announces that she doesn't want to stay there, and it's no wonder. When her unnamed husband leaves her alone in the room for just a few moments, she's beset upon by a violent rape fantasy that leaves her (and us by extension) unsettled and unnerved.
Unfortunately for Susan, her first sexual experience with her husband isn't all that much different than the rape fantasy she imagined in the hotel. He rips her wedding dress from her body and takes what he sees as a possession belonging to him. And once he has taken Susan's virginity, he feels she is his to take whenever he pleases. Aranda gives us a series of scenes in which he aggressively pursues Susan – the most brutal of which includes his lifting her off the ground several feet by her hair and attempting to force her to perform fellatio. Susan manages to escape this interaction, and gradually asserts herself in a series of encounters, one particularly beautiful scene in which she locks herself in a bird cage. After witnessing these events, we are immediately on Susan's side. I'm compelled to say all manner of childish things about Susan's husband, but I'll stop just short of calling him a monstrous douchebag. (Actually, maybe I won't.)
It's during this series of exceedingly unpleasant sexual encounters that Susan begins having nightmares and visions of a woman in a lavender bridal gown. The woman gives Susan a dagger with a white handle and instructs her to murder her husband, which Susan does willingly. The scene in which this occurs is the most vicious in the movie, and it is among the most brutal I've ever seen.
When this dagger later appears in the young couple's home, Susan's husband attempts to hide it, but Susan's dreams again lead her to it, and her husband's desperation to maintain that nothing supernatural is going on makes him take drastic measures. He heads to the beach to bury it in the sand. (No, this is not a particularly good place to bury anything.) It is here that he finds Carmila - in what has been noted by many as the strangest character introduction ever recorded on film. (I am ten thousand percent sure that last sentence is completely true, and I have nothing to offer you in the way of explanation. If you've got something, please offer it up. I'd love to hear it.) He finds Carmila buried completely naked in the sand, save one hand and the end of her snorkeling gear. He slowly digs her out, breasts first, and he brings her home. He brings destruction down upon his own home. Keep that in your hat for later.
Susan is drawn to Carmila, this stranger who remembers nothing but her name. They form a tight bond and create a decidedly homosocial unit exclusive of the men in the film. They begin leaving the manor together and disappearing into the night. This is, naturally, par for the course in any lesbian vampire tale, but what's to note here is how Aranda sets up this almost matriarchal world in which the two women exist. They wander the grounds of the estate at night when the men lie dormant, and they engage in what the men of the film call perversions. (Take note, fellow queers! That should sound familiar.) In fact, it is when Susan's husband's cronies follow them into the night and see what they refer to as a pervert manipulating Susan that Susan's husband decides to take action against the two women. This culminates in the final bloody showdown between our lesbian vampires (or are they?) and the men (who so clearly represent the patriarchy).
As it plays out, Aranda makes it clear that we are supposed to see Susan's husband as evil. The abuses he heaps upon her are many, and they are brutal. As their nature is largely sexual, her growth as an individual (and as a character) recalls third wave feminism, which tied in the role of sexual violence in women's lives. The introduction of Carmila (through the violent dreams) is reminiscent of the introduction of the world into the necessarily aggressive politics of third wave feminism as well, but here is where the comparison stops. This is, after all, a lesbian vampire tale, and feminism can only serve it to a degree. We are talking about creating a world exclusive of men - not one that simply reorganizes the one that already includes them.
So when the backlash begins to occur with the introduction of the doctor and the increasing lack of self-confidence of Susan's husband, action must be taken on the man's part to eliminate this growing homosocial/homosexual dynamic that's been created between Susan and Carmila. The three men of the film must take action against it, and they set out to destroy Carmila and separate the union that has disrupted their power. Susan and Carmila may manage to kill both the doctor and caretaker of the estate, but in the end, Susan's husband destroys them while they sleep in Carmila's coffin.
We, as viewers, must take note of the methodology in this final scene. Susan's husband approaches this final showdown, not as Van Helsing would approach Dracula, but as a sheriff might approach a garden variety killer. Though he's been the one suggesting that Carmila is the reincarnation of the famed killer Mircala Karstein and that she's a vampire feasting on his new bride, he does not come to the tomb with wooden stakes and garlic and holy water. He comes with a rifle. And when he decides to end not just her life, but also the life of his wife, he puts so many holes into their shared coffin that blood pours out as if the coffin were filled with it. But what are we to take away from this? Can one kill a vampire and her lover with such an instrument? It would seem, according to the mythos of this particular story, one can, but it's still not quite that simple.
Susan's husband not only kills the women, he kills the young girl who would serve as an acolyte to them as well. And upon her urging that they cannot really be killed, he takes to mutilating their bodies. The newspaper clipping at the end of the film tells us that he has removed their hearts (that which represents their connection to one another), but Aranda cleverly shows us something quite different. He shows Susan's husband lifting and beginning to remove Carmila's breast, once again taking ownership of the female body - this time Carmila's as well as his wife's. With this action, he not only severs the bond between the women by removing their hearts, but he also regains control of the female body, if only temporarily. These are the last images of the film, save the newspaper clipping.
So this is what we are left with, three mutilated female forms, and the man who's done it. While this may seem that the film ultimately reinforces the standard power structure a heteronormative society proscribes, it's better read as a downbeat ending that comments on a situation all too real. The men may succeed in destroying a world exclusive of them, but we, as viewers, are made to mourn that loss only insofar as we lose hope - after all, as Carol says at the end, "They always come back."