Monday, September 29, 2014

New to the Cabinet: Vampires and Eroticism

Just added to the cabinet, an essay once presented at a conference, one of my favorites: "The Emergence of the Occult from within the Culture of the Occult, or, When a Vampire is Just Trying to Get Laid."

It's an exploration of three Hammer horror films from the 70s: Lust for a Vampire, The Vampire Lovers, and Twins of Evil, primarily via de Sade and Bataille. It is definitely a meeting of cinema and theory, but a fun one. (Very well received at the conference.)


Here's a preview:


My playground today is the Karnstein trilogy, the trio of vampire movies produced by Hammer studios in '70 and '71: The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil. They are all based to one degree or another on Le Fanu's novella "Carmilla," though they can not at all be said to be in any sequence, or even of the same narrative world. They are famous among the Hammer films as being at the vanguard of the studio's move into nudity and more explicit sexuality, the first two films marked especially for their lesbian content, the third for featuring as the title characters Playboy's first twin playmates. In fact, sexuality dominates the thematics of the three films to the point of their being far more about desire than horror: not solely within the narrative proper, but also in the film as engaged by the viewer. Yet much of the body of that thematics – both visual and ideational – would hardly fall under the heading of the erudite. Segments of the films are easily described as soft-core porn; and it is not surprising how many reviews of the films – irrespective of their overall opinions on quality รข€” will speak of an "immature approach" to the sexuality, or "scenes that exist only for the titillation of the male audience,"[FN1] or even "adolescent masturbatory fantasy."[FN2] One online reviewer renamed the second film Lust for Knockers.[FN3] All fairly, and all with ample reason: for example, Vampire Lovers includes a scene of a towel clad and topless Ingrid Pitt chasing a half-undressed, soon-to-be victim around a bed in girlish, slumber party giddiness; and Lust for a Vampire features a running shot tracking through the rooms of a finishing school while the young women attendees are dressing for bed.

[FN1] Screenonline, George Watson;

[FN2] Horrorreviews, Richard Scheib;

[FN3] ClassicHorror, Jenn Duglos;

Fairly, and with reason, I agree. But not necessarily to the films' condemnation. There is a purpose being served by these scenes, by the sighing, the giggling, and the bevy of breasts both bodiced and exposed being offered the viewer. And the reviewers were right on in labeling it "titillation." But let us not demean ourselves by over-quickly accepting with the word the connotations of triviality normally tied thereto, or accepting the dismissals implicit in the various reviews. There is a purpose here; and to explore that purpose we must stand in the role not of the prurient and proper Miss Simpson, co-founder and head of the finishing school in Lust, a cowardly soul indentured to the hierarchies of society, but something more of Baron Karnstein, the amateur debauchee of Twins, who having become bored of the charade occult rituals arranged and performed for his pleasure takes the sacrificial knife into his own hands and, plunging it into the chest of an abducted – and of course naked – woman, moves from being a viewer to being a participant, for which he is rewarded, through the accidental/on-purpose resurrection of Mircalla Karnstein, the central vampire of the trilogy, who exists in Twins long enough only to turn the Baron into a vampire in a meeting that is not so much an attack as sexual liaison – even, sexual initiation.

In the Karnstein trilogy the situation wherein cultural transmission might be studied the reverse of what is the expected with a vampire film. The films take place on the continent, in Styria, in Austria, in the territory around Karnstein castle, the seat of a royal family of vampires that have been terrorizing the locals for centuries. As such, in the films, it is not the vampire as invader; the foreigners are come to the vampire: be they Italian orphans come to live with their uncle in Twins, a wealthy English family living abroad in Lovers, or an English author come upon an English finishing school founded on the continent according to the current rage as in Lust. But there is little if anything that might be seen as a cultural clash between the English foreigners and the Austrian natives, outside of the English being somewhat slow on the uptake – and only somewhat – of what is happening to the young women in their care. Otherwise, cultural issues transfer readily from foreigners to Austrians: the servants are servants, the peasants are peasants, the wealthy and royal are likewise. Though, perhaps with one exception: the entrance of the Italian sisters in Twins, for they have been forced by their parents' death to leave a morally freer Italy and have found themselves dropped into the rigid family structure of their puritanical, religiously fanatical uncle. But I take that more as a clash across social distinctions rather than national boundaries. The cross-national conflicts that might exist with the twins dissolve quickly as they situate themselves upon a more primary axis: for around Castle Karnstein, within the Karnstein trilogy, the primary conflict is not cultural but metaphysical; philosophical; ethical. Even – or should I say especially – aesthetic. When Mircalla Karnstein comes down from the mount in Lovers and Lust it is not an act of oppression, but of passion. She is seeking not the material but the sensual; not wealth but bodies. And her initiation of the Baron in Twins is likewise: an initiation not into power – he already has power – but into pleasure. The conflict in the films of the trilogy is not national but cosmological, one between the world of people and the world of the vampire: not as two cultures, but as two modes of existence. It is between good and evil, yes, and as well those other conflicts that underlie the good-evil division: such as between serenity and violence, decency and debauchery, society and the individual; and especially propriety and the imagination, culture and the occult.

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