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Lesbian Vampirism

Hastings is soon to host the Ingrid Pitt Memorial Horror Film Festival (26-28 October – see also Joe’s earlier interview with the festival organisers). HOT reporter Joe Fearn reviews Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, to be screened during the festival at the Electric Palace Cinema in the Old Town, and he examines Lesbian Vampirism, a trope in 20th-century exploitation film that has its roots in Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla.

Carmilla is one of the major sources of films dealing with female vampires, especially those portraying lesbian relationships. It is a story of the vampiric love between two women that lives on even after the death of the title character. It is about the predatory love of a female vampire (the title character) for a young woman (the narrator):

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever’.  (Carmilla, Ch. 4)

This was a way to hint at or titillate with the taboo idea of lesbianism in a fantasy context outside the heavily censored realm of social realism (Andrea Weiss 1993 see below). Also, the conventions of the vampire genre — specifically, the mind control exhibited in many such films — allow for a kind of forced seduction of presumably hetero women or girls by predatory lesbian vampires.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) gave the first hints of lesbian attraction in a vampire film in the scene in which the title character, portrayed by Gloria Holden, preys upon an attractive girl she has invited to her house. “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!” said the advertising posters. After Dracula’s Daughter, lesbian vampires retreated back into the coffin. However, they came back with a vengeance in the 1960s and 1970s, with such films as Hammer Studios production of the Karnstein Trilogy loosely adapted from Carmilla. The Vampire Lovers (1970) was first, starring Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith. It was a relatively straightforward re-telling of LeFanu’s novella, but with more overt violence and reframed as the story told by a male vampire hunter rather than by Laura as in the Le Fanu tale (see below). Lust for a Vampire (1971) followed, with Yutte Stensgaard as the same character played by Pitt, returning to prey upon students at an all-girls school. This version, unfortunately, had the ‘cop-out’ of her falling in love with a male teacher at the school. Twins of Evil (1972) had the least “lesbian” content, with one female vampire biting a female victim on the breast. It starred real life twins and Playboy playmates Madeleine and Mary Collinson. Partially due to censorship restraints from the BBFC (Hearn and Barnes 1998), Hammer’s trilogy actually had fewer lesbian elements as it proceeded.

Erzsébet Báthory, the historical true-life prototype of the modern lesbian vampire, appears as a character in several films—although not always with the lesbian element—including Daughters of Darkness (1971) by Belgian director Harry Kumel, Hammer Films’ Countess Dracula (1971), Immoral Tales (1974) directed by Walerian Borowczyk, The Bloody Countess (Ceremonia sangrienta) (1973) directed by Jorge Grau, and Eternal (2005).

If Dracula’s Daughter was the first cinematic lesbian vampire, Blood and Roses deserves the accolade for being the first truly sexual vampire movie. This is also the first time that Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla was transferred to the silver screen, though in a modernised adaptation. From then on the name Carmilla Karnstein (or any of its variations such Mircalla or Marcilla) should soon become synonymous with female vampires in the same way that Dracula is still the prototype for all male blood-suckers.

Illustration from Carmilla; Wikimedia Commons

Directed by Roger Vadim, Blood and Roses stars his then-wife Annette Vadim as Carmilla, and is praised by many for its stunning colours and imagery, delightful musical score, and haunting black and white dream sequences with splashes of red. Unusual for a film of this vintage, this production also displays some short scenes of nudity. Although Carmilla does go for the ladies, her ultimate aim is to take over the body of Mel Ferrer’s character’s fiancée (Elsa Martinelli), so although there are clearly lesbian elements in this film, this isn’t such a clear cut victory for the sisterhood (neither is The Vampire Lovers, see below).

Fans of lesbian vampires should check out any film by Jean Rollin, who passed away in late 2010 leaving us his final unfinished work, Le masque de la Méduse. A filmmaker as maligned as he was loved, Rollin – no matter where your opinion of him sways – was an extremely important figure in Euro horror. Often he has been compared with the prolific Jesus (Jess) Franco. Rollin’s films tend generally to be more considered than Franco’s, his work is instantly recognisable with his signature aesthetics always present, from his thoughtful camerawork to his choice of often reoccurring locations, such as the sea shore. Jean Rollin’s work is very much a love-it-or-hate-it affair. HOT readers may find him to be an incredibly boring waste of time, but I highly recommend his third vampire movie Les Frisson des Vampires, where a very slim lesbian vampire, for some unfathomable reason, steps out of a grandfather clock!

Jess Franco merits a mention because of his films Vampyros Lesbos, and Female Vampire, the latter staring Lena Romay (whom Franco later married). Female Vampire has a memorable scene in which Romay drains her female victim, then rolls all over her naked body like a dog on a road kill! Ah, such wonderfully ignoble Euro-sleaze.

The excellent recent British vampire film Razor Blade Smile (1998), staring the two women from the Redemption/Salvation film label, presents itself partly as a series of homages to, and clichés from, other vampire films, and includes an erotic lesbian vampire scene, as well as similar heterosexual episodes. British horror film making hasn’t looked this good in years. Be warned though, although the plot is good, it finally dumps you with the worst ending since Hannibal Lecter married Clarice Starling.

Ingrid Pitt is quite simply the quintessential Carmilla Karnstein and the movie The Vampire Lovers, soon to be featured at the Hastings Horror Film Festival, proved to be the cornerstone on which she was able to build her subsequent cult career. The film is an absolutely outstanding production; aside from expert direction and cinematography, Vampire Lovers boasts the best assortment of actors ever to be found in these movies.

A lot of care may have been taken in finding suitably attractive female leads in other lesbian vampire productions, but they often fell flat when it came to casting their male counterparts (see Franco’s Female Vampire). Not so in Vampire Lovers, where fine actors like Peter Cushing, Ferdy Mayne, Douglas Wilmer, Jon Finch and John Forbes-Robertson complement the glamour on hand from the female stars (denofgeek).


Many critics have acknowledged The Vampire Lovers’ relative faithfulness as an adaptation of Carmilla, and also noted the basic change that occurs because of its being reframed as the story told by a male vampire hunter rather than by Laura as in the Le Fanu tale. The shift to a male perspective also facilitates an association with violence rather than love; the opening sequence of the film features Baron von Hertog destroying a female vampire who exhibits the usual fangs and blood draining capabilities of Dracula at the same time that she also attempts sexual attraction to distract him from his task. This also establishes the heterosexuality of this vampire.

The early introduction of a male alternative to the lesbian love offered by Marcilla/Carmilla unfortunately undermines the effectiveness of a possible positive portrayal of the female relationships. Even at the ball Emma tells Laura how good-looking Karl is, establishing a heterosexual norm that is disturbed by Carmilla. Just as the opening of the film suggests the way the film will retain the major narrative elements of the story while altering their effect, the ending demonstrates the implications of those changes. First Carmilla’s role as sexual predator is emphasized; the relationship between Carmilla and Emma is undercut by Carmilla’s need to posses her friend; aside from the erotic lesbian implication of the bathing scene, Emma’s loss of innocence and identity is represented by her wearing Carmilla’s dress at the end of the scene. As the film progresses Carmilla increasingly resembles Dracula in her need to protect her prey. She solidifies her position in the house by seducing Emma’s governess who is left in charge when her father leaves. The patriarchy, through Renton, the butler, attempts to regain control. Renton introduces the traditional garlic flowers and cross into Emma’s room by claiming the authority of the doctor, more indications of the influence of Dracula and the patriarchy (Sharon A. Russell).

Carmilla manages to seduce the butler so he countermands his own orders, and then she kills him just as he thinks he will receive a sexual reward for doing as she asked. While the men gather to destroy the last of the vampires the Baron had failed to erase, Carmilla attempts to escape with Emma. As Karl rides to the house to save her, Carmilla kills the governess who begs to go with her. This vicious attack, which horrifies her, is Emma’s first evidence of the true nature of her lover. When Karl enters she runs to his arms. He manages to send Carmilla back to her grave where shots of her in her coffin are alternated with shots of Emma in bed where she screams as the men decapitate Carmilla.

The story of Carmilla in LeFanu’s novella ends as Laura thinks she hears Carmilla’s step; their love survives. In The Vampire Lovers, however, the triumph of the patriarchy is matched by the redemption of heterosexual love from the threat of the lesbian. Even Carmilla must exhibit bisexuality in her seduction of Renton. Whatever threat might have existed from the presence of lesbian relationships is countered by the revival of heterosexual relationships at the end of the film. But rather than adding a certain element of attractive danger to the seductive powers of the vampire as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Carmilla’s fangs reinforce the stereotype of the predatory lesbian. The male domination of this film transforms a lesbian romance, reducing it into a male oriented spectacle.

Some of the problems in dealing with a lesbian relationship might be attributed to the tenure of the times. In the period when The Vampire Lovers was made, as Bonnie Zimmerman indicates in her essay “Daughters of Darkness: The Lesbian Vampire on Film.” Men felt secure enough in their power to “flirt with lesbianism and female violence against men.” Weiss disagrees with Zimmerman and instead sees the emergence of the lesbian vampire at this point as an expression of the threats posed by the rise of feminist demands. (Weiss, Andrea. Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film. New York: Penguin, 1993.Zimmerman, Bonnie. “Daughters of Darkness: The Lesbian Vampire on Film.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 1996. The Influence of Dracula on the Lesbian Vampire Film Sharon A. Russell)

The Vampire Lovers is a great classic. I well remember the controversy it caused in deepest, darkest Doncaster, when I went to see it as a schoolboy, pretending to be eighteen. One might think we have come a long way since these films were made, decades have provided many new ways to look at vampires in film from the timorous suggestion of the even more cinematically forbidden homosexual love of Interview with the Vampire to reclaiming of a heroic past in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But the image of the lesbian vampire has not been revised. With the sexually explicit films now permitted (such as Cathy Berry’s hard core porn vampire film “Cathula”), lesbian sexuality no longer provides the voyeuristic thrill for those who can go into their local video store and get their pornography straight. Heterosexuality is no cure for the lesbian love affair. We still have yet to find an open and enduring lesbian vampire in a loving relationship, such as that found in my novel The Shiver of the Vampires,which is now published on Amazon kindle here:

For more information:

Ingrid Pitt talks about The Vampire Lovers

Pam Keesey and Toni Armstrong Jr. discuss The Vampire Lovers

Top Ten Lesbian Vampire movies

Posted 12:44 Friday, Oct 12, 2012 In: Film

Also in: Film

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