Pride month may be over, but every month (every week, every day, every minute) is a good time to talk about That Gay Shit™. And today we’re talking about lesbian vampires. A niche subgenre often found at the intersection of horror, exploitation, and arthouse, the lesbian vampire film owes its existence to a little novella called Carmilla. With at least half the titles in the genre’s repertoire based on Le Fanu’s story in some form, many of them definitely follow a similar basic formula, play on similar tropes, and leave you with more Carmillas, Mircallas, and Marcillas than you can count. That isn’t to say you won’t find a variety of different films, ranging from the delightful to the downright awful, and I’m here to present you with seven of my personal favorites.
A brief disclaimer before we begin: it’s no secret that almost every lesbian vampire film in existence is problematic to some degree. They often carry with them the dubious lack of consent present in any sexual vampire narrative and then double down on the monstrous nature of the bloodsucker in question by portraying her queerness as predatory, deviant, and evil. She almost never survives the story, usually brought down by a man (or multiple men) to save the innocent human woman she has seduced and restore things to their rightful heterosexual, patriarchal order. On top of this, the vampire and her victim are often hyper-sexualized and put on display for the male gaze. You’re not going to find gold-tier quality representation in any of these movies.
All of that being said, it’s difficult to simply dismiss these films. They were portraying homosexuality in women during times when most mainstream media wouldn’t dare broach the subject. 1960’s Blood and Roses, a Carmilla adaptation, is one of the earliest instances of queerness in a female character being moved from subtext to the forefront of the narrative. And speaking from personal experience, stumbling upon the lesbian vampire subgenre as a confused young lesbian with almost no exposure to queerness in media of any kind, these films were hugely important for me. For better or worse, they hold a special place in my heart, even if, now that I’m older and (maybe) wiser, I can understand and critique their faults.
Now that that’s out of the way, on to the list!
7. Dracula’s Daughter (1936), dir. Lambert Hillyer
Five years after Van Helsing put a wooden stake through Dracula’s heart (or roughly five minutes, as the story picks up immediately after the events of the first film), Gloria Holden’s Countess Marya Zaleska swoops in to say goodbye to dear old dad. She hopes that his death will free her from her curse, but when that proves not to be the case, she puts her trust in a psychiatrist who she believes can cure her. Perhaps one of the earliest films to toy with the idea of vampirism as addiction, Marya might be the first movie vampire to openly long for a mortal life and express regret about the lives she must take to preserve her own.
This internal conflict can also be read as Marya suffering from internalized homophobia. When Jeffery, the psychiatrist earnestly trying to help a very vague Marya overcome whatever it is she’s battling, suggests that she meet her “temptation” head-on and challenge herself not to give in, she has her companion lure a pretty young woman to her studio to pose for a painting. As the woman stands half-dressed before her, it’s unclear if Marya is struggling against a lust for blood or sapphic desires. When she feels that she no longer has any hope of living a “normal” life, Marya kidnaps Janet, Jeffery’s secretary (not, significantly, his wife or girlfriend — they bicker like a married couple but there’s never any explicit romantic inclination between them), and whisks her away to Transylvania in the hope that Jeffery will follow. If he can’t cure her, she is determined that he will spend eternity with her. Marya might be suffering from some major compulsory heterosexuality, but it’s Janet who is on the receiving end of her most longing gazes, and as she hovers over her for longer than necessary in the film’s final act, Marya looks as if she’d sooner kiss Janet than bite her.
The sapphic subtext of Dracula’s Daughter was not lost on the people who made and distributed the film. Universal was quick to exploit it in promotional posters and trailers with taglines like: “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!” With Marya situated as a predatory lesbian who preys on innocent straight women, her vampirism is almost allegorical. She longs for a normal (re: heterosexual) life free from her “ghastly” desires, and when her monstrous nature wins out in the end, she must be destroyed. It’s not exactly a pleasant portrayal, but in spite of this, Dracula’s Daughter isn’t a bad film and it stands as the godmother of the entire lesbian vampire subgenre.
6. Fascination (1979), dir. Jean Rollin
Throw a stone in a pool of Jean Rollin titles and odds are you’ll hit one that features lesbians, vampires, or both. The French director made a name for himself throughout the 1970’s by turning out several arthouse horror films that often bordered on softcore porn (unsurprising, as Rollin sometimes directed adult films under a pseudonym to make ends meet). In Fascination, a thief on the run takes refuge in a chateaux inhabited by two young women, Elisabeth and Eva, who are lovers and appear to have ulterior motives for keeping their captor, Marc, around. They toy with him like a couple of kittens with a mouse; Eva seduces and sleeps with him, provoking jealousy in Elisabeth. The pair keep dropping hints about a mysterious party happening at the chateaux when their mistress, the marchioness, arrives after dark.
The party, it turns out, is a gathering of bourgeoisie ladies who also happen to be vampires. Each year they lure an unsuspecting man into their web to amuse themselves and then devour him. Marc is this year’s main course. But Elisabeth throws a hitch in everyone’s plans by trying to help Marc escape, claiming that she’s in love with him. That makes about as much sense as you’d expect, but it all works out in the end — Elisabeth soon realizes what she thought was love was just good old-fashioned bloodlust.
If you’re familiar with Rollin’s work you know that plot usually plays second fiddle to aesthetics. Fascination is no exception. Very little actually happens in this movie, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. Plus, you’re treated to an iconic image of Eva donning a black cloak and going on a murder spree with a giant scythe, like a gorgeous blonde grim reaper. What’s plot compared to that?
5. The Vampire Lovers (1970), dir. Roy Ward Baker
The first, best, and gayest of Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy, The Vampire Lovers stars the stunning Ingrid Pitt as Le Fanu’s titular vampire, Carmilla. The film is full of trademark Hammer atmosphere, complete with gorgeous sets, vibrant technicolor blood, excessive use of fog machines, and ladies in low-cut nightgowns. The British production company turned the sleaze up to eleven in the 1970s, so, like many of its contemporaries, this film also features a lot of full-frontal nudity.
The story kicks off with Marcilla and her mother crashing a party at Peter Cushing’s house. Mom is called away unexpectedly and Marcilla is left behind to stay with Cushing and his pretty young niece, Laura. As Marcilla and Laura grow close, Laura also becomes increasingly ill. Eventually she dies and Marcilla disappears. Laura barely has time to grow cold in her grave before Marcilla (now Carmilla) and her mother (now her aunt) conveniently crash their carriage near the home of a wealthy fellow named Morton and his beautiful daughter.
The bulk of the film takes place in the Morton home, where Carmilla proceeds to seduce every female member of the household. She becomes fast friends with Emma, the daughter, and seems to feel genuine affection for her despite her nefarious intentions. They spend countless days and nights walking through the garden, reading naughty romance novels, and frolicking half-naked in Carmilla’s bedroom. Just gals being pals. Soon, however, Emma begins experiencing recurring nightmares and suffering the same inexplicable illness that claimed Laura.
It doesn’t take long for the menfolk of the film to put two and two together, banding together over a string of daughters, nieces, and sisters who have died by Carmilla’s hands (well, fangs). The film has a distinctly male outsider perspective, as the story begins and ends through the eyes of the men who eventually destroy Carmilla. Still, The Vampire Lovers is a pretty good movie, which is more than I can say for its sequels, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. Lust retains some of its predecessor’s lesbian leanings, but the male characters, unrelenting male gaze, and uncomfortable heterosexual romances of the film make it wholly unenjoyable. By Twins, the sapphic nature of the original is canned almost entirely.
4. Alucarda (1977), dir. Juan López Moctezuma
Lesbians and vampires are already a fabulous combination, but what else could we add to the mix to make a good thing even better? Demonic possession, perhaps? A splash of nunsploitation, you say? Boy, do I have the movie for you.
This Mexican horror film tells the story of two young girls, Alucarda and Justine, who get themselves mixed up in some bizarre shit. The pair hit it off immediately upon meeting and are soon confessing their love for each other against he bleak, depressing backdrop of the convent they’re living in. Alucarda seems drawn to the dark side from the very beginning, while Justine is more cautious. They come across an abandoned crypt and open the grave of Lucy Westenra (who, it’s implied, was Alucarda’s mother), unleashing a demonic force that takes possession of them both.
Alucarda is a lot more disturbing than you might initially think. Controversial in its time for its graphic violence, blasphemous imagery, and anti-Catholic themes, what at first seems to be a classic tale of good (the church) vs. evil (demons) gets a bit messy when the “good” guys aren’t very good at all. Alucarda and Justine might spout Satanic verses during bible study and assault a priest during confession, but the supposedly godly people of the church are abusive, performing an exorcism on the possessed girls that is nothing more than pure torture and killing Justine in the process. She returns as a vampire while Alucarda almost succeeds in literally toppling the church.
As the violence and gore reach a fever pitch in a battle of biblical proportions, the film’s third act isn’t easy to watch. The church wins the day, barely, but it’s no happy ending. Alucarda is definitely not the most fun movie on this list, but it’s worth watching if you can stomach the violent imagery. Its disturbing nature has garnered comparisons to the likes of The Exorcist, while its direct criticism of organized religion make it stand out among other b-movies of its time.
3. The Living Dead Girl (1982), dir. Jean Rollin
I hesitated to include two Rollin titles on this list, but I really love this film.
While thieves attempt rob the graves of a mother and daughter (who, despite having been dead for at least a few years, show zero signs of decay), a chemical waste spill causes the daughter, Catherine, to rise from her coffin. Is she a vampire? A zombie? She seems to feed on both blood and flesh. The details are fuzzy, so don’t spend too much trying to apply logic here. She kills the would-be graverobbers, gauging one man’s eyes out with her massive fingernails, and wanders the countryside for a bit before making her way to her former home. Once there, memories of her childhood best friend, Helene, come flooding back; dreamlike flashbacks show the pair as young girls declaring their love and promising to follow each other to the grave. From the closeness they continue to exhibit later, it’s not a reach to imagine that their relationship became even more intimate in adulthood.
When Helene finds Catherine in the bloody aftermath of an attack on a young couple, she believes that her friend has been alive all this time and quickly covers up the murders without hesitation. With the same chilly composure, she later lures a woman to the chateaux for Catherine to feed on. It eventually takes its toll, but Helene is determined to do anything necessary to keep Catherine alive and protect her from the outside world. However, as Catherine becomes more and more aware of the atrocities she has committed — and must continue to commit in order to survive, she begins to resent Helene for allowing it to go on and begs her friend to kill her, which Helene cannot bring herself to do.
To say that The Living Deal Girl is depressing would be an understatement. Everyone is miserable and it’s gonna make you miserable, too. But if you’re a sucker for tragedy (not shockingly, I kind of am), this movie will definitely deliver. Catherine and Helene are surprisingly multi-dimensional characters for a Rollin film, and they are one of the few vampire/human relationships in the genre that doesn’t involve dubious consent (or lack thereof) or supernatural mind control. That’s a pretty refreshing accomplishment right there.
2. The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972), dir. Vincente Aranda
In The Blood-Spattered Bride, director Vincente Aranda offers up some interesting anti-fascist, anti-patriarchal commentary that make it one of genre fans’ favorite films to dissect — if you can make it through the first five minutes. The film starts kicks off with a thankfully brief but deeply uncomfortable rape fantasy. Perhaps meant to give voice to newlywed Susan’s not unfounded subconscious fears about her husband (or marriage in general, or, as is suggested later, the loss of her virginity), the scene almost made me pass on the finishing the rest of the film on my first watch. I’m glad I didn’t. That isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of other uncomfortable scenes to follow, but the messages that Aranda tries to get across under the guise of a horror movie make it one of the most interesting entries to the lesbian vampire canon, to say the least.
Susan is married to a piece of shit. He’s so shitty he doesn’t even get a name, because he exists less as a character and more as the embodiment of patriarchy and male entitlement. From the start his approach to sex with twinged with violence, and his behavior soon deteriorates even further. He pretty much throws a temper tantrum when Susan rejects his advances; he tries to pull her up by her hair and force her to give him a blowjob. Susan’s resentment grows without any help from a seductive, otherworldly being — but when one shows up it’s hard to blame Susan for running right into her arms.
After learning the story of Mircalla, who murdered her own husband on their wedding night because he forced her to perform “unspeakable’ sexual acts, Susan begins to dream of this ancestor of her husband’s family. In one dream, Mircalla entices Susan to violently murder her husband and, let’s be honest, we’re all cheering them on at this point. When a mystery woman named Carmilla turns up at their home, Susan is immediately drawn to her. They share long, meaningful looks while Susan’s husband drones on about himself, unnoticed, in the background. Pretty soon they’re taking regular nightly walks to the ruined crypt where Mircalla was buried and probably having some really hot sex.
The way the men in the film view Susan and Carmilla is intentionally disgusting — they might be the Harkers or Van Helsings of the narrative, but they aren’t the heroes. They infantilize Susan and villainize Carmilla, not for being a vampire but for being a lesbian. While the husband comes to believe that Carmilla is in fact a vampire, the doctor he calls to help simply believes that she is an evil lesbian who who has “dominated” Susan, describing a steamy scene between the two women as “grotesque,” and calling Carmilla a “pervert.”
As viewers, literally no one is upset when the gal pals embark on a misandrist murder spree. Their violence feels like a completely justified response to the violence that they (and all women) have suffered at the hands of men. (Just to be clear, I’m not condoning real world violence, but in the extreme, and most importantly fictional, context of this movie, yeah, I’m rooting for them to kill ’em all.) Even though the vampire lovers are destroyed by Susan’s husband in the end, he doesn’t get the last laugh. A newspaper clipping reveals that he is arrested for murdering the women, presumably suffering some well-deserved punishment. The Blood-Spattered Bride pulls zero punches and, while I can’t really label it as a feminist film, there is a ton of room for discussion on its portrayals of gender and sexuality.
1. Crypt of the Vampire (1964), dir. Camillo Mastrocinque
Let me tell you a story about how I fell in love with this film. Back in the day, when I was around 17-ish, you could find really awesome shit at Dollar Tree during the Halloween season, like double feature DVDs of obscure horror movies for a buck. Most of them were poorly-made and forgettable, but if you were lucky you’d stumble across a real gem. One such gem was a duo of Christopher Lee’s lesser-known titles, with Horror Hotel (which also became a personal favorite) on Side A and Crypt of the Vampire (aka Terror in the Crypt) on Side B. The latter’s lesbian subtext took my sexually confused teenage self completely by surprise and, let me tell you, I was shook. I hesitate to use the word “subtext,” because the gay in this movie is so overt it’s hard to believe that the leading ladies never actually hook up on screen.
The film’s main character is Laura, the young Countess Karnstein, a tragic heroine of near Shakespearean proportions, who is plagued by horrible nightmares that have a bad habit of coming true. Her dreams are premonitions of her beloved family members being attacked and murdered by an unseen assailant. No one wants to say that Laura might be the one responsible, but everyone is thinking it. You see, the poor girl is living under the shadow of an ancestor, Marcilla, who was executed for witchcraft, murder, and various other unsavory things, and put a curse on future Karnstein generations, vowing that one day she would return for retribution. Count Karnstein (Lee) doesn’t want to believe his daughter is Marcilla’s reincarnation come to take revenge, so he hires a researcher to do some digging in the family dirt and hopefully put his mind at ease.
This young man, Friedrich, takes an immediate shine to Laura, who seems only mildly interested in him at most. Then a carriage crashes near the Karnstein castle. You know how this works, right? Out from the carriage pops a mother, in a big hurry to get to some undisclosed location, and her daughter, Ljuba, badly shaken by the accident, ends up sticking around. Laura is immediately smitten by Ljuba. Over the following days, the pair spend all of their time together laughing, frolicking in the garden while romantic music plays, and gazing into each others eyes. There are some highly suggestive scenes in which Laura leads Ljuba by the hand into her bedroom. Friedrich continues his futile attempts to flirt but Laura is too gay for that shit, ignoring him in favor of sharing loving looks with Ljuba, like this:
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, it turns out that there’s more to Ljuba than meets the eye and my hopes of her and Laura riding off into the moonlight are not fulfilled.
Crypt of the Vampire is a surprisingly solid film. The grainy film quality, dramatic music, and isolated Eastern European setting give it a delightfully Gothic atmosphere. Sure, it suffers some of the usual pitfalls you’d expect of a low-budge 60’s horror movie, namely terrible dubbing and a few plotholes, but, depending on how you look at it, that just adds to its charm. But don’t take my word for because I’m very much biased. This little film was my introduction to the world of lesbian vampire movies (and to Carmilla) and it remains my favorite to this day.