Morbidly Beautiful

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Despite a disappointing ending, my first lesbian vampire film remains my favorite, “Crypt of the Vampire” — the atmospheric adapatation of “Carmilla”.

It’s Pride month, and I’m using that as an excuse — not that I need one — to talk about my very favorite subject: lesbian vampires. For this month’s columns, I want to dig into two of my personal favorite films, and I’m kicking things off with one that is often tragically overlooked: 1964’s Crypt of the Vampire (aka Terror in the Crypt).

This Spanish-Italian film is an adaptation of Carmilla that takes all the Gothic atmosphere and lesbian subtext of the novella and mixes it with Satanism, family curses, and a little murder mystery. It was originally supposed to be directed Italian Gothic maestro Antonio Margheriti (Castle of Blood, The Long Hair of Death), but due to prior commitments, the film was given to Camillo Mastrocinque (who would later direct Margheriti’s favorite leading lady, Barbara Steele, in An Angel for Satan).

Still, Crypt of the Vampire feels like a Margheriti film; it has many of the aesthetic and thematic elements present in most Italian horror of the early 60s, staples of the genre that Margheriti, along with Mario Bava, perfected.

The story follows a deeply unhappy young countess, Laura of Karnstein, who lives under the shadow of her ancestor, Sira, a witch who vowed to return and take revenge on the family that betrayed and murdered her.

When Laura’s nightmares of her beloved cousins being murdered start coming true, her father, Count Karnstein (Christopher Lee), fears that his daughter is Sira’s vengeance made flesh. He hires an historian to do some digging in the family dirt to hopefully uncover the truth and set his mind at ease.

The historian, Friedrich, takes an immediate shine to Laura, who seems only mildly interested in him at best. In one scene, he approaches her while she’s enjoying a quiet afternoon outside, tells her to smile, and tries to kiss her. His boring attempt at flirting is interrupted by a carriage crash — and after that Friedrich is literally the furthest thing from Laura’s mind.

From this point forward, aside from the ongoing family drama and occasional Satanic ritual, the film follows the plot of Carmilla more or less faithfully. Out from the carriage pops a mysterious woman, in a big hurry to get to some undisclosed location, and her unconscious daughter, Lyuba, who has “delicate health” and needs a place to stay. Laura of course welcomes the young woman into her home.

There’s an immediate attraction between Laura and Lyuba, and it’s now very obvious why she showed so little interest in Friedrich.

Laura watches Lyuba sleep (naked), gazes longingly into her eyes, and tells her she’s beautiful. That night she has an erotic dream about Lyuba that eventually turns into a nightmare. When Lyuba comes to check on her, Laura takes her hand and leads her suggestively into her bedroom.

The two women spend their days laughing and frolicking in the garden. Friedrich is still around and more than a little butthurt that Lyuba has taken up the space in Laura’s heart that he wanted to fill. Undeterred, he tries his luck again, telling Laura, “You need someone to share your life… I’d like to help you, if I could, make you feel less alone.” Laura isn’t listening because she’s too busy staring lovingly at Lyuba. Get a clue, Friedrich.

Unfortunately, as is to be expected in this kind of movie, there’s more to Lyuba than meets the eye. It turns out that Lyuba — not Laura — is the reincarnation of Sira of Karnstein, and just as she is about to lure Laura into her carriage and ride off into the night, Friedrich and the Count find her crypt and destroy her.

It’s unclear what exactly Lyuba’s endgame was.

Was she planning to kill Laura or simply whisk her away to a life of lesbianism, witchcraft, and all sorts of other undesirable things?

It’s important to note that Laura knew she was “different” even before Lyuba’s arrival; early in the film, she talks about her desperate desire to “be like all the other girls.” But no matter how hard she tries, she is not like them. Maybe Lyuba is simply the catalyst that leads to Laura acting on desires she was trying to suppress.

By this token, Barbara Creed’s assessment that the lesbian vampire “seduce[s] the daughters of patriarchy away from their proper gender roles,” rings especially true. Laura is saved from Lyuba’s clutches by the heroism of her father and the handsome young man who wants to make a wife out of her. Patriarchy saves the day. and the rightful order is restored.

The film ends with Laura, her father, and Friedrich riding away from the castle in a carriage. Friedrich looks at Laura with the same pathetic puppy dog eyes he’s had throughout the entire movie, and this time Laura returns his gaze. Her father notices and smiles in approval. So Laura has taken up her “proper gender role.” It’s implied that she’ll become romantically involved with and probably marry Friedrich, and in doing so she’ll make her father proud.

She is apparently cured of what made her “different,” and is ready to happily take her place in “proper” patriarchal society. 

And that makes me sad.

Crypt of the Vampire was my first lesbian vampire film; I stumbled across it as a closeted teen and spent the whole movie hoping Laura and Lyuba would ride off into the moonlight together. I still hope that every time I watch it, even though I know how it ends, but I’m used to it now that I’ve seen a ton of lesbian vampire films and know how this stuff works. 

But depressing heterosexual endings don’t necessary take away from the fun of these films.

On the contrary, they usually make it more interesting to unpack and explore what’s really being said about queerness and women’s sexuality. Not that many of these films were trying to make a statement — Crypt of the Vampire certainly was not. But it’s still my favorite, because it was my first…and because it so beautifully captures the intimacy and the atmosphere of Carmilla.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4.5

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