Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)

The Blood Spattered Bride (La Novia ensangrentada) is yet another vampire movie based on Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s classic 1872 novella Carmilla (other notable adaptations being Roger Vadim’s excellent Blood and Roses and Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers but there have been countless others). This particular film version, from Spanish director Vicente Aranda, adds quite a few interesting twists of its own.

There are actually two brides in this movie. The first bride we meet is Susan, on her honeymoon. Arriving at the hotel, she is raped by a mysterious man, but perhaps it was actually her husband, and perhaps it was a dream. Then her husband really does seem to be about to rape her, but again we’re not sure. This kind of ambiguity carries through to the rest of the movie. And, disturbingly, Aranda gives us no clear indications as to when we’re dealing with reality and when we’re dealing with dreams. At one point one of the characters talks about the wall between reality and dream, and the dangers that ensue if this wall is ever breached. The breaching of that wall is in fact one of the themes of the film.

Susan has further dreams, dreams that involve her in committing acts of violence against her husband. A strange woman, also a bride, appears to her in these dreams. And she makes a curious discovery about her new home (her husband’s family is clearly very old and very wealthy and the house is a huge and rambling gothic pile). There are portraits on the walls, portraits of successive generations of the family, but there are no women represented at all. The portraits of the women of the family have been banished to the cellar. When she explores the cellar she finds an especially interesting painting, a painting of a blood-spattered bride, with the face neatly cut out of the picture. It appears there is a legend attached to the woman depicted in the painting, a certain Mircalla Karnstein. She butchered her husband on her wedding night, after he asked her to perform unspeakable acts, but the legend fails to reveal the nature of these acts.

A few days later her husband finds a naked woman buried on the beach, a woman named Carmilla who turns out to be very much alive, and he takes her back to the house. She is in fact the bride from Susan’s dreams. A strange attachment develops between the two women, and there also appears to be some link between these two women and Carol, the 12-year-old daughter of the housekeeper. Susan’s dreams are increasingly unsettling, and the dagger held by the bride in the painting keeps turning up, to be then hidden by the husband and continually found by Susan. As you would expect, the violence that has appeared in dreams makes its appearance in reality, and escalates until the extremely bloody final scene.

While the plot derives from le Fanu’s Carmilla the real content comes from Freud and from 1970s sexual politics. The lesbian vampire movies of the 70s are often seen as a response to feminism and the sexual liberation of women, and they’re often seen as a hostile response to these developments. This film is much too complex and much too ambiguous to be dismissed in such a manner. There is definitely a very clear conflict between the sexes going on in this film, but it’s impossible to be certain where Aranda’s sympathies lie or where he intends the audience’s sympathies to lie. Mostly we see things from the point of view of the female characters (literally in one case in a strangely surreal homage to Carl Dreyer’s classic 1931 Vampyr). But nothing is clear-cut. The husband seems to have a sadistic streak, both in a sexual and in an emotional sense, but it’s not clear that Susan is an entirely unwilling partner in this area. At one point (after a very disturbing and superbly filmed sequence in a dovecote) Carol confronts her with this, telling her that, “You like it when he hurts you.” But does she really? Possibly she does, but then she also seems repelled by sex altogether. Is it love that he feels for her husband, or is it hate? Or is it both? Does she know which it is?

Using vampirism as a metaphor for sex is certainly by no means unusual, but I can’t think of another movie that links vampirism with specifically female sexuality in such a string and such an effective manner. It’s also significant that both Carol and Susan are undergoing what could be seen as a traumatic rite of passage, in Carol’s case from girlhood to womanhood, and in Susan’s case marriage, and since Susan is a virgin at the time of her marriage both rites of passage can be considered to be signalled by blood.

Perhaps the most interesting thing of all about this movie is that even the element of vampirism is subject to doubt. There’s no absolute certainty that anything supernatural is taking place. This raises fascinating questions about the ending (and I’m not going to reveal any details about the ending) and in fact can radically change one’s interpretation of not just the ending but also crucially one’s interpretation of the reactions of the male characters to what they think is going on. The real monsters may not be those who appear monstrous, and the extreme violence of the response of the men may be the actions of heroic fighters against monstrous evil, or totally unjustified paranoia in the face of the reality of female sexuality. There is very definitely a sense of a threat to male power, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that the movie is coming down on the side of embattled male power. It's also not clear if Carmilla is perceived as a threat to the established order because she's a lesbian vampire, or simply because she's a lesbian, and while the men in the movie do perceive her as a very real and very dangerous threat, it's by no mean certain that Aranda intends us to accept this as a valid or reasonable fear. This movie doesn't explicitly explain anything, but gives out lots of tantalising hints, and then makes us doubt what we thought we were seeing. There's a scene involving Alexandra Bastedo that calls into question almost everything that has gone before.

It’s not as self-consciously arty as some of the female vampire movies of its era, but it does have some wonderful visual sequences. The acting is generally solid, with Alexandra Bastedo (well-known to cult TV fans as Sharron Macready from The Champions) making a rather effective Carmilla. All the actors manage to give performances that add to the atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty. This is an example of 70s eurohorror at its best, an intelligent and highly entertaining movie, and very much worth seeing.

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