This month we’re celebrating Women in Horror over at Nightmare on Film Street and having a blast doing so. Women have been the backbone of the genre from the very beginning despite the sexism and misogyny that has also plagued some of the darker corners of the industry. On-screen, they’ve become symbols of strength, bravery, courage and just downright tough-as-nails badassery and have deeply inspired so many along the way.
Unfortunately, although improving in recent years, the amazing women behind the camera do not nearly get the love and attention that they deserve. It’s a travesty. So this month here at the Drive-In we’re looking at two films that have been helmed by women!
Grab your concessions, crucifix and salmon repellent because here we go!
Humanoids From The Deep (1980)
Humanoids From The Deep is another movie in a long line of films centered on creatures created due to human arrogance and a false sense of ownership of the environment around them. Good intentions pave the way to you-know-where, as they say, and just as films in the 40’s and 50’s seemed to focus on their eras’ fears and thoughts on atomic testing to create the creature du jour, here at the onset of the 1980’s we see the beginnings of a very different trend: Genetically Modified Organisms.
GMO’s, Frankenfood….call it what you will, concerns over this new science played out in this film to warn of the damage it could cause. But don’t for a second worry that this is some kind of serious film. Oh no, rubber-suited pervert monsters are EVERYWHERE.
The small fishing town of Noyo, California is where it all takes place and it’s a pleasant enough small town with all the trappings of a pre-suburbia habitat whose entire existence centers around the local fishing industry. In fact you couldn’t swing a fishing poll in town with out hitting at least a dozen people wearing flannels and vests. The town’s fishermen are concerned that there is a potential salmon shortage which is where arguably the films actual antagonist enters; Canco. Representing the Cannery Industrial Complex, Canco has been trying to play god and have been experimenting with growth hormones to increase the size and virility of the salmon. The results are predictable and if you were expecting massive, humanoid, blood-thirsty, sex-crazed fish people, well then you are correct. Murdering all the men in violent fashion, one almost gets the idea that their aggression towards the males of the species is due to some sort of perceived mating competition. Because that is ultimately what they’re after. An evolutionary urge to breed and spawn.
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“[…] just as films in the 40’s and 50’s seemed to focus on their eras’ fears and thoughts on atomic testing to create the creature du jour, here at the onset of the 1980’s we see the beginnings of a very different trend: Genetically Modified Organisms. “
While one of the Canco scientists, Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel), seems interested in helping the townspeople, she is joined by town do-gooder Jim Hill (Doug McClure) and local resident Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena) in figuring out what has been slaughtering the animals and men, and having their way with the women. All climaxing in a frenzied and brutal fish attack at the pier during the final moments of the film that is equal parts terror and bloody fun. Humanoids From The Deep is enhanced by a great suspenseful score from James Horner which you can read more about here! It’s typical cheesy, campy fare but there are definitely some redeeming qualities to the film. One of which is that the creatures costumes which are surprisingly done very well. Large, lumbering beings with abnormally long upper limbs, a savage looking maw and a massive brain even though it’s apparent they probably don’t use all that space. Not “scary” but it gets the point across perfectly. The special effects in the film are also impressive for a smaller scale project like this. There’s no shortage of fishy slashes and oozing gashes and the scene where a man has his face horribly mangled is truly something to behold.
All films experience speedbumps and creative differences during production to varying degrees, and this one is no exception. Barbara Peeters’ directed this film for Roger Corman, an industry legend and one she had worked with previously many times, but unfortunately the two had disagreements that saw Corman going behind her back and tampering with her finished product. I won’t delve too deep into this as it has been written about far better and in greater detail elsewhere, including here, I’ll just say that despite the obvious slight to Barbara’s talent as a director, enough of Peeters’ original vision remains and makes this film worthy of a watch.
The Velvet Vampire (1971)
This one puts a much-needed femme forward spin on the time-tested vampire story, it’s Stephanie Rothman’s sultry film; The Velvet Vampire.
The film begins with an attack and attempted rape of a woman walking by herself at night which thankfully takes a turn when she bites and then stabs her assailant, killing him. Washing her hands off at a nearby fountain and checking her makeup sends the message that she is definitely not your average horror movie victim. Then we jump to an art exhibition at The Stoker (Nice!) Gallery where we meet Lee and Susan Ritter, a young married couple engaging in what appears to be some stranger role-playing, but instead of picking up each other they are both picked up by Diane (Celeste Yarnall), a dark-haired gorgeous woman who happens to be the woman attacked during the film’s opening. Diane clearly has an interest in Lee (Michael Blodgett) and he is enamored with her immediately much to the dismay of Lee’s wife Susan (Sherry Miles). Diane invites them both to stay with her at her desert ranch which they graciously accept.
The setting then jumps to the desert where Lee’s car breaks down but they are luckily rescued by Diane, wheeling around in her dune buggy and saving the day. Back at her ranch the three have dinner, Steak Tartar, however Susan declines as she doesn’t have the taste for raw meat. Lee seems irritated but Diane has her housekeeper fix her a salad instead, stating that she shouldn’t be forced to eat something she doesn’t like. There’s two opposing dynamics at play that start to reveal themselves here. While Lee and Diane are obviously trying to get in each other’s pants, Diane also has a fondness for Susan and this is not the last time that she comes to her aid in what is clearly not the healthiest marriage in the world. The first evening concludes with the married couple fooling around in bed while being watched by Diane, who is admiring the couple concealed behind a two-way mirror. This is also not the last time this happens either. That night both Lee and Susan have a very similar dream; both of them in a strange bed in the middle of a desert with Diane walking out of a mirror also in the middle of nowhere. In Susan’s’ version, Diane pulls Lee away from her for herself, while in Lees’, Susan pushes him towards Diane.
Sigmund Freud would have a field day with that one.
“A more empowering version of Dracula, Diane Le Fanu […] is in no way evil or cruel, just love-lost and lonely.”
The next few days are filled with visiting an abandoned mine and learning that the adjacent mining town was wiped out almost 100 years prior, Diane saving Susan’s life by sucking out the venom from a rattlesnake bite, and learning that Diane actually hates the desert. She claims she can’t leave because her husband is buried in the nearby cemetery and the dry, desert air is the only thing keeping his corpse from turning into dust. The truth of that actually is that her husband, although perfectly preserved, died in 1875. Diane is a vampire. It turns out she also is the one who killed him, along with all of the inhabitants of the mining town. She got a bit hungry and like now, loses control of herself as the hunger takes over. As both Lee and Susan begin to put the pieces together they realize that they’re being kept there on purpose by Diane who is infatuated with both of them.
While the pacing of the film is quite slow, the end picks things up a bit by changing the scenery back to the bustling city as Susan tries to escape Diane’s lustful claws. It’s a stark contrast to the quiet desert that took up most of the movie, and there is something fascinating about a chase through a crowded bus station. In the middle of the day. There’s people EVERYWHERE. It’s humorous but maybe only because it’s not played for laughs on-screen.
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Rothman’s vampire is not a far cry from the way other creatures of the night are portrayed even though this one has an easier time out in the sun than most. Sexy and seductive, capable of ensnaring both men and women, she seems motivated by love, something that was lost to her a century earlier. And while, yes, feeding off the blood of her victims as is their calling card, most of the movie has her feeding off the sexual passion and pleasure of her guests. Her voyeuristic nature stems from her curse; to yearn for love even though she can never truly have it herself. A more empowering version of Dracula, Diane Le Fanu (whose name comes from author Sheridan Le Fanu, writer of the female-centric bloodsucking tale Carmilla, which predates Bram Stokers’ famous story) is in no way evil or cruel, just love-lost and lonely.