Review by Darren Gaskell
José Ramón Larraz’s 1974 feature starts out like gangbusters as two women have their softcore bedroom romp rudely interrupted by a hail of bullets before the plot switches to the more mundane business of hotel check-ins and finding a decent spot to pitch your caravan. Don’t panic, exploitation fans, the story gets back on the sex and bloodletting trail soon enough.
After Ted (Murray Brown) has sorted out his lodgings (watch for the bit with the pencil if you enjoy overacting-induced giggles), he spots the mysterious, beautiful Fran (Marianne Morris) who’s out for a walk in some the least appropriate clothing possible for a rural wander. Ignoring the impracticalities of Fran’s fabulously Gothic clobber, Ted gives her a lift back to her rather impressive stately pile (which some of you might recognise as Oakley Court – I’ve stayed there and was way more excited about its horror history than my colleagues).
Meanwhile, our aforementioned caravanners John (Brian Deacon) and Harriet (Sarah Faulkner) have settled on a location close to Fran’s swanky place – well, when I say “close” I mean they’ve bunged their Austin and their travelling home pretty much in her back garden. Still, Fran’s not too worried about this, she’s more focused on plying John with wine, seducing him and sucking the blood out of a nasty-looking wound she’s carved into his arm. She’s so focused on John that her housemate Miriam (Anulka) is concerned as to why she’s keeping the bloke around instead of the normal “drain, dispatch and dump” M.O.
Speaking of which, police in the area are constantly hauling naked, exsanguinated men out of crashed cars on nearby roads but don’t seem to be overly worried that anything strange is going on. Doesn’t anyone take an interest in road safety around there? Surely a spate of nude driving fatalities would attract the attention of law enforcement at least a smidge more than usual but no, the authorities dutifully shove the victim in an ambulance and wait for the next wrecked vehicle to show up.
With John under Fran’s spell and seemingly too weak to escape the house, is there any way he can possibly survive? Will John and Harriet come to his rescue? And will the local forces of law and order finally unveil their “don’t strip and drive” advertising campaign?
The female vampire flick wasn’t exactly an innovation at the time Larraz’s movie was released. The 1970s had already seen films such as The Vampire Lovers, Countless Dracula and Lust For A Vampire. However, whereas those titles had a historical setting, Vampyres brought its tale of fanged females firmly into the 20th century.
Originally cut by around 3 minutes for its UK cinema release and even further cut for its bow on VHS, at least we Brits can now see Larraz’s lurid shocker in all of its unexpurgated glory.
Granted, this sort of thing would have caused a stir back in the 70s and the ridiculous furore generated by the Video Nasties scare in the 80s meant that we weren’t allowed to view any material in that particular decade which might encourage us to become murderous bloodsuckers. Nowadays, even the most salacious moments in Vampyres have been deemed unlikely to corrupt and deprave in the manner it was once thought to and it’s somewhat ridiculous to think they were ever extreme enough to do so.
Even so, the proceedings are quite bloody – if not especially gory – and the film further establishes its exploitation credentials by piling on the gratuitous nudity, although this follows the usual 70s Brit template of being altogether more chaste when it comes to showing the male in the, er, altogether. Away from the acreage of flesh on display, the acting is occasionally stilted and the dialogue is sometimes banal but, very much like Fran herself, there’s something alluring and oddly compelling about Vampyres.
Marianne Morris possesses the necessary presence to carry off the lead role and even if her double act with fellow vamp Anulka isn’t utilised as much as it should have been their frenzied attacks are surprisingly effective, one set-piece in a wine cellar being particularly cruel and chilling. Brown’s a bit of a plank as John – as are most of the men in the piece – but that’s down to plot rather than performance and it’s interesting to see traditional masculine types being lured to their doom by wilier women.
Today’s horror movie standards may render a movie like Vampyres a relatively tame curio but it’s undeniably well-made and the potentially campy moments are generally nullified by a quietly unsettling atmosphere and an impressive commitment to playing the material unstintingly straight.
Producer Brian Smedley-Aston proved to be something of a dab hand at providing the viewing public with this kind of fare, raising the stakes with the infamous The House on Straw Hill which amped up the censor-baiting sex and violence (the uncut version is still unavailable in the UK) and whose writer/director James Kenelm Clarke supplied the music here.
Vampyres is currently available as part of the Arrow box set “Blood Hunger: The Films of José Larraz”. The less said about the 2015 remake the better – the original is smarter, sexier and well worth checking out.