Thirsty Classics is a nine-week miniseries celebrating lesbian cinema from before 1980. We often talk about these films like homework or mere stepping stones, but Drew is here to share how they can be fun… if you’re horny enough. This week: Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos starring Ewa Strömberg and Soledad Miranda.
Every year my high school peer counseling program hosted “gender meetings.” All the boys would sit in the middle of a circle and the girls got to ask questions. The next week, we switched.
One year a girl asked us why men watched lesbian porn. The room broke out in uncomfortable giggles. “Men are imaginative creatures,” one of the boys said. “So when we watch we imagine we’re in the middle of them.” More giggles. “What? It’s the truth.”
At the time, I was completely unaware of my transness. I was just a 16-year-old boy who exclusively watched lesbian porn. “What an idiot,” I thought. “We imagine ourselves as one of the women. Obviously.”
Whether it’s porn or Blue is the Warmest Color or Jesús Franco’s exploitation classic Vampyros Lesbos, a lot of the lesbian sex that has been recorded on film and video was done so for cis straight men. And if we’re going to trust the wisdom of that teenage boy, the point is for men to imagine themselves between the two women. That is how it’s staged, that is how it’s shot, that is how it’s cast.
But what does that mean? And what does it mean if, I, a lesbian, still enjoy it? As a trans woman, it would be validating to say I only watch gay male porn because lesbian porn is too fake. Or, even, that The L Word is boring because they aren’t real lesbians. I can say neither of these things.
Vampyros Lesbos is not my fantasy. But it is a fantasy. And, while this fills me with some guilt, I do, in fact, enjoy it. Some of it, anyway.
The opening credits combine ship imagery, the very 60s psychedelic score, and our first glimpse of Countess Nadine Carody. She’s on her back, reaching towards the camera, her red scarf billows in the manufactured wind. Then, we watch a striptease.
A woman with a bob stands completely naked. She is the cliché male fantasy: big boobs, thin, surprisingly hairless for 1971, blank facial expression, completely motionless. You know, the dream. (insert several eye roll emojis)
The countess enters. She’s wearing a black bra and underwear set visible underneath her black lace nighty. She has another long red scarf around her neck and she dances into frame holding a candelabra. She approaches a mirror. She dances with herself, she kisses herself.
Countess Carody, played by frequent Franco collaborator Soledad Miranda is also thin. She also has perfectly symmetrical boobs. And she also has a blank expression. But she is not a doll. Throughout this dance, and throughout the whole film, she will lead with her sexuality, aggressively seeking what, and who, she wants.
The true pleasure of this scene, at least for me, are the cutaways to estate lawyer Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg). She is at the show with her boyfriend, Omar, but during this five-minute sequence he has ceased to exist. She watches the dance, getting more and more flustered. She watches as the countess removes her lingerie and places it on the real life mannequin. Carody touches her. Kisses her. All the while Linda is biting her lip, her blue eyes sparkling brighter than her matching blue eye shadow.
“You’re very excited. What’s up?” Omar asks. “Oh nothing,” she replies with a smile.
It turns out Linda has seen the Countess Carody before. In her dreams. We see one of these dreams: island scenery, a moth in a net, a kite, a scorpion, blood dripping down a window, Carody’s freckled face. She calls to her. Linda. Linda. Lindaaa.
Linda tells her therapist, “The strange thing is that the dream arouses me. More than once I’ve reached orgasm.” He tells her she’s just not having good enough sex with Omar. She should take a male lover. He says this as he hovers over her body.
Luckily for Linda, she is called to the Kadidados Islands, to meet with Countess Carody and settle Count Dracula’s estate. When she first arrives she spots blood dripping down a window just like in her dream. But it’s soon forgotten when she spies Carody lounging in a white bathing suit and huge black glasses. “You must be tired,” the countess says. “Would you like a swim before we get down to business?”
When a lawyer is invited to swim with her client who is definitely a vampire, the problem of clothing may arise. The lawyer, of course, did not plan to swim. Fortunately, skinny dipping is always an option. Cue 60s music. Cue Linda frolicking into the water naked.
The movie is filled with moments like this. The score maintains a certain level of absurdity, as does the constant zooms, and the bright red blood, and the costumes, and the dialogue. Linda’s business suit looks like it’s mid-aughts Juicy Couture and the characters regularly say things like, “I lost myself completely in her. She was me, and I was her.”
Whether or not the movie turns you on matters less if you enjoy semi-accidental camp. There are plenty of moments to laugh with and at the movie, especially once Linda gets taken to Vampire Hospital, or whatever we want to call the place where women who have gone mad with their love of the countess are housed and studied.
But before that we have a sex scene. Linda has passed out due to Carody’s spiked wine and she wakes up still wearing her suit. The countess appears in the doorway, blood dripping down her mouth. Her lips are soft and wet and her eyes drip with lust. They meet in the middle of the room. Carody’s hand moves its way down Linda’s body, the back of her nails pressing into her skin. She removes Linda’s clothes. She kisses her sunburnt shoulder.
They lie on the floor. Carody maintains control, Linda accepting everything wide-eyed. Carody’s straight brown hair covers the right side of Linda’s face as she kisses down the left. Another zoom. And she bites. She lifts her head up and the blood drips out the side of her mouth like spit or cum. She takes another bite. Linda moans.
If you lived exclusively on the internet, it would seem that straight men and queer women are into very different people. It would appear straight men are interested in fucking Scarlett Johansson, while queer women are more interested in having Rachel Weisz run us over with a truck.
One of the best parts of being queer is an expanded idea of what’s attractive and what’s sexy. But no one, queer or not, is free from the ways our larger society influences our judgments. Let’s be real, Rachel Weisz still fits just about every “normative” box. And were ScarJo to walk into the Cubby Hole, someone would probably tease her for being the worst before happily taking her home.
Attraction should be examined, but it’s also difficult to resist or force. Vampire stories have always been about the temptation of sexuality. An innocent protagonist drawn into a world of lust, one they can either embrace or defeat. It’s why it fits so well with queerness. Linda is drawn to Carody and must decide whether or not she will transgress the laws of heterosexuality. I’m drawn to Carody and must decide whether or not I’m going to let cis straight men continue to decide what gets me off.
Maybe the issue is less about the individuals themselves and more about what they’re doing. After all, queer women do not look any one specific way. Hell, I have no idea if Soledad Miranda was queer. All I know is she had a husband and that doesn’t mean anything. She was at least queer enough (or talented enough) to believably portray lust towards other women.
This goes back to my high school classmate. We were likely watching the same content: YouTube searches of “girls kissing” before graduating to the top videos on free porn sites. Yet, he watched and imagined himself in between. I watched and imagined myself as one of the women.
Here I cast myself as Linda. I am not a busty blonde with blue eyes. But I would like to be pursued by a dangerous countess. The endless shots of boobs are fine, but the shots of Carody’s face, determined, dominating, lips and eyes always wet, are when the film is sexiest to me. Linda affects Carody unlike any other, and by the time they have sex a second time, the dynamic has changed. This time Linda does the topping and Carody is at her mercy. This is maybe even hotter than the first scene, because I am so deeply desired. I mean, Linda is so deeply desired.
Linda ultimately decides to murder Carody and return to heterosexuality. This film was, of course, made by a man. Jesús Franco might enjoy the idea of lesbianism, but it must never intrude on his longterm hetero plans.
It’s a relief that since 1971, more and more lesbian films have been directed by actual lesbians. And not just indie dramedies. Every genre of film has had more women and more queer women making work, including softcore and hardcore porn.
The ways we actually look, the ways we actually have sex, our diverse queer community, is appearing on screen. Instead of finding a punctum within the male gaze, we get to embrace our own gaze. Our own gazes.
But part of that gaze, an important part, is sometimes it’s not that deep. Sometimes, we too, just want to see tits.