Stylish Diane Le Fanu (Celeste Yarnall) is attacked on her way to an L.A. art gallery by a knife-wielding rapist. The glowering thug has her pinned to the floor, but Diane calmly stabs him in the gut and drinks the blood flowing from his wound. For Diane is an immortal vampire, probably the last person you should attack after dark. At the gallery, Diane beguiles studly swinger Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his mousey wife Susan (Sherry Miles) and invites them both over to her desert retreat where she spies on them making love via her two-way mirror. That night, Lee and Susan share the same dream wherein their bed lies amidst the shimmering desert where Diane magically appears in flowing scarlet and leads Lee away. Since they share something of an open marriage, Susan worries Lee will stray, but little suspects the true intentions of their bloodsucking host.
Noted feminist and Roger Corman protégé Stephanie Rothman had a brief exploitation career bringing drive-in and grindhouse audiences the likes of The Student Nurses (1970) and Terminal Island (1973). Corman had earlier hired Rothman to shoot new footage for Blood Bath (1966), an interesting, impressionistic vampire movie released by his old outfit American International Pictures and co-directed by Jack Hill (who evidently bears some enmity towards Rothman to this day), but The Velvet Vampire seems something of a personal statement. Another attempt to subvert exploitation material towards her feminist bent.
Possibly influenced by the wave of arty erotic vampire movies coming from Europe (e.g. Blood and Roses (1960) and the peerless Daughters of Darkness (1971)), Rothman places her latter-day Carmilla (named in a nod to author J. Sheridan Le Fanu, while a supporting character bears the surname Stoker) in an early Seventies West Coast Los Angeles of swingers, poseurs and cod intellectuals. She plays around with the trappings of the Universal/Hammer vampire movie. Instead of superstitious Transylvanian peasants we have equally shifty, desert-dwelling hippies. In place of the usual creepy manservant, Diane has lovelorn Native American Juan (Jerry Daniels) who pays a heavy price for being so devoted to his mistress. Most noticeably, Diane is a vampire inexplicably able to wander in broad daylight, though she admits to loathing the sun. She lives in the desert because, like Dracula, she is pining for her lost love and at night lies naked in a graveyard beside her mummified dead husband.
The resulting film is only a partial success, at its best dreamlike and ambiguous, at its worse ponderous and painfully slow. Neither as bracingly revisionist as Martin (1977), nor archly satirical like Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). The desert dream sequences set to folk guitar led prog rock are often striking and suggest Rothman was drawing upon Michelangelo Antonioni, but the shocks are clumsy and the drama is dull, accompanied by a droning electronic score. Celeste Yarnall smoulders seductively in scarlet silks but the other performers aren’t up to the task of delivering the poetically florid dialogue. Smug adulterer Lee and shrill doormat Susan fail to engage our sympathies, though it is interesting in these films how men are easy sexual conquests for the vampire women but girls make better life partners. Nevertheless, Sherry Miles’ frankly wet performance never suggests Diane is getting under Susan’s skin. The climactic chase through L.A.’s crowded streets is pretty silly with Celeste Yarnall tottering in hot pants and high heels, but the infamous finale involving a bunch of cross-wielding hippies is momentarily novel before the predictable, groan-inducing limp twist.