Seeking a Best Friend to Waste Away With
La hija de las tinieblas
Preceding disaster: two girls sit in the back of a lecture, one turned to her side, mouth veiled by palm, sharing secret words we are not made privy to. It is obvious. It is playful. Quickly, it is made less playful when the mistress calls. If you were paying attention, tell me what I said, or some such. The girls respond, hailing Satan. They are possessed. It took me a second to realize this is how it was meant to be read. It was familiar, to me, if not in the Satanic panic than in the adolescent anarchies and hysterias.
Disaster is not the hail Satans, here. Disaster is how both the skeptic and the spiritual fail to do anything but mutilate the bodies of the vulnerable. Disaster is how young girls get disrobed and probed, bloodlet youths of sin. Disaster is how cloistered lonely souls find solace in each other, in rituals that can’t be understood, only to have what small salves to life they make for themselves taken away, violently excised.
Before that, though, we have peace, of a kind. Much of the early moments of Alucarda (1977) are a kind of courtship ritual, dressed not so far from pastoral. We see the titular Alucarda, played by Tina Romero, as she runs and rolls around forests, hills, ruins, with her new friend and recent arrival to the convent, Justine, portrayed by Susana Kamini. Alucarda collects trinkets, secrets, and she shares them in an act of intimacy with a girl she has just met but feels deep kinship towards. Alucarda asks, “do you know how small creatures love each other?” She proceeds to spend the whole film trying to answer this for herself and for Justine. It is beautiful, met by those budget reel shots of lush, endless knolls, by soft light rolling over their beds. When the movie gives way to subterranean color pallets and literal fires, these moments echo in the head. Romero’s mannerisms, wide-eyed affections and soft lilting accent, sell so much of this, the explosivity she contains and later releases.
She professes love so early, so earnestly, so alchemically. And that alchemy is where the movie splinters, psychically, depending on how you choose to read these grand moves of affection. Is this platonic, girlish love, intimacy sought in a friend who can see you fully, who can share your secrets, who will let you take care of her, take care of you? Or, is it a romance for Alucarda? The source text, Carmilla, is famous for its own lesbian vamps, and its popularity as adaptation fodder was and is great enough that it could be said to be a progenitor to the niche of lesbian vampire cinema (Theda Bara, one of films earliest sex symbols, was known by the nickname “The Vamp,” alluding to the dark, sometimes bisexual seductresses she often played in pre-codes). Or, maybe, it remains chaste, but the context changes some; does she seek a sister, a lifelong companion til death do they part, bound by blood? Any of these reads tracks through the film. Even the displacement of her feelings for Justine on to Daniela tracks in these same ways.
In any of these instances, though, Alucarda’s desire is companionship, intimacy with another person, here another woman. There is vagueness here that works, the text itself being paradoxically as much gestural histrionics as it is lucid hysterias. This is a film about loneliness, about longing, and while it is impassioned and rageful in its demonstration of these sensations, it is not direct in its inquiry. This makes it prime fodder for personal projection, an act I am similarly quite familiar with. But before we get to that, I want to put Alucarda in proper conversation.
La Morte Vivante
Again, visions teasing and receiving of youth and love. Here, it is younger, and for a time, more innocent. French countrysides. Old castles, these hardly-occupied estates with history and ostentation baked into their walls, but the material reality here is downplayed, mostly; it is filtered here through the context of disconnected adolescence, without adult supervision. Again, the roaming, frolicking, exploring, two girls with declarations of love in their throats and then their mouths and then made sanguine. Of course, the blood pact comes, but this one is different from the last. Here it is not supernaturally informed, but tender, the blood of sisters to be made.
The concision and clarity of the evolution of Catherine Valmont’s pleas (here, uttered by the walking corpse of Françoise Blanchard) are what remain most immediately striking about Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl (1982) but much of the script is this obvious: from the thieves and their barrels of toxic waste that set everything off, to the petty marital disputes and casual swipes of misogyny from the husband figure that define the main heterosexual couple of the film, to those childhood declarations of devotion and blood-sisterhood we see in flashback. Rollins and co-writer Jacques Ralf present their theses, evolving and always complicated, in clear and direct elocutions, turns of phrase gorgeous in their bluntness.
But those pleas are what I want to take in their explicitness: “Help me, I’m evil” transmogrifies into “kill me, I’m evil,” which inevitably dies in “Can’t you see I’m your death?” You see, Catherine Valmont has come back from the dead, but unlike Alucarda’s Satanic pacts and hybrid witch-vampirism, Catherine’s continued existence is accidental and if anything hybrid vampire-zombie. It is a pained existence, informed by the heinous acts she is compelled by base need to enact. To wrest herself from this stupor, she needs blood to sustain and revive, so much blood, from the acid-scorched corpses of her would-be-crypt robbers, from the unlucky couple occupying her long abandoned home, to the American interlocutors, to, well, her best friend.
Her violence is enabled by her love, Marina Pierro’s Hélène. Hélène is her sworn blood sister, their pact from so long ago honored to their last breaths. The sound of a music box from all those years ago signals to her that Catherine is back, and on their reunion, the sacrifices and, by the films own words, evils Hélène is capable of are immense; first, it is her own blood she lets, draping her arm, Catherine submits, feeding; then, it is the blood of others, violence enacted in hopes to regain her love, her humanity, her wholeness. The desperation is palpable, immoral sure, but also felt-by me, at least.
The parallels that can be made between The Living Dead Girl and Alucarda are not merely these riffs on these Carmilla-born archetypes of decaying and volatile women in love with other women, but also in the way this love is left Delphic, maybe, carrying weight and recognition in vagueries. Like Alucarda, the girls can be read as having a love platonic, romantic, familial, and all of these are supported in some way textually, but none of them are complete in and of themselves. Love is presented as multifaceted and often incomplete, and the loneliness it can birth in absence is corrosive, but intoxicating. It is the toxic waste and the blood shared time and again. The end of our worlds are predicated on the denial of intimacy or otherwise the breaking of its foundations.
Plenty of other films make similar points with regards to intimacy and the horror of its existence and absence, but often times take a more fixed perspective to prod through. Ginger Snaps (2002), a film perpetually dear to me, is responsive to the strain of these films most invested in what could be called the pursuit of sisterhood, or at least siblinghood. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) wants Ginger (Katharine Fitzgerald), but that want is platonic, familial; it is a desire for access to family, here literal, but in Alucarda, more spiritual. Brigitte watches as her sister transforms, shapeshifts into base desire, how the sex, the shaving, the schoolyard violence, the cruelty, the blood, are all responses to this unwanted and oncoming and unstoppable form. Brigitte loses Ginger, figuratively, and literally, over and over. Alucarda’s accusation against the confessional priest, that he and his faith “worship death,” and her declaration that she “worships life” are echoed in the arc of Brigitte. Ginger and Brigitte begin the film with a suicide pact that fetishizes death, a casual, aestheticized preoccupation with death and morbidity stemming from the mundanity and banality of their lives. By the end of the film, though, Brigitte is fighting, always, to stay alive, to keep her sister alive.
Meanwhile, a movie like May (2002) taps into something less platonic but less picky about what forms intimacy takes, mirroring a read of Alucarda neither familial nor really sexual. May, like Alucarda, follows a title character whose actions paint her equally as slasher villain and final girl. May (Angela Bettis) exists in her world isolated, ostracized for her lazy eye, her unkempt manners, her preoccupations with the morbid. What she wants more than anything is touch, the sensation of another person’s warmth on her skin, the security of another, a friend. All friends touch. Her pursuit becomes fetishistic, perhaps, a series of obsessions with parts of people, the hands of a boy, the neck of a girl, all of them seen in pieces like dolls. At the start of the film, though, she hopes to find her footing, her pursuit of Adam (Jeremy Sisto) not going unsuccessfully. But her nature becomes repulsive to him; he rejects her intimacy, her weirdness, something he spent so much time building up, assuring her of. Her rebound is in the arms of Polly (Anna Faris), but the fling is casual, passive for Polly; May is not her best friend, or lover, and while Polly might not resent her, or even dislike her, that relationship can be nothing but casual to her. May gets jealous. May gets defensive. The pyromancy of Alucarda is kin to the seamstressing and surgical butchery of May. The pursuit of companionship, of love, is built and contextualized in a rage and sorrow inconceivable to those around them.
If we are to read Alucarda or indeed The Living Dead Girl as textually more directly “queer,” though, no longer just about BFFs but BFs and GFs, texts like The Living End (1992)or Jennifer’s Body (2009)trade more directly in the vein. The relationship between blood and cum are better explicated here. The sensibilities of Araki versus Cody/Kusama are not shared, and certainly not with those of Alucarda director Juan López Moctezuma, and certainly not Rollin’s own, but what are these texts if not pairings of codependent destructions, jealous and orgasmic and violating and impossible? The desire for another at the end of the world is potent, vitalized and soap opera tragic. Everyone is doomed in their own ways, from the terminal to the immortal, and grasping at the desire shared, the love known.
Posturing and vague structuralist conceptions of genre aside, the thing that I really want to talk about is how I interact with these films, specifically Alucarda here, but really all of them, and how they embody anxieties legible to me.
Art can’t really emulate, let alone transmit, sensations and lived experiences right in their totalities, and any pursuit of such is doomed to failure; similarly, a lot of the art that articulates itself most vitally towards conditions material and psychological do so more incidentally, becoming eloquent only when the viewer, the participant, meets it halfway. What I see connective is what I see; movies about living to make a connection, dying for it, dying to be seen, living to be felt, fighting always to overcome loneliness that is insurmountable. Sure, yes, Alucarda is, as a text, interested in modernity vs tradition, medicine vs religion, we get Claudio Brook working over time as representative of the rational and irrational with credits as Dr. Oszek and as the hunchback, given overflowing soliloquies that sum up what this movie has to say about this subject. But, really, my heart was not in it for these explorations. I don’t think this has anything vital to say about the church, about the limits of rationality, that pablum. What the movie says, instead, that so transfixes me, is in those grand, vague gesticulations towards longing and unbelonging, of the desire to love something and someone so fiercely that it burns cathedrals down, to be seen and recognized and to share your tiny secrets of how small creatures love each other.
I don’t know that what you would see in Alucarda or The Living Dead Girl would be the same as what I see. Art, as something that exists in the space between conception and reception, takes new forms given what we bring towards it. When I watch The Living End, I understand similar furies, the will to “fuck everything,” I recognize the righteous indignation, the failing immune systems. In Ginger Snaps, I am seen in both Brigitte’s desire to hold onto a sister, a sibling, a best friend, her desire to die morphed some times into a fight to survive, to keep them both alive, and I know Ginger and her transformation, the body rendered unrecognizable, the rituals, the secrets, the anger. And when I watch Alucarda, I recognize the possessive and possessed desires of Alucarda and Justine, the rage felt when that desire is taken from you, that connection reviled by the world around you. I recognize longing, loneliness, and lashes, the flagellation and flames. I want to feel those embers, more and more. I have had more than a few vampires in my life, and fuck it, sometimes, at the worst of times, I want them back. I recognize the cruel black magics that went into these doomed relationships, I know the fallout, but I want them back. That’s maybe what I see in Alucarda. I don’t expect any other person to know those feelings in the same way that I do; but maybe you watch it and feel something similar, the nuances of it different, but not unrecognizable. For now, I am left with the desire for friends, for secrets shared and seen. Maybe I get possessed by the devil, maybe I waste away into dust, but isn’t any relationship so important worth that cost?
That’s not rhetorical.
Originally published at https://ghostgirljournal.substack.com.