by Rich Moreland, May 2016
Joining Amy Hesketh in Dead But Dreaming is Bolivian Veronica Paintoux who began her career with Pachamama Films in the early 1990s and La Paz native Mila Joya is who has shot for the studio since 2010. She stars with Amy in Maleficarum, a film directed by Jac Avila.
These three provocative women, along with Claudia Moscoso as Varna, infuse feminism into the vampire landscape, giving Dead But Dreaming an empowered pro-woman statement.
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Throughout recorded history, women have been captured, fought over, enslaved, and seduced for reproductive purposes. The result? Sexual commodification has always been at the core of being female.
Patriarchal attitudes have dominated all cultures with the Church in the Middle Ages western civilization’s strongest example. But women have fought back and in modern times this struggle has given rise to feminism.
In Dead But Dreaming, writer/director Jac Avila explores the feminist image as it is shaped through the recalcitrant female. She may appear submissive and trapped by her circumstances, but she is of her own mind.
Until the viewer meets Varna, the feminist tone of the narrative floats along under the radar. There are hints, of course, but the novice nun brings the issue front and center. Her uncle, Ferenc, is the local priest and when they meet in the church courtyard he mentions his suspicions.
There is a female vampire, a lamia, loose in the community. “The demon takes a beautiful shape to seduce young men,” he says.
The attempted sacrifice of a young virgin centuries ago visually intercuts their conversation because it reflects Varna’s circumstances. She is a modern sacrifice because her “womanly condition” demands that she choose between being a bride of Christ or man. To her, they are “sad choices.” The doubting nun-in-waiting wants a third option, to pursue her studies and write.
Ferenc admits with some pride that Varna has a “talent for deep thought,” not something the sexist church attitude concedes lightly. He does, however, want her to know about the tale of Lilith. This is the root of the female vampire and a lesson in obedience for all women.
Later when Varna meets the Irish traveler, another element is added to the feminist theme: rebellion against authority, something that Church and society believes should never clutter the female mind.
The scene shifts back to the virgin sacrifice. Suddenly her place is taken by a mysterious woman who materializes out of a stone portal.
After a stake is driven through the victim’s heart, the chieftain (Jac Avila) drinks her blood. When he extracts the stake, the fiend rises and returns the favor. Thus the tribal leader is reborn as Asa who will become part of the vampire family feud that infuses the narrative.
The undead victim, now known as Nahara, flees to the time portal only to find there is no escape. Once clad in white, the seminude and bloodied Nahara has gone from purity to evil. Like Eve driven from the Garden, she must wander.
To underscore the pre-Christian birth of vampires, Nahara later appears before Ferenc standing in front of a stone cross. It has no adverse effect on her, Bram Stoker notwithstanding. In Dead But Dreaming, vampires sweep away the oppressive church dogma. Through asserting the female voice, today’s modern feminists do likewise in a male-dominated world that still minimizes women.
Breaking the Rules too Easily
Another scene shift takes the viewer to La Paz and Asa’s underground lair.
He stays away from the sun (a concession to Stoker) and carries a staff with a large tooth-like object on its end.
The back story of this segment moves to Antioch in 57 BC where the slave Aphrodisia is blamed for a lost mirror. In the presence of a congenial group of her mistress’s friends, she is flogged and then crucified.
As mentioned previously, Asa is present and turns her into a vampire as she dies on the cross.
In his lair, Asa suggests to Aphrodisia (who is now his personal aphrodisiac) that she still holds a grudge from centuries ago. She retorts that no one helped her, but the vampire lord is disinterested in her complaining. Traveling is on his agenda, he says, which means she’ll have to be put to sleep.
Ahprodisia pleads, “I don’t want to be dead but dreaming so long again.”
It’s an angry comment on the condition of women through the ages. Asa’s patriarchal response is unsympathetic. It’s time for a lesson in obedience.
Pushing her away with his staff, Asa chains Aphrodisia to the wall and flogs her in a scene that BDSMers will love. She breaks the rules too easily, he shouts. Aphrodisia writhes; her raging eyes glare at him with desire. Quick sharp breaths intensify her lust, underscoring that sadomasochism ignites vampire love.
When Asa plunges his pointed staff into the flesh above both of her breasts, their sexual playtime begins. Burning with fury, Aphrodisia’s eyes turn red and bleed as a woman might under those circumstances.
The scene is female rage at oppression and parallels Moire’s jail cell rape we’ll discuss in the next post.
To Be on Top, at least Once
Asa releases Aphrodisia and lays her on the floor then moves on top of her to suck the blood from the piercings he made. In an act of rebellion, Aphrodisia suddenly reverses positions and straddles him by sitting on his chest.
This is one of Dead’s pivotal moments because it was Lilith who demanded to be on top in an assertion of her feminism. Aphrodisia’s statement of sexual control yields a concession. Asa will not put her to sleep and mute her again.
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Next we’ll look at the sad fate of Moire and another of the film’s defining moments, her scourging, execution, and rebirth.