Spain was at the tailend of a nearly 40-year long dictatorship when The Blood Spattered Bride came out in 1972. Until a democracy was established, Spanish citizens sought outlets to voice their grievances. A filmmaker like Vicente Aranda naturally expressed his own feelings by writing and directing. However, not all audiences back then picked up on the politicized story behind this film. They were maybe too close to the subject matter to catch Aranda’s concealed but potent commentary.
The film opens with newlyweds on their way to a hotel; Maribel Martín plays bride Susan while Simón Andreu’s character is unidentified. At the couple’s original honeymoon destination, Susan quickly succumbs to a visceral fantasy. When in the hotel room by herself, the bride opens a closet to find a masked man waiting for her. He throws her on the bed, tears her wedding dress off, and then accosts her before Susan’s husband returns, effectively ending the daydream sequence. He is confused as to why Susan wants to leave all of a sudden, but the two move on to a remote countryside estate owned by the groom’s family.
Spanish women lost most of their rights while under Francisco Franco’s rule. Throughout this period of near fascism, women were barred from certain jobs, had antiquated gender roles forced on them, and they were treated as men’s property. Aranda zeroed in on the plights of these women trapped in Francoist Spain, and his character Susan embodies their unrest. Hardly minutes after her character is introduced, the bride is molested by a man who overpowers her. The white dress is a symbol of her chastity, whereas this entire hotel scene actualizes her enormous fear of both men and sex. With so much emphasis on women’s abstinence until marriage in her world, of course Susan would find the whole concept daunting.
Soon two married servants (Montserrat Julió, Ángel Lombarte) and their 12-year-old daughter, Carol (Rosa M. Rodriguez), all enter the story. They along with a sprawling manor denote the groom’s immense wealth and power. Francoist Spain was a largely oppressive state, but the economy began to recover and later thrive sometime in the 1960s years after the Spanish Civil War set the country back. Of course it was the bourgeois who benefited from this financial spike, while much like women the poor were yet another victim of the new normal.
The husband wastes no time in consummating the marriage; he rips the bride’s garments off like the assailant from earlier. Susan’s dread toward sex with a man is valid as she becomes nothing more than a plaything for her aggressive and lustful husband. He grabs Susan by the hair, repeatedly shoves her to the ground, and pressures her into fellating him outdoors. As to be expected, Susan is feeling trapped. Her emotional claustrophobia is echoed in two physical scenes; one has the groom shooting a fox caught in a foothold trap, and the other shows Susan enclosed in the house’s aviary while her husband skulks outside like a hungry predator. Aranda makes every effort to underline these two characters’ disparate personalities and roles.
Andreu’s character being nameless, other than “El” in the closing credits, makes him less of an individual and more like a personification of the Francoist patriarchy. It is through him Aranda points out how men of the era were directly treating women, or how they were maintaining the status quo. The oppression of Susan comes from all sides; the groom has help from others. Carol’s mother as well as a doctor (Dean Selmier) each play a part in Susan’s subjection. The servant is forthcoming with information out of sheer compliance, and the doctor both sedates his patient and reports her comings and goings back to the husband. There is little support for Susan until she meets the woman in the purple dress.
Susan does not realize an ethereal blond woman (Alexandra Bastedo) has followed her from the hotel. This lurking stranger bears a striking resemblance to the groom’s distant ancestor Mircala Karstein, whose likeness can be found in a faceless painting down in the basement. The intruder initially comes to Susan in her dreams and offers a knife to kill her husband. As ominous as a spectral stalker and an accomplice to murder sound, there is an eerie sense of comfort to Bastedo’s character, especially when compared to the brutish husband. She turns out to be a vampire in those dreams, but her bite appears gentle. On the receiving end, Susan grows increasingly receptive to the woman’s advances.
Classic monsters — mummies, werewolves, Frankenstein’s creation — lack the natural allure of vampires. A vampire’s arousal and pleasure are tied to the horror they inflict; their feeding can be seen as a sexual act. On top of that, their many victims can be of any gender. This aspect in tandem with the obvious fearing of sexuality is partly why the vampire has been long associated with queerness. In fact, Aranda drew from Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal lesbian vampire story Carmilla when writing The Blood Spattered Bride, although the title character now acts more like a protector of women.
Liberal thought in Spain was largely silenced by the time this film was released. The “antisocial” were further targeted by the 1970 social danger law, which replaced an older vagrancy law. This new law criminalizing queerness led to thousands of people being incarcerated and punished. Their criminal status remained intact for years to come. So, it seems like Aranda was playing with fire by including intimate scenes between two women, yet the film’s alternate endings cater to different beliefs. One conclusion sees to the punishment of lesbianism and rebellion, while the other implies the dismantling of patriarchal rule is far from over.
So while Susan and Mircala (an anagram for Carmila) are certainly victims in the story, they are neither victimized by the filmmaker, nor are they exploited for entertainment. Their situation is a dense reflection of what was currently going on or was once deemed acceptable in Francoist society. And regarding the groom’s reaction to the sight of Susan with Mircala, another outdated Spanish law comes to mind. There was a time when husbands and fathers were legally allowed to murder their wives and daughters if they engaged in anything considered adulterous.
The Blood Spattered Bride is a model example of how to seamlessly and cleverly add political commentary to a genre film. Not only are the themes well crafted, they can exist without dominating the story or distracting the audience. On the surface, this is another rewarding entry in the lesbian vampire subgenre; a deeper look will reveal a progressive and cathartic film that sheds light on a dark period of Spanish history.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.