Let’s Vamp: A History of Bloodsucker Cinema
With the end of the Twilight Saga looming near (unmercifully late in my opinion, but then again, as someone with good taste, I am clearly not the producer’s target demographic), it is time to check out the progression of Vampire movies throughout the history de cinema! Now, with this genre containing, literally, HUNDREDS of films, it would be silly, boring and damn near impossible to list them all and have a discussion that was short enough to fit into an article of this nature. So, I have broken the bloodsuckers down into four groups: Classic, New Wave, Modern and Terrifying. Chronology doesn’t have much to do with the categorization so much as the tone of the pictures mentioned. There are certain vampire movies that just feel different than others (picture the stark contrast between Max Schreck and Brad Pitt, and you’ll see what I mean).
This is an important distinction. Each subgenre has different “rules” for the sometimes sexy, hopefully scary, and always interesting blood-drinking scourge. And away we go…
The Classic Vampire films (as I have defined them for our purposes here) are the ones that involve what most of us have learned from an early age, either through literary novels or late-night movies. Debonair chaps in capes with widows peaks, pearly fangs and a penchant for hesitating right before they dive into a pretty girl’s slender, always uncovered neck. These Vampires are bound by the typical rules:
*Weakness to garlic, crosses, stakes through the heart, sunlight, and guys named Van Helsing.
*The ability to transform into a bat, a wolf, or mist.
*A compulsive need to rent dilapidated castles.
They generally take most, if not all, of their source material from the 1897 novel Dracula by the groundbreaking Irish author Bram Stoker. They also feature actors who define the role in very intense yet strangely similar ways.
Dracula (1931) – Bela Lugosi in a (sadly) career-defining role.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) – Christopher Lee making the impossible (60′s hair and make-up) actually attractive/scary.
Dracula (1979) – Frank Langella doing his best to keep the gothic tradition alive.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – Gary Oldman. A show-stopping, beyond-brilliant performance from one of the best actors taking on one of the best villains.
Each one of these portrayals of the infamous count is legendary in their own right. But they are classic in the sense that the old-school rules apply to them, as does the more than slightly Euro-trash aspect of their vampire appearance.
There was quite a while (the entire 1950s, 60s & 70s) where Vampire movies fell out of fashion. Horror movies moved more towards alien-invading, body-snatching sci-fi when it came to scaring the public. And let’s face it; horror movies have always been, if nothing else, a reflection of societies fears blasted onto the silver screen. And the few Vampire movies that existed (Hammer, etc.) were just kind of there. Then came…the 80s! And for vampires, the 80s were totally awesome!
There has been debate as to whether or not the AIDS epidemic contributed to the re-birth of Vampire movies (the whole fear of blood and the obvious sexual overtones of just about EVERY Vampire film), but that point is moot. It was a time when any guy with one tattoo (right, I said ONE), an earring, a motorcycle, and tickets to see L.A. Guns open for Jane’s Addiction was also dangerous enough to be a Vampire. The following films are some of the best examples of the Vampire culture coming back from the dead (I know, at least I didn’t use the obvious “suck” pun). And, hey! A new set of rules!
*Religious trinkets don’t bother the ghouls — in fact, they embrace them.
*They’ve moved into regular society, generally middle class, mostly-white neighborhoods.
*Sunlight is still the end all, say all, way to defeat them.
Near Dark (1987) – Great, atmospheric, western-gothic Vampire piece starring Lance Henrikson and Bill Paxton at the top of their game.
Fright Night (1985) – Tom Holland’s story about a Vampire who moves next door and the teen who discovers his identity (of course, no one believes him). 80s empty suburbia at it’s best!
The Hunger (1983) – Susan Sarandon, Katherine Deneuve and David Bowie in a kinky Vampire movie that opens with Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Yep!
The Lost Boys (1987) – The Coreys (Feldman and Haim) take on Kiefer Sutherland and his band of motorcycle-riding, rock-and-rolling Vampires in Northern California. Unapologetic undead awesomeness!
From Dusk ’til Dawn (1996) – Yeah, not in the 80′s, but still in the 80s style: very sexy and very deadly. Plus, the desert wasteland makes for a great metaphor about thirst.
John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)- Same theme as Dusk but with a more comic book feel, this was the last of the New Wave Vampires movies that anyone cared about. And James Woods.
These batch of Vampire films allowed Vampires to still be dangerous. Which is sad, because it would be the last time they were for quite a while…
Note: there is a movie by Richard Elfman called Modern Vampires (1998). You should not watch that movie. An attempt at combining the classic Vampire with the New Wave sexuality that people had become accustomed to, it did not work out as well as everyone had thought. Don’t get me wrong; some of these movies are good. Like Interview With The Vampire. Anne Rice even took back the horrible things she said about the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview after she saw his performance. But even Neil Jordan’s wonderful directing couldn’t help that particular picture from setting the stage for non-threatening Vampires for years to come in pop culture.
*Classic rules don’t matter. Only sunlight can kill them.
*Or, sunlight can only kill some of them.
Interview With The Vampire (1994) – Big names. Amazing cinematography. But when Vampires are this sexy, it’s hard to NOT want to be sucked dry by them.
Blade (1998) – Same bit, with a Marvel comics twist. There is little threat here as long as you don’t live in a poor neighborhood or are friends with Wesley Snipes, although the opening rave sequence is one of the top movie openings of all time!
Underworld (2003) – Same bit as Blade, with Kate Beckinsale in black leather standing in for Mr. Snipes. But this movie started a disturbing trend of Vampires concerning themselves with the politics between themselves and werewolves, and not primarily eating us humans.
Twilight (2008) – And then there’s this…
I am not going to rip the Twilight series apart (well, only a little). There are a myriad of fans who love it, and it is one of the most popular film series of all time. It is also responsible for making Vampires safe. That’s right. SAFE! They are no longer alley-stalking, euro-trash-wearing, punk-rocking murderers. Now, they choose to drink human or animal blood. They fall in love with bland, vanilla school girls whose only redeeming feature is that they are obsessed with the Vamps in their homeroom. They “sparkle” in the sunlight WHICH IS NO LONGER LETHAL TO THE UNDEAD! In fact, they are so powerful, that only other Vampires, or Werewolves, or whatever the hell Shape Shifters are, can kill them. Humans are no longer a threat. At all.
This begs too many questions to answer without further ranting. Except one. Why bother melding into society when you can clearly take it over? Maybe they answer this question in the books — I have not read them, nor do I care to. The point is Vampires, for centuries in our society and a century in our cinema, have been terrifying, and now, Hollywood has taken that away from us…
…or have they?
The following movies are ones you should only watch if you want to consider Vampires the stuff of nightmares again. Seriously. These are the films to view on Halloween after the kids have finished trick-or-treating and gone to bed, and you yourself are either fearless or with someone who won’t mock you for sleeping with the lights on.
Nosferatu (1922) – Max Schreck as the most harrowing Vampire EVER! That’s it. The relentless sense of dread and the atmospheric sets will make anyone with a pulse hurry to make sure there are no killer shadows creeping up their staircase!
30 Days of Night (2007) – Brutal. Harsh. Violent. F’ing SCARY! Stuck in a frozen Alaskan wasteland where the sun (their only means of defense against the monsters) is not coming back for 30 days, the survivors of a Vampire assault have to deal with the fact that they are completely screwed. And not by hot Vampires in tuxedos or leather pants. Oh no. By ugly, nasty predatory carnivores who only want to feast on their blood. As one of them says to a victim before he devours her, “God? No God. Only hunger. And pain.”
Let Me In (2010) – A sweet story about a lonely little girl who makes friends with a lonely little boy when she moves in next door. Except that she’s actually a bloodthirsty, ravenous Vampire who slaughters people while he becomes her sneaky servant. Brilliant and bone chilling. Yes, it’s a remake, and it is a damn good one.
So there it is. Vampire movies have started the long swing back from opposite end of the pendulum of safe guys/gals who happen to be dead, but if you are smart, tough or beautiful, you are safe. I for one can’t wait for the movies that point that out, because while I may be smart, tough and beautiful…I’d still be dead.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ian Murphy is not an actual Vampire, although he does like underground 80s music and is allergic to sunlight.