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Introduction to Vampire Movies; or The History of Vampire Movies
My interest in this article is exclusively in vampire cinema. Vampire novels of course predate cinema and even furnish the content of the first vampire films (e.g. Dracula for Nosferatu, "Carmilla" for Vampyr). Vampire literature is a subject for another day. Vampire movies followed their own path. I will be highlighting key films the student of vampire movies should watch and placing them in their appropriate generic context. By 'generic context' I mean the inevitable progress and permutation a genre must undergo throughout history. Any film genre is composed of various structures, narratological and visual tropes, and character archetypes, all of which we might broadly call a 'formula.' As a genre becomes stagnant, a critical eye will eventually be turned upon the formula. The genre is then revitalized by what was learned under critique. It's a Hegelian sort of progress, with the formula as thesis, the critique as antithesis, and the renewed formula as synthesis. I will consequently look at vampire films in three sections, corresponding to the stages of the genre.
F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Universal Studios' Dracula (1931), both adaptations of the novel Dracula, were responsible for establishing much of the structure and most of the tropes of the vampire film. Nosferatu is the first vampire feature and as such there was no cinematic vampire genre at the time of its creation. The visual ideas Murnau employed, such as the vampire springing from his coffin and the Gothic imagery, became standards of the genre. This influenced Tod Browning's direction of Dracula, with its cobweb-strewn and armadillo-infested castle. (Actually, the armadilloes are unique to Browning's vision and are a frankly surreal touch.) What Universal added to the formula is the vampire slayer, Van Helsing, and a more byronic, Romantic vision of the vampire. Nosferatu focused on the vampire's predatory activity and prey's ability to triumph through love; whereas Dracula's structure focuses upon the slaying of the malevolent being. Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), though a highly idiosyncratic masterpiece and very probably the greatest of all vampire films, also employed many tropes that have become fixtures in the genre, including the seduction of beautiful, young women and the ultimate staking scene.
With these three great films, all of considerable artistic value, the generic conventions of the vampire film were established. Since the hard work of creating the cinematic approach to the vampire narrative had already been done, making formulaic vampire films became feasible. Thus we get Universal's follow-ups, Dracula's Daughter (1936) and Son of Dracula (1943). Dracula's Daughter dripped Gothicism, with its primordial fogs, Byronic heroine who pines to be free of her vampiric curse, and the character Sandor who dresses in all black and longs to be made a vampire. The next truly significant vampire film isn't until Hammer Studios' first Dracula film, Horror of Dracula (1958). By this point, the Gothicism of the vampire genre is utterly crystalized. Every vampire film seems to consist in beautiful, corsetted damsels in distress pursued by handsome vampires, while her human love interest seeks out the vampire's lair in order to destroy it. Hammer produced several vampire films of this formula that are worth watching, including many of their Dracula series: The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), and Scars of Dracula (1970); and some non-Dracula vampire films, the best of which is Kiss of the Vampire (1963).
The apogee of Gothic vampire films is not with Hammer, however, but with Italian maestro Mario Bava. His masterpiece Black Sunday (1960) is simply one of the finest vampire films ever made and the film that sparked the Italian wave of Gothic films. As if that weren't enough, Bava's anthology film Black Sabbath (1963) includes a segment, "The Wurdulak", that easily ranks, alongside Dreyer's Vampyr, as amongst the eeriest vampire stories in cinematic history.
By 1970 the formula had become somewhat tired and predictable; stagnating to the point of decadence, it was indulging in its own Gothicism without any of the vitality that imbued say Dracula's Daughter. How can Christopher Lee baring his teeth and hissing be taken seriously when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is about to be iand Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast (1963) already has been inflicted upon the world?
Well, the answer is it can't. That's why the traditional vampire film began to parody itself. The final nail in the coffin, if you'll pardon the pun, was Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), a film that pushed the vampire conventions into self-parodical camp. Al Adamson's The Blood of Dracula's Castle (1969) did likewise, turning Dracula into an effete Gomez Addams sort of character. Hammer was trying its best to sustain their Dracula series, with updates like Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), but it didn't work. The Satanic Rites of Dracula is still recommended viewing for the sheer wildness of its exploitational energy and ideas; had Hammer pushed that envelope a little further, they may have succeeded. The full extent to which the traditional vampire film had become a joke can be seen in The Vampire Happening (1971), a film that declared itself in its tagline, "The Adult Vampire Sex Comedy!" That's exactly what it is: a vampire sex comedy, obviously owing much to The Fearless Vampire Killers, but cranking it up to 11. It is easily the campest vampire film ever made and quite amusing in its own way.
Once the vampire genre had become ridiculous even to itself, the only option other than wallowing in the decadence, which is to say, camp, was to turn a critical eye to the formula and its tropes. Thus arose the critical, or radical, vampire films. The first important critical vampire film is Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). The film uses the tropes of vampire films to tell the surreal story of Valerie's pubscence. Every male authority figure (bishop, constable, father) is consolidated in a single figure, the vampire Polecat, who turns the adult world in a predatory mass of vampires out for Valerie's magic earrings. In using vampire tropes in this way, the film also calls attention to and comments upon the imagery and narrative tropes of Gothic vampire films themselves.
With Valerie, the supernaturalism of the vampire film is pushed to reality-bending surrealism. A much more common route, however, was to set the once supernatural foundations of vampirism upon scientific grounds. The first film to do this seriously is Moctezuma's Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975). A sort of modern take on Dracula's Daughter, a vampire woman struggles to live a normal life while she can't resist the bloodlust she inherited from her father. That bloodlust arises from a genetic mutation that causes her blood vessels to continue growing within her body; if she doesn't injest blood--by cutting jugulars and lapping the blood up--her veins aren't filled and she will die. The science is preposterous, but still science. David Cronenberg's Rabid (1977) took an even wilder route. A woman in a motorcycle crash is implanted with an artificially-grown organ that saves her life. The organ, however, requires the blood of others to survive and fills her with the insatiable thirst for blood, which the organ absorbs from a spike under her arm. The most radical of all scientific vampire films, however, is Thirst (1979), a masterpiece of the Australian New Wave. In Thirst, vampires are a group of people who, although bearing no evident difference from normal humans, believe themselves a superior race entitled to their diet of blood. They have high-tech 'dairies' where humans are kept and routinely 'milked' for blood that can then be pasteurized of impurities.
Perhaps the most unique of all the vampire films of this period is George Romero's Martin (1977). Martin never makes clear whether its vampire is in fact a vampire or merely a disturbed young man. Yet, the film plays out like any vampire film, culminating with a staking by a vampire hunter. The ambiguities of the film leave a lot of moral questions lingering in the viewer's mind, as well as a lot of questions about vampire films themselves. Martin the character and the vampire hunter, after all, are people who have been dangerously influenced by vampire legends (i.e. vampire movies).
In the same style as Martin is John Hancock's Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971). A slow film about a woman, Jessica, who is recovering from a bout with madness and is brought out to a small lakeside town with her husband and friends to aid in her recuperation. When they discover in the house young, female squatter who resembles a girl in some old photos, the strangely hostile town and the attraction of Jessica's male companions to the girl takes on sinister implications. Either the girl is a vampire queen or Jessica is gone totally mad.
Another form of critical vampire film to arise in the '70s is the lesbian vampire film. Several of these are of high artistic value and worth watching. The lesbian connotation of female vampires had been around as early as Sheridan le Fanu's "Carmilla" and Coleridge's poem "Cristabel". The first film to explore this implication was Dreyer's Vampyr, which was based upon le Fanu's writings. Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness (1971), Jess Franco's Vampiros Lesbos (1971), Richard Blackburn's Lemora (1973), and the films of Jean Rollin, particularly Fascination (1979), are the best of the lesbian vampire films.
The completist will want to take account, as well, of Ingmar Bergman's films of the '60s. Bergman was keen on the imagery and tropes of horror cinema, especially vampires--no doubt inspired by Carl Dreyer's Vampyr most of all--and introduced the tropes into his dark dramas. Persona (1966) is a surreal drama about two women on an island, one of whom seems to be vampirically stealing the personality of the other. More blatant, however, is the Bela Lugosi look-alike who haunts the castle in Hour of the Wolf (1968).
Also worthy of note is the avant-garde film Cuadecuc, vampir (1970). Ostensibly a behind-the-scenes documentary of Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970), director Pere Portabella actually edits the footage so the documentary tells the story of Dracula itself while simultaneously exposing all the trickery that makes Dracula a force of terror. For instance, we see production assistants spraying cobwebs over Dracula (Christopher Lee) in his coffin. Naturally, the film ends with the staking of Dracula, not depicted visually, but with Christopher Lee in his dressing room simply reading the passage from the novel. Portabella's purpose was to expose the facade of fascists, specifically Francisco Franco, as beings created purely out of trickery and lacking any genuine power.
Except for one sole straggler of radical vampire films, Tobe Hooper's insane Lifeforce (1985), the critical vampire film stage had reached its limit by the '80s. One film marks the renewal of Gothic vampirism without its old innocence: Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985). All the self-consciousness of the critical vampire films and all the Gothic fun of the original vampire films are beautifully wed in Fright Night. A vampire moves into an impossibly castle-esque home in the suburbs next door to a young horror film fan, Charlie Brewster. When Charlie notices the coffin being carried into the basement, his knowledge of vampire films comes in useful. He also naively tries to enlist the aid of Peter Vincent (that's Peter Cushing + Vincent Price), a retired star of Hammer horror films, to slay the vampire. Vincent of course believes Charlie is insane. Thus the cynical, post-critique modern era is put face-to-face with a genuine, Gothic vampire (seductive Chris Sarandon), just as the film itself puts both styles face to face. The sequel, Fright Night Part II (1988), while not quite as masterful, is still worth seeing as it manages to once again pull off the same sort of conflict.
Where Fright Night took both an ironic and sexual approach to vampires, subsequent new vampire films tended to choose one or the other. Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) exploited the comic element, setting a cynical Valley Girl against an old-fashioned Hammer-style vampire, Lothos. Films like Vamp (1986), starring Grace Jones as a vampiric nightclub owner/stripper, exploited the sexuality to a high degree. Vamp doubtless had an influence on Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), also set in a strip club and also very sexy. In the same year, the just barely-worth-seeing Bordello of Blood (1996) was released. In a tip-of-the-hat to Fright Night, Chris Sarandon plays the films suspicious priest. Several other wild, sexploitational vampire films were made in this period, but few are worth seeing.
There were, however, more serious approaches to integrating critique with tradition. Predating Fright Night by six years is Tobe Hooper's made-for-TV movie Salem's Lot (1979). The film involves a writer who comes to his small town home out of fascination for a creepy mansion and finds himself up against a Nosferatu-style vampire that's been hibernating there. Like Fright Night, Salem's Lot depends upon a bubbling forth of old Gothic terror in a modern setting familiar with vampire movies but unfamiliar with and cynical about the reality of vampires. Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987) was even more modern, setting its vampires in a dusty, Western setting and treating the vampirism as a disease curable by transfusion. The vampires themselves are closer to a gang of criminals than to the suave traditional vampires. Yet all the traditional tricks, particularly sunlight, still apply. Schumacher's The Lost Boys (1987), about a gang of teenage boy vampires, albeit considerably lighter in tone, is of the same mode as Near Dark. Recommened films in the same style are Larry Fessenden's Habit (1996) and Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995).
Two attempts at upgrading some Universal classics are worthy of note. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), from Francis Ford Coppola, is something of a masterpiece, telling the Dracula story with renewed confidence in decadent Gothicism and hyper-awareness of critical positions on the vampire film. Almereyda's Nadja (1994) is the other, a very arthouse update of Dracula's Daughter, utilizing archival footage of Bela Lugosi and an aged hippie Van Helsing played by Peter Fonda. Nadja herself, Dracula's daughter, is a lesbian. There are also blood transfusions in the tradition of Near Dark. Yet they ultimately end up in a Gothic, expressionistically-shot castle in Transylvania no less.
On the other hand, some filmmakers reacted to the critical vampire films of the '70s by self-consciously immersing themselves in the most decadent Gothicism, beyond even Hammer's worst. The first of these is the Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire (1994). Queen of the Damned (2001) followed. Out of these there also developed a very peculiar direction, the 'epic' vampire film, which fuses the Gothicism with action found in such films as John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) and Dracula 2000 (2000). Some examples of the epic vampire film are Van Helsing (2004), Underworld (2003), and Nightwatch (2004). These films have more in common with old, somewhat goofy cross-overs, like House of Dracula (1945), Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), both of which included the Wolfman, Dracula, and Frankenstein's monster.
As the best vampire film of the 2000s stands E. Elias Merhige's unique Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which reaches back to the first vampire film, Nosferatu, and postulates, that Max Shreck, who played the vampire in Nosferatu, is in fact a real vampire.
A few other films tend not to fit so comfortably within the general pattern vampire films have taken. These films are usually the product of idiosyncratic artists. For instance, during the height of the critical vampire film, Werner Herzog, who claimed never to have even seen a horror film, made an exquisitely Gothic vampire film in his remake of Nosferatu, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979). The closest fit in the above history is to see the film as an ahead-of-its-time New vampire film.
And Ken Russell made two hidden gems of vampirism in the '80s that stand outside of the tradition as surely as Ingmar Bergman's films do. The first is
Gothic (1986), only loosely a vampire film, concerns the night Lord
Byron, the Shelleys, and Polidori got together and Byron's mansion, a
night that resulted in both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Polidori's
The Vampyre. The second is Lair of the White Worm (1988), an adaptation
of another Bram Stoker novel concerning a vampiric snakewoman looking
for sacrifices to Dionin the Worm God. Russell's Lisztomania (1975)also represents Richard Wagner as a vampire, preying on all Liszt loves. Fortunately Liszt is able to destroy the vampiric zombie Wagner with his spaceship. Indeed.
There are also vampire films from Asia. In the '60s there were several 'vampire cat' films, the cats all being ghost women who behaved in catlike ways. The Black Cat (1968) is one of the best of these films and highly worth tracking down. The film contains exceptional poetry. A tradition unique to Asia as well is the 'hopping vampire.' My expertise does not extend to these films, though Mr. Vampire (1985) is recommended as the pre-eminent hopping vampire film. The animated post-apocalyptic vampire film Vampire Hunter D (1985), which fits quite well in as a New vampire film, is recommended for its visuals and engagement with the story of Dracula.
Jared Roberts. A Classic: Thirst (1979). <http://www.lairoftheboyg.com/2010/04/classic-thirst-1979-nr.html>. 2010.
Arthur Windermere. A life spent watching loads of horror movies.
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