Classics, comment, Movies

When the monsters got you

With the release on DVD and Blu Ray of Jim Jarmusch’s woozily indulgent and chemically intoxicating existential vampire romantic comedy Only Lovers Left Alive (which I review here) the time is ripe for me wipe away the cobwebs, enter my blogger’s crypt, blow the dust of the lid and prise open the coffin of this undead archive feature on the vampire in film.

There is simply no more enduring monster in the horror genre than the vampire. That putrid late twentieth century pretender the zombie may have mounted a spirited campaign to usurp the vamp, but ultimately what is a zombie but a less gentile and refined distant cousin with messier table manners.

The zombie – as we know it – is a relatively recent creation, traceable to George A. Romero, whose original ‘… of the Dead’ trilogy is the zombie urtext. Deviating from what is practically a Platonic form (albeit a rotting one) causes filmmakers all sort of issues. And don’t give me any of that voodoo crap, the modern zombie shares only its name with that set of beliefs and films such as White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie, Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies, and the more recent The Serpent and the Rainbow. No, in the monster version of rock, paper, stone, the vampire wins every time.

What makes the vampire myth so resilient is that it not only taps into some of our darkest fears (sexuality, death, corruption, addiction), but also that it expresses our repressed desires (sexuality, eternal life, eternal youth). Drawing from a great well of tropes and conventions formed by mythology, religion and literature the cinematic vampire is capable of being villain or hero, angel or demon, antagonist or protagonist.

The vampire, being so much older that the zombie, is much more adaptable. You might want to argue Stoker (or Polidori if you want to show off your literary cred) created the modern image of the vampire. You would however be quite wrong. It was the movies that made the vampire. Stoker’s Dracula is actually quite different from the popular conception of the character. For instance Stoker’s Count is quite capable of walking in daylight (and he had halitosis). The truth is, so long as you pick a few of the best known vampire characteristics, you can drop the rest and feel free to invent a few of your own.

Although it was of course Todd Browning’s 1931 Universal production of Dracula that gave us the iconic vision of that character. If asked to think of Dracula, Bela Lugosi’s image is one of two possibilities that 99% of people will mentally reach for. The cape, the penguin suit, the rubber bat in the moonlight, that extraordinary accent. In truth, after a great opening 15 minutes Browning’s film is difficult to enjoy today. Based on a stage production, it is stiff, slow, lacks pace and it takes extraordinary liberties with the source novel. Lugosi doesn’t bite anyone, and the climax happens off-camera. Vastly important to the development of the horror genre on film it may be, but to my modern sensibilities it isn’t a particularly interesting film in and of itself.

However Browning and Lugosi’s version of the character forged a mould for for the monster that held strong for the next thirty years eventually fading into parody along with the entire horror genre in the 40s and 50s. The post-war years were generally rather poor for the genre, especially in the US. Arguably
the significant fears of those decades were better expressed in science fiction films which hysterically explored the Atomic Age, and more insidiously in Film Noir a style pioneered chiefly by immigrant European directors many of whom had fled the Nazi’s.

Horror however is a genre that speaks to a part of us that never goes truly out of fashion, it exploits the constant battle between the id and the super-ego, it whispers to the inner child terrified of things under the bed. Horror allows the id to rampage in the dark of a cinema wearing a hockey mask. Horror, is always there, at its weakest it is merely sleeping, awaiting a drop of resuscitating BLOOD.

In 1955 the genre reanimated in England when Hammer Studios released The Quatermass Xperiment. Although it’s a science fiction film, its success led first to Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) which was a notable hit in the US, then to the return of the Count himself in a sleek and deadly new form with Dracula (1958). This is the second version of the character that most people with think of. Tall, imposing Christopher Lee, eyes bloodshot, fangs bared, advancing upon an entranced female. These films exploited loosening censorship with thick red blood and unfettered sexuality (yes, I mean heaving bosoms). If there are three great ages of cinematic horror (so far), Universal owned the first age, Hammer ushered in the second age, and Night of the Living Dead the third.

Night of the Living Dead brought the usurper, the zombie. Romero’s film also ushered in a modern age of horror where the old amulets and wards against darkness lost their power. The priest with the crucifix seemed outmoded against the modern horrors of the nineteen seventies. However the vampire was biding it’s time. Occasionally camping it up in films like Hammer’s terrible Dracula AD 1972, Count Yorga, or Love At First Bite. But zombies don’t move us in the same way. Then AIDS arrived and sex and blood became something to fear again. The vampire became both a symbol of disease to fear, but in a society that more and more venerated youth and beauty, it also became an aspirational and romantic figure.

What follows is a list of my favourite vampire films, these are films that all in my opinion brought some innovation to the vampire not merely regurgitate previous hits. I’m going to try and tease this out in the following suggestions.

Nosferatu (1922)

F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, unofficially based on Stoker’s novel (not unofficially enough to stop Stoker’s estate from nearly suing the film out of existence) is far, far more memorable and effective than Browning’s version. Count Orlok as played by Max Schreck is a truly repulsive vampire, ratfaced, with talons but ultimately a pathetic creature undone by the selfless sacrifice of a pure hearted woman. There are many iconic sequences, but a standout is the cursed voyage of the schooner that carries Orlok and hordes of plague ridden rats to Wisborg. Still effective to this day it is a masterpiece

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Since Hammer resuscitated the vampire genre with a huge helping of sex, European vampire movies more further and further into the erotic. In fact in many of the films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin they moved into full-on smut. However the Citizen Kane of sapphic bloodsucker films is this dreamy melange of art and exploitation from director Harry Kumel. Loosely inspired by historical serial killer Elisabeth Bathory, and set in a largely deserted hotel on Ostend, the picture concerns a young married couple who fall under the spell of a world weary Countess and her ‘secretary’. Gorgeous and featuring a spellbinding performance by Delphine Seyrig as the Countess, Deitrich couldn’t have played the part better, Daughters of Darkness is a clear influence on Tony Scott’s utterly vacuous The Hunger (1983).

Vampire Circus (1972)

Of the late period Hammer films this is one of my favourites. It has a strange fairytale quality, as a medieval village is isolated by plague and targeted by a curse after they kill a vampire. Years later a circus arrives, but one of the performers is another vampire bent on revenge. This film scared me stupid as a child, despite several attempts I could never get past the opening scene where a child alone in the woods stumbles upon a vampire’s mansion. I didn’t properly see it until I was in my twenties, and it still managed to produce some quality shivers. Also features one of my favourite vampire killings, involving an unloaded crossbow.

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974)

Another late period Hammer movie, one of two written by The Avengers and The Professionals writer Brian Clemens. The other was the spectacularly perverse Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971). In this case Clemens also directed and in combining the vampire movie with Errol Flynn style swashbuckling created a template for a Vampire butt-kicking action hero that would lead to Blade, Buffy Summers, and Angel.

Martin (1976)

One of two movies in the list that (spoiler) don’t actually have a vampire in it. Martin is a brilliant but brutally depressing film about mental illness. Written and directed by George A. Romero – taking a break from the zombies – Martin follows a young man with obvious mental health issues who believes he is a vampire. His lush romantic B&W dreams of a gothic past are horribly contrasted with the present as he acts upon his impulses by drugging women before cutting into their arteries and messily drinking their blood. Great but sparingly used gore effects by Tom Savini.

Rabid (1977)

The first, and by lightyears the best, science fiction twist on the vampire in this list. Rabid is one of David Cronenberg’s ‘early squishy ones’. Following a near fatal motorcycle accident, a young woman (played by hardcore star Marilyn Chambers) is subject to a radical medical technique involving synthetic skin grafts. Unfortunately there is a major side effect when she grows a needle tipped penis out of an anus in her armpit and starts sucking other people’s
blood. This isn’t gross enough for Cronenberg, so she also spreads a deadly plague that causes the infected to run amok. Cronenberg neatly provides a bridge from vampire to zombie and surgically removes any trace of gothic romance. Interestingly the Canadian director’s first choice for the role was a then unknown Sissy Spacek, however his producer Ivan Reitman (yes, that one) didn’t think she was ‘fuckable’ enough and insisted on Chambers. In the event, she is rather good in the role.

Lifeforce (1985)

Or as I call it Lifefarce. Tobe Hooper’s vastly expensive hot naked vampires from space movie was a huge flop. If you have ever wondered what a $100 million episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace would look like, wonder no more. The film pretty much killed Hooper’s then promising Hollywood career stone dead.

Near Dark (1987)

Katherine Bigelow’s film is so good it manages to survive having one of the duffest endings ever and is still be convincingly hailed as a classic. Bigelow and screenwriter Eric Red combine the horror movie with the western and come up with a bloody and exciting spin on the genre. Bill Paxton has never been cooler than as leather clad asshole vampire Severen, especially when he whines ‘I hate it when they ain’t been shaved’ before tucking into a side order of biker. The highlight is a great daylight shootout between vampires and cops where the bullets are ineffectual but the shafts of sunlight they punch into the vamps’ hideout are deadly.

Mr. Vampire (1985)

I wish I had more examples, but my knowledge of foreign genre cinema lets me down, however this hilarious martial arts comedy is a great example of the eastern vampire tradition. Bizarre to western eyes, Chinese vampires don’t walk or glide, they hop. This is a reminder that vampire lore has analogues across many cultures.

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

The second (spoiler) vampire film with no vampires in it. This very strange movie can’t really decide if it is trying to be disturbing or funny, but it features possibly the single most over-the-top performance ever delivered by Nicholas Cage. Cage plays an unstable yuppie who is bitten by Jennifer Beals one night and thinks he’s become a vampire. Cage ate a live cockroach on camera for this. Boo hoo, boo hoo.

Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989)

Director Anthony Hickox directed a trio of unjustly forgotten horror films in the late eighties/early nineties, two Waxwork films in 1988 and 1992 and this vampire/western/comedy in the middle. Brice Campbell plays a descendent of Abraham Van Helsing hunting vampires in New Mexico (maybe Arizona), he comes up against a ghost town populated by vampires led by Jozek Mardulak (David Carradine). This is a great little movie, and it has a really interesting ending which I couldn’t possibly give away.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Anne Rice’s vampire novels were absolutely massive in the eighties, Rice brought gothic romance to the fore, practically creating the dark romance literary genre although still writing primarily for adults and including quite a lot of pretty perverse material. Neil Jordan’s film of the first and best of her Vampire Chronicles novels was controversial from the start when he cast Tom Cruise in the role of vampire anti-hero Lestat. Rice herself condemned the casting and the movie, only to dramatically recant when she actually saw it.

Interview with the Vampire was one of the first films to realise that the fascination with vampires was such that it wasn’t really necessary to have any human characters at all. It is also, and I mean this genuinely and not in any kind of snarky way, one of the gayest genre films ever made. Seriously Cruise and Brad Pitt may as well be in a darker bloodier version of Le Cage Aux Folles.

Critic Alexander Walker didn’t like the film much saying it ‘…uses the traditional trappings of vampire legend as licence for its own fixation on an array of modern perversions it would be hard to get permission to show if they were performed in modern dress ands contemporary times.’ Producer Stephen Woolley sent him a thank you note for the review.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Robert Rodriguez produces one of his best movies here. Thanks to a Quentin Tarantino script, the film is blessed with a cast of a far higher caliber than one would expect to see in what is basically a lurid exploitation movie. FDTD is a delirious crime/horror hybrid that plays out for almost half it’s running time as a tense thriller in the mould of Reservoir Dogs before turning into a splattery and OTT vampire movie largely set in a Mexican brothel. I’m not sure anyone has ever been cooler than George Clooney in this movie.

Blade (1998)

Okay, Blade is actually not very good, and yes, Wesley Snipes does look like a bit of a tool BUT the first 15 minutes are fantastic and the movie features the vampire nightclub scene to end all vampire nightclub scenes.

Let The Right One In (2008)

One of the best films, genre or otherwise, of the new millennium. This Swedish vampire tale is truly moving and genuinely frightening. The topic of vampire children is well explored in Interview with the Vampire, but here it is the entire focus. The approach is best summed up in a line of dialogue from the vampire character Eli “I’m twelve. I’ve been twelve for a very long time”. If you haven’t seen it see it now. There is a decent but redundant American remake. Proceed straight to the original.

Thirst (2009)

Unlike Mr. Vampire, Chan-wook Park’s Korean vampire tale is dripping with Christian iconography. A young priest selflessly joins a medical experiment
whilst a missionary in Africa. Unfortunately the experiment fails, and afflicts him with a vampiric virus. Returning home to Korea his illness compels him to drink blood, something he finds physically and spiritually repulsive. However he falls into a downward spiral after falling for a married woman and their mutual attraction causes all manner of violent grief. This is a visually striking film and a serious meditation on the nature of good and evil.

The Twilight Saga (2008-2012)

I know okay, and I don’t care. The Twilight films appeal primarily to an audience of teenage girls looking for swooning gothic romance and a film that like, really gets them like totally. The object of derision from fanboys (ironic, since fanboy fave The Lost Boys is exactly the same sort of thing for teenage boys) and the sort of hipster wankers who think the Razzies are funny the films are perfectly okay (apart for the mind numbingly boring New Moon). Sparkly vampires? So what, what’s wrong with that? As mentioned fucking DRACULA walks around in sunlight so get over it!

Rant over. As movies they are daft, but fun, and all genre fans start somewhere. If you don’t want to watch them don’t, but please shut up about it and stop getting bent out of shape when someone dares to take a pop at your favourite galactical war movies (that’s called hypocrisy). Twilight is not taking away or diminishing the horror genre, continually paying to see rubbish Resident Evil films and bad 3D remakes is, and it seems to me that the people tediously picking on these films are largely the people doing that.

Stake Land (2010)

A post apocalyptic film that reduces vampires to thoughtless ghouls almost indistinguishable from zombies, except they are super fast, and super deadly. Despite a low budget Jim Mickle’s excellent horror movie creates a convincing post apocalyptic America by using only rural locations and finding a variety of deserted and crumbling locations. There is a terrific performance from Kelly McGillis as a nun, and a brilliant scene where a survivor camp is decimated by vampires being dropped out of a helicopter. If you can’t stomach the sparkly vampires, this grim and relentless movie is a perfect alternative.

Byzantium (2012)

A second movie from director Neil Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley, Byzantium has a lot going for it. First there is a literate and thoughtful script by Moira Buffini (adapting her own play), a great cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley and Caleb Landry Jones, and Jordan’s often striking visuals. The film comes up with some interesting twists on vampire lore (fangs are replaced by deadly razor sharp thumbnails) and an especially interesting and potent origin that as the title suggests looks back to Greek and Roman mythology. Arterton also rocks a truly awe-inspiringly slutty wardrobe in the film. The slow pace will alienate some, but vampire fans should enjoy this greatly, the darker gothic romance may also be the perfect next step for the Twilight generation.

And there you have it, no doubt there are classics forgotten and a few I haven’t seen. But for the record one of those isn’t The Lost Boys, I haven’t included that because it’s crap.

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