By Peter Donohue
Vampires are found in almost all pre-modern folklores. Originally they were shown as ghoulish figures, lurking in darkness to feed on the blood of unwary travelers or other innocents. As popular belief in vampires declined, 19th century novels reinvented the vampire as suave, erotic, but relentlessly evil. The most enduring of the novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), says that, “His action is based on selfishness, he confines himself to one purpose, and that purpose is remorseless.”
When my daughter, 4U Magazine editor Caitlin Donohue, asked me to contribute something to this issue, I decided I wanted to share my favorite vampire films. The ones I chose have not only influenced contemporary moviemakers, but viewers’ visions and nightmares as well.
According to the IMDb, there have been at least 2,000 movies and games featuring vampires. Dracula is in at least 231 movies; the only fictional character that has been in more is Sherlock Holmes.
Here are some I like, ordered by their theatrical release dates:
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
The first vampire movie ever made followed Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) so closely that Stoker’s wife successfully sued the movie producers for copyright infringement! In the settlement, all Nosferatu prints and negatives were to be destroyed but prints turned up later in other countries. Made before sound came to movies, Nosferatu’s simple, abstract design stars a frightening, ugly, anything but erotic title character played by Max Schreck (Schreck means ‘terror’ in German.)
The film’s clear, technically perfect look was made with Fritz Arno Wagner’s single camera. Director F.W. Murnau stuck closely to the shooting script and used a metronome to manage the actors’ timing. Unusual for silent movies, no title cards were used to tell the story. Instead Murnau relied on visual storytelling, deeply influencing John Ford and other filmmakers. Murnau later moved to the US and won the first Oscar for Best Picture for Sunrise (1927.)
This film was the introduction of the vampire as the frightening and erotic figure most familiar to today’s movie audiences. Where Schreck’s Nosferatu was disturbingly ugly, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula brought to film the sensual character he would perform on stage until his death in 1956.
Universal built huge, dramatic sets for the movie, shooting the English version by day and a Spanish version — that some claim is superior — by night. The sets were reused for years, giving the distinctive Universal look to a series of horror classics including seven (including five starring Lugosi) vampire movies. Except for the opening theme (from act two of Swan Lake), Dracula had no musical underscore as it was feared that audiences new to ‘talkies’ would not accept music without seeing its source in the film. Phillip Glass would later write a score for Dracula that debuted in 1999.
Lugosi’s performance is stunning. Karl Freund’s camera work recreated Dracula’s hypnotic stare by focusing two spotlights on Lugosi’s eyes. Shots were later edited so that the finished film never shows Lugosi blinking. Dracula is never shown entering a scene, he just appears, his presence often signaled by close-ups of Lugosi’s eyes. The stunning close shots put the vampire in the viewer’s face, proof of movies’ power to tell a story, even on the seven inch television screen through which Dracula’ mesmerized me as a kid.
After watching director Tod Browning’s first cut, Universal president Carl Laemmie Sr. said that the film “gave him the heebie-jeebies” — so he ordered the movie re-edited. Continuity errors resulted as shooting script pages were torn out by Laemmie’s budget-minded editor. The studio also cut a scene in which the vampire attacks a man for its perceived homoerotic subtext.
Vampyr: The Dream of Allen Gray (1932)
Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer shot this film with amateurs found on the streets of Paris (except for a female lead and the protagonist played by the film’s producer.) The film’s dreamy look was achieved by ‘flashing’ the film stock (partially exposing it to light) and by putting gauze in front of the camera’s lens. Following Dreyer’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), it was the director’s first talkie but still had little dialogue, relying on title cards to report characters’ feelings and thoughts.
Vampyr tells a story of a man in crisis, trying to cure two sisters dying apparently from infection. Leaving the mostly amateur actors to figure out their parts, Dreyer focuses on scenes’ composition, to suggest evil’s presence through Allen’s are-they-dreams-or-real visions. By withholding some of the scene’s elements, Vampyr builds tension, slowly revealing them like non-right-angled windows over the scene.
Watch Vampyr in a dark room, just before bedtime, to feel the full force of Dreyer’s recreation of a nightmare. Vampyr‘s suggestive, ambiguous, floating images fed a nightmare that repeated itself for me at least seven times over a few years after I saw the movie. Like Dreyer’s other works, it evokes the disillusionment, search for and loneliness of love.
The Horror of Dracula (1958)
This was Christopher Lee’s first starring role in five (of seven) Dracula films produced by Hammer Films using American financing, English and European actors, elegant locations and sets and glorious Eastmancolor. Hammer rejuvenated the vampire genre that, after Universal’s classic horror movies, had gone stale.
Lee was part of the abundance of underemployed talent in front of and behind the camera in postwar Europe. Director Terence Fisher was another who bounced between A and B movies before 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein made stars of Lee and Peter Cushing.
Instead of relying on shock effects, Fisher’s The Horror featured complex emotional interplay. Despite having only thirteen speaking lines, Lee’s acting skills and good looks made Dracula sexier than ever. The Horror of Dracula was the first English-speaking vampire movie with fangs (they’d been done a year before in a Mexican film.) Its exciting final battle between Lee and Cushing is done without any dialogue. Throwing in colorful gore – and, later, generous nudity – Hammer found a formula for horror that guarantees viewer enjoyment, even 60 years later, for viewers like me who find them infinitely rewatchable.
Lee recently passed away — time to see if he qualifies for undead status?
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
Roman Polanski’s first American-made feature is a horror comedy, beginning with the MGM lion morphing into a balding, green vampire. It is less remembered for its glowing colors and humor (when a crucifix is thrust at a Jewish vampire, he says, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”) as much as its star (Polanski’s wife) Sharon Tate’s murder by Charles Manson.
Sometimes characterized as a parody of Hammer’s luminous horror movies, The Fearless Vampire Killers is gorgeous, with beautiful snow covered exteriors, glowing interiors, handsome sets and colorful costumes that Polanski exploits to evoke childhood memories, real or imagined. With an excellent jazz score, the movie moves in fits and starts, building a sense of menace for viewers as well as for the professor and his assistant pursuing the vampire.
Polanski’s final edit displeased MGM and the studio cut 17 minutes from the movie while Polanski was busy shooting soon-to-be-a-hit Rosemary’s Baby. Unhappy with MGM’s cuts, Polanski pulled, then restored, in the ending credit roll, his acting credit.
The Fearless Vampire Killers was an unexpected delight I saw the first time in a double feature after Dracula at the Thalia, a revival house a block from my 1970s home on New York’s West Side that showed a different pair of movies every day.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Werner Herzog’s color recreation, shot by beautiful shot, of Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, a film which Herzog has called the most important movie of German cinema. Herzog worked directly from Stoker’s (no longer copyrighted novel) and uses USED the book characters’ names for his cast of outstanding actors.
Klaus Kinski plays PLAYED Dracula like Murnau’s, ugly, spending four hours daily having long, pointed latex ears applied. The rest of the cast was outstanding: Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Roland Topor as Renfield. Another major role in Nosferatu the Vampyre was played by 10,000 rats, some painted gray and all spayed/neutered to control their breeding while they were shown overrunning London. The film implies that Dracula’s castle exists only in a shadow dream world. Even Bruno Ganz’s character Jonathan Harker, who sees an intact castle, doubts its tangibility after peasants tell him that it is only a ruin. Nosferatu the Vampyre was one of five Dracula movies made in 1979.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Director Francis Ford Coppola wanted to produce this film on location, but he was still paying debts from Apocalypse Now (1979) shot in the Philippines, so Columbia Pictures opted instead for in-studio shooting. Coppola proposed minimal sets, only lights and shadows with few props. But Columbia demanded he build ‘proper’ sets, and not spend the entire design budget on costumes. The movie nonetheless is dazzlingly beautiful with performers, sets, backgrounds and costumes sumptuously photographed and edited digitally, a first for a major U.S. feature. Its scenes dissolve into each other, transporting viewers from the 15th century to the end of the 19th century and back.
Coppola rejected using computer-generated imagery. Instead, old-school special effects like red jelly “blood” were used. Audiences still complained they were too intense — the movie’s original teaser trailer was pulled from theaters and 25 minutes from the film’s original version was cut to save stomachs.
Coppola said that his roster of actors was star Winona Ryder’s ‘dream cast’: Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant and Tom Waits among others. Gary Oldham’s title character, like Kinski’s Nosferatu, is an ugly count who finds love with Winona Ryder’s Mina. Unlike either Nosferatu, Coppola’s movie is intensely erotic, drenched in blood, linking sexuality and mortality. If you can see the movie in a theater, take advantage of seeing an almost-masterpiece.
Let The Right One In (2008)
An alternative to adult male vampires: this film’s 300-going-on-12 year old girl vampire named Eli. Tomas Alfredson’s version of the Swedish novel is a coming of age story for a Oskar, a bullied boy who is taken under the wing of Eli after he meets her by night on their suburban Stockholm housing estate’s playground. Eli makes disposes of Oskar’s tormentors as they grow closer. The movie’s title refers to the traditional belief that vampires cannot enter a home before being invited in. ‘Vampire’ is mentioned only once in this movie, which instead focuses on Oskar’s and Eli’s growing relationship. Hammer’s American remake of the story, Let Me In (2010), centered on vampirism.
Like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014), Let The Right One In is set in everyday life. Protagonists’ realistic issues are spun into supernatural developments, frightening viewers in part because scenarios are all too imaginable. Their suspenseful atmospheres draw you in because the characters and their dilemmas resemble our own.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
Based on a graphic novel by the same name, this film reevisions the American Civil War as a conflict between Unionists and vampire allies of the Confederacy aiming to extend slavery beyond the Southern states. Director Timur Bekmambetov, who had done vampire movies Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) in Russia, made the 3D Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a fast and sometimes funny almost-blockbuster. It has a bright look and spectacular CGI effects, showcased particularly well in an axe fight between Lincoln and the chief vampire that takes place on the backs of a herd of running horses.
The story begins with Lincoln’s mother being killed by a vampire slave trader, backstory for Lincoln’s hatred for slavery and a crusade against the undead. The film’s acting is strong including Benjamin Walker’s Lincoln, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rufus Sewell as the chief vampire.
I’m generally wary of 3D, CGI effects and gore, but despite generally lukewarm reviews, I am delighted that I saw Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Repeat viewings at home haven’t changed my mind about its quality.
What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
Here’s a rarity: a comedic film that is funny all the way to the end. Comedy is HARD to do; sustained comedy is even harder. But What We Do In The Shadows works, enough so that even after a second viewing in the theater, I’m left with some unanswered questions:
(a) Why was a Kickstarter campaign needed to fund screenings in the United States?
(b) Why is its DVD or Blu-ray delayed indefinitely until this summer or later?
(c) Why didn’t its directors’ agents get back to me about interviewing Taika Waititi or Jemaine Clement for 4U Mag?
These facts are beyond supposition: the film is a largely improvised mockumentary by the makers of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009) and Boy (2010) about four vampires sharing a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. Vlago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), beside needing to avoid sunlight, drink human blood and dress themselves without being able to see their reflection, have more prosaic concerns like paying rent, sharing house chores like clean up on the bloody mess left after accidentally biting a victim’s main artery. They have to repeatedly ask to be invited into bars, and deal with day-to-day conflict among themselves (“Clean those dishes you left! They’re covered with five hundred year-old blood!'”)
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Instead of the traditional male vampire stalking women, the lead role in this film stalks misogynists. Setting the movie in contemporary Iran (but shooting it in Taft, California), Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour has made an Iranian vampire spaghetti western. Lyle Vincent’s black & white photography is beautiful, making for a creepy atmosphere reminiscent of Murnau’s shadows and light in Nosferatu while dreams evoke Dreyer’s work in Vampyr: The Dream of Allen Gray.
All dialogue is in Farsi with subtitles. Amirpour uses composition and pregnant silences to suggest characters’ feelings and thoughts. The movie has no underscore, using only on-screen record players and radios for the sources of its effectively used music.
THE Protagonist The Girl, instead of killing randomly for blood, uses her supernatural powers to rid Iranian society of predators and to protect innocents, even taking the time to frighten a young boy who will surely never abuse a woman after looking into her gaze. The Girl’s face rarely shows emotion but actress Sheila Vand’s expressive eyes make her mysterious and powerful. Her vampire cape is a chador, making for a particularly memorable, affecting scene involving a skateboared. Her relationship with would-be bad boy Arash (Arash Marandi) grows slowly. Later scenes glisten with unspoken, unrealized eroticism.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night honors the principle, ‘show it, don’t say it.’ Viewers are allowed to imagine characters’ thoughts and feelings, not be drowned in melodrama, spectacle or explosions. And it heavily features Masuka the Cat, which I’m sure 4U’s cat loving masses will be delighted to know.
Here are other recent and not so recent vampire movies I enjoyed: Dracula in Pakistan (1967), a Pakistani X-rated vampire musical; Dracula (1979), actor Frank Langella following Lugosi from stage to film portrayals; From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), whose startling plot turns are carried out by a strong cast; Vampires (1998), John Carpenter’s take on vampire hunters and Thirst (2009), South Korean director Park Chan-Wook of Old Boy‘s take on a vampire priest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Having first seen Lugosi on his nana’s 7” TV, Peter Donohue has watched vampires morph from ancient legend to modern fantasy. As an economist for workers, the poor and powerless, Peter loves Marx’s metaphor for capital: “dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor.” He also loves 4U Mag’s editor, daughter Caitlin – and I love you too, Kelly.