POP CULTURE / MOVIES
VAMPIRE MOVIES (AND TELEVISION) WORTH SEEING
By G. Arnold and Erin Dionne
With Halloween around the corner, it’s time to sit back and enjoy some of the viewing choices that the season has to offer. Among the many movie and television themes that are associated with this time of year is a perennial favorite: vampires.
Since two of our editors are fans of this genre, we decided to put together some viewing suggestions with a vampire theme. Here, in chronological order, are a few they suggest for the next time you want to spend some quality time with the undead.
Nosferatu is a very slightly reworked version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Unfortunately, the producers didn’t have the rights to the book. Not long after the movie opened, Stoker’s estate sued. The courts ordered the destruction of existing prints, but Nosferatu had already taken flight. Many copies already had been distributed around the world, making it impossible to round up and torch every print. So Nosferatu lived on.
Quickly paced and entertaining throughout, Nosferatu is bolstered by an original look and the innovative use of then-new special effects. The vampire is Count Orlok, a strange creature of the very undead type. Looking inhuman — with pointy ears, rodent-like eyes, and hands that resemble claws — he is a far cry from the more elegant Draculas that appeared in later films. There’s little doubt about who the monster is in this film.
Nosferatu is an important piece of film history, but more than that, it’s still fun. Even if you seldom watch a silent-era movie, make an exception for Nosferatu. It’s a must-see viewing for fans of vampire movies.
Unlike Nosferatu, director Tod Browing’s Dracula is more directly (and legally) connected to Stoker’s novel. But the movies are very different in numerous ways. By 1931, the era of sound films had begun. And Dracula makes the most of this, capitalizing on the eery and menacing voice of lead actor Bela Lugosi. Indeed, much of the film’s staying power can be attributed to Lugosi, whose iconic and strangely mesmerizing performance was the epitome of the Dracula character for generations. A more subtle monster than Nosferatu, Lugosi’s vampire has a decidedly exotic and aristocratic air — he’s like a foreign ambassador who just happens to be undead.
Browning’s version of Dracula exerted an enormous influence on most of the Dracula films that followed. Its impact has been so widespread, in fact, that viewers may be familiar with its take on the Dracula story even if they have not seen the original. So it can be hard for audiences today to see Dracula with fresh eyes. But it’s worth a second look. Dracula is an impressive film on its own merits.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
A generation after Browning’s version of Dracula, the British outfit Hammer Films issued director Terence Fisher’s new version of Stoker’s vampire story. Horror of Dracula (the movie’s title in the U.S.) is a stylish and engaging film, even if it is a rather low-budget affair. The movie’s energetic take on the classic story reinvigorated interest in the Dracula character, especially among enthusiasts of the horror genre. They appreciated the actors having fun with the roles. They also liked that there was more blood.
The film pits Count Dracula (portrayed by Christopher Lee, who went on to play the character several times) against the persistent Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). The pairing of Lee and Cushing was a masterstroke and so popular that it was repeated several times. (A bit of trivia: Each actor appears in separate movies in the Star Wars series.)
There is little that is subtle about a typical Hammer film, and Horror of Dracula is no exception. But the brash directing and enthusiastic, twinkle-in-the-eye acting adds an undercurrent of fun to what would otherwise appear to be a rather grim story.
Dark Shadows (TV series, 1966-1971; remake 1991)
In the late 1960s the vampire tradition got an unexpected jumpstart in the unlikely venue of an afternoon soap opera. The most popular storyline in ABC television’s Dark Shadows focused on Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), whose sorrow and angst about being a vampire was an almost endearing character trait.
Not that the undead don’t also have issues in their love lives. Barnabas was a forlorn vampire and frequently at the center of love triangles. The whole series –which also delved into the world of werewolves, witches, ghosts, and all things supernatural — combined traditional soap-opera melodrama with a camp sensibility. The low-budget production values and limitations, brought on by the quick turnaround time demanded for the production of a show that needed five new episodes every week, add to its charm, if you’re in that frame of mind.
A popular and stylish remake of the series was produced in 1991. Released on DVD under the title Dark Shadows – The Revival, it stars Ben Cross as the vampire.
Dark Shadows has long maintained a cult following. Several sources indicate a re-working of the franchise in movie form may appear sometime soon.
Many episodes from the original series have been released in various collections on DVD. A movie version of the Barnabas Collins story — featuring the original cast of the ABC series — was released to theaters in 1971 as House of Dark Shadows. (At the time of this writing it appears to be unavailable on DVD.)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Although Tod Browning’s vision shaped how directors approached the Dracula story for decades, in the later 1970s director Werner Herzog went back to an earlier source. His Nosferatu the Vampyre pays homage to director F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, updating the story and adding stunning visual design.
Nosferatu the Vampyre is much more than simply a remake, however. As a Village Voice reviewer said, it’s “a reconnection with German culture.” It’s also a reflective, moody film. In fact, critic Roger Ebert said the movie is “so slow it’s meditative at times.”
Hidden beneath layers of heavy make-up, Klaus Kinski offers a solid performance. Thankfully, he avoids the usual acting clichés for a vampire role. The performances of the rest of the cast — including Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Roland Topor, and Walter Ladengast — are also commendable, but the movie is more about mood, atmosphere, and symbolism than character-focused narrative.
Herzog’s movie has a prominent personal vision. Taken on its own terms, it’s captivating viewing.
(Although the film is available with English sub-titles, the original German soundtrack offers a richer experience.)
Salem’s Lot (1979 TV Miniseries)
Tobe Hooper directed this version of Stephen King’s chilling story about a Maine town that becomes overrun with nighttime blood suckers and the Prodigal Son writer who returns to kill them. Nominated for three prime time Emmys, watch this for the creepy-kitschy factor. Salem’s Lot stars David Soul, James Mason and others.
[Salem’s Lot was remade in 2004 for USA TV networks, with Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, and Andre Braugher. This one ups the gore and has more convincing effects.]
The Lost Boys (1987)
In the 1980s, Director Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys brought contemporary sex appeal to things that go bump in the night. Even the tagline was hot: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.”
The story involves the little town of Santa Clarita, which has one major problem: all the damn vampires. Watch new kids Corey Haim and Jason Patric as they get roped in to the local cult of the undead. It’s a fun and entertaining ride, despite the trade paper Variety’s wet-blanket assessment that it’s “a horrifically dreadful vampire teensploitation entry … that daringly advances the theory that all those missing children pictured on garbage bags and milk cartons are actually the victims of bloodsucking bikers.” (Variety‘s review is here.)
Starring Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, Coreys Haim and Feldman. See the trailer for The Lost Boys at IMDb.com here.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
With legendary director Francis Ford Coppola at the helm, Bram Stoker’s Dracula also boasts a stellar cast, including Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, and Keanu Reeves. Lush and stylized, this take on Bram Stoker’s tale focuses on the love story between Mina Harker and the Count. Keanu Reeves, as Jonathan Harker, is as wooden as the stakes used to kill the vampires, but Anthony Hopkins and the amazing visual palette of the movie more than makes up for it.
Indeed, this is a hard movie to pin down. A review in the Washington Post complained: “You can’t tell if this is a flawed masterpiece or an intricately designed bag of wind.” Still, there are more than enough elements in the movie to make it an essential part of anyone’s introduction to the genre.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (television series 1997-2003)
After writing the script for director Fran Rubel Kuzui’s 1992 movie of the same name, Josh Whedon took his characters and their story to television and did what is seldom accomplished: He improved on the original. Indeed, television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer — a more somber take on the same basic story — did more than follow the never-ending struggle of young vampire slayers against an army of the undead. It also spoke tellingly about the lives of American teenagers at the turn of the 21st century.
Whedon reportedly said the show was “high school as a horror movie.” But it’s engaging viewing no matter what you call it. Amassing a legion of fans, the series benefited from not only smart writing, but also a strong cast — especially Sarah Michele Gellar in the leading role.
I Am Legend (2007)
Director Francis Lawrence’s 2007 reimagining is about as far from the original Richard Matheson book as you can get. In his adaptation of I am Legend, a plague causes the world to succumb to vampiric, zombie-like illness, and Will Smith is apparently the lone New Yorker immune—good thing he has his dog for company!
The relationship between Smith and Marley, his canine companion, is as touching as the vampires are evil. Have a box of tissues handy for this one!
[For a different take on Matheson’s story, check out The Last Man on Earth, the 1964 movie starring Vincent Price.]
Ahh, first love…vampiric love. Much has been said about the sappy, silly aspects of this teen drama, but the film has some classic vampire moments: liberal gore, good special effects, and Lost Boys-esque sex appeal. No doubt this is part of the reason that Twilight, director Catherine Hardwicke’s film, is the most recent phenomenon in the vampire movie tradition.Think of Twilight as an appetizer to Coppola’s main course. With Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson.
Don’t see you favorite vampire movie? No problem. Send along your favorite by posting a comment.
G. Arnold & Erin Dionne are writers and editors of Bread and Circus Magazine.
Images (above): DVDs available from Amazon.com.