The Horror Film Project


©2019, by M. Keith Booker

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Vampire stories constitute one of oldest and most important subgenres of the horror film. They are also among the oldest horror stories in world culture. Vampire legends are found in cultures around the world, dating back to ancient times. The vampire film is rooted in traditions of vampire that dates back to the early part of the nineteenth century and that was an important part of the rise of Gothic fiction during that time. The image of the mysterious, blood-sucking vampire was well-established by the middle of the nineteenth century, so much so that it could be employed for powerful metaphorical effect by writers, who could feel confident that their readers would be familiar with the image. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), the anti-hero Heathcliff is at point described as a vampire in order to emphasize his exotic (and potentially dangerous) strangeness. Two decades later, Karl Marx used vampirism as an image of the predatory capitalist exploitation of workers, arguing in the first volume of Capital (1867) that “capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” (Tucker 362–63)[1] Further, employing a quotation from his frequent co-author Friedrich Engels, Marx warns the worker that “the vampire will not lose its hold on him ‘so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.’” It was not until shortly after Marx’s statement, however, that the first truly enduring vampire tale appeared, when the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–1873), best known for his ghost stories, published the lesbian vampire novel Carmilla in serial form in 1871–1872. That novel is still read today and has inspired a number of film adaptations, including Roger Vadim’s French Et mourir de plaisir (1960) and the British-American co-production The Vampire Lovers (1970)[2]. The nineteenth-century vampire story tradition was then topped off, of course, by the best-known vampire story of them all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which would become the basis for the central strain in vampire films in the coming century.

Since that time, the vampire film has remained a staple of the horror genre and of Western popular culture in general. The reasons for this ongoing popularity are many—and no doubt have to do, among other things, with the extreme flexibility of the vampire motif. Indeed, vampire stories are able to fulfill almost all of the functions of the horror genre as a whole. Huge numbers of vampire films have been produced. This project presents detailed critical discussions of six of the most representative vampire films and provides a broad historical survey of the subgenre that encompasses many more films. For a more comprehensive compendium, one might want to consult a volume such as the one by Silver and Ursini.

Dracula Films

Stoker’s mysterious, menacing Count Dracula has gone on to become one of the iconic figures of Western popular culture. The Dracula story has inspired numerous direct film adaptations, as well as many peripherally-related films, while establishing a number of conventions of vampire lore that have crucially influenced even films that are not otherwise related to Stoker’s novel. The Dracula figure has even spilled over into popular children’s culture, beginning with the introduction of Count Chocola chocolate-flavored cereal by the General Mills Corporation in 1971. A year later, the character of Count von Count (who, of course, helps teach children to count) was introduced on the children’s educational television series Sesame Street. After numerous appearances in children’s animated programming, Dracula then achieved his most prominent role in children’s film with the introduction of the 3D animated film Hotel Transylvania in 2012.

Most figurations of Dracula, however, are considerably less benevolent than these childrens’ versions, however. Dracula is, in fact, one of the most sinister and frightening figures in cinema history. He is also one of the most enduring, having made his first prominent appearance in film all the way back in F. W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu (1922), one of the crucial founding works of the horror film genre and one of the films that helped to establish the German Expressionist style that has powerfully influence the look of horror films ever since. Nosferatu’s central vampire figure, Count Orlok, was directly based on Dracula; the name was changed for legal reasons after the filmmakers were unable to secure the rights to Stoker’s novel. Orlok is a gaunt and abject figure, though, far less suave and charming than Stoker’s original. He was played so effectively by actor Max Schreck that many suspected Schreck himself of actually being a vampire. These suspicions provide the premise for the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, while Nosferatu has exercised a strong influence on other films as well, including the direct sound film remake by Werner Herzog, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), a highly respected vampire film that is discussed in detail in this project. Among other things, it is notable for being made in both English and German versions, with names from the original novel (including that of Dracula) restored (though with some modifications), due to the fact that the book was by thenout of copyright.

The low-key Expressionist lighting and effective use of shadows in Nosferatu create a mood of gloom and dread, a sense of darkness that well captured the pessimistic mood of Weimar Germany, a society that was falling apart and unraveling into what would become Nazi Germany. Similar effects were achieved in the near-contemporaneous German Expressionist horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but these effects influenced numerous later horror films, as well as film noir. In America, they exercised their first important influence in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), the first vampire film (and, indeed, the first horror film) to be produced in the sound era.

Discussed in detail in Chapter 1 of this section, Browning’s highly successful Dracula took a number of liberties with Stoker’s novel, which it supplanted as the principal source of the lore that has been associated with Dracula (and vampires in general) ever since. It made Universal Pictures the dominant force in early-1930s horror films and became the founding text of the modern vampire film subgenre, which included a series of sequels that attempted (but largely failed) to replicate the magic of the original film. Actually, the first follow-up to Dracula (in that it was a vampire film directed by Browning and starring Dracula star Bela Lugosi) was MGM’s Mark of the Vampire (1935), which is not a sequel to the original and in fact does not involve Dracula at all. The first true sequel was Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936), though neither Browning nor Lugosi was involved in that film. For that matter, neither was Dracula. In fact, the only character to return from the first film (still played by the same actor), Dr. Van Helsing, is now inexplicably called “Dr. Von Helsing.” The film has its interesting moments, but it’s something of a mishmash: one minute it’s a straight vampire film, the next it’s a crime drama, and the next it’s a screwball comedy. Ultimately, it might be most interesting as a case study in the impact of the Production Code on Hollywood. The people at Universal were clearly seeking to find a way to extend the Dracula franchise into the Production Code era but were afraid all-out horror simply wouldn’t fly under Code restrictions.

The lack of success of Dracula’s Daughter in negotiating the Code (which had been done so brilliantly by Bride of Frankenstein the year before) meant that the Dracula franchise was shelved for several years. The next film in the sequence to appear was Son of Dracula (1943), which attempted to cash in on the rising popularity of Lon Chaney, Jr., who had been a big success as the title character in The Wolf Man (1941), one of the few Universal horror films of the 1940s that really worked. The casting of Chaney also added interest for the horror-film cognoscenti because Chaney’s father had originally been tabbed to star in the original Dracula until his unexpected death led the filmmakers to turn to Lugosi. We’ll never know how Chaney, Sr., would have done in the role, but Chaney, Sr., is definitely no Lugosi. The again, he didn’t have much to work with here; the filmmakers apparently felt that he would be a great Dracula if they just put some white streaks in his hair, gave him a cheesy mustache, and had him speak really slowly, so he would sound like a foreigner. It also doesn’t help that the film repeatedly goes out of its way to point out to you that Dracula is cleverly disguising his identity by spelling his name backwards and calling himself “Count Alucard.” There’s also a bit of mid-World War II patriotism as the setting is moved to the U.S. so one of the characters can point out that Dracula has come here from Eastern Europe because the U.S. is a “younger country, stronger, and more virile.” Director Robert Siodmak, who would direct the fine film noir The Killers just three years later (among a number of other fine films), but he didn’t seem to what to do with this one. It did, however, have the best special effects to that time in the Dracula franchise.

Dracula returned to the big screen a year later, but only as a supporting character, as he had to give up top billing to Universal’s other star monster, in House of Frankenstein (1944), perhaps because Frankenstein sequels had, to this point, fared considerably better than Dracula sequels. Bride of Frankenstein was a classic, perhaps better than the original. And even Son of Frankenstein (1939) has its fans—partly due to return of Karloff as the Monster, and partly due to Lugosi’s deliciously smarmy turn as Ygor, which pretty much steals the show. During this period, Universal was attempting to squeeze every last bit of profit out of its monster franchises by mashing them up in a variety of ways. In House of Frankenstein, though, appearances by Dracula (John Carradine) and the Wolf Man (Chaney, Jr.), in addition to the Monster (played by Glenn Strange), are not enough to prevent the film from signaling a definite downturn for the Frankenstein franchise. Karloff is present as well (as a mad scientist, though not as Dr. Frankenstein), but would (perhaps understandably) leave Universal soon afterward to start making much more interesting horror films for producer Val Lewton at RKO. The Monster actually has a fairly small role in the film, which was a fairly transparent attempt to get as many famous monsters in one film as possible. Karloff’s scientist has been imprisoned for attempting to transplant the brain of a human into a dog (why not?). He escapes and encounters both Dracula and the Wolf Man as he attempts to resurrect the Monster (who, as usual, has recently been killed) and follow in the footsteps of his hero, the original Dr. Frankenstein. Dracula (by sunlight), the Wolf Man (by a silver bullet), the Monster and Karloff’s scientist (by sinking into quicksand) are all killed off—as, pretty much, was the franchise.

That didn’t prevent Universal from trying again a year later with House of Dracula (1945), which, sadly, is perhaps even worse than House of Frankenstein, to which it is a direct sequel. House of Dracula effectively closed the classic era of Universal monster horror. It was directed by Erle C. Kenton, who had struck horror gold with Island of Los Souls (1932) more than a decade earlier. Here, though, he comes up with pure pyrite, despite the presence once again of all three of Universal’s most important franchise monsters (played by the same actors as in House of Frankenstein). Like House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula is somewhat of a mishmash, clearly contrived just to get all three monsters in the same film any way they could. Both Dracula and the Wolf Man spend much of the film trying to get cured of their monstrosity (though the nefarious Dracula is actually only pretending to try to get cured), but of course it is to no avail. In the end, all three monsters are killed again.

House of Dracula pretty much killed off Universal’s horror film mishmash program as well, though they still manage to get more mileage out of their monster properties by shifting from horror to pure comedy. Of a series of films in which the comedy duo of Abbott and Coastello meet various Universal Pictures monsters, the best is the first, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which again suggests that Frankenstein was Universal’s top monster property, with Dracula fated to be a perpetual runner-up. But, of course, Dracula gets a part as well, and one of the most interesting things about this film is that it features Lugosi finally returning as Dracula for the second (and last) time. In subsequent films, Abbott and Costello would meet second-tier Universal icons such as the Invisible Man and the Mummy, but Dracula’s run as a Universal icon was over.

Indeed, going into the 1950s, one might have wondered whether Dracula would ever appear on screen again. He did, however, make a notable appearance in Return of Dracula (1958), a little-known gem of the vampire subgenre. The black-and-white cinematography and overall narrative (it’s basically Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt with vampires)of this film nicely illustrate the extension, even to the end of the 1950s, of the intersection of horror and film noir that began in the Val Lewton–produced horror films at RKO (before film noir was a recognized category). Anyway, here, Dracula (maybe, or maybe it’s another Balkan vampire) comes to small-town America, posing as a European relative of the Mayberry family. He then proceeds to start turning the local women into vampires until he himself accidentally falls and is impaled on a wooden stake, turning almost instantly into a skeleton. Francis Lederer is very effective as the vampire, though it’s definitely a different take on Dracula; Norma Eberhardt is also quite good as the teenage ingénue he hopes to corrupt. Lots of interesting moments, including a momentary switch to color to show the bright red blood spurting forth when the locals (led by a European detective who tracks the vampire to the town, thus playing the Van Helsing part) stake a woman vampire already converted by Dracula.

In the same year as Return of Dracula, the Transylvanian count returned in more spectacular formvia Hammer Film Productions back in England, where Stoker’s original novel had mostly taken place. Originally founded back in 1934 but forced into bankruptcy by 1937 due to a Depression-related slump in the British film industry, Hammer struggled on as a minor British studio into the 1950s. They then began to move toward their eventual prominence in the horror film industry with the introduction of a series of films based on the BBC television serial Quatermass, something of a science fiction/horror hybrid that Hammer took to the big screen with adaptations released in 1953 in 1957. It was also in 1957 that Hammer hit on the signature style of lurid technicolor Gothic with which they would come to be associated, beginning with Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. That film was successful enough to send Hammer into a spree of Universal monster resurrections, beginning with Dracula (marketed in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula)in 1958. Indeed, whereas Frankenstein had always been No. 1 at Universal, the Hammer style was actually much better suited to Dracula films, and Hammer’s Dracula series soon became their most successful property.

Despite a number of legal and technical difficulties in the production process, Dracula (with Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Van Helsing) was hugely successful, quickly becoming what was then the top grossing horror film of all time in both Britain and the U.S. It is also widely considered to be the best of the many horror films that Hammer would eventually produce. The towering (he was 6’ 5” tall) Lee makes an impressive and sinister Dracula. Here, in a fairly straightforward adaptation of Stoker’s original novel (with just a hint of camp), Dracula threatens the Harkers and their circle in full color, thus again losing some of the Gothic atmosphere of the Browning/Lugosi original, though that earlier film was a bit crude and this one is much more polished. Cushing (who had played Victor Frankenstein in Curse of Frankenstein) leads the fight against Dracula as Van Helsing, and successfully so, as Dracula is reduced to ashes by sunlight at the end of the film.

Dracula is so dead at the end of this film, in fact, that he doesn’t even appear in the immediate sequel, The Brides of Dracula (1960), though he would be resurrected in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966, also featuring Lee as Dracula) and return to a central role in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). Cushing and Lee both had long and distinguished acting careers, though both would remain inextricably associated with the genre of horror. Lee, however, may be best known to American film fans as Saruman in the film adaptation of J.R.R. Toklien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003) and in The Hobbit film trilogy (2012–2014). He also appeared as Count Dooku in the second and third installments of the Star Wars prequel trilogy (2002 and 2005). Cushing, who appeared in more than 100 films, is possibly best known to American film fans as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

In all, a total of eight sequels to the original Hammer Dracula would be produced by 1974, four featuring Cushing as Van Helsing and six featuring Lee as Dracula. By The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974, released in an expurgated version in the U.S. as The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula), which features Cushing, but not Lee, the films had declined in quality and popularity, and one might have thought that the Dracula franchise had once again been laid in its grave. That never stops Dracula, of course, and the 1972 release of the Blaxploitation film Blacula!, directed by William Crain (one of the first African American graduates of the UCLA Film School), had already demonstrated the immense potential and versatility of the character and the associated mythology. An attemptto bring the energies and sensibilities of Blaxploitation films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) to the horror genre, Blacula was successful enough to inspire a string of Blaxploitation horror films, including a direct sequel in Scream Blacula Scream (1973), as well as Blackenstein (1973), and the Crain-directed Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976). It also won the first Saturn Award for best horror film of the year, and I would also give it the awards for most ridiculous overacting in the portrayal of a vampire’s reaction when confronted with a cross, as well as most ridiculous interracial gay couple (one of whom wins a special award for best imitation of Richard Simmons on the part of a black actor).

Blacula begins as the African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are having a nice dinner with Count Dracula in his Transylvania castle. Unfortunately, Dracula’s racist remarks lead to an altercation, as the result of which Dracula turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, then locks him in a coffin where he can eternally suffer from an unrequited lust for blood. Cut to modern day Los Angeles. The gay guys (who are, of course, interior decorators) have bought Dracula’s furnishings (including Mamuwalde’s coffin). This, of course, leads to Mamuwalde’s release (as Blacula), which in turn leads to mayhem as he cuts a swathe of vampirism across LA, largely in quest of a woman named Tina, whom he is convinced is the reincarnation of Luva (largely because she is also played by Vonetta McGee). In the process, he battles Dr. Gordon Thomas and Tina’s friend Michelle, played, respectively, by Thalmus Rasulala and Denise Nicholas, who would go on to become two of the most recognizable African American actors of the next couple of decades. Indeed, the acting in this one is in general quite good, and all in all the biggest problem with it may be that it’s not nearly as outrageous as it might have been. In fact, it’s really a pretty competent and straightforward vampire picture that wouldn’t particularly stand out if it weren’t so dominated by black actors and so avowedly set in an African American milieu. That setting does give it a little something special, though, and it’s definitely worth watching, both on its own merits and as a sort of historical document of American culture in the early 1970s. In the end, Tina is turned into a vampire, then staked, which leaves Blacula so distraught that he intentionally exposes himself to the sun, dying in a scene that should also probably win a special award for best melting vampire skull with maggots crawling out of the eye sockets.

The Dracula franchise made something of a comeback with the American-British co-production of Dracula (1979, the closest thing to a direct “remake” of the classic 1931 film that had yet appeared. Like the 1931 film, the 1979 version, while rooted in the Bram Stoker novel, is based most directly on the stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston, which itself had recently been revived on Broadway, with Frank Langella delivering an acclaimed performance in the title role. Langella stars in the film as well, and seems determined not to emulate Bela Lugosi, keeping his standard American accent and playing the count as a man of refinement and sophistication, a dashing lady’s man who easily functions in the Edwardian England in which this version is set—as opposed to Lugosi’s Old World count who seemed so decidedly out of place in the modern world, relying on magic, rather than charm to get his way. He does, however, re-use some of Lugosi’s best lines, as when he assures his hosts that he never drinks wine, though Lugosi did that one much better. This is big-time filmmaking that seems to want to proclaim itself superior to the 1931 film at every turn. For example, whereas the 1931 had recycled footage from an old silent film for the seagoing scenes, this one begins with an elaborate shipboard scene, as if specifically to one-up its famous predecessor. It also features none other than Sir Laurence Olivier (hamming it up as usual and recycling his German accent from a year earlier in The Boys from Brazil) as Van Helsing, while giving a fairly important role to Dr. Jack Seward, now played by Donald Pleasence, who of course had played a sort of Van Helsing figure a year earlier in the groundbreaking slasher classic Halloween. This film stirs some of the other characters around a bit as well, as when it makes Mina Dracula’s first victim, rather than Lucy, but, more importantly, also makes Mina the daughter of Van Helsing. (The scene in which Van Helsing has to stake his daughter is supposed to be a heartbreaking moment, I think, but it’s almost comical, and this one is always right on the edge of spilling over into self-parody.) Perhaps the most interesting thing about the 1979 Dracula, though, is the cinematography. It’s an expensive film with elaborate sets and costumes, but director John Badham (who had risen to prominence two years earlier with Saturday Night Fever, perhaps not the best preparation for Dracula) has the good sense to keep it mostly in black-and-white, as Dracula films probably should be. Yet the film also occasionally drifts into muted color, especially in the skin tones of the characters’ faces. And there’s of course the famous psychedelic red background that suddenly explodes onto the screen when Dracula finally has his way with Lucy (Kate Nelligan). The forays into color are basically a stunt, of course, and the film would have probably been better off to stay in pure black-and-white, but this film, with its overwrought dialogue and its overdone John Williams soundtrack, never shies away from any opportunity to do something fancy. All in all, it’s not awful, and Langella makes an interesting Dracula (if not a very scary one). It does remind us, though, that the romanticization of vampires started way before the Twilight phenomenon.

1980s vampire cinema was dominated by non-Dracula films, but Dracula moved into the realm of legitimately big-budget filmmaking with Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), an extravagant exercise in Gothic excess, a no-holds-barred spectacle of vampiric decadence and eroticism. It’s also a lot of fun, even if it does move a bit slowly at times (and even if it would be more fun if it didn’t seem to want to take itself seriously). Marketed at the time as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film does seem to want to claim a certain literary legitimacy via its greater adherence to its novelistic source than other adaptations. But, despite this claim, this may in fact be the most cinematic of all Dracula films, a work that virtually dispenses with plot in the interest of spectacular visuals and that replaces any genuine investigation of character with demonstrations of over-acting, especially in the case of Gary Oldman as Dracula himself and even Anthony Hopkins, only a year removed from his Oscar-winning turn in Silence of the Lambs, as Van Helsing. Tom Waits is deliciously over-the-top as Renfield as well. All of these performances, incidentally, are effective in this context, though the whole thing takes on an extra weirdness when these exercises in excess are mixed with the god-awful performances of two of Hollywood’s most ridiculous actors, Cary Elwes, sporting a preposterous moustache as Lord Arthur Holmwood, and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, acting as usual like a teenage stoner trying out for the high school play, though he doesn’t know why, meanwhile producing a fake British accent that could have been done better by any such high-schooler. Billy Campbell is also delightfully bad as the caricature Texan, Quincey Morris. And then there’s poor Winona Ryder, who pretty much plays it straight as Mina Harker, looking very lovely but never seeming quite comfortable with the gang of grotesques that surrounds her, while also never seeming quite at peace with the terrible dialog she is asked to deliver. Sadie Frost as her friend Lucy Westenra is delightfully, though comically (unintentionally, I think) erotic, writhing about and gesturing so excessively that she seems to have escaped from some of the silent Victorian porn that sometimes plays in the background in the film. Dracula’s brides from Transylvania are a bit excessively erotic as well. Oldman is interesting as Dracula, though he is never quite able to get out of the shadow of Lugosi’s standard-setting performance. This leaves Hopkins to be the true highlight of the film, and he carries this off admirably, cheerfully delivering line after line of genuinely awful dialog as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to be saying such things. After Lucy presumably dies, for example, he declares that he needs access to the body. Asked if he wants to perform an autopsy, he declares, without a hint of irony, “No, no, not exactly. I just want to cut off her head and take out her heart!” After he rises from the grave and he in turn dispatches her once and for all, he explains, “She was in great pain. Then we cut off her head and burned it and drove a stake through her heart, and then she found peace!” All in all, well worth a watch, even if the film did not achieve the classic status it was apparently hoping for.

There were occasional minor additional efforts to make Dracula films in the coming years, such as Dracula 2000 (2000), which is set in present-day New Orleans during Mardi Gras, or Van Helsing (2004), which converts the Dracula story into a big-budget action film with A-list stars (e.g., Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale). It also features state-of-the-art CGI and a nod back to Universal’s mashups of the 1940s by including Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man (and even Mr. Hyde) as guest stars. The Monster even switches teams and gives an assist to Van Helsing and the good guys. Val Helsing has some fun moments, actually, but it’s all very cartoonish, and nothing approached the magnitude of Coppola’s film during this period.

Perhaps the most notable recent effort to resurrect the Dracula narrative came in 2014 with the release of Gary Shore’s Dracula Untold. Something of an answer to Van Helsing, this one uses state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery to make Dracula into an action hero (actually, a superhero). This film, however, is much darker than Van Helsing, both visually and thematically. Here, rather than serving in his original role as a sinister figure who threatens to bring the darkness of the East into the civilized milieu of the West, Dracula is depicted as a self-sacrificing champion of Western values who serves as a bulwark against violent intrusions from the East (specifically from the Ottoman Empire). Willing to do anything to protect his Transylvanian homeland from conquest by the evil Turks, Dracula essentially sells his soul to the devil, agreeing to become a vampire so that he can gain the superpowers needed to defeat the invaders. It’s a refreshing take on the Dracula story—though it might have been even more refreshing if the film had challenged the fundamental Orientalist premise that evil comes from the East and must be resisted by heroic, virtuous Westerners.

Otherwise, Dracula’s most memorable appearances in recent decades have been, not in Dracula films, but as a guest monster in works focused on others. For example, the first episode (September 26, 2000) of season five of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (perhaps the greatest exercise in extended-form vampire storytelling in all of popular culture[3]), Dracula comes to Sunnydale and attempts to enslave Buffy as his concubine, but of course he is defeated. Dracula (calling himself “Drake” through most of the film) also meets his match when he appears in the third entry in the Blade film franchise, which features a half-human, half-vampire vampire hunter first seen in 1973 in Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic-book series[4]. In this film—Blade: Trinity (2004)—Dracula appears as a sort of super vampire, who lacks most of the traditional vampire weaknesses and can even go out in direct sunlight. He also has a special skeletal structure that gives him shape-shifting abilities, allowing him to take on different forms, including one particularly monstrous one that looks very much like a science fiction alien, complete with the multi-hinged jaws of the Reapers from Blade II. Unfortunately, despite all of these extra features, the portrayal of Dracula is one of the weaknesses of the film. Dracula is so well known and carries with him such an extensive mythology that any attempt to add to this mythology is fraught with difficulty. This film does not overcome those difficulties, and its Dracula lacks the haughty elegance of the original Dracula, seeming seeming more like a thug with superpowers than the regal and mysterious figure he ought to be given the mythical stature that is attributed to him in the film (and in much of the legacy of Dracula lore). The film tries to stipulate that its Dracula, given his abilities, is actually far more frightening than the Dracula of pop culture lore, but never makes that claim convincing.

Other Vampire Films

There have, of course, long been vampire films that did not directly involve Dracula at all—other than perhaps an occasional mention. However, one of the earliest of these, Mark of the Vampire (1935), does have an interesting Dracula connection in that, though made by MGM (with a higher budget and better production values than the Universal films of the period), it was directed by Tod Browning and featured former Universal mainstays Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill[5] in key roles. MGM star Lionel Barrymore gets top billing, however. MGM tried very hard in the 1930s to make horror films that were slicker, glossier, and more reputable than the Universal films, but as a result one gets the sense that MGM didn’t have the commitment to horror film that Universal had. In fact, Mark of the Vampire is not really a vampire film at all. Instead, it features Lugosi, not as a vampire, but as an actor hired to pretend to be a vampire. Which, of course, is the role he was born to play, and it gives him ample opportunity to ham it up almost to the point of campiness. As he himself says in the end, in his trademark accent: “I was greater than any real vampire!” Anyway, this one is actually a murder mystery, and Barrymore’s Professor character and Atwill’s Inspector Neumann have simply hired Lugosi as part of a plot to smoke out the killer, which they indeed succeed in doing.

Another notable effort (more for its status as a sign of the times than for its own inherent worth) is the American International Pictures (AIP) film Blood of Dracula (1957), which has no Dracula and essentially no blood, so the title is more for marketing purposes than for description of the film. This film was, in fat, a pure case of targeting marketing, continuing AIP’s attempt, begun earlier the same year with I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, to develop low-budget horror films for the teen market. Here, the science teacher at a girls’ boarding school (apparently some sort of sinister feminist) develops a formula that turns one of the girls (who already has anger issues) into a murderous vampire (apparently as some sort of effort to promote world peace, which the teacher doesn’t seem to have thought through very well). It even includes a rock ‘n’ roll number performed by one of the characters and inserted for absolutely no reason other than because AIP thought teenagers would like it. This one is pretty banal fare, though once young Nancy Perkins (Sandra Harrison) is transformed into a vampire, she is pretty interesting-looking, vaguely resembling Nosferatu in a fright wig. She spends little time as a vampire, though, and most of the film is just general teen angst stuff. Interesting mostly just as an example of what AIP thought teenagers would like at the time.

1960s vampire films were dominated by the Hammer Dracula productions. The 1970s, meanwhile, were a particularly rich time for horror film in general, as filmmakers sought to use the genre to address the anxieties of Vietnam/Watergate–Era America. It was not, however, a particularly good decade for vampire films, probably because filmmakers were trying to do something different in response to the changing attitudes and perceptions of American audiences. One of the most innovative vampire films of the decade was Dead of Night (1972, aka Deathdream), an interesting Canadian-made horror film by American director Bob Clark, perhaps best known as the director of A Christmas Story (1983), though some may know him better for the 1982 coming-of-age farce Porky’s. Anyway, Dead of Night begins as an American soldier is shot down by a sniper in the jungles of Vietnam (which, in this film, look exactly like the woods of Canada). His family mourns his death, which his mother refuses to accept, insisting that he will come home alive. And he does! Sort of. Actually, he returns as an undead half-zombie-half-vampire who must continually be re-animated by fresh human blood, which he derives by murdering and draining a series of victims. He nevertheless gradually begins to decay, until he finally goes to a graveyard and dies again, this time apparently for good. Unusually well-made and well-acted for a low-budget horror film, Dead of Night is probably more effective as a Vietnam War allegory than as a horror film. The exact meaning of this allegory, though, is not entirely clear. It says something about the condition of returning war vets; it also says something about the public reception of those returnees; and it says something about the ongoing legacy of Vietnam, both in the lives of those directly impacted by loss of family members and friends and in the lives of the general public. Exactly what it says about these things is debatable, however. Meanwhile, by placing most of the drama within the family of the returning soldier, the film suggests some real problems with the traditional American family (as horror films so often do), which here would appear to be identified as a prime source of a widespread cultural illness that made the misadventure in Vietnam possible in the first place.

Among the most interesting vampire films of the 1970s was George Romero’s MARTIN (1976), which is, in fact, virtually legendary for its realistic take on vampirism. It features John Amplas as Martin Mathias, a young man (though he claims to be 84 years old) who is convinced that he is a vampire. Martin is treated sympathetically, but he also seems seriously disturbed. Too “shy” to engage in sexual relations in the normal fashion, he pursues his vampirism largely by drugging women, then having sex with them while they are unconscious, topping it off by cutting them (though not fatally) and sucking their blood. In the beginning of the film, Martin travels to Pittsburgh (snacking on a woman on the train on the way) to stay with his cousin, Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), an old man who is also convinced that Martin is a vampire, vampirism having apparently occurred periodically in the family for generations. Cuda warns Martin that he has his eye on him and that Martin had better behave himself while in Pittsburgh. Martin, meanwhile, insists that his vampirism is a simple biological condition and that there is nothing magical about it (“There’s no real magic … ever!”). He also declares that all the lore about vampires (involving crosses, garlic, etc.) is nonsense. Despite Cuda’s warnings, Martin descends deeper and deeper into the world of vampirism, despite the fact that he has a brief affair with a woman, allowing him to do the “sexy stuff” in a more normal way. But this woman herself is clearly disturbed, and her eventual apparent suicide drives Martin even deeper into his disturbed vampirical world. His increased assaults on the locals eventually lead Tateh to stake him and bury him in the back yard, as the film ends. Slow-moving and atmospheric, this is a deeply moving study in psychological disturbance, even as it leaves open the possibility that Martin really is a vampire, whatever that might exactly mean.

Martin influenced a number of thoughtful vampire films that came after it. It was a particular model for a number of indie-style vampire films that appeared in the 1990s. One of the best of these is Larry Fessenden’s Habit (1997), which won a number of film festival awards and was nominated for still more (and is a remake of Fessenden’s cheaper and rougher version from the 1980s), is particularly stylish. It’s basically a moody indie relationship film, in which a young would-be artist, Sam (played by Fessenden), becomes involved with a mysterious and androgynous young woman, Anna (Meredith Snaider) in a somewhat offbeat, highly erotic relationship. Anna, as it turns out is a vampire (maybe—there’s some ambiguity about that and about just what kind of vampire she is), and the film is rather heavy-handed about reminding us that vampirism is a sort of metaphor for the bloodsucking nature of life under capitalism. Mostly, though, it’s a metaphor for the way people in relationships sometimes suck the life out of each other. In a more general sense, it’s about how relationships are made unique—and difficult—by the eccentricities of the individuals involved. After all, everybody’s a little weird, especially in a society that superficially promotes individual difference to a pathological degree, but demands conformity in reality, making everyone feel badly about their weirdness. This one’s a bit slow and brooding, but the performances are terrific, and it at least tries to use the vampire motif to say something serious, rather than simply to entertain with blood and gore or to create dreamy romanticized notions of vampire love.

Most of the vampire films that followed Martin, however, went in a very different direction—toward glitz, glamor, and coolness.One of the key vampire films of the early 1980s, for example, was The Hunger (1983) a British-American co-production that was pretty much all style and no substance. It features French actress Catherine Deneuve, regarded as one of the most glamorous women in the world, in addition to rock star David Bowie, which shold add glitz, though he actually has relatively little screen time, and she looks like death warmed over. Then again, she is a 3000-year-old vampire from ancient Egypt. The actual star of the film, Susan Sarandon, was a pretty big deal herself and already had horror credentials such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). She doesn’t really have that much to do here, though the lesbian sex scene between her and Deneuve caused quite a stir at the time. It is, in fact, the best scene in the film, though it is too stylized to be really sexy. The Hunger doesn’t really seem interested in vampires except as a means to portray (and perhaps celebrate) materialist desires beyond what might be regarded as normal. As Nicola Nixon suggests, it might be no accident that this film’s director, Tony Scott, had previously worked primarily as s director of television commercials. In any case, The Hungers adds absolutely nothing to vampire mythology by a light bit of updated contemporary glitz and had little impact on the subgenre. It does, however, address certain trends in the 1980s, as when its own excesses mirror the consumerist excesses of Reaganite America. Rob Latham, for example, sees The Hunger as a “sly satire of the ideology of youthful narcissism that underpins” the greedy excesses of the Reagan era (112).

Indeed, the consumerist excesses of the Reagan years—combined with the blood-related anxieties of the AID epidemic of the same period—led to a renewed interest in vampire films in the 1980s. By 1984, the vampire film motif even spilled over into Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian thriller Body Double, which borrows heavily from Rear Window, with nods to Vertigo and Psycho as well. De Palma even goes to the extent of casting a young Melanie Griffith in a key role, vaguely alluding to the casting of her mother, Tippi Hedren, in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). But this though, De Palma had done so much Hitchcock pastiche that he’s not just doing Hitchcock: he’s doing De Palma doing Hitchcock. He references lots of other movies as well, including entire genres, such as horror and pornography. The engagement of Body Double with the horror film is obvious from the very beginning, when the opening credits are displayed in dripping red letters apparently painted in blood, in the manner of horror film cliché. These titles then lead into an opening scene that features a vampire awakening in his coffin. Unfortunately, this vampire has claustrophobia (his version of Scottie Ferguson’s vertigo or L. B. Jeffries’s broken leg), causing him to freak out in the confines of his coffin. Actually, the vampire is an actor, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), playing a scene in the film Vampire’s Kiss, the film in which Scully is currently working. This opening scene from a film within the film thus involves not only a mixture of genres, but a confusion of ontological levels, a confusion that will turn out to be central to the entire film, in which the distinction between appearance and reality is virtually impossible to maintain. It also recalls the openings of De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and Blow Out (1981) and points toward the way in which the repetition of certain distinctive images and motifs in De Palma’s films eventually begins to make them pastiches not just of Hitchcock, but of each other. Meanwhile, Body Double is shot through with all sorts of reminders of its own artificiality, including the title metaphor, which is reiterated in one final scene in which Scully goes back to work on Vampire’s Kiss, working with a body double of an actress with whom he shoots a scene in which he bites the neck of a naked woman in a shower. Thus, Hitchcock’s famous shower scene appears in De Palma once again, though this time the obvious sexual innuendo associated with the vampire attack is less reminiscent of Psycho than of De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill (1980), with a side glance at the shower scene in the slasher movie embedded in Blow Out.

Fright Night (1985) was a key film in the “Vampire Renaissance” of the late 1980s. Aimed at a youthful audience, It features a teenage boy who suspects (rightly, as it turns out) that his neighbor is a vampire. Then the teenager, Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) and his gang go to check it out, with the help of an ex-horror film star known as “Peter Vincent the Vampire Killer.” It’s a bit like Scooby-Doo and something of a forerunner to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it certainly has its fans. It has some terrific visuals, too, especially of spectacularly expiring vampires. Chris Sarandon is great as the lead vampire, and Roddy MacDowall is interesting, as usual, as Peter Vincent. This one was good enough to inspire a 1989 sequel and a stylish 2011 remake that might be one of the few horror-film remakes that is actually better than the original, with Colin delivering a particularly delightful performance as the head vampire and with even more spectacular expiring-vampire effects. Both versions have a few intense moments, but both are memorable mostly for the comic highlights.

1985 also saw the release of Lifeforce (1985), in which Tobe Hooper edged toward science fiction but kept one foot firmly grounded in the horror genre that made him famous. This film was based on a novel entitled The Space Vampires, and that pretty much sums it up, though it is sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Alien (and was in fact co-written by Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon). A mission to study Haley’s Comet as it passes near earth is taken over by three outer-space vampires, who use their shape-shifting skills to make themselves look exactly like humans, then return to earth on the earth ship. The female in the group (played by Mathilda May) makes an especially good-looking human, and this one verges on exploitation film as she goes through most of the film stark naked, as she uses her incredible sexual magnetism to attract human men and then suck out their “lifeforce.” Eventually, the vampire mother ship comes to earth as well, and they seem set to suck all of the lifeforce out of all the humans on earth, starting in London and with such notable victims as Patrick Stewart. (We learn, incidentally, that the alien vampires have been visiting earth periodically for some time and that all our vampire lore emanates from their visits.) However, the captain of the original ship to the comet, American Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), manages to lead a successful battle against the vamps, enabled by the fact that he is also an alien vampire with vampire powers, though he himself didn’t even know it. Carlsen and the nameless female vampire return to the ship and fly away, in an ending sequence that makes no sense whatsoever, but then again not a whole lot about this one does.

1987 saw the release of two very different vampire films that had a decided impact on the subgenre. The first of these, Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, is a self-consciously cool riff on the Peter Pan story that is often quite funny, but with a few scenes of genuinely graphic violence. It thus seems tailor-made to be the cult favorite that it has since become. Here, Lucy Emerson (Diane Wiest) moves to the California beach town of Santa Carla with sons Michael and Sam (Jason Patric and Corey Haim) to live with the boys’ grandpa (Barnard Hughes). Unfortunately, the town turns out to be infested with vampires, especially a group of hip young attractive ones led by one David (Kiefer Sutherland) and featuring a beautiful female half-vampire named Star (Jami Gertz). Much mayhem ensues, as Michael becomes a half-vampire himself and becomes romantically involved with Star, drawing David’s jealous ire. Meanwhile, Sam joins local kid vampire hunters the Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) to mount an assault on the vampires, eventually joined by Michael and Grandpa in a successful destruction of the vampires and their sire (played by Edward Herrmann), which causes Michael and Star to revert to their human states. The Lost Boys conducts a critique of the media-oriented consumerist culture of the 1980s, but this critique is limited because the film itself participates so thoroughly in that culture. As such, it is a typical work of postmodernism. Indeed, the film is among the featured texts discussed in relation to postmodern horror films in this project.

Among other things, the youth gang vampires of The Lost Boys represented a departure from the frequently solitary (and often somewhat Byronic) vampire figure, joined by other vampires only as distant minions. One important exception to the solitary vampire figure appears in Richard Matheson’s 1954 postapocalyptic novel I Am Legend, in which roaming hordes of vampires have taken over the world, leaving the novel’s protagonist as possibly the last surviving human. This novel has inspired several film adaptations, including The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007). However, Matheson’s vampires really behave more like the zombies of later films than like vampires; his novel was, in fact, a major inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the founding work of the contemporary zombie subgenre.

The other major vampire film of 1987, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, also featured a vampire gang, but turned away from glamor and toward grit in its portrayal of an essentially working-class gang of vampires. (Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a “hillbilly vampire movie.”) Near Dark, discussed in detail below,was Bigelow’s first major feature film (though she had co-directed the low-budget independent outlaw biker film The Loveless five years earlier). Near Dark is an attempt to make a serious vampire film, which it does largely by combining the vampire film with the Western and the biker film. And it’s pretty successful, as a traveling gang of vampires rampages its way across the Southwest, apparently specializing in humiliating tough guys. But the vampires have a few soft spots of their own, and one them, Mae (Jenny Wright), develops an attachment for Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), whom she attempts to turn into a vampire so he can join the gang, which is led by Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen, in his usual somber mode) and which prominently features one Severen, played by Bill Paxton in an over-the-top performance that’s probably a bit too much, but is still entertaining to watch. Long story short, Caleb is rescued by his father and restored to humanity via a blood transfusion. The vampires, who have really poor time management skills and so are constantly getting caught out in the sun, try to retrieve him, but get burned up by the sun, all except for Mae, who is also restored to humanity via transfusion, so that she and Caleb can live happily, though not ever after. The film thus adds a twist to the conventional vampire mythology of “turning” by indicating that it can work both ways.

Incidentally, the vampire film and the Western have intersected a number of times, most ridiculously two years later in Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, discussed below. Meanwhile, one of the more direct attempts to incorporate motifs from the Western in the vampire film came in John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), which is not exactly the horror impresario’s best effort, but its vague mixture of motifs from the vampire film and the Western is at times interesting, if politically problematic. As Ken Gelder puts it, “Vampires is almost unrelentingly macho, racist, and misogynist,” though such judgments require some subjective interpretation (101). It also has some pretty scary vampires. As the protagonist, the sunglass-and-jeans-wearing, leather-coat-clad ace vampire hunter Jack Crow (James Woods) puts it, obviously referring to certain trends in the vampire film, “Vampires are not romantic. It’s not like they’re a bunch of fuckin’ fags hopping around in rented formal wear and seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Euro-trash accents.” Despite this expressed cynicism, there is, nevertheless, a love story between one of the vampire hunters (played by Daniel Baldwin) and a budding lady vampire (played by Sheryl Lee of Twin Peaks fame). There are also some interesting additions to vampire mythology. We learn, for example, that the first vampire (who returns in this film and is now the most powerful vampire of all) was actually created by the Catholic Church in a botched exorcism back in the 1300s. Crow and his crew, meanwhile, are employed by the Church to hunt vampires, but it turns out that the Cardinal for whom Crow works is actually in league with the chief vampire and hopes to become an immortal vampire himself. Luckily, Crow manages to destroy both the evil vampire and the even more evil cardinal, meanwhile also destroying the convention al notion that vampires and Christianity are inherently opposed. In any case, the film was interesting enough to generat two sequels (not directed by Carpenter): Tommy Lee Wallace’s Vampires: Los Muertos (2002) and Mary Weiss’s Vampires: The Turning (2005).

Vampire works such as the TV soap opera Dark Shadows and the comic Tomb of Dracula had already begun to complicate the vision of vampires as sinister creatures of pure evil when Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire in 1976, but Rice’s fiction would ultimately bring a whole new level of complexity to the representation of vampires, making them romantic (and sometimes sympathetic) figures. This first novel was met with a mixed response, but its first sequel, The Vampire Lestat (1985), was a much bigger success, and The Queen of the Damned (1988) reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Eventually her “Vampire Chonicles” sequence grew to include a total of ten novels, and it was surely inevitable that film adaptations would come along as well. The first novel was finally adapted to film by Neil Jordan in 1994 as Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. A major, big-budget production, Interview stars Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat, and Brad Pitt as Louis de Pointe du Lac, a late eighteenth-century Louisiana plantation owner who is converted to vampirism by Lestat and subsequently becomes his partner and apprentice—with lots of homoerotic tension. It is, in this case, Louis who is the vampire of the title, telling the story of his two-hundred years as a vampire to writer Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) in an interview in modern day San Francisco. Most of what we see on the screen is the story that Louis tells to Malloy, complete with elaborate period costuming. As the years pass, Louis and Lestat pick up a sort of vampire daughter in the form of young Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), of whom Louis is terribly fond, but who’s a pretty bratty little thing who hates Lestat and tries to kill him by feeding him “dead” blood (which in this version of vampire mythology is fatal to vampires), then slits his throat and feeds him to alligators. But vampires are really hard to kill, so he comes back and attacks, whereupon Louis and Claudia kill him again, by burning him to a crisp. Later, in Paris, Claudia is executed for killing Lestat by the vampires of Paris, led by Antonio Banderas as the Parisian vampire Armand, oldest vampire in the world. He thus completes the roster of hot young Hollywood stars playing vampires in the film, but the twelve-year-old Dunst pretty much steals the show in an amazing performance as the ill-fated Claudia. Anyway, Louis escapes and returns to the states, where he meets Lestat, once again resurrected. In the final scene, Lestat bites Malloy and gives him the choice of whether he wants to become a new vampire. Interview was clearly intended to be the founding film in a franchise made from Rice’s novels, but its sequel Queen of the Damned (2002), based on her second and third vampire novels, was much less successful. Another sequel, based on the fourth novel, was reportedly in development but has yet to appear as of this writing.

Interview (along with Rice’s novels in general) did point the way toward other developments in vampire-related popular culture, including other novel sequences such as those by Charlaine Harris (The Southern Vampire Mysteries, 2001–2013, basis of the True Blood television series) and Stephenie Meyer (the Twilight series, 2005–2008). The Twilight books became a major cultural sensation and the basis of their own series of five vampire films, The Twilight Saga (2008–2012). Twilight’s conversion of the vampire tale into the stuff of teen romance made for big sales, but for most critics represented a dumbing-down of the genre into purely commercial fluff.

Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk till Dawn (1996) is typical of his films for grown-ups: incredibly violent and bloody, but also funny, high-spirited, and completely lacking in self-seriousness. Something of a forerunner of the 2007 zombie film Planet Terror (which was made specifically to appear on a double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof), From Dusk till Dawn was scripted by Tarantino, who also plays a major role in what is probably his most important appearance as an actor. It’s also George Clooney’s first feature film, and thus served as the launch of a major movie career, even though that career was almost derailed in Clooney’s disastrous appearance as Batman in Batman&Robin the next year. Like most Tarantino/Rodriguez efforts, From Dusk till Dawn is a mishmash of genres, accompanied by a cool soundtrack, filled with self-conscious references to other films. In this case, it particularly draws upon the tradition of vampire films, which happen to be the main source of information that the central characters have in the extended battle against vampires that constitutes the second half of the film. This film, though, is really two films in one. While the second half is definitely a vampire film, the first half is a crime spree/hostage film. And a pretty good one, too. Tarantino plays Richie Gecko, a whacked-out psycho killer who breaks his brother Seth (Clooney) out of prison, after which the two cut a swathe through Texas on their way to Mexico, highlighted by a classic Tarantino set-piece in a liquor store in which the two blow away a local cop played by Michael Parks and a surprisingly dangerous clerk played by John Hawkes, but only after Parks in particular delivers perhaps the most entertaining dialog in the film. Seth is a professional thief who prefers not to kill people, and Richie is a perpetual trial to him, but, hey, he’s his brother. The two kidnap an American family traveling in their RV, and use that vehicle to get across the border to Mexico. That family is headed by widowed ex-minister Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), traveling with daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) and adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu). Then they travel to the Titty Twister, a Mexican dive/bordello where they are supposed to meet up with their Mexican contact, played by Cheech Marin (as are two other characters in the film). It’s a pretty rough joint, though it has pretty nice dancers, including the especially lovely Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek), possibly the greatest stripper ever who didn’t actually strip. Indeed, for many this film may be most memorable for Hayek’s dance sequence, even if she never quite manages to get her clothes completely off—because she gets interrupted when she spots some blood turns into a vampire, after which all hell literally breaks loose as most of the other personages in the bar turn into vampires as well. Luckily, two American tough guys, played by Fred Williamson and makeup wizard Tom Savini, also happen to be in the bar, so they join with the brothers and their hostages in battling the vampires. It isn’t easy, and there are lots of twists and turns that ultimately leave only Seth and Kate standing, but it goes without saying that a handful of Americans can defeat a bar full of Mexican vampires. Indeed, despite all the unserious fun in this one, there is an underlying critique of the way in which Mexicans are often viewed in American culture as Others, while Others are often viewed as monstrous, with the assumption that they can nevertheless be defeated by good old American courage and determination. This message, though, is delivered with a basic good cheer that never detracts from the fun. This film has its problems, and the vampire war in the second half is a bit too long (even though it never runs out of inventive ways to fill the screen with gore). Still, From Dusk till Dawn is a highly entertaining film that has achieved cult status over the years (and even became the basis for a media franchise that so far includes two film sequels and a television series of the same title that ran for two years on Rodriguez’s El Rey cable network.

In another demonstration of the generic diversity of the vampire film, Blade and Van Helsing, as noted above, marked an expansion of the vampire film into action movie territory, a territory that proved rich in the early years of the twenty-first century. Underworld (2003), became the founding film of a five-film (at last count) franchise, based on the central premise of a hidden war between werewolves and vampires, both originally created by different mutations of the same virus. This is a film that is all action and fight scenes and little else. It attempts to ramp up some emotional interest by having the vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) fall in love with a werewolf, which is a good sign that vampire films were tilting toward romantic silliness even before the first Twilight novel in 2005.

In the other hand, 30 Days of Night (2007), based on the 2002 comic-book miniseries of the same title, might be even more violent than Underworld, but it definitely lacks romantic silliness. This film features Josh Hartnett and Melissa George as an estranged couple who also happen to work in law enforcement in the Alaska town of Barrow, which is just settling in for the 30 days of night that come in the midst of every winter there. This sunlight-free setting, of course, is perfect for vampires, so perhaps it was inevitable that the town would eventually be attacked by them. And this time they are—by a group of particularly fast, violent, and vicious vampires (who speak a language that seems to resemble Klingon). These are some really scary vampires, and the isolated arctic setting (as in the 1951 science fiction/horror classic The Thing) makes it all the scarier. The humans eventually drive off the vampires, though Hartnett’s character, just when he was beginning to get along with his wife again, gets turned into a vampire and burns up when the sun at last returns. The extreme bloody violence of this one seems to have been influenced by Danny Boyle’s ultra-violent zombie film 28 Days Later (2002), illustrating the ways in which different horror film subgenres influence on another.

Also somewhat in the mode of 28 Days Later is Stake Land (2010) is a postapocalyptic vampire film, co-produced by Larry Fessenden, and directed by Jim Mickle, who co-wrote it with Nick Damici. Damici also stars as “Mister,” the leader of a group of vampire hunters who struggle through the film to make their way northward to “New Eden,” in Canada. In this one, vampires are cold-blooded, and really don’t like cold weather, which seriously cuts down on their functionality. They’ve pretty well taken over all of the U.S. already, leaving humans to deal with the colder climes up north of the border. Anyway, the heroes make it safely to Canada, though the film ends as they arrive and leaves open the question of just how Edenic New Eden will be. The central point of view character is young Martin (Connor Paolo), whom Mister takes under his wing early in the film and trains to be a vampire killer, thus offering an effective point of identification for young viewers. The vampires are pretty scary (in the mode of the “fast zombies” of films such as 28 Days Later; thus, the direct forebears of this film are vampire films such as I Am Legend (2007) and the other film adaptations of Richard Matheson’s original 1954 novel, which features hordes of swarming postapocalyptic vampires who have might have been more at home in a zombie story. Meanwhile, the scariest obstacle met by the heroes is a group of religious fanatics, led by the sinister Jebediah Loven (Michael Cerveris), who has interpreted the vampire apocalypse as a judgement from God, thus giving him an opportunity for a power grab of the kind that would no doubt occur in a real-world apocalypse. Loven eventually becomes a vampire himself, and is killed by Mister.

Two years later, the vampire action film was then pushed to its logical, but preposterous extreme in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), from the Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov. This film is just as silly as it sounds, though got quite a bit of attention on its initial release (before tanking at the U.S. box office but, oddly, doing much better overseas. Based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (perhaps best known as the author of the spoof novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which would also be made into a film in 2016). The strangest part about this film is that it appears to take its central conceit seriously and plays out as an almost straightforward action film. It still has its moments, especially in the first half, but mostly it depends for its success on outlandish over-the-top computer-generated action scenes, which, of course, is the case with all of Bekmambetov’s films. These scenes can, at times, be interesting, though they are a bit overdone. Benjamin Walker, known primarily for his portrayal of Andrew Jackson (as an Emo rock star) on Broadway, is fine as Lincoln, and Rufus Sewell is particularly good as the head vampire, who is of course a plantation owner from New Orleans, the American city that is by now associated with vampires more than any other. All in all, though, this sort of film represents a decline from the thematic seriousness that vampire films have sometimes achieved as allegories about capitalism, or AIDS, or Otherness.

However, if Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter suggested that vampire films had entered an era of absolute silliness, thoughtful and interesting vampire films have continued to appear as well—often from outside the U.S. Cronos (1993) is a truly original Mexican horror film, the feature-film debut of director Guillermo del Toro. Here, a sixteenth-century alchemist creates a device that renders him immortal—as long as he supplements the device by drinking human blood. In other words, it basically renders the user a vampire. Unfortunately, the alchemist, having lived for four hundred years, is killed in a building collapse in 1937 when a piece of debris pierces his heart—the only way to kill such vampires. Old Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) comes into possession of the device and starts (accidentally) to use it, while also starting, unbeknownst to himself, to become a vampire. Most of the plot involves the attempts of an aging businessman to wrest the device and its powers away from Gris, but Gris triumphs. However, realizing the detrimental side effects of the device, Gris destroys it, which causes him to decline into death as well. Not as visually inventive as del Toro’s later films would come to be, this one is definitely still an interesting contribution to the vampire genre and should be seen by anyone with a strong interest in vampire films.

International vampire film received a big boost with the release of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008), one of the great vampire films (and possibly one of the great films) of all time. Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the screenplay), this film presents a grittily realistic vampire narrative that clearly has much in common with the dark crime dramas that have come to be categorized as “Nordic noir.”[6] This compelling narrative makes the viewer, for the duration of the film, really believe in vampires; it is also a brooding and atmospheric masterpiece of cinematic art. Set in Stockholm amid the dark and dreary Swedish winter, it tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl (sort of), Eli (Lina Leandersson, with her voice dubbed by Elif Ceylan) who just happens to be a vampire. However, she’s been twelve “for a long time,” and her gender turns out to be problematic as well. See below for a full discussion of this film, which was remade in an American version as Let Me In in 2010—also quite a good vampire film, though not as good as the original. The Swedish version is among the vampire films discussed in detail in this project.

The only Swedish vampire film prior to Let the Right One In was the unremarkable vampire comedy Frostbite (2006), though this film is of some interest in the way it draws upon the complex history of the relationship between Sweden and Germany during World War II. In addition, Ken Gelder notes that the film seems to have influenced Let the right One In (35). Meanwhile, only eight months after the release of Let the Right One In, another interesting and unusually realistic vampire film was released from Sweden. Not Like Others (2008, original title Vampyrer), written and directed by Peter Pontikis, features two vampire sisters in Stockholm who try to survive as best they can, given that they seem to lack the usual vampire superpowers and are vampires only through the fact that fresh human blood is virtually the only food they can stomach. The younger sister, Vera (Jenny Lampe), doesn’t mind that so much and is much less tortured by the thought of having to kill people for food, though she tends (at least from what we actually see in the film) to focus on attacking sexual predators who come on to her too aggressively. The older sister, Vanja (Ruth Vega Fernandez), really hates being a vampire and is determined to try to live as a human and eat human food, no matter how distasteful. At the beginning of the film, Vera lures a sinister-looking biker into the bathroom of an underground club, then stabs him in the throat and drinks his blood. Most of the rest of the film involves the efforts of the sisters to evade the other members of the dead biker’s gang, who come after them seeking revenge.

In 2009, South Korea’s Chan-wook Park, the director of the Korean cult horror film Oldboy (2003), released Thirst, his take on the vampire narrative.Here Park—who would move into American horror films with the psychological thriller Stoker (2013)—produces a stylish variation of the vampirism-as-disease motif, while also going in some interesting new directions with the vampire lovers trope. This film gains depth by being based on the nineteenth-century French novel Thérèse Raquin (1868), by Émile Zola. Its love-story plot examines issues such as passion (and the suppression thereof, while also treating issues such as the domestic abuse of women and exploring such themes as religion and its role in the world.

The vampire film also moved in an interesting new direction with the release of the international co-production Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), from American superstar indie director Jim Jarmusch. This film, discussed in detail below, is one of the most mature and intelligent vampire films ever made, proving that the form could still produce aesthetically interesting, thought-provoking films well into the twenty-first century. Among other things, this film draws upon a subtle strain of Orientalism that has frequently run through the vampire subgenre (as early as the original Dracula, Stoker emphasizes the easternness of Dracula’s origins in Transylvania), but also brilliantly subverts that strain, identifying it as just another tool with which capitalism has dominated (and pretty much destroyed) the planet.

The anti-Orientalism of Only Lovers Left Alive is also central to a film that followed soon after it, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who was born in Britain to Iranian parents, but grew up in the U.S. and learned her craft at UCLA film school. Amirpour is thus an embodiment of the international texture of contemporary cinematic culture, as is her film. Indeed, because of her background (and because of specific elements of the film), A Girl is centrally concerned with cross-cultural dialogues between the West and the Middle East. Itis set in a sort of alternate universe underground dystopian city simply called “Bad City.” The blighted black-and-white urban landscape of this city is somewhat reminiscent of the ruined Detroit of Only Lovers, though (as in the case of Jarmusch’s film)Bad City has a number of general allegorical referents that make it a sort of emblem of postmodern decadence and decay. In the case of A Girl, however, this allegorical function is made more complex by the fact that Bad City, from its name on down, is an overtly allegorical construction that does not correspond to any specific real-world place.The characters in the film all speak Farsi, and road signs and other linguistic markers are in that language as well. Otherwise, however, there are few geographical indications, and, if the film is seen to be taking place in Iran, it is a distinctively other-worldly Iran that has relatively little in common with the Iran of our world. It could be nearly anywhere and, especially given the black-and-white aesthetic of the cinematography, combined with the seedy nature of the city and the events that take place in it, it really looks more like a city out of film noir (perhaps as filtered through David Lynch) than like a city in Iran.[7] Actually, Bad City is reminiscent more than anything of the Sin City of Frank Miller’s graphic novels of that title—and especially of the 2005 film adaptation directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, a film that was itself heavily influenced by film noir. The film also puts a strong emphasis on gender; the “girl” of the title is a chador-wearing vampire (played by Sheila Vand), who wears very Western-style clothing under the chador and uses her vampire powers to wreak vengeance on men who have abused women, somewhat like Vera in the 2008 Swedish vampire film Not Like Others. A Girl is chock full of pop cultural allusions; it is, in fact, very much a film about film—so much so that Eddy Moretti (CEO of Vice Media, which picked up distribution of the film after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival) has declared Amirpour to be the next Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker known for the violence, cool music, and knowing references to other films that inform his own films (Beer). A Girl has all of these characteristics as well, so the Tarantino comparison might be apt, even if Amirpour is yet to have the track record to fully bear out the prediction (made by an executive, after all, who was responsible for marketing the film). Indeed, Amirpour might more properly be compared with Jarmusch, but of course that would be less effective for marketing purposes.

Vampire Comedies

Horror comedies presumably appeal to viewers because they allow us to confront our fears in more manageable form by making light of them. In addition, horror film is a cultural form that deals in extremity and is always in danger of going too far and becoming simply ridiculous. Vampire films, for example, are almost always a bit over-the-top, always teetering on the brink of self-parody, sometimes inadvertently going over the edge. Sometimes, though, they go over the edge on purpose, and it is no surprise that one of the most common forms of horror comedy involves films that have riffed on the vampire subgenre. As mentioned above, Dracula featured prominently in Universals monster mashup comedies of the 1940s. One of the first modern vampire comedies, meanwhile, was Love at First Bite (1979), which remains one of the best known of such comedies, perhaps more than anything because George Hamilton’s Dracula is so amazingly tan. Otherwise, the comedy in this film arises mainly from the frustrated (and totally inept) efforts of the grandson of the original Van Helsing to kill Dracula off once and for all. The efforts of Dracula himself, still steeped in old-world traditions, to fit in in the modern world of New York are also sometimes genuinely funny. In this film, Dracula not only survives, but even gets the girl, flying off (as a bat) into the sunset with his newly turned vampire bride.

Given the prominence of vampire films in the 1980s, it was probably inevitable that more vampire spoofs would appear in that decade as well. The truly lame vampire comedy Once Bitten (1985) features Lauren Hutton as the 400-year-old Countess, a vampire who must periodically drink the blood of a virgin to maintain her youth. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to find virgins in the modern world—which is pretty much the central “joke” of the whole film, and which also sums up the problem with the film: it just isn’t funny. Jim Carrey stars (in his first leading role) as the virgin the Countess is finally able to find, meanwhile showing little hint of the comic star he would ultimately become. Karen Kopins also stars, as his equally virginal girlfriend, who saves him from the vampire by finally taking his virginity, in the nick of time, rendering him useless to the vampire. Cleavon Little rounds out the main cast as the Countess’s gay assistant vampire, but even he isn’t funny. Same goes for the numerous gay jokes sprinkled throughout the film. This film has little going for it, despite the promising cast. Maybe that can be attributed to fledgling director Howard Storm, who had never before directed a feature film. He never directed another one, either, which is probably all for the best.

Vampire’s Kiss (1989), which shares a title with the vampire film being made within Body Double, is the darkly tragic story of a literary agent who descends into total madness, eventually coming to believe that he is a vampire and becoming a rapist and murderer, and then being murdered himself. Except that Nicolas Cage, in one of his most demented performances (and that’s saying a lot) is so over the top as Peter Loew, the agent, that the whole thing is turned into a dark comedy. There’s also a bit of interesting tension between Loew’s hallucinations and his real experiences, as it is sometimes hard to tell which is which. Basically, though, it’s just the spectacle of Cage acting increasingly insane, as Loew catches and eats cockroaches and pigeons and tries his best to act out vampire mythology, often in ludicrous ways, as when he buys a cheap pair of plastic vampire teeth to try to be more vampire-like, given that his own vampire incisors don’t seem to be developing as expected. This film may be best remembered for the fact that Cage actually ate a live cockroach during the shooting, but that one scene is really pretty much in line with all the others.

1989 also saw the release Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989), which took the comedy in a different direction by combining the vampire film with a Western. Here, the vampire King Mardulak (David Carradine, whose father had played Dracula in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) has established the vampire town of Purgatory in the West, hoping to see a day when vampires (drinking synthetic blood, long before True Blood) can live in peace with humans. But a rival vampire leader, Shane (Maxwell Caulfield), believes that this détente can never work and wants to go back to the old days, leading to a sort of range war between the rival factions. It’s all pretty silly (made more so by the Western movie music that accompanies it all), but actually quite fun. Humans, per the codes of the Western, are the apparently sheep ranchers, or maybe the dirt farmers; however, they don’t really play much of a part, though there is a human family that gets caught in the midst of the war and eventually joins the fray. Mardulak (who turns out actually to be Dracula, of course) wins the war. Lots of excellent character actors, including the always reliable M. Emmet Walsh, help to spice it all up. The best part, though, is cult star Bruce Campbell, who plays Robert Van Helsing, great grandson of Abraham. He, of course, is a vampire hunter, and he comes to town hoping to wipe out all vampires. He’s also hilariously super-nerdy. He’s also pretty ineffectual and quickly gets taken down (and turned into a vampire) by a beautiful vampire woman (played by Deborah Foreman). The comedy of this film is typified when a woman discovers that she has unknowingly been transformed into a vampire. Shocked, she asks in horror, “What am I gonna tell my mother?”

With Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), Mel Brooks tried to do for the Dracula movie what he had done for the Frankenstein movie with Young Frankenstein (1974) more than two decades earlier. He didn’t quite succeed, but this one is still funnier than most vampire comedies, partly because of the direct parodic engagement with earlier Dracula movies, and partly because of Brooks’s one-liners and sight gags, which don’t always work but can be quite goofily funny, often making this one seem like Dracula Meets the Three Stooges. At one point, for example, Dracula (here played by Leslie Nielsen) shows up with that ridiculous double-bouffant hairstyle that had earlier made Gary Oldman’s Dracula look like he had a hairy butt on his head in Coppola’s Dracula (1992). But then he lifts it off, revealing that, in this case, the poofy hair is just a hat that fits over his regular hair. All in all, this one sticks surprisingly close to the outlines of the well-known Dracula story, and sometimes even recycles specific lines from earlier films, as when Nielsen’s Dracula declares that “I never drink … wine,” just as Bela Lugosi had done. Nielsen’s Dracula accent seems modeled directly on Lugosi’s as well, though it is slightly parodic, and indeed almost everyone here has a slightly overdone accent, perhaps most of all Brooks himself, as Professor Van Helsing, who seems part Dutch, part English, and all Jewish.

Vampires Suck (2010), from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (former Scary Movie writers who also made such spoofs as Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans) is a spoof of the Twilight franchise (with a few gags aimed at other recent films as well). Twilight, of course, is an easy target, because it is totally ridiculous, but takes itself entirely seriously. Unfortunately, Vampires Suck, while occasionally vaguely humorous, is probably even worse than Twilight. This thing is so puerile it makes Scary Movie look like Citizen Kane. This might have worked as a five-minute sketch, but there really isn’t enough substance here to sustain a full-length movie.

The vampire comedy made a comeback of sorts with New Zealand’s What We Do in the Shadows (2014), directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (the latter of whom went on to direct the comic-book megahit film Thor: Ragnarok in 2017). Successfully adopting a mockumentary format, this film features lots of vampire-film in-jokes as a documentary film crew follows a group of vampire housemates who are preparing to attend New Zealand’s “Unholy Masquerade,” which is apparently a big social event (if you’re a vampire). Of course, vampires are notoriously secretive about their activities, so the very idea of having a film crew follow vampires is already incongruous. Much of the film’s humor only works if the audience is familiar with vampire mythology—suggesting just how widely known this mythology is. There are also overt references to specific vampire films, including The Lost Boys and Twilight. This is one of the more successful horror-film comic mockumentaries, a genre that includes such comedies as the 2010 Norwegian entry Trollhunter. The mockumentary format is also closely related to the found-footage films of recent years, with the 1999 hit The Blair Witch Project leading the way. But What We Do in the Shadows is perhaps the best of them all, suggesting that the vampire comedy has not yet been exhausted. It is one of the six films that are discussed in detail in this project.


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[1] See McNally for an extensive elaboration of this Marxist analogy between capitalism and vampirism. For McNally, late capitalism is even more monstrous than the capitalism of Marx’s day. It is, he says “a conjuror’s dream of wild money … demonically out of control” (156). But he also emphasizes, drawing upon Jameson, that vampire and other monstrous narratives can perform the utopian function of revealing the monstrosity of capitalism.

[2] This film was a late entry in the British Hammer Film Productions sequence of horror films, co-produced with American International Pictures. It has its moments, but seems largely designed to emphasize the allure of its star, the Polish import Ingrid Pitt, who became a key late-Hammer star. She was good enough as a sexy vampire that she returned in the title role in Hammer’s Countess Dracula a year later.

[3] Vampire series have fared better on television than have most horror series. One classic case is the long-running vampire soap opera Dark Shadows, which ran on American television for over 1200 episodes from 1965 to 1971. Among many other vampire series, among the most successful have been the sexy/violent HBO series True Blood (2008–2014) and the CW series The Vampire Diaries (2009–2017), a hit especially with teenage viewers. Dark Shadows, incidentally, was adapted into a spoofy film (starring Johnny Depp) in 2012. Buffy itself, meanwhile, was preceded by a somewhat inferior (but occasionally funny) film version in 1992.

[4] The Blade trilogy is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its pioneering role in bringing Marvel comics to the big screen. Blade II (2002), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is perhaps the most interesting of the three films, largely because of its striking visuals. For more on this franchise, see my discussion of it in my book “May Contain Graphic Material” (59–72).

[5] Atwill, a former British stage actor, appeared in number of American horror films, including four Frankenstein films for Universal. His most important role was as the one-armed Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939).

[6] “Nordic noir” (which takes it name from a combination of its geographical origins and its family resemblance to American film noir) has become a popular form in Scandanavian fiction, film, and television. The best-known work is probably The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released as a novel in 2005, as a Swedish film in 2009, and as an American film in 2011.

[7] A Girl was actually filmed in Southern California—perhaps the single most common setting for film noir and for the hard-boiled detective fiction that inspired it.