Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning's 1931 classic, "Dracula."
The mythology and belief in the vampire, in all of its assorted forms, is ancient. In fact, the Greeks believed that having red hair was a symptom of vampirism. (Yes, we ginges have been discriminated against for a longass time.) The Lamia were believed to be women who wore snake skin and were used as a threat by parents to keep their kids in check. The lamia are even connected to Lilith, who was believed to be the biblical Adam’s first wife who was run off because of her unwillingness to submit to him. The Ewe people in West Africa believed that vampires could take the form of fireflies and specifically prey on their young. Now, is anyone going to use some glittery, metrosexual dandy to scare their hell spawn into cleaning their room? Hell no!
How did these creatures of the night go from being baby eating, blood slurping, vein eating, fanged, hideous monsters to Teen Beat fodder? While Twilight (2008) might seem like the obvious example, the direct root lies more with Anne Rice’s group of beautiful and tragic creatures. But at least Rice’s vampires had literal fangs and were halfway complex creatures capable of real villainy. (Except for Louis, who was a bonafide pussy that should have jumped into the sun before the second book was even published.) The vampire with human type fragility has popped up in great movies (Herzog’s 1978 remake of Murnau’s classic Nosferatu), underrated TV series (Forever Knight) and entertaining, though highly flawed films (Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)
The main cast of the vastly underrated "Forever Knight."
Truth be told, any Twilight hater out there could also probably blame Joss Whedon and the success of his shows, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. Of course, this can get a bit like the bible. Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931) begat Terrence Fisher’s The Horror of Dracula (1958) which begat Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows (1966) which begat Forever Knight (1989) which ultimately begat Angel (1999), who was begat by Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997). Yes, it can all make one’s head explode into a sanguine froth, but the creative arts in general are like this.
But you know who truly is to blame? It’s not Rice or Whedon, especially since both have done some good work and are capable of talent. It’s not even Stephenie Meyer, the creator of the Twilight books. Heck, seeing people, certainly kids, getting excited about reading is reassuring and gives writers like myself some hope. No, it’s the one-two punch of public demand and the major studios. The public needs to demand vampires with fangs and balls. If you want great cinema in general, then demand it because money talks. And for my money, one of the best vampire films in the past 20 years was the underrated Subspecies (1991).
Radu was charismatic and ghoulish. He had a heart but he also delighted in such wonderful activities as staking his own brother and then drinking his blood as it spurted out of his quickly decaying chest. Now that is a proper vampiric protaganist! Not to mention his striking physical appearance, with the long, spindly claw-like fingers of Nosferatu and the skin color and lanky hair of someone who has been in an eternal stasis of rot. It’s been noted that the hair and nails continue to grow post mortem, which is the visual effect you get with Radu. Having a highly talented Dutch actor in the form of Anders Hove doesn’t hurt any and he is able to give the monster a human side without sacrificing any of his nightmarish qualities, which is exactly how it should be.
Of course in this era of severe media retardation, ghouls don’t really sell that well to the libidos of adolescent girls or middle-aged women. Radu didn’t have six-pack abs nor was he some kind of sad panda-faced dandy. You can couple that with the character being in a low budget, independent film and it’s no surprise that people do not mention the name Radu next to wimps like Louis or any of the Twilight twinks. All that said, the Subspecies series does not get enough love. The first three films are highly recommended and really managed to blend the gothic imagery of the classics of vampire cinema with an old European world approach to the undead.
Which brings me to the aforementioned Bram Stoker’s Dracula. On one hand, it is visually lavish with one of the best cinematic scores courtesy of Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. Half of the cast are terrific, especially Tom Waits as the best Renfield this side of Dwight Frye and Klaus Kinski, the always dependable Richard E. Grant as Dr. Seward and Gary Oldman as the titular character. Despite the mention of Stoker in the title, this version is about as far removed from the classic piece of literature as the 1931 Lugosi film. Stoker was totally a creature of his environment and being a Victorian gentleman, the film’s romanticism and positive eroticism of the monster that is Dracula would have more than likely repelled him.
There is an underlying sensuality to the novel’s vampires, but it is a polluted one. Sexuality back then was something that was viewed as poisonous that if unbridled in any way could lead to disease and downfall. Some have theorized that the vampire is a metaphor for venereal disease and it is not a far out theory when dealing with this classic Victorian novel. Mina Harker is the prototype of the ideal Victorian woman, which makes Dracula attacking her all the more horrific, even if it is inadvertently dirty and sexual.
Coppola’s Mina is a winsome tart that is played horribly by Winona Ryder. She is to Mina what Kevin Costner was to Robin Hood. She looks lovely but was very ill suited acting ability wise for this character. This is especially obvious next to Sophie Ward’s Lucy, who is not only authentically British but actually has a natural warmth on screen. There’s nothing wrong with Mina having a sensuality to her but the problem is that Ryder is inherently an un-sexual performer. Peta Wilson had way more heat as a half-breed vampire version of Mina in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and was more compelling to boot. Ryder is just too bland and underdeveloped. Why would a guy like Dracula be excited by her? Jonathon Harker maybe, especially when he is played by the equally thespian challenged Keanu Reeves, but not some powerful, supernatural creature like Dracula.
Speaking of Reeves, the whole scene with him and the three oversexed vampire brides has moments of unintentional hilariousness, especially when he starts screaming. It’s eerily similar to one’s half-baked roommate finding out that their dog ate the rest of their stash.
One of the most annoying things about Coppola’s retelling, though, is the whole “love never dies” ploy. Granted the romanticism has garnered it a lot of fans and with better writing and a better lead actress, it could have really worked. Oldman is fantastic as this haunted creature that is still at heart a lonely man. In fact, while there are things I absolutely love about this movie, it is often frustrating because of the promise it holds and yet doesn’t automatically deliver. Plus Stoker’s name never should have been added to the title. Seeing a bad actor get his nipple licked was probably never on Stoker’s agenda for his masterwork.
One 90’s era vampire film that did deliver all the goods in spades was Jake West’s Razorblade Smile. It’s a helluva lot of fun and manages to balance the gothic trappings of the myth while incorporating bits of wit and Hollywood action film style violence. Eileen Daly stars as Lilith Silver, a raven-haired beauty who is a sexy assassin with a brain who is constantly trying to stave off boredom, whether it is having bloody lesbian sex or bumping off members of the Illuminati.
To properly cover all the great, flawed and horrible vampire films out there, one would and many have, written books about it. The undead in cinema has made circular progressions; going from monster to sexy monster to sexy romantic monster and back to monster all over again. Whether it is the bloodthirsty and captivating creatures from True Blood to the boy band twinkleness of the Twilight films, it will be interesting to see what the cinematic landscape holds for one of the oldest mythological creatures.
Bonus! My Personal Top 10 Favorite Vampires Films*
- Subspecies 1, 2, and 3 (tie)
- Nosferatu (Murnau original)/Nosferatu (Herzog Remake) (tie)
- Near Dark
- Dracula (1931)
- Blood for Dracula
- Razorblade Smile
- Blood and Donuts
- Lips of Blood
- Fright Night
The amazing John Amplas in one of the best films to have come out in the past 50 years, George Romero's Martin.
*My opinion is known to change according to mood, the position of the moon and how much my memory is willing to behave. Some honorary mentions should go to Taste of Blood, anything Franco has done, House of Dark Shadows, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dance of the Damned, Love at First Bite (I actually had a crush on Arte Johnson as a kid because of this movie), Sundown: the Vampire in Retreat, The Return of the Vampire, Rockabilly Vampire among many others.
The infamous Project:Vampire. The cover would be cool if this was really bad early 90's porn, which is an insult to really bad early 90's porn. Ugh.
My Personal Top 7 Worst Vampires Films Ever or How I Stopped Worrying and tried to be more discriminating.
- Project: Vampire
- Dracula 2000 (Good basic story idea horribly raped and mutilated by lazy filmmaking. Plus why does Dracula like Monster Magnet? Wouldn’t he be more into something genuinely good and dark, like Christian Death or Bauhaus? Kiss my ass! TM Whitney Houston)
- Witchcraft 7: Judgment Hour (Yes this is a vampire film and yes it is god-awful. It will make you hunger for the mise en scene of Night Eyes 2.
- Queen of the Damned (Despite my snarking on dandies, I did enjoy “Interview with the Vampire” but this piece of simpy crap was terrible. Jonathon Davis??? Really??? Why did the production people hate Lestat that much?)
- It’s a Troma film that I dare not type its name because just doing so could possibly send me into that spicy mix of anger and narcolepsy. Have you ever tried flipping off the TV while sinking into uncontrollable slumber? I don’t recommend it and I refuse to give them any publicity.
- Subspecies 4 (While the first three are exceptional films, the fourth one is severely lacking with them neutering Radu and Ash, the Jonathon Morris character from Full Moon’s Vampire Journals (1997), being equally diminished. The crossover potential of characters was great but ended up being a huge let down.)