What used to conjure up images of a pale, aristocratic gentleman in formal dinner wear has now been supplanted by pale, haunted-looking teenage boys who twinkle. No matter. The vampire tradition is as old as the cinema itself, and much older, still. Every country has their own version of the vampire in their folklore, and believe me, no two are alike.
So, how come all of the vampires in the movies are so Dracula-esque? Have you ever looked at the sheer number of vampire movies that have Dracula in the title? It’s a lot. As literary figures go, Dracula is one of the most successful, most popular of all time.
Maybe that’s why I gravitate to different vampire stories. I like ‘em monstrous and feral. Oh, they can look human at first, and they can even be attractive and seductive, provided they ugly-up when the blood spills. I watched a lot of Dracula films as a kid, and I kinda burned myself out on them. Now when I want vampires, I go in a different direction. These films below pretty much sum up what I’m looking for in a vampire flick.
Fright Night (1985)
"That bastard! Why didn't he tell us there was going to be a pop quiz?" -- Charley
This film is high on a number of lists, because it gleefully embraces the vampire folklore and then subverts it. Like so many 1980s movies, Fright Night is a post-modern commentary on the genre, even as the story is made up entirely of genre conventions. When the next door neighbor, Jerry Dandrige, turns out to be a creature of the night, no one believes the horror-movie obsessed kid. Roddy MacDowell is perfect as the aging actor who appeared in so many b-grade vampire movies and finds himself in the role of a lifetime. The writing is terribly uneven; all of the dialogue surrounding the kids and school feels like it was written by tired old men. However, the vampire stuff is premium. Not only are there some great jump-scares in the movie, but also some real horror moments of dread, such as the first time Charlie meets his vampire neighbor face-to-face.
"Is this your wife? What a lovely throat." -- Graf Orlok
I love that this film survived the wrath of Bran Stoker’s widow. This loose version of the Dracula story is so creepy as a silent film, and also features some striking visuals that have yet to be equaled in cinema. Count Orlock, played by Max Schreck, is iconic and surreal, with his rat-like features and distended claw-like hands. What a visual. Of course, the special effects are primitive, but the film still has a mood and a feeling that makes you want to keep watching. This storied film has been restored by Kino and is available in a “definitive” version, digitally cleaned up as much as possible. Nosferatu is the cinematic acorn from which has grown the mighty oak tree.
Near Dark (1987)
"Those people back there, they wasn't normal. Normal folks, they don't spit out bullets when you shoot 'em, no sir." -- Loy
This indy vampire film came out the same year as the slick, polished The Lost Boys, and is a far better movie, for no other reason than it stars a young Bill Paxton and an old Lance Hendrikson instead of Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. Written and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film is about a young man who falls in love with a wild young woman, and falls in with this pack of traveling vampires. These guys aren’t nice, nor are they particularly sexy, although I know there’s a group of women out there who think Lance Hendrikson is the man. This is a mean, stripped down, and bloody story that wallows in young love and nihilism.
"His chest mortally pierced, his last words: Suo tempore. This was the alchemist." -- Narrator
When I first saw this movie, Guillermo Del Toro’s first film, I was blown away. An old man acquires a strange artifact that imparts immortality, but at such a cost . . . and even as he’s dealing with the repercussions of messing with the scarab, other interested parties are closing in on him. Such an interesting premise for vampirism, and specifically the part that imparts immortality. I was struck by how “literary” the film was, giving us some complicated stuff and letting us sit with it for a while. How nice. Of course, this is all part of how Del Toro puts movies together in the first place. As vampire movies go, this one is one of the furthest off the path, but it’s those differences that make it so interesting. This is a great example of quiet horror. You watch the movie, and then later, as you’re thinking about it, things come back to you and give you the shudders.
Let the Right One In (2008)
"I'm twelve. But I've been twelve for a long time. -- Eli
Easily one of the best vampire movies ever. A bullied and tortured young boy meets a slightly older girl and they become friends. It sounds, and kinda feels, like one of those French films from the 1970s that were on HBO in heavy rotation. But it quickly takes several dark, creepy turns and becomes something that grows more horrific the longer you think about the implications. The movie does a good job of merely suggesting and hinting at what the book makes graphically explicit. Of course, they remade the film into the American Let Me In, and did as good a job with it as they could have, but there’s something about the Swedish version that is way more unsettling. I can’t recommend this film highly enough if you’re a horror movie junkie.
Bonus film! 30 Days of Night (2007)
You can feel it. That cold ain't the weather." -- The Stranger
This movie, based on the comic book smash hit (which was a failed movie pitch initially, thus showing us how Hollywood’s collective brain works) is all concept and unfortunately, not a lot of execution. The premise is exquisite: at the poles, where night can last for thirty days straight, you’d have to be more concerned about vampires than polar bears. Genius idea. However, the movie (which seems to borrow a lot from John Carpenter’s playbook) doesn’t switch it up as much as it should. I wanted more vampire-fu, since this is a protracted siege on the town. However, the movie closes ranks pretty quickly and the result is pretty uneven. You’ll either love it or hate it, but there’s not a lot of room in between.