Monday, November 1, 2010

A Century of Vampires That Don’t Suck

If you’ve seen a lot of vampire movies, there’s one thing you know for sure: There aren’t very many good ones. It’s true that, in any genre (especially horror), there are going to be more bad films than good ones, but the subject matter of vampires is a particularly thin tightrope. Consequently, you will find filmmakers resorting to cheap laughs, gratuitous nudity or, worst of all, making up their own rules (what vampires can or can’t do) to accommodate their storyline. For instance, Anne Rice claimed that stakes through the heart is a myth and Stephenie Meyer declared that vampires can not only walk around in the daylight, but sparkle as well. When Kevin Smith was asked to write the script for a reboot of the Superman franchise, the producer told him he didn’t want Superman to wear his costume or fly, to which Smith responded, “The suit and flying defines Superman.” Same thing with vampires: If you’re going to make them impervious to stakes and sunlight, doesn’t it then cease to be a vampire movie?

The other fatal flaw with vampire flicks is their tendency towards melodrama. Melodrama isn’t always a bad thing (sometimes it works quite well, actually), but the problem is, melodrama tends to date the material. In other words, vampire movies that were hugely popular in their day end up laughably embarrassing mere years later. It’s sadly ironic that, while vampires themselves never grow old, their movies, generally speaking, do not hold up well over time. However, if you look thoroughly enough, you will find some masterpieces of the undead that withstand the test of time without defying convention.

The following is a recap of 100 years of vampire cinema with a film selected from each decade that exemplifies the right way to do it. Gourmet bloodsucking, if you will. These films play by the rules and are as effective by today’s standards as they were in their own time. Some are obvious milestones, others are overlooked treasures, but all are films that not only respect the genre, but elevate it. If you’re a fan of the undead and looking to treat yourself to a movie marathon of the best in blood, bats and black capes this Halloween (or anytime of year, really), here is your list:

The Devil’s Daughter (1915): You’ve probably never heard the name Theda Bara, but this is the woman who single-handedly defined the movie vampire. In fact, she defined “Goth” as a look before there was even a name for it. All silent film stars had chalky-white faces, but with her black hair, black eyes and black lips, Theda Bara looked like a vampire even when she played Cleopatra. She was so mesmerizing in The Devil’s Daughter that she played a vampire in five different films in 1915 alone. You’ll probably have a great deal of trouble finding this film (online or otherwise), but if you ever find the opportunity to view it, don’t miss it! The impact of Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance(s) as Dracula was largely due to the intensity in his eyes as he put his victims into a trance, but Bara could stare down Lugosi without any effort on her part whatsoever. If you’re skeptical, do a Google image search of Theda Bara and see for yourself. She’s been dead for 55 years, but she can still cast a spell on you. If that’s not a true vampire, what is?

Nosferatu (1922): Unlike The Devil’s Daughter, this film is popular enough that you can often catch it playing at a local theater (especially around Halloween), if you keep your eyes open. And if you’re really lucky, you can see it with live musicians performing the haunting score. Either way, try to see this on a big screen in a darkened theater, if you can. It’s amazing that a movie with no voices or sound effects could be this unsettling. It’s partly due to director F.W. Murnau’s effective use of shadows and partly due to Max Schreck’s performance as the title character. He doesn’t look as though he’s wearing too much make-up in the role, yet Count Orlok seems so inhuman (particularly when he looks into the camera), your skin can’t keep from crawling. Considering how scary this film comes across today, it must have been absolutely traumatizing to audiences in 1922. Indeed, it was banned in Sweden for 50 years for that very reason. This is the best vampire film on this list, which means it’s the best vampire film ever.

The Vampire Bat (1933): You’re probably thinking “What? Not 1931’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi?” The truth is, Dracula, while widely beloved and undeniably influential, really doesn’t hold up well. It has a good start, with some truly creepy moments and impressive gothic scenery, but once you leave Castle Dracula, it starts to get pretty cheesy. This is largely due to the god-awful bat puppets used in the film. The Vampire Bat, for starters, uses real bats. Right in the opening scene, even. Furthermore, the film remains dark and shadowy throughout (even in daylight scenes) implying that nobody in the film is safe at any time and, as it turns out, they are not. It also employs the Blair Witch Project philosophy that, the less you see, the scarier the effect. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the film, though, is its commentary on mob mentality. When people in the town of Klineschloss start dying from what appear to be vampire attacks, the villagers start aggressively seeking out the culprit. The most likely candidate seems to be Herman, the town simpleton (played by Dwight Frye, who basically repeats his performance as Renfield from Dracula, only more disheveled and imbecilic) who just happens to be obsessed with bats. It’s not long before town gossip escalates toward a lynch mob bent on hunting Herman down. Movie history shows that, in situations like this, the answer is never the obvious one, but the film keeps things ambiguous enough that you realize that Herman may not be the vampire, but then again maybe he could be. The mystery there is what makes the film timeless and relevant: The danger of allowing fear to make snap judgments. For instance, nowadays, you could equate the suspicion of the villagers in the film to the growing paranoia and animosity towards Muslims in America. In another 100 years, it’ll be someone else.

Dead Men Walk (1943): For years after Bela Lugosi’s huge success playing Dracula, virtually every movie vampire thereafter tried to ride that gravy train by mimicking his performance. The cape, the skulking, the slicked-back hair, the accent, etc. Here’s a film brave enough to go in another direction with a more cool, calm, collected vampire. Think the ghost of Delbert Grady in The Shining and you begin to get the idea. The film begins with Dr. Lloyd Clayton at his brother Elwyn’s funeral where you learn Elwyn died by Lloyd’s hand. It seems Elwyn was a magician who dabbled in the darks arts and, when confronted by his brother, things turned violent and there’s some town gossip that debates whether it was murder or self-defense on Clayton’s part. Elwyn returns from the grave as a vampire taunting Lloyd with revenge manifested by drinking the blood of their niece Gayle (whose guardian happens to be Lloyd) and make her his eternal servant. Lloyd begins to question his sanity and confides in Gayle’s fiancé David about what he’s seen. David then also begins to question Lloyd’s sanity and more rumors about the good doctor start to spread about town. To makes matters worse, when witnesses start spotting Elwyn drinking the blood of the townsfolk, logically, they’re more inclined to believe it’s Lloyd doing the killing rather than his believed-to-be-deceased brother, Elwyn. It’s not long before another lynch mob is underway. This all leads to a for-god’s-sake-hurry climax as suspenseful as any you’re likely to see in any vampire movie. George Zucco is fantastic in his performance playing both brothers. Even though they are twins, his characterization of both roles is so flawless that you can tell who is who whenever they come onscreen. The filmmaking is impressively adept at having the two of them interact realistically with trick photography and convincing body doubles. Chances are, had you not been told the same person played both brothers, you would have assumed they’d found two different actors with a striking resemblance to each other. Why this film isn’t more highly revered as a vampire classic makes you wonder.

Horror of Dracula (1958): Vampire movies in the 50’s are slim pickings since Godzilla and pals demonstrated there was money to be made in giant reptiles and giant bugs destroying the city. Most vampire films during that time were campy flicks where rock-n-rollin’ teenagers in hot rods were accosted by corny vampires who were, like, a total drag, Daddy-O. Thank goodness for the inception of Hammer Films in 1957 which dominated the vampire/frankenstein/mummy genre up through the early 70’s. Also, what vampire movie list would be complete without Christopher Lee as Dracula pursued by Peter Cushing as Van Helsing? Horror of Dracula is a pretty liberal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but the essence of the story remains and the changes they make to the story are refreshing without feeling like a betrayal. Actually, they turn out to be nice surprises if you’ve read Dracula or seen too many adaptations of it already. At least it’s not another recycling of the same story with an actor trying to recreate the magic by aping Lugosi yet again. Cushing played Van Helsing at least five times and Lee played Dracula twice as many, yet they always seemed to take it seriously and never failed to deliver. You could argue which Hammer Film is the definitive one, but if you’re looking for a good place to start, this one certainly hits all the right notes. The way Van Helsing takes Dracula out in this one is particularly badass.

The Last Man on Earth (1964): You probably know this film from the novel it’s based on: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Forget the Will Smith version. That movie totally missed the point of the story, particularly with its bastardization of the ending. Vincent Price’s loneliness and desperation are quite palpable and the flashbacks that show how he came to be in this situation are as heartbreaking as they are disturbing. In one particular flashback, his wife has died from the vampire virus, but, in his grief, he can’t bring himself to burn her body even though he knows he should. He buries her instead and you’re left just waiting for her to come back for him. When she shows up scratching at the door whispering “Let… Me… In…”, it’s truly chilling. Like The Vampire Bat, there are underlying messages in this film about society and its evolution (or de-evolution) that are still relevant today. And, while this is not as widely popular a vampire film as Dracula or Nosferatu, when you watch it, you’ll likely recognize its influence on future films. Not just future vampire films, either. George Romero has said that this movie served as a blueprint for the original Night of the Living Dead.

Love at First Bite (1979): If you’re going to make a comedic spoof of the Dracula legend, you can’t find more inspired casting than George Hamilton as the Count and Arte Johnson as Renfield. To be sure, this is a screwball comedy, but all the proper elements for a decent vampire flick are still in place. Actually, if a 19th-Century Carpathian vampire were to integrate himself into contemporary American society, this is probably pretty close to how it would go down. In fact, it’s quite creative. Richard Benjamin is particularly hilarious as a neurotic descendant of Van Helsing who so desperately wants to destroy Dracula he doesn’t bother to research the proper ways of doing it first. With every failed attempt, the authorities drag him away as he calmly reassures them “I’m a doctor, I know what I’m doing.” The reason this film works is because, while most vampire movies take themselves too seriously, this one certainly does not. Yes, it’s a comedy, but it’s still the most effective vampire movie of the 70’s. Unless you prefer soft-core porn, maybe.

Fright Night (1985): If you were born in the late 60’s or early 70’s, you might think it’s blasphemous to name anything other than The Lost Boys as the quint-essential vampire movie of the 80’s. While your nostalgic fondness may be justifiable, objectively speaking, Fright Night is a better film. Remember, this list is made up of vampire films that remain timeless. The Lost Boys is so dated, it showcases everything that was embarrassing about the 80’s like a badge of honor. It’s got big hair, the two Coreys, and a new-wave soundtrack where the song “Cry Little Sister” is played so often in the film, you could make a drinking game out of it. Nobody born after 1980 can watch The Lost Boys without rolling their eyes or shaking their head. True, Fright Night does display its timeliness during the night club scene, but, in the context of the film, it works because it’s the turning point where the vampire seduces the hero’s girlfriend. And it’s not nearly as cringe-inducing as almost every scene from The Lost Boys. More importantly, Fright Night brings back all the classic elements of past vampire films that you rarely see anymore: Turning into bats, casting no reflections, sleeping in coffins, having human caretakers, and so on. And it uses all of those ingredients in a way that doesn’t feel forced or contrived. It doesn’t bend the rules, it embraces them. It’s just a damn good movie by any horror film standards. Plus, hands down, it has the greatest display ever of a vampire being incinerated by sunlight.

The Night Flier (1997): There was a trend in the 90’s to try to figure out a way for vampires to be killed by bullets in order to accommodate conformist action sequences. In Innocent Blood, you could shoot vampires in the head (sorry, but that’s zombies). In Blade, you could shoot vampires with silver bullets (sorry, but that’s werewolves). In From Dusk Till Dawn, you could shoot vampires with bullets that had crosses etched into the tips (sorry, but that’s lame). Coppola made a valiant attempt at returning to the old-school by remaking Dracula, but that film suffered from over-stylized filmmaking and an awkward performance by Keanu Reeves (who should never play a character that doesn’t get to say “whoa”). Leave it to Stephen King to deliver the best of both worlds: Some old-school, some new-school resulting in something unique, but good. The Night Flier is a truly modest film with an estimated budget of only $1 million that played on only 95 screens when it opened. With those numbers, it really didn’t stand a chance and it’s no wonder so few have seen it, but despite those numbers, it’s really quite impressive. Miguel Ferrer, playing the abrasive anti-hero he does so well, is Richard Dees, a disenchanted tabloid reporter/photographer who pursues a story about a vampire flying from state to state claiming victims in various small towns throughout New England. Only the vampire isn’t traveling as a bat, but as a pilot in a Cessna Skymaster 337 using the plane as his coffin during the day. This film functions mostly as a cat-and-mouse thriller with Dees, also a pilot, following the bloody trail of the vampire and talking to witnesses and friends of the victims along the way. Most vampire films have the formula where the protagonist is the only one who believes his adversary is a vampire while those around him think he’s crazy. In this case, Dees believes the man he’s following is merely a psycho while the people he comes across in his search warn him that it is indeed a vampire and he should stay away. What’s most impressive about this film is how it sneaks up on you. When the final confrontation between Dees and the vampire comes, it is surprisingly unsettling and quite haunting. Plus, there is an unexpected twist that makes for a great payoff. Despite its lackluster performance at the box office, this film isn’t hard to find on DVD. Although, should you seek it out, try to find a way to rent it without looking at the box cover. Apparently, the marketers of the film felt they’d get a better response if they put a picture of the vampire’s face on the cover, which is one of the best reveals of the movie after much build up.

Let the Right One In (2008): Ignore the American remake currently in theaters entitled Let Me In. This film borders on perfection and the very thought of a remake is insulting. It’s a shame it’s been generally passed over in favor of the Twilight and True Blood bandwagons because, after Nosferatu, it may just be the finest vampire movie ever made. A big part of its power comes from its observance of the horror of pre-adolescence more than the horror of being a vampire. It’s a coming of age film, first and foremost. An outcast of a boy, who is picked on by bullies and ignored by his family, befriends a girl his age (even though she could very well be hundreds of years old) who is an outcast herself because she’s a vampire. As far as tales of first-loves go, this one’s a doozy. Since it is set in Sweden, it is conveniently dark all the time, which is not only good for vampires, but good for atmosphere. Not a lot of vampire films take place in snowy climates, either, which is too bad, if you think about it. Blood is so much more striking when it is splashed about on a white landscape. To tell you any more would be to lessen the impact of this masterpiece. If you consider yourself a fan of vampire cinema and you haven’t seen this, you must. And since it is the most recent film on this list, it’ll probably be easier to get your friends to watch it with you. If they don’t object to subtitles, that is.

These are, of course, not the only good vampire movies of the past century, but they are the ones most likely to endure and remain ideal entries into the ongoing immortality of the vampire genre another hundred years from now. It will be interesting to see what the iconic vampire film of this decade will be. And the decade after that. And the decade after that. It’s almost enough to make you want to become a vampire yourself just to find out.

Footnote: This article appears in the October issue of Haberdashers Magazine. You can view this issue in its entirety online here, but check your local newsstand for a printed copy. If they don't carry Haberdashers, do me a favor and request that they do. The more interest and distribution Haberdashers gets, the better it will improve and you will be able to see more articles like this from me.

No comments:

Post a Comment