People have believed in vampires for over a thousand years. Stories have circulated for centuries about people drinking blood, souls returning from the dead and people unable to walk in the sunlight. The word "vampire" was probably coined somewhere in the mid-18th century. Several stories were published referencing vampires, but the most famous and relevant of all was Bram Stoker's Dracula, first published in 1897.
Frances Dade and Bela Lugosi in Dracula
Dracula invented the vampire rules that, more or less, exist to this day:
- A vampire cannot exist in the sunlight. A vampire can change into a wolf or a bat.
- A vampire sucks the blood of the living, and doing so turns the living into vampires as well (unless the vampire chooses to kill its victim).
- Since the vampire is undead, he is essentially immortal and does not age.
- A vampire may not enter a home unless invited. A vampire is afraid of Holy Crosses, Holy Water and garlic.
- Finally, a vampire may be killed by the act of driving a wooden stake through its heart.
The core storyline of Stoker's Dracula, and the basis for many of the other films, goes like this: a Transylvanian count moves to England and causes a raft of unexplained occurrences. His deeds are narrated in several different first-person accounts (news reports, diaries, etc.) until he is finally captured and laid to rest. The main characters include Jonathan Harker, who first comes to Transylvania and helps the Count move to London; Jonathan's fiancée Mina; Mina's friend, Lucy, who first becomes fascinated by the new arrival; the head of the asylum, Dr. Seward; Professor Van Helsing, who specializes in rare diseases; and poor Renfield, the vampire's first victim.
Stoker's thriller succeeded partially because of its intense sexual undercurrent. The vampire's nibbling can easily be interpreted as aggressive sexual behavior, and his female victims experience erotic submission as they relax and give in to his charms. One could also read several levels further, exploring themes of S&M as well as homosexual encounters.
Coincidentally, Stoker's novel almost exactly paralleled the invention of motion pictures. Probably the first example of the vampire film came from Germany, with Arthur Robison's Nächte des Grauens (1916) starring Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel). Robert Wiene made Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire in 1920, but it has little to do with the vampire legend and shares more in common with Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - probably the first example of German Expressionist horror, a tale of a somnambulist, a hypnotist and a series of grisly murders. Subsequently, a "condensation" of Genuine was made available on Kino's 2001 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari DVD.
Oddly, the term "vampire" was borrowed in the 1920s to describe man-eating women from the Roaring Twenties, notably Greta Garbo in some of her early roles (The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil etc.) Thankfully, the term was quickly shortened to "vamp" for clarity's sake. Likewise, Louis Feuillade made his masterful serial Les Vampires (1915), which dealt not with the undead, but with a gang of criminals.
Max Schreck in Nosferatu
The first real, honest-to-goodness vampire film came in 1922, and it's still one of the best: F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen borrowed liberally from Stoker's novel without permission or credit, simply changing the names and hoping no one would notice. Unfortunately, Stoker's widow did notice; she sued and tried to have all the prints and negatives destroyed. Fortunately for us, she did not entirely succeed, and Nosferatu exists today on two great DVDs, one from Kino (2002) and the other from Image Entertainment (2000). The Kino disc features two musical scores, one by Gerard Hourbette and Thierry Zaboitzeff, and one by Donald Sosin. The Image disc comes with two other musical scores, one by the Silent Orchestra, and one by organist Timothy Howard. The Image disc also features a commentary track by German scholar Lokke Heiss.
In Murnau's story, Max Schreck stars as the Dracula character, called Orlock. Murnau conjures up some very creepy effects, such as the memorable shot of the vampire rising, stiff as a board, without moving any limbs. In one exceedingly chilling shot, the film turns negative, reversing all the blacks and whites - except for the vampire himself.
Filmmakers all through the 20th century have paid tribute to Nosferatu, using clips in other films and music videos. The two most significant tributes are Werner Herzog's 1979 remake Nosferatu: The Vampyre - with a memorable Klaus Kinski in the lead - and E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a beautifully crafted film that imagines what would have happened if Murnau (John Malkovich) had cast a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) in his movie.