Vampires

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80s

In the 1980s, filmmakers continued to explore, looking for specific subgenres with which to tell their stories. Tony Scott went the art-house route with the slick and pastel-colored The Hunger (1983), while Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys (1987) and to a lesser degree, Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985), reinvented vampire cool for teenage audiences. That same year Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985) centered around a sexy, naked vampire-like alien from outer space. Later, Ken Russell's bizarre The Lair of the White Worm (1988) - starring Hugh Grant and based on a lesser-known Stoker novel - took off the kid gloves and went all over the place in terms of storytelling, gore and sex. The story involves an ancient cult that worships a giant worm, though "story" has little to do with the appeal of this oddity.

Stupid vampire comedies flourished during the 1980s, including but not limited to: Once Bitten (1985), Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) and Vamp (1986). But Hong Kong filmmaker Ricky Lau made a keeper with, Mr. Vampire (1985), a kung-fu comedy in which the vampires hop instead of walk and can "bite" their victims with their fingernails as well as their teeth. In addition, Lau added to the mythology, by showing us that properly cooked sticky rice can stop them. And Robert Bierman's Vampire's Kiss (1989) is an effective black comedy about a man (Nicolas Cage) who - again - only thinks he's a vampire (or does he?). Cage's outlandish, unbridled performance, which recalls the acting in some of the German Expressionist classics, elevates this film to a minor cult classic.

Near Dark

By far the best vampire film of the 1980s is Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987), a neon-lit Western set in the dusty sun-baked flats of cowboy country. Jenny Wright stars as shy, pouty, dewy-eyed Mae, who unwittingly attracts the attention of handsome good ol' boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who subsequently keeps her out past her bedtime. When the sun rises, she bites him in order to save herself, and he winds up joining her band of roving badass bloodsuckers (Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein) living out of an aluminum foil-wrapped RV. The movie's unforgettable centerpiece has the vamps attacking a redneck bar for their midnight snack. Like Mark of the Vampire, the ending may upset some purists, but Bigelow's assured, poetic mood and uncommon intelligence make this one a masterpiece.

90s

In the 1990s, the subgenres began to solidify into known formats. We had the comedies, the serious art house fare and the straight-to-video soft-core films as well as the occasional Hollywood treatment and the post-modern, film school approach.

The first category, the vampire comedy, seems to have died out. Mel Brooks attempted Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) with Leslie Nielsen in the lead, but it already seemed outdated and out of touch. Wes Craven fared even less well with his Eddie Murphy comedy Vampire in Brooklyn (also 1995).

The feature comedy Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), starring Kristy Swanson, didn't make much of a mark upon its theatrical release, but its television spin-off five years later has entered the cultural zeitgeist. Lasting seven seasons and available in seven thick DVD box sets (as well as one giant, all-encompassing, 40-disc collection), Buffy stars the far more appealing Sarah Michelle Gellar in the lead role, playing it as a damaged, eagle-eyed teen rather than as the silly, brain-dead cheerleader of the film. Moving to a new town, she quickly meets several life-long friends, the nerdy Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan), the arrogant, popular Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and her new handler, Giles (Anthony Head). Over time, she gets to know some helpful vampires, Angel (David Boreanaz) and Spike (James Marsters) and a friendly werewolf, Oz (Seth Green), as well as a series of witches and other enchanted creatures. While balancing her social life and her school studies, Buffy must go out each night hunting for a new kind of spry, athletic vampire (or other beastie), using martial arts and stabbing them with wooden spikes (when killed, these vampires disappear in a poof of dust). The show created an intelligent balance of snarky humor, slick, spooky vampire violence and teen soap opera anxiety, causing its considerable cult following to tune in again and again. (Angel, also available on DVD, was a popular spin-off.)

There is no end to the straight-to-video soft-core films, but the most notable is arguably Embrace of the Vampire (1994) - not because it's a good film, but because it showcases the beautiful Alyssa Milano to brilliant effect. Milano plays an innocent college student who begins having sexy dreams about a vampire. It turns out a real vampire (Martin Kemp) has chosen her for his bride, but first he must woo her away from her boyfriend (Harold Pruett) before she gives up her virginity. The plot is only secondary to the movie's many dream sequences, gratuitous lesbian scenes, and soft-core orgies - all done with gothic seriousness and soft-focus.

The arthouse films ruled the 1990s above all with their inventiveness and superior quality. Beautifully filmed in black-and-white, Abel Ferrara's quasi-pretentious, but still fascinating The Addiction (1995) revolves around vampires (Lili Taylor and Christopher Walken) who study and quote philosophy! Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin (1990), Michael Almereyda's Nadja (1994) and Larry Fessenden's Habit (1997) provided similarly moody fare. And Jake West's cleverly titled Razor Blade Smile (1998) brought us a bisexual vampire (Eileen Daley) dressed all in tight, black leather.

Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula

Hollywood unfurled two more expensive, mainstream vampire films in the 1990s. The first was Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), supposedly the first theatrical film to remain faithful to the book. It featured supreme set design and a cast that ranged from Anthony Hopkins (hot from his Oscar as Hannibal Lecter) as Van Helsing and a wooden Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. Gary Oldman played Dracula with a high hairdo that inspired much ridicule. For all its gloss, the film never seemed to come to life.

Based on Anne Rice's extremely popular book of the same name, Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire (1994) fared only slightly better. Blessed with a hugely talented and charismatic cast (Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Christian Slater, Antonio Banderas, Stephen Rea and a young Kirsten Dunst in a haunting role as an aging vampire trapped in a young girl's body), the film had some chops - though the book's many hardcore fans strenuously disagreed.

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