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Vampires

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Origins

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.

Nosferatu

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.

Universal

Nine years after Nosferatu, in 1931, the talkies had arrived and the first official version of Bram Stoker's Dracula appeared - though it still was not directly based on the novel. Rather, it was adapted from the stage play by Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort. Director Tod Browning wanted his frequent leading man Lon Chaney to play the lead role, but Chaney grew fatally ill, so the role went to Bela Lugosi, who had played it on stage. Browning did the best he could with the stagy material - and the still-clunky sound recording equipment of 1931 - and, with the help of cinematographer Karl Freund, he turned in a moodily effective film that became a massive hit for Universal.

In Dracula, it's Renfield (Dwight Frye) who journeys to Transylvania to meet the Count, which makes more sense, since he's the one that ends up in the asylum. The Count enters London society and meets Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), his daughter Mina Seward (Helen Chandler), her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade), and Mina's fiancée John Harker (David Manners). Edward Van Sloan memorably plays Van Helsing, who deduces that the Count is really a vampire and kills him by driving a wooden stake through his heart.

That 1931 film comes with many footnotes, and in 2004, Universal released an excellent 2-DVD set featuring five key films in the "Dracula" cycle. First is George Melford's Spanish version, shot on the same sets at night, after Browning's daytime crew had wrapped. Many Dracula fans prefer the Spanish version to the English version, and it does flow quite a bit better, though it is longer, and it lacks Bela Lugosi's remarkable screen presence.

Even without Lugosi or Browning, Universal clung their cash cow and cranked out several Dracula sequels. The third film on the "Dracula" DVD set, Dracula's Daughter (1936), was a unique idea and a not-bad film. Picking up right where the 1931 film leaves off, Van Helsing is arrested at the scene of the "crime" and the new lady vampire (Gloria Holden) longs to be cured of her vampirism. Like Schreck and Lugosi, Holden has a creepy screen presence all her own and even manages to repeat Lugosi's signature line ("I never drink... wine") without embarrassment.

Universal had the good fortune to hire German expatriate Robert Siodmak to helm Son of Dracula (1943) - his younger brother Curt was already employed there writing various monster movies. Siodmak would go on to become a master of film noir in the 1940s, and he brings a sense of his shadowy darkness to this vampire sequel. Lon Chaney Jr. - who had recently become a star as The Wolf Man - took over the lead role.

From there, the sequels grew more and more ridiculous. The mystery and horror elements slowly evaporated while the monsters began appearing as pale shadows of their former selves. Dracula himself begins experimenting with ways to revive the Frankenstein monster to aid in his evil plans. Next came House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), teaming up the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), the Wolf Man (Chaney) and Dracula (John Carradine). "Son of Dracula" and "House of Dracula" are the fourth and fifth films on Universal's 2 disc DVD set.

Though playing Dracula made Lugosi a star, and he rarely strayed from the horror genre for the rest of his career, he ironically only played a vampire twice more: in Columbia's The Return of the Vampire (1944), a fascinating effort combining horror with a WWII setting, and in Universal's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), near the end of that studio's successful monster era. Universal had offered Lugosi the lead role in Frankenstein, and he turned it down, opting for a freelance career. He wound up struggling for the rest of his career, mostly stuck in low-paying B-Movies.

Director Tod Browning would take on the vampire genre twice more. His lost film London After Midnight (1927) reportedly has something to do with vampires (a "reconstruction" of that film is available on Warner Home Video's Lon Chaney Collection), and he remade it at MGM during the sound era with Mark of the Vampire (1935). In the latter, Lugosi leads a terrific cast (Lionel Barrymore, Jean Hersholt, Elizabeth Allan and Lionel Atwill) through a fairly routine plot similar to Dracula, though Browning had improved quite a bit from the stagy directing on his original, elevating the new film with a sharper look and unique set pieces. This 60-minute film is infamous for its trick ending that seems to annoy many vampire fans.

Vampyr

Just after Browning's seminal 1931 film came another landmark, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932). It's still one of the two or three greatest vampire films ever made, a deliriously off-kilter production of spongy, spine-tingling dream images.

The film's star, Julian West, is really Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg, a film enthusiast who helped finance the production. He plays Allan Gray (sometimes "David Gray," depending on the print), a man who checks into a hotel where spooky things start happening to him. A dead man (Maurice Schutz) enters his room, reads a book on vampirism, and sees shadows move independent of their owners. There's also a memorably frightening sequence depicting the journey of a coffin to its final resting place, from the point of view of its occupant (looking out a small window in the lid). Allan/David eventually realizes that this is all the work of a member of the undead and must try to rescue himself and the dead man's two daughters (Rena Mandel and Sybille Schmitz). It's not just that Dreyer's special effects are superb; it's also his dreamy presentation, with its slightly dislocated space and time and springy sense of reality, that contribute to the overall, powerful effect. Vampyr was shot in four separate languages (French, English, German, and Danish) and the surviving film was probably cobbled together from fragments of these different versions.

Hammer

After Universal drained the blood from Dracula, things remained fairly quiet on the vampire front for nearly a decade. The problem was that Universal had copyrighted Dracula and all their other famous monsters, and no one else could really do anything about it. That is, until the British Hammer Studios made their successful The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Universal filed suit, but Hammer had done a careful job of changing the monster's makeup to make it something totally new. Likewise, they claimed that they were basing their tale on Mary Shelley's original book, which had, of course, entered the public domain, and not on Universal's movie. They won, The Curse of Frankenstein was a huge hit, and Hammer was free to take on all the monsters they wanted.

Terence Fisher's Horror of Dracula (1958) was the first and best from that studio, starring Christopher Lee as the famous vampire and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. This was Dracula for a new generation, in lurid color, more overtly sexual and garishly bloody (though it all seems rather tame by today's standards). Hammer cranked out several lesser-grade sequels, with Lee reprising his role: Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Scars of Dracula (1970), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974). Lee played the role in a non-Hammer production for Spanish gore director Jesús Franco in Count Dracula (1970).

Like the Universal films, these sequels grew lazier over time, but at the same time, the loosening restrictions on motion pictures made more gore and sex possible. This at least kept the series going on a financial level, but Lee's parts continued to shrink and directors far less talented than Fisher began to take over. Each film has its own various, perverse pleasures, but it's clear that the quality and enthusiasm that went into Horror of Dracula waned and eventually disappeared.

Hammer's bold move freed Dracula for all time. Now in the public domain, Dracula or any or his brothers or sisters or cousins could appear in any form. Hundreds of vampire movies appeared in all different shapes and sizes in the second half of the 20th century. Even the small screen got in on the act. The Munsters (1964) was a half-hour sitcom blatantly stolen from the superior The Addams Family that cast Al Lewis as the aged vampire Grandpa, while Dark Shadows (1966) was a kind of vampire soap opera that still has a huge cult following to this day.

60s and 70s

The 1960s brought a comic, sometimes cheesy sensibility to the vampire film, notably in Roman Polanski's odd slapstick comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967) and in William Beaudine's hilariously inept Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966).

The 1970s brought a period of exploration. Jesús Franco gave us the sexiest vampire story yet, Vampyros Lesbos (1971). Blaxploitation got into the act with Blacula (1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973). Hammer teamed up with the Shaw Brothers for a kung-fu vampire film, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). Andy Warhol and director Paul Morrissey gave us an art-house version, Blood for Dracula (1974), starring Udo Kier, while the BBC cranked out the first official dressed-up version for TV's Great Performances in 1977 starring Louis Jourdan. And Hollywood attempted its first elegant, mainstream version with John Badham's Dracula (1979), starring Frank Langella as the Count and no less than Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing.

Meanwhile, Hollywood reinvented the silly vampire comedy with Love at First Bite (1979), starring a ridiculously suntanned George Hamilton as Dracula, now living in Manhattan and venturing out into the dating scene, competing with a meek psychiatrist (Richard Benjamin) for the hand of a fashion model (Susan Saint James) - and a direct descendant of Mina Harker. Though it still has a cult fan base, the film specifically relies on late-70s jokes and mores and will probably baffle and bore modern day audiences.

The best vampire films of the 1970s came from a new generation of young directors, raised on films and entering the business with a fresh enthusiasm and post-modern savvy. David Cronenberg invented a new kind of bloodsucker in Rabid (1977). Marilyn Chambers stars as a woman who suffers a motorcycle accident in the country and undergoes radical, experimental emergency surgery that leaves her with a weird protrusion from her armpit and an insatiable lust for blood. George A. Romero introduced us to Martin (1977), a young man who believes himself to be a vampire and becomes a local celebrity on a radio talk show. And Tobe Hooper directed Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1979) for TV, about a town infested with vampires.

Continue reading: Part Two.

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