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Vampires

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Susan Sarandon in The Hunger

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.

Finally, the film school nerds rounded things out with a few throwbacks. John Landis followed up his cult hit An American Werewolf in London (1981) with an equally subversive vampire film, Innocent Blood (1992), starring the French actress Anne Parillaud as a sexy (sometimes naked) vampiress who forms an unwanted connection with a Pittsburgh cop (Anthony LaPaglia) as she tries to bite her way through a selection of underworld gangsters. Though American audiences didn't quite take to the film, it has become a classic among French cinephiles.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez scored a major cult hit with their lowdown From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), a movie that starts as a kind of kidnapping/crime/road picture in which a pair of criminal brothers (George Clooney and Tarantino) hijack an RV full of family travelers (Harvey Keitel, Ernest Liu and Juliette Lewis). Halfway through the film, the characters stop at a seedy Mexican bar, run by Cheech Marin and featuring Salma Hayek, performing a sexy, siren floorshow. Unbeknownst to anyone, the bar is actually populated by murderous vampires, and heroes and criminals alike must band together to survive the night.

John Carpenter, who had established himself as a horror master twenty years earlier with Halloween, took on his first vampire film with Vampires (1998), a roaring action film set to a wailing blues guitar soundtrack and a mad dog centerpiece performance by James Woods as a take-no-prisoners vampire hunter. In Carpenter's vision, the vampires are not all that different from the zombies in George A. Romero's classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead - they're just wandering bands with no individual personalities of their own and good only for target practice. These vampires were a far cry from Lugosi's seductive, elegant Dracula.

Wesley Snipes in Blade

Arguably the decade's most influential vampire flick was Steve Norrington's Blade (1998), starring Wesley Snipes in his signature role as a "daywalker," a vampire hunter who is himself half-vampire. Wrapped in black leather and strapped with black guns, Snipes delivers all his lines in a stoic, growling whisper, instantly establishing himself as the coolest anti-hero of the new millennium. In Blade, as well as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires make up an underworld population all their own, slyly passing in the night among decent folks. Kris Kristofferson plays Blade's trusty, crusty sidekick and weapons manufacturer, banded together in a never-ending battle against all vampiredom, while Stephen Dorff plays the movie's villain.

Blade spawned two sequels in the new century, the excellent Blade II (2002), helmed by the talented Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone) and the unbearably stupid Blade: Trinity (2004), helmed by series creator David S. Goyer.

00s

Indeed, the new decade has seen some of the absolute worst vampire movies yet made. Even the low budget clunkers like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula have more charm than monstrosities like Underworld (2003), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Van Helsing (2004). Set during a war between the vampires and the werewolves, Underworld told the story of a vampiress (Kate Beckinsale) who falls in love with a werewolf (Scott Speedman). Based on a graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen bands together a team of characters from fantasy fiction, including vampiress Mina Harker (Peta Wilson). And Van Helsing recasts our famous professor as a crossbow-wielding tough guy (Hugh Jackman) who not only hunts Dracula (Richard Roxburgh - inarguably the worst screen Dracula of the past 100 years), but also Jekyll & Hyde, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster. These three films burned through huge budgets full of special effects, but not one had any concept of terror, character or even a human soul. They were all noisy, unbearably stupid wastes of resources and utter betrayals of the carefully established vampire world.

In recent years, smaller-budget vampire films have not fared much better. Guy Maddin's art house Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) is really a thinly disguised version of a deadly dull PBS ballet, while Michael Rymer's Queen of the Damned (2002) is a half-baked quasi-sequel to Interview with the Vampire. Based, oddly, on the third book in the series (whereas the second book has not been filmed yet), this considerably lower budget film forgoes household names Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt for the likes of Aaliyah (her last film role), Stuart Townsend (as Lestat), Marguerite Moreau and Vincent Perez. Taken as low-budget camp, it's not bad, but it's not really a worthy sequel either.

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Fortunately, the amazing anime Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2001) points to greater things to come. Taking place, as most anime do, in a post-apocalyptic future, the main character, D, is a half-vampire vampire hunter (like Blade), who rarely speaks and wanders the vast, empty plains in search of prey, but also in search of himself.

The new century's most imaginative vampire film remains E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, reimagining as it does the cinematic birth of the bloodthirsty undead in Nosferatu. Blessed with a quiet, spooky mood as well as gorgeous production design and a memorable title sequence, Shadow of the Vampire completes the circle. It's the ultimate post-modern masterpiece for new legions of vampire fans.

Jeffrey M. Anderson has written for the San Francisco Examiner, the Las Vegas Weekly and several other publications, though he's surely best known for his own site, Combustible Celluloid, currently featuring over 1200 of his reviews.

GreenCine Recommends...

Essentials

Variations and Deviations

  • 70s: Two indies stand out as overt political commentaries in a decade that only grows more fascinating with time. In Deathdream (1972), "Cassavetes vets Lynn Carlin and John Marley receive news about their son's death in Vietnam, just hours before the lad knocks on the front door - churlish, uncommunicative, and very undead," writes Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice. "[Director Bob] Clark's metaphoric nerve is as astonishing as his filmmaking is crude, and there may not be a more quietly galling movie about the war's psychosocial devastation." Ganja & Hess (1973) "is not a vampire or horror film in any conventional sense," writes EFox. "It is an art film: a stately, meticulously composed, disturbing, and passionate meditation on the themes of addiction, lust, beauty and mortality.... It is a unique, low-budget radical art film for the sensuously and intuitively inclined. Don't miss it."

Jean Rollin's Lips of Blood

Go back to Part One.

Or come talk about vampires.

Or head back to the primer index.

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