There Will Be Blood: A short history of vampire films

Slide One: Intro
In his new film Thirst, Park Chan-wook transplants the vampire legend from Transylvania to South Korea. And by all accounts, the species has adapted fine to its new climate. Of course, some things had to change. As Park points out, "because he's Korean, we could not possibly have him be afraid of garlic, because garlic is ever present in all Korean food." But Vampires are a hearty breed and learn to adapt to new cultures and different times. In the following slide show, Anne Billson provides an natural history of film vampires from around the world.
Slide Two: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)
Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau's unofficial silent adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, the first vampire film ever made, established many of what would later become familiar conventions of vampire cinema: the thirst for blood, superstitious peasants, plagues of rats, the destructive power of sunlight and vampirism as metaphor for disease. It also conveys the sexual power of Stoker's novel; Max Schreck's Graf von Orlok may look like a hideous walking cadaver with his bald head, pointy teeth and long fingernails, but from the first glimpse of his outrageously phallic-shaped castle to the final scenes of the self-sacrificing heroine surrendering to him with an erotic abandon entirely lacking from her scenes with her human fiancé, he's a potent symbol of the dark side of desire. The film also evokes geographical distance––something lost in subsequent adaptations as air-travel and telecommunications have shrunk the globe; in the shots of the doomed ship Demeter being tossed around on the ocean, there's a palpable sense of a distant contagion creeping ever closer to home. From Varna, on the Black Sea, all the way round to Bremen in North Germany is an epic voyage at the best of times, let alone in a coffin packed with earth.
Slide Three: Dracula (1931)
Tod Browning's version of Dracula wasn't adapted directly from Stoker's book, but from Hamilton Deane's play, which perhaps explains why it seems stagier and more stilted than either Nosferatu or Vampyr. But the early, eerie scenes in Dracula's castle are exquisitely photographed by Karl Freund, who had formerly collaborated with F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. Dwight Frye's definitive Renfield usurps the narrative functions of Jonathan Harker's character before ending up in the asylum, eating spiders and babbling about the master, but the cast is dominated, of course, by Bela Lugosi, who first played the role on stage and is the very incarnation of a menacing but seductive foreigner—Rudolph Valentino's evil id. Lugosi's portrayal has fixed forever the image of a vampire in the popular imagination; that heavy-browed stare, East European accent and formalwear with cape have since been recycled in everything from Abbott and Costello comedies to Sesame Street and the breakfast cereal Count Chocula. Additions to the vampire movie handbook include Dracula's ability to turn himself into a bat, an aversion to crucifixes and a full complement of classic one-liners, some drawn directly from Stoker's novel. "Listen to them! Children of the night - what music they make!"
Slide Four: Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932)
Vampyr, Carl Dreyer's loose adaptation of two stories from Sheridan LeFanu's In a Glass Darkly—“Carmilla” and “The Room in the Dragon Volant”—was conceived as a silent, and while sound was added during production, its trancelike visuals have more in common with Nosferatu than with Browning's Dracula. Dreyer shrugs off conventional linear narrative and plunges into the world evoked by that famous inter-title from Nosferatu, so beloved of the surrealists: "And when he crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.” If ever there were a film which exemplified the idea of dreaming with one's eyes open, it's this; the influence on vampire cinema is oblique but present in every subsequent image of floaty chiffon or misty graveyards which bypasses the brain and proceeds directly to the subconscious. An occult investigator called Allan Grey (David in the English version) is our guide to this realm of shifting shadows, which take on lives of their own, and off-kilter corridors which lead, in a roundabout way, to a chateau where an evil doctor is helping a vampire prey on the Lord of the Manor's two daughters. Grey dreams of being buried alive, and the evil doctor really does end up buried—in flour.
Slide Five: Dracula/Horror of Dracula (1958)
Horror of Dracula, Hammer's first vampire movie, brought Stoker's villain home to the British Isles where he was conceived, and gave the Universal myth a Technicolor twist; Christopher Lee wears red contact lenses and his chin is stained, post-feed, with trickles of bright scarlet blood. Other fresh elements include fangs, more explicit biting and staking and, emphasizing Dracula's erotic effect on his victims, heaving bosoms bursting out of low-cut décollétage. Lee talks with a posh English accent and is sexier and more urbane than Lugosi; the vampire has some way to go before he morphs into the romantic anti-hero of Anne Rice's imaginings, but one can see the beginnings of the transformation here. Terence Fisher's stately, atmospheric direction, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay and Bernard Robinson's lush production design established a blueprint for all subsequent Hammer vampire yarns, dark but ultimately reassuring fairy-tales that invariably take place in mittel-European settings that look suspiciously similar to the parkland surrounding Bray Studios, Hammer's Home Counties HQ, and in which the vampire's evil influence is countered by learned patriarchal figures such as Peter Cushing's Van Helsing who, backed up by church and family, restores order when virtuous English women are turned into wanton floosies who are just asking for a good staking.
Slide Six: Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
At the time of its release, Roman Polanski's horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers was dismissed as neither fish nor fowl by people who underestimated the extent to which humor and horror bleed together, particularly in Polanski's films; one has only to recall the discomfort of critics who couldn't decide if The Tenant or Bitter Moon were supposed to be comedies. But we often laugh at horror movies, just as comic predicaments can sometimes fill us with terror. Polanski's film may look like a lush period piece, but, subverting the Hammer formula, it acknowledges the existence of gay vampires, and Jewish vampires who sneer at crucifixes, and it's the self-regarding stupidity of the Van Helsing-like sage played by Jack MacGowran (a dead ringer for the evil doctor in Vampyr) which ultimately causes the very catastrophe he set out to avert. The irreverent approach and ironic denouement are more in tune with revisionist 1970s film-making than with the typical Hammer tale in which dark desires are defeated and the status quo restored, but the imagery — the glittering snowscapes, Sharon Tate importuned by a vampire while she's taking a bath, or the dance itself, with its human interlopers trying to blend into a roomful of rotting undead aristocracy — is hauntingly beautiful.
Slide Seven: Daughters of Darkness/Les lévres rouges (1971)
No list of essential vampire movies would be complete without Daughters of Darkness, Harry Kümel's deliciously kinky, ultra-stylish and not a little camp Euro-variation on the Elisabeth Bathory myth — indisputably the best Belgian-Franco-German lesbian vampire movie ever made, more coherent than Jean Rollin's erotic vampire movies, and wittier than Jess Franco's. The gloriously eclectic cast includes one Miss Province de Québec 1967, one zaftig German porn actress, one future regular on Cagney & Lacey, one famous Dutch filmmaker and, best of all, French art-house diva Delphine Seyrig as a 300-year-old Countess with designs on a honeymoon couple in an off-season Ostend hotel. Kümel wrings interesting new twists out of vampire clichés: Bathory's "secretary" is dragged into the shower, where she reacts violently to the running water, leading to her accidental death. Meanwhile, those honeymooners aren't as innocent as they appear, and in nearby Bruges, young women are being found with their throats cut. Seyrig glides through it all, fang-free but impeccably lipsticked, tightly coiffed á la Dietrich and draped in chic-est red chiffon or silver sequins. She travels in a vintage Bristol, manhandles some vicious-looking knitting and covertly disposes of her mint-green cocktail in a nearby houseplant. It's not her tipple of choice, after all.
Slide Eight: Martin (1977)
Vampires had already cropped up in contemporary settings in Count Yorga, Vampire and Dracula AD 1972, but it was George A Romero who gave them a truly modern makeover in Martin, doing for the vampire what he had already done for zombies in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead—giving it social relevance. Martin is set in a suburb of Pittsburgh (Romero's favorite stamping-ground) where the industrial decay and moral confusion of the economically depressed 1970s couldn't be more different from Transylvania or leafy Bray. The title character, played sympathetically by John Amplas, is a disturbed teenager who has been marginalized by his own family—an elderly relative denounces him as a "nosferatu” and threatens him with crucifixes, garlic and stakes. Martin, who gets a job as a delivery boy and preys on the lonely housewives on his rounds, really does believe he's a vampire and takes the clichés seriously, to the extent of kitting himself out at one point with a cloak and joke-shop fangs—though to make his victims' blood flow he resorts to razor blades. He's part serial killer, part misunderstood teenager, and the missing link between Dracula and later, more lighthearted films like The Lost Boys, which would exploit the vampire's bad-boy appeal to younger audiences.
Slide Nine: Near Dark (1987)
Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow's languid vampire western features several of the supporting cast of Aliens as white-trash vampire-travelers who roam the Mid-West to a dreamy electronic soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. If Martin was marginalized, these vampires have severed all links to polite society and instead function like nomadic serial killers, bunking down in seedy motels, covering the windows of their RV with light-tight cooking foil and stopping at isolated roadside bars to feed off the redneck clientele. When one of them snogs a corn-fed farmboy, leaving him with a thirst for blood, they kidnap him and try to convert him to their lifestyle, but he resists and his condition is finally cured, in a process which has its equivalent in Stoker's novel, with a blood transfusion. Bigelow plays up the metaphor for disease — the film was made at the height of the panic about AIDS — and the film's first image is that of a bloodsucking mosquito. These vampires are a long way from the aristocrats of yore, with Joshua Miller particularly disquieting as an old man trapped in the body of a pubescent boy, and Lance Henriksen as the vampire leader, answering a query about his age with, "Put it this way—I fought for the South."
Slide Ten: Twilight (2008)
Stephenie Meyers' emo-vampire romance, set in the Pacific North-West region, is the logical culmination of the Anne Rice syndrome, in which vampires are no longer purely evil, soulless predators but romantic anti-heroes with hopes, fears and histories. Meyers' tetralogy dilutes this idea still further into a "young adult" inter-species romance, complete with high school backdrop, abstinence (no biting or sex), a passive heroine who keeps having to be rescued and cypher-like characters whose lack of interesting personalities allows young audiences to project themselves into the roles. The books gained a fanatical following even before the first was filmed, but in neither book nor film is it pointed out that the liaison between vampire Edward Cullen and human teenager Bella Swan is fundamentally a little creepy, since despite his youthful looks, he's actually her senior by some 80 years, making their relationship the vampiric equivalent of a pedophile posing as a teen in an internet chatroom. The story's one big twist on traditional lore is having the vampires avoid daylight not because it destroys them, but because it makes them glitter, and in a welcome unexpected touch, the Cullen "family" resides not in the traditional cobwebbed castle but in an airy modern Frank Lloyd Wright-esque home, with picture windows.
Slide Eleven: Let the Right One In/Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
The most impressive vampire movie of the new millennium is Tomas Alfredson's haunting Let the Right One In adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel and set in 1982 in Blackeberg, a snow-covered working-class housing estate near Stockholm. Like Twilight, it's about the relationship between a young human and a vampire, but there the resemblance ends, because the film reclaims the vampire from boy-band territory and restores to it the power to hint at emotional truths too troubling to be tackled in mainstream drama. The protagonists are Oskar, a bullied 12-year-old misfit whose feminine, quasi-albino blondeness make him stand out from the crowd, and Eli, a 200-year-old vampire who looks like a little girl but whose sexually complicated history is explored in the novel (and wisely excised from the film, though there's one brief shot alluding to it). Alfredson never shies away from the creepiness inherent in such a liaison, with disturbingly ambiguous results: it's never clear whether the vampire regards her new friend as potential food, a soulmate, a human slave, or all three of these things simultaneously. Either way, Lina Leandersson's remarkable performance hints at all the alienation and detachment of an age-old struggle for survival in which the search for sustenance is all and material trappings have simply ceased to matter.
Slide Twelve: Writer Anne Billson
Billson is a novelist, film critic and photographer who has lived in London, Tokyo and Croydon. Her books include Suckers, an upwardly mobile vampire novel, and Stiff Lips, a ghost story set in Notting Hill, and several works of non-fiction, including a BFI monograph on John Carpenter's The Thing and Spoilers, a selection from her 25 years of film criticism (available from http://stores.lulu.com/billson). She currently lives in Paris, reviews films for the TV pages of the Sunday Telegraph and writes a fortnightly film column for The Guardian.
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