8 Types of Vampire Movies That Don’t Suck
With the final “Twilight” finally upon us- thank God- I thought it would be fun to take a look at vampire flicks that offer a bit more than glittery lovesick wanna-bloodsuckers and actually deliver the goods in some unique way. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather a look at some of the lesser-known vampire-themed flicks out there, so don’t expect the obvious choices. I’ve broken them down into convenient categories in order to better suit everyone’s respective- ahem- taste, if you will. So, without further ado.
Everyone knows “Dracula” and its many incarnations, but for my money, it’s 1922’s “Nosferatu“- which actually predates the Bela Lugosi version by nearly a decade- that really brings the spooky. For one, this vampire actually looks like a creature of the night, and not the host of a dinner party for swingers, as if a vampire were some sort of undead Hugh Hefner. Or you know, Hugh Hefner, period. Sorry, Bela (and Hef)- sad but true.
If silent German Expressionist films don’t get your motor running, there’s always the remake by the legendary Werner Herzog, which is in color and features the equally creepy in-his-own-right Klaus Kinski. Also worth a look is 2000’s “Shadow of a Vampire,” about the making of the former, featuring a superlative performance from Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, the eccentric star of the original “Nosferatu.”
Finally, there’s 1964’s “Last Man on Earth,” featuring Vincent Price in the role that went on to be played by Charlton Heston and Will Smith in subsequent remakes of the source material, Richard Matheson’s classic novel “I am Legend.” This version is in stark black and white and was a direct influence on the then-future “Night of the Living Dead,” which makes this version play a bit like a vampire-zombie hybrid. If that isn’t awesome, I don’t know what is.
Though hardly the first to explore female vampires with lesbian undertones- see, for instance, 1936’s “Dracula’s Daughter,” the direct sequel to the original classic- the 60’s ushered in a much more liberal attitude towards such things that was unprecedented at the time, resulting in the likes of 1960’s “Blood and Roses.” A lushly beautiful and erotic film by French director Roger Vadim, best known stateside for “Barbarella,” it’s an adaptation of the evil stepmother of all lesbian vampire tales, “Carmilla,” which has been adapted ad infinitum over the years. If ever an unheralded classic was screaming for a Blu-Ray refurbishing, it’s this one, to the best of my knowledge only available on Netflix.
Some of the other films inspired by “Carmilla” include “The Vampire Lovers” (the first of a trilogy, no less, from the legendary Hammer films), with the buxom beauty Ingrid Pitt, who also played “Countess Dracula,” based on the Elizabeth Bathory legend; and “Daughters of Darkness,” a Belgian effort that is hypnotic, surreal and plays like a 70’s soft-core Skinemax art-house horror movie, and I mean that as a compliment. Speaking of which, there’s also.
Rollin was another French filmmaker who made his mark with the lesbian vampire subgenre. Indeed, he built a large portion of his career on it, beginning with the controversial “The Rape of the Vampire,” which incited a riot at its premier screening in France- perhaps the only movie to do so in history that I’m aware of. Though the underlying reasons for the riot actually lay in the politics of the time- see the superlative “The Dreamers,” with a pre-Bond girl Eva Green and a pre-“Boardwalk Empire” Michael Pitt for the real skinny- that’s still pretty awesome. The film ended up doing well, and basically laid out the groundwork for much of Rollin’s subsequent films, which often revolve around a pair of women, most of whom are vampires and many of which are gay or at least bisexual.
The languid pacing of his work is not for everyone, to be sure, but there something undeniably hypnotizing about it as well. Neophytes might actually want to go through his oeuvre in reverse, as his most watchable work in the subgenre also happens to be towards the end of his career, which was only in 2010. 2002’s “Fiancée of Dracula” plays like a David Lynch-style vampire film (more on him below) and 1995’s “Two Orphan Vampires” has a little more bite than typical Rollin fare, if you’ll pardon the pun.
His most critically-acclaimed work varies according to who you ask, but most point to 1975’s “Lips of Blood” and 1971’s “Requiem for a Vampire” (which has a great psychedelic soundtrack) as high points of Rollin’s career. I also love 1982’s “Living Dead Girl,” which inspired the Rob Zombie song of the same name and 1969’s appropriately groovy “The Nude Vampire,” which, BTW, tends to be the case with most of his vampires- so even if you’re bored to death by his approach, there’s the fact that most of them are walking around nearly the entire running time full-blown naked, so there’s that.
Things only got wilder and kinkier in the 70s for vampire flicks- not to mention more racially diverse. 1972 brought us both “Blacula,” which is pretty self-explanatory, and “Ganja & Hess” another primo slice of vampire blaxploitation worth seeking your teeth into, with “Night of the Living Dead” star Duane Jones in his only other leading man role.
Even porn stars got into the act, with “Behind the Green Door” vixen Marilyn Chambers playing an unconventional bloodsucker in 1977’s “Rabid,” whose “teeth” are located under her armpit! It’s actually another pseudo-zombie/vampire hybrid, as everyone she bites becomes a crazed lunatic- think “28 Days Later,” only directed by David Cronenberg early in his career. It’s as batsh-t crazy as it sounds, but then it is Cronenberg.
Erstwhile pornographer Jess Franco- who went back and forth between hardcore flicks and B-movies, using one to facilitate the other- has churned out some 200+ movies over the course of a wildly varied career, but is perhaps arguably most beloved for his series of films with fellow Spaniard Soledad Miranda. This includes the epic “Vampyros Lesbos,” which features my all-time favorite film score, or at least part of it, featured on the compilation of the same name, actually the soundtrack to three of his films with Miranda. Miranda is spellbinding, and her reverse strip tease, in addition to being just a nifty idea, is one for the time capsule. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.but they should. Lynch fans will also get a kick out of this one- note the prominent red drapes and jazzy score. What does that remind you of?
Not one to be left out, Andy Warhol cashed in on the vamp craze in 1974’s X-Rated “Blood for Dracula,” though chances are he had little to do with the actual filming. Whatever the case, Udo Kier is one of the sickest vampires ever- and I mean that literally- coming off more like a junkie than a vampire, which leads us to.
The vampire lends itself nicely to metaphors, particularly in regards to addiction, which has led to some interesting films over the years. There’s 1977’s “Martin,” an underrated effort from Zombie kingpin George Romero; the sci-fi tinged Australian effort “Thirst” from 1979; and the even more overt “The Addiction” from 1995, which also doubles as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic.
The philosophical bent of that last film also informs the cult classic “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” from 1971, in which perceived vampirism may just be one of the signs of insanity in the film’s titular protagonist; and the same “is it real or just a dream?” approach can be found in 1973’s fairy-tale-esque “Lemora,” with then-future cult heroine Cheryl Smith in an early role.
1974’s “Vampyres” explores the dark side of the Sexual Revolution, complete with Playboy Playmates; and the fear of aging informs films like the flashy, stylish “The Hunger“- featuring a young Susan Sarandon, David Bowie, and an opening sequence featuring Bauhaus’ classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and the band themselves- as well as “Cronos,” cult filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro’s first film, about a “Hellraiser”-like box that infects its victims.
We all know “Fright Night” and “The Lost Boys,” but the 80’s had more to offer than those campy flicks. There’s the must-be-seen-to-be-believed performance by Nicholas Cage (and for him, that’s saying a lot) in “Vampire’s Kiss,” in which he actually eats a live roach- say it with me now: Eew!
I have a soft spot for the underrated, trippy Grace Jones-vehicle “Vamp” and “The Monster Squad,” which features a slew of supernatural beasties doing battle with the group of kids in the title and some great proto-“Scream” discussions of horror movie tropes.
Last but not least, is the much-beloved cult film “Near Dark,” which is then-future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow’s second film as a director. It features three cast members (including Bill Paxton) from her erstwhile hubby James Cameron’s “Aliens,” as well as a cameo from the man himself, and a young Adrian Pasdar, later of “Heroes.” The film is sleek, slick, stylish as all get out, and features a wonderful synth-driven soundtrack from Tangerine Dream, one of the most influential techno artists ever. If you see but one film on this list, let it be this one. It’s kind of like “Firefly” with vampires, which is kinda awesome.
(See also “Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat,” which was made in the late 80’s but not released until the 90’s and featuring the man himself, Bruce “Ash” Campbell, as a vampire hunter- it’s campy but fun, and also features a Western sensibility.)
Vampires have always been fringe-dwellers, but some are truly loners. Take, for instance, the vampire hit woman of 1998’s super-underrated “Razor Blade Smile,” a sort of proto-“Underworld” only with the “Illuminati” as the big bad. Picture Kate Beckinsale as a cooler-than-thou killer and add some indie Tarantino-style cool, plus some vampire lesbian stuff for good measure and you’re close. I actually like this better than all the “Underworld” movies combined, but that may just be me.
Another fave is the full-on art-house cool of 1994’s “Nadja,” a black-and-white grabber that was produced by David Lynch, who also appears in an acting role. It features Elina Lowensohn, who, like Soledad Miranda before her, was born to play a vampire (she also crops up in the vamp thriller “Immortality, with Jude Law). The indie soundtrack, with music by Portishead and My Bloody Valentine, is to die for- so to speak.
Speaking of music, vamps got a musical make-over in not one but two wildly different films, 1990’s “Rockula,” with Toni Basil, Bo Diddley, and Thomas Dolby and the more recent “Suck,” from 2010, starring “Mad Men” actress Jessica Pare and a host of rock luminaries like Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, Rush’s Alex Lifeson, and the man himself, Alice Cooper as, fittingly, a vampire.or is he the Devil himself? The alt-rock music in the latter is surprisingly great, though the same cannot be said for the painfully dated, but still entertaining former.
Speaking of rock connections, Danny Elfman’s brother Richard helmed a nifty vamp thriller called “Modern Vampires,” with music by his bro, plus a great cult cast that includes Kim Cattrall, Natasha Lyonne, Rod Steiger, TV’s Craig Ferguson and the aforementioned Udo Kier, who also cropped up in “Blade” around the same time.
Some big name, well-respected directors have gone the vampire route over the years, with mixed results. The most obvious is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula,” which was given a visually-arresting makeover and a commanding performance from Gary Oldman- and a laughable one from Keanu Reeves, unfortunately.
Roman Polanski, director of such classics as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” took a campier approach to his “Fearless Vampire Killers,” in which he co-starred with his soon-to-be-late wife Sharon Tate, who would fall prey to the nefarious Charles Manson and company in real life. Comedy genius John Landis, of “Animal House” and “Blues Brothers” fame, took a stab at applying his tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre he previously adopted to werewolves in “An American Werewolf in London” to vampires, with the highly underrated “Innocent Blood,” which is well worth a second look.
The bonkers-but-brilliant Ken Russell, of “Tommy” and “The Devils” fame, went back to the original source, Bram Stoker, for the demented, surreal “The Lair of the White Worm,” with Hugh Grant, of all people.
And horror legend Tobe Hooper, of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Poltergeist” fame, took a stab at the subgenre not once but twice- sort of- with the epic Stephen King mini-series adaptation “Salem’s Lot” (be sure you get the full version, not the edited-for-video one) and the sci-fi hybrid “Lifeforce” about.wait for it.space vampires! The latter is flawed but fun.
Ditto “The Keep,” from Michael Mann, of “Heat” and “Miami Vice” fame, which also features a Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It’s a weird military-meets-vampire-demon oddity not for everyone, but which will be loved by a certain segment of people out there for its atmospherics alone.
Last but not least is the modern-day cult classic 2009 Swedish film “Let the Right One In” by Tomas Alfredson, twice-decorated honoree of the Swedish Oscar, the Guldebagge- one for this film. If Lars Von Trier did a vampire film, it might turn out like this. The American-ized version makes certain elements actually more disturbing and explicit, and adds the excellent Chloe-Grace Moretz for good measure, but the original is oh-so wonderfully Swedish and much more subtle, the cats-from-hell sequence notwithstanding.
So, that should keep you occupied for some time to come. Forget “Twilight” and get some real vampire flicks to sink your teeth into- you’ll thank me later.
The children of the night! What sweet music they make!