The Vampire Film Genre

stoker

Bram Stoker

The myth of the vampire origin­ates in East European folk­lore and was asso­ci­ated with the 19th-century romantics when John Polidori, Byron’s personal phys­i­cian, wrote an unsuc­cessful novel called The Vampyre in 1819. But it really entered popular culture with the public­a­tion of Dracula by Bram Stoker in 1897.

Stoker’s book still exerts its influ­ence over the genre and has been the subject of count­less adapt­a­tions. While other literary works have created their own genres (Franken­stein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Time Machine, to name just a few) none have gener­ated a virtual industry of the same size and promis­cuity. The vampire genre has been cross-bred at one time or another with pretty well every other film genre in existence.

At the time of writing this, the vampire industry is as strong and prolific as ever; with films. novels, tv series and computer games in produc­tion. It’s a perfect example of the way a popular genre will be constantly rein­vented for new audi­ences and new generations.

Char­ac­ters

The cast of char­ac­ters from the original novel has often been used as archetypal models in other versions. These include:

A Supreme Vampire (Count Dracula) who is the chief Antag­onist in the plot and his Nemesis (Van Helsing), equipped with the skill and wisdom to defeat him; a virginal Female (Nina Harker) whom the vampire desires and her Defender (Jonathan Harker) who may or may not also be the Prot­ag­onist. Finally, the vampire’s Familiar (Renfield) who is under his control and helps him during the daylight hours.

Writers and film-makers have select­ively made use of these arche­types.  These char­ac­ters don’t appear in every vampire film but they do crop up in one form or another in a surpris­ingly large number of them.

Themes

Our fascin­a­tion with vampires seem as inex­haust­ible as the permuta­tions we invent and it isn’t diffi­cult to identify the reason for it. The vampire myth contains two primal themes inter­twined: sex and death, and our asso­ci­ated anxi­eties about them.

The fear of disease is one mani­fest­a­tion of these anxi­eties; in the 19th century it was syph­ilis, today it would be AIDS, but both involving an ‘unclean’ type of intimacy that the vampire repres­ents. But the vampire is also immensely seductive, an incarn­a­tion of the tempta­tion to sin. It is this combin­a­tion of allure and dread that gives the myth its power.

Powerful as these ingredi­ents are, what distin­guishes the vampire genre from other horror films, and has given it its staying-power, is its roots in folk­lore. One can imagine super­sti­tious peas­ants passing on the ways in which vampires can be combated, advice that Stoker collated for his book. This is the stuff of legend and gives the whole myth body and weight.

Tropes

The premise of any vampire film is under­pinned by a number of suppos­i­tions, mostly taken from the original novel which was based on Stoker’s research. Here are a few of the basic ‘facts’ about vampires:

Vampires are undead creatures that need to drink blood to survive.
They are immortal and do not perish from old age.
They have long, pointed incisor or canine teeth to pierce the skin.
The bite of a vampire alone can (some­times) create vampires but (more often) it is neces­sary to drink a vampire’s blood.
Vampires originate in Eastern Europe: Transylvania, Romania and even Lithuania.
They cannot survive direct sunlight but they are also diffi­cult to kill except by driving a wooden stake through their hearts or decap­it­a­tion.
They are repelled by garlic and the sign of the cross.
They have no reflec­tion in mirrors.
They (some­times) sleep in coffins that are filled with earth from the ground where they were buried.
They can trans­form them­selves into bats or wolves.
They cannot cross running water.

Every­body – meaning soph­ist­ic­ated film going audi­ences – knows these ‘facts’ and film-makers use them or ignore them as it suits their story and its setting. Half the fun of watching a modern-day vampire film is seeing how they can be given a fresh twist.

Bela Lugosi

Icon­o­graphy and key scenes

A recur­ring scene in many vampire films is the destruc­tion of Dracula or the ‘master’ vampire when the hero triumphs at the climax of the movie. Some­times this is achieved by the actions of the prot­ag­onist but often by a stroke of fortune. In the Hammer films, impaling was a favourite method because of its grand Guignol impact but sunlight has become used more frequently in modern films (for instance in the 2011 remake of Fright Night).

The icon­o­graphy of the genre also derives from Stoker (the crosses, the garlic, the Transylvanian setting) but here movies have played a much larger part in devel­oping it, the obvious example being the opera cloak that Bela Lugosi wore in the Universal films and which has now become a staple of children’s enter­tain­ment together with the thick Hungarian accent.

Vampire Film Case Studies

Nosferatu (1922)

Directed by F.W. Murnau, this was an early unau­thor­ised silent screen version of Dracula with names and details changed, although it didn’t stop the film-makers being sued by the Stoker estate.

The subject lends itself well to the German expres­sionist style and the film remains powerful today with many of the qual­ities of a bad dream.

It was re-made in 1979 by Werner Herzog with Klaus Kinski giving a whis­pery and strangely affecting perform­ance in the same role.

More recently Shadow of The Vampire in 2000 traded on the legendary status of the original by spin­ning a yarn about Murnau employing a real vampire but the film was more high camp than frightening.

Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr 1932, another less well-known silent film, is simil­arly impressive in its use of imagery but does not stick closely to the book’s plot. It has recently been restored and re-issued on DVD.

 Clip from a docu­mentary about Werner Herzog’s remake.

Click on the expand button, bottom right, to view these clips at full size

Dracula Prince of Dark­ness (1966)

Directed by Terence Fisher. Chris­topher Lee played a charis­matic and hetero­sexual Dracula in many Hammer films of the sixties and seven­ties, never deigning to bite victims of the same gender.

Thought by many to be the ‘Sean Connery’ of the Dracula fran­chise (see Vampir­o­logy below) he wore the costume made famous by Bela Lugosi but eschewed the foreign accent.

Most of the Hammer films retained the gothic style and Transylvanian origins of Stoker’s novel but the fact they were in colour gave them more impact. They also delib­er­ately emphas­ised the more deviant aspects of the myth, espe­cially a lesbian subtext.

The imagery in this scene is obvious but potent, a reminder of more inno­cent times when the Hammer horror movies were the most risqué films an audi­ence were likely to exper­i­ence and fuel for many male fantasies.

Countess Dracula 1971, star­ring the fang-queen Ingrid Pitt, was an inter­esting vari­ation. Trading on the Dracula brand, it was based on the legend of Countess Bathory who allegedly bathed in the blood of freshly slaughtered maidens but was not tech­nic­ally a vampire at all.

 

The Dance of The Vampires (1967)

(aka The Fear­less Vampire Killers). Directed by Roman Polanski who also plays the prot­ag­onist, this is prob­ably one of the first, and certainly one of the best known, main-stream  ‘post-modern’ vampire films and a true fore-runner of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel.

Polanski has a lot of sly fun with the genre, intro­du­cing new arche­types like The Gay Vampire (see the clip) and The Jewish Vampire, but he always treats it respect­fully and never resorts to spoofing it.

The film is genu­inely atmo­spheric and visu­ally ravishing with a decidedly un-Hollywood European feel. Actors like Jack McGowran, the famous inter­preter of Samuel Beckett, and the ill-fated Sharon Tate add a certain grav­itas to the proceed­ings but it also has some wonder­fully funny moments.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

Directed by John D Hancock (a more than likely pseud­onym) this is really a B picture in terms of its produc­tion values but has enough original qual­ities to give it cult status.

A woman released from a mental hospital winds up in a small Amer­ican town where the denizens have suspi­ciously band­aged necks. The blood-sucking tends to be under­played though and the film has many of the trap­pings of a ghost story – rather like some of the best and most subtle of literary vampire tales.

Because everything that happens might be part of a delu­sion suffered by the main char­acter, tech­nic­ally this could be categor­ised as a Psycho­lo­gical Vampire film, a small but signi­ficant sub-genre that includes George Romero’s impressive Martin (1976) about a troubled adoles­cent with vampiric fantasies.

Jessica is unusual because many of its strongest scenes happen in broad daylight.  (The final scene is partic­u­larly effective and lingers in the mind). Like Steven King’s Salem Lot, the small town setting takes it outside of the normal gothic world of the genre, crossing into the territory of other genres like the zombie flick which exploits anxi­eties about corrup­tion in Amer­ican society.

Love at First Bite (1979)

Directed by Stan Drogoti, this was a vehicle for George Hamilton and also featured Richard Benjamin and Arte Johnson from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

A spoof with a decidedly Jewish flavour of humour (but more restrained than Mel Brooks’ decidedly unfunny take-off of Coppola’s Dracula) this features Hamilton as a Lugosi-style count evicted from his castle and forced to take up resid­ence in New York where he has to deal with a number of ‘modern’ prob­lems including muggers and woman’s lib.

Eddie Murphy explored similar territory in Vampire in Brooklyn 1995 with a blax­pol­it­a­tion comedy thriller but with less success. Perhaps because it treated its material with respect and affec­tion, Bite was a cult hit on release; winning several awards, and leading to a similar treat­ment of Zorro in Zorro The Gay Blade 1981.  Although a bit uneven, Love At First Bite has a real story and features some wonderful set pieces including a send-up of Glenn Miller ‘Transylvania 6–5000′.

Near Dark (1987)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, this takes the genre into the territory of the Western with a gang of ‘outlaw’ vampires trav­el­ling around the present day mid-west in an RV and having shoot-outs with the local police.

There are no fangs in evid­ence (these vampires prefer straight razors) but a lot of grisly laconic humour and style. The gang leader, Lance Henriksen, has been around since ‘the war’ – the one where ‘the South lost’, that is.

An original plot twist, an attempt to recon­cile the genre with modern science perhaps, is that vampirism is ‘curable’ in this movie and the hero manages to rid himself of the curse through blood trans­fu­sions.

John Carpenter’s Vampires 1998 was another example of a ‘western‘ vampire film but with less subtlety and humour; whilst Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn 1996 was not lacking in humour, it was also self-parodying to the point of excess. Both these inspired fairly lacklustre sequels, a fate that  Near Dark seems to have  (so far) escaped.

The Addic­tion (1995)

Directed by Abel Ferrara, this is a film with a highly indi­vidu­al­istic approach to the genre, employing it as a meta­phor for both drug usage and what Ferrara sees as an ‘inherent evil’ in humankind.

A philo­sophy student (Lili Taylor) is bitten by a female vampire and becomes ‘hooked’ on drinking blood; her world dark­ening at the same time to a bleak exist­en­tialism conveyed by news­reel images of war atrocities.

Despite its intel­lec­tual ambi­tions, the film also has plenty of flair and some arresting scenes; including Taylor’s encounter with an older vampire (played with relish by Chris­topher Walken) who spouts quotes from Sartre and Beckett.

The notion of vampirism as a disease or addic­tion was also explored in the glos­sier The Hunger 1983 directed by Tony Scott and featuring super­stars Cath­erine Deneuve and David Bowie as sleek urban vampires with bisexual tastes. Contrast this with the comment that Walken’s char­acter makes to Taylor: “Your breath smells like shit …” Much closer to the reality of being a junky.

Vampir­o­logy (2000)

Directed by Colin Bucksey, this is not, in fact, a feature but an episode of a British tv series called Urban Gothic.

What sets it apart is its mock­u­mentary format (rather in the style of the blackly comic Man Bites Dog) as a camera crew follows Rex ( Keith Lee Castle) a hip ‘young” London vampire around his haunts.

Rex is artic­u­late and self-aware of both his iden­tity and the vampire image and tradi­tion in films and books. He collects old movie posters and magazines to remind him ” of what he is not”.

So far, so post-modern and clever – but what distin­guishes this piece is not just the black comedy but moments that are shocking and strangely affecting; as when Rex crouches dazed and blood spattered in a corner like a junkie or wails “I have to do this every night …”

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