It’s that most wonderful time of year again. Shocktober, Horrorween, All Hallows, Samhain, Vampire Awareness Month; and that means it’s time to monster mash. So from here until Halloween, I’m going to use my column space to give the biggest of ups to my favorite of all things that go bump in the night, the vampire.
What I have for you right off the bat (see what I did there?) is a diverse list of classic cult films that are as refreshing today as they were when they were made along with some interesting newcomers to counter the lazy argument that vampire cinema it tired, played out, or just not worth our time. If that’s ever been true in your mind, you simply were not looking hard enough. This is a list of cinema to satisfy any discerning film fan with a lust for bloodsuckers. And when I say “lust” I don’t mean any weaksauce tween romance. Twilight is over; time to get back to what vampires are really about: death and darkness. Embrace midnight with these underappreciated gems.
The Last Man on Earth
My favorite of the dozens of Vincent Price films I’ve watched, and the best adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal classic story I Am Legend by a mile. Two miles, actually, but who’s counting? So why isn’t this one counted amongst the stone classics of vampire cinema? I honestly have no idea, but it is without a doubt one of the best.
In case you aren’t aware of the classic tale, this film has Price as the title character. Every night is spent in his home fortress while the local vampire population lays siege and every day is spent gathering supplies and hunting the undead as they lay sleeping.
If you’re only familiar with the Will Smith version of I Am Legend, then you have no idea what you are missing out on. This film and the book share one of the darkest and most ironic endings in the history of anything (although the film’s is a little more dramatic) and you’ve really got to experience it to appreciate the story.
Blood: The Ultimate Death
This Japanese tale of vamp sexuality and timeless love features a rather uncreative title (which I’m sure seemed cooler in Japan) that may turn prospective viewers off, but it’s worth looking for if you want a more adult take on vampire romance. Japan in general has a talent for coming up with excellent and creative takes on Western vampire lore, but this one keeps it fairly simple while adding an Asian sensibility.
When a detective investigates a murder, he meets a woman of unfathomable seductiveness and ends up as part of a love triangle dating back to the feudal period. There’s some solid samurai-style action, but the best reason to watch this one is Aya Sugimoto, who is too beautiful to not give off a supernatural aura, making her perfect for her role as a passionate vampire seductress.
The Vampire Lovers
While we’re in the mood for sexytime, let me point out that in spite of its terrible title, this adaptation of Carmilla happens to be my favorite of Hammer Film Productions’ exceptional stable of classic vampire films. Not only is it red hot, but it is very faithful to the source material and has a lot of genuine creeps to balance out the abundance of female flesh on display.
It’d be easy to write this one off as softcore at a glance due to the girl-girl love scenes, but all the film really did was take what was very heavily implied in Le Fanu’s Victorian era novel and put it onscreen in the age of exploitation cinema.
Ingrid Pitt is the polar opposite of the character in the book, which is regrettable, but her commanding performance as a powerful and intimidating undead vampiress makes up for the deviation from source material. Consider this one a must-watch for fans of sexy vampires and classical vampire mythology as well.
This one received a surprising and well-deserved mainstream theatrical release, which is a true rarity for quality vampire films in the current climate, but I’m not sure it found its audience, which is too bad. But any way you look at it, it’s an excellent film and one of the best vampire stories of the modern era.
Like most of the best fiction, Daybreakers works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s about the near future where vampires have taken over the planet and the few surviving pockets of humanity are tirelessly hunted as the world’s blood supply dwindles and starving vampires devolve into monsters. On the metaphorical level it’s about the near future where human society has taken over the planet with the remaining natural resources tirelessly exploited and dwindling while starving people devolve into monsters.
If nothing else, Daybreakers gives you Willem Dafoe’s Elvis impression and a seriously brutal climax, so even if the social commentary doesn’t do it for you, there’s still plenty to love on a superficial level.
This David Lynch-produced film is indie to the core, but is a very interesting take on the concept put forth in Dracula’s Daughter, making this one feel like a modern remake of sorts even as the black-and-white picture and appearance of Dracula himself (in a flashback cameo) feel like an extension of the classic Universal films.
Nadja is a vampire maid of constant sorrow, finding “fleeting joy” in her eternal life only to see it crumble and vanish while she remains stuck in her cycle of mopery. Her inability to break the cycle serves as a metaphor for poor romantic choices (and possibly drug abuse), and features Renfield offering the quotable quote “love is like rabies”.
One thing I love and hate about this one is the way Nadja uses her hypnotic influence to blur her victims’ minds. This is portrayed onscreen by a literal blurring of the picture that is really cool in effect, but also annoying when done in long stretches. Still, a very interesting arthouse vampire flick for anybody looking for something different.
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary
Did somebody mention something different? How about silent ballet? That’s what the kids are into these days, right? I don’t know that any novel has been adapted more times than Dracula has, so I think a new approach was necessary, and Pages From a Virgin’s Diary was certainly that.
With the characters now expressing themselves through interpretive dance rather than exposition, there was more room than you’d think to highlight some of the under-appreciated aspects of the classic tale. For one, casting an Asian as the title character served to highlight the xenophobic underpinnings, and the seductive dancing itself did an amazing job painting a portrait of repressed unrequited feminine sexuality and the Victorian men’s inability to satisfy it. Drac doesn’t have that problem.
A beautiful film with gorgeous music, powerful performances, and based on one of the best novels of all time. If you are a fan of classic film or are feeling artsy, you want to see this, silent ballet or not. You may be surprised.
Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl
From the classic, seductive, and evocative to the batshit insane we go. Japan’s neo-grindhouse scene is a … unique approach to filmmaking where the more offensive, violent, and generally ridiculous a film is, the better it is. And this one is the best.
So you’ve got a vampire girl. You’ve got a Frankenstein girl. They attend the same high school and have a crush on the same boy. You know where this is going. But oh, how they get there. This may be one of my favorite vampire films, but in no way is it for everybody. It’s extreme in every sense and features more black comedy in its running time than America sees in a typical year’s worth of films put together.
Brace yourself for this one if you aren’t familiar with extreme Asian cinema. There is certainly more disturbing fare out there since this is a satire at heart, but it definitely has no aims on political correctness and features literal showers of gore so know what you are getting into before you take this recommendation.
Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural
Now here’s an obscurity that should be on everybody’s list of classic vampire films. I once described the look of this film as so dark that it would give Tim Burton nightmares, and I meant it. But it’s beautiful and manages a creepy fairytale vibe at the same time.
This one was bafflingly banned by a group called The Catholic League of Decency (who sound like barrels of fun) and was almost never seen in America until two decades after its release. My guess as to why is that it features a man of God lusting after a teenage orphan in his charge. That’s it. The film was rated PG.
I’m betting you haven’t seen this one and if that is the case, I’m going to have to implore you to give this one a shot. A better coming of age story utilizing vampires I have not seen and the title character is a succubus for the ages.
This recent addition to the undead lexicon may not be a cinema revolution, but it is a new look at the very concept of the vampire. Our protagonist in this one is a blood drinker who lurks on internet suicide message boards and offers their serious residents a painless death by medical exsanguination. What does he do with all the blood? Guess.
Does he live forever? Does he hate garlic and crosses? Are there others like him? Or is he just some dude with a really weird hobby? The film doesn’t bother with any of it. It throws all mythology right out the window and focuses on the individual. He may well be just be a human with an odd fixation on human blood, but that is not the point. It’s really refreshing that Vampire doesn’t even bother bringing any of this up with all of the trite “forget about the movies, here are the rules” speeches and other expositionary devices that have outlived their usefulness.
This one screams “indie” from every pore and was directed by a Japanese filmmaker (although it is an American film), so it’s recommended primarily for filmgoers looking for something unusual and intimate in scope – if the above image didn’t tell you that already. There isn’t a ton of violence, but what is there is pretty disturbing.
Chan-Wook Park is one of the best directors on the planet. Watch all of his films. This is a South Korean flick that offers a fresh perspective on the life of the undead with a dose of black humor and a great portrayal of the dilemmas of a moral man becoming a vampire.
When a Catholic priest receives a transfusion of vampire blood while dying and awakens with a new lust for life (and human blood), that’s a good set up. When he falls in love with a married woman, that’s pretty messed up. I’m going to avoid further spoilers than that, but let me just say that things don’t exactly get less screwed up from that point on.
Thirst is an excellent take on vampires that utilizes many of the familiar tropes but uses them in new ways to highlight the classic conflict between the human and the inhuman while also acknowledging that the two are often one in the same.
Still not enough for you? You’re my kind of ghoul. There’s no shortage of additional viewing for the cult vampire fanatic who wants to expunge the popular portrayals of the immortal lords of the night from their last decade of memory.
The sci-fi tinged Lifeforce is a good place to be (particularly for admirers of the female form), Frostbiten showed that Let the Right One In was not Sweden’s only valuable contribution to vampire mythology , France’s Two Orphan Vampires brought the weirdness of the 70’s to the 90’s, Vampires Anonymous is good light-hearted fun in a genre filled with gloom, Habit is a romance in the most sinister possible meaning of the word, The Vampire Effect is a Chinese action flick that features Jackie Chan and should not be missed, and somebody is sure to slap me up if I don’t mention Guillermo del Toro and George R. Romero’s unique and divergent takes in Cronos and Martin, respectively.
I could do this all day, but that’s all the bloodsucking I’ve got room for today. Just remember that no matter how many times some film critic declares the genre to be dead or the concept to be tired, vampires always comes back like Christopher Lee’s Dracula and somebody will always come up with a fresh take. It’s as inevitable as death itself. Sleep tight.