Vampires have terrified movie audiences all the way back to the silent era. The very word “vampire” calls up images of Count Orlok’s gaunt visage and long, sharp claws in Nosferatu (1922), Bela Lugosi’s hypnotic gaze in Dracula (1931), and Christopher Lee’s bloodshot eyes and bloodstained lips in Horror of Dracula (1958). But there are plenty of vampire movies that have nothing to do with cinema’s most infamous Count, and some of them are more heralded than others. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), The Lost Boys (1987), Blade (1998), and Interview with the Vampire (1994) were all big hits with audiences. Pasatiempo takes a look at a forgotten vampire gem, some popular titles you may not have seen, and one underappreciated Dracula.
30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
Your typical vampire turns to ash when exposed to direct sunlight. That usually gives the protagonists in most vampire movies some security, so long as they can locate and slay a resting vampire before the sun goes down. But there are places in the world, such as 30 Days of Night’s Barrow, Alaska, where the polar night lasts as long as an entire month. Now just imagine spending those 720 hours beset by vampires. That’s the premise here, and the movie is one scary ride.
These bedraggled, exceedingly toothy vampires hunt in packs. They’re insatiable and animalistic, but some are also smart. They’ve cut off all communication between Barrow and the outside world and are intent on feeding to their hearts’ content.
30 Days of Night, which is based on a 2002 comic book series by Steve Niles, pulls no punches. It’s gory. It’s downbeat. It’s relentless. And it effectively portrays the desperation of people forced to make difficult choices in order to avoid a horrifying fate. Giving the vampires their own fictional language (created with the help of a linguist and subtitled for the audience) sets them further apart from their human prey than in your typical vampire film. No suave and handsome charmers or sultry seductresses here. This is vampirism at its rawest. Rated R, 113 minutes, Netflix, DirecTV, Amazon Prime
Director John Badham followed up his Golden Globe-nominated dance drama Saturday Night Fever (1977) with this dark, gothic romance. Like Tod Browning’s 1931 film of the same name, Badham’s adaptation was based on the 1924 stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. It features actor Frank Langella in the title role, reprising his Tony-nominated appearance in the Broadway production. He plays opposite Laurence Olivier as Abraham Van Helsing. And Dracula’s quarry, Lucy Seward, is played by Kate Nelligan.
Langella’s Dracula may be handsome and charming, but underneath lies a real predator. Watch the ravenous way his eyes dart about when he sees a servant cut his finger at a dinner party. Langella refused to wear fangs for the role, relying instead on acting alone to convince you of his supernatural prowess. And while the blood and gore are never over the top, there’s plenty of throat tearing, impaling, and neck breaking to satisfy die-hard horror fans. It’s also got one the most terrifying scenes I’ve seen in a vampire film: Van Helsing encountering the undead Mina in the tunnels beneath a seaside graveyard. It’s one of the few adaptations I’ve seen that depicts the wreck of the Demeter, the ship bearing Dracula to England’s shores, which featured prominently in Bram Stoker’s novel.
The film has been unfairly maligned over the years for its romantic overtones, leading some horror fans to steer clear. But those who take a chance on it might be pleasantly surprised. Rated R, 109 minutes, Vudu, iTunes, Amazon Prime
THE HUNGER (1983)
Two words: David Bowie. If the Thin White Duke’s presence in director Tony Scott’s adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s novel isn’t enough to convince you to see it, well, there’s that infamous seduction scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.
Deneuve plays Miriam Blaylock, a centuries-old vampire who entices her lovers/victims with the promise of eternal life. What she doesn’t tell them is that one day they’ll become conscious, but withered with age. It’s a unique take on vampire lore. We first see its effects when cellist John Blaylock (Bowie) visits the laboratory of Dr. Sarah Roberts (Sarandon), a scientist studying the effects of premature aging. He tells her that he developed liver spots on his hands overnight. She ignores him and he waits, growing elderly in a matter of hours. Later, seeking out this human case study who may hold the secrets to her research, Roberts encounters Miriam and finds herself fighting for her very soul.
The Hunger is a stylish, postmodern vampire tale with a gorgeous, subdued color palette. Bowie is terrific. He doesn’t sing in this one, but he did co-write “Funtime” with Iggy Pop, who performs it on the soundtrack — which also features the Bauhaus hit single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” and classical compositions by Franz Schubert and Maurice Ravel. Rated R, 97 minutes, Vudu, Amazon Prime
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)
By 1970, Hammer Film Productions’ Dracula series was getting stale. The lesser-known story of the Karnsteins and the desirous but deadly vampire Carmilla gave audiences something new. Based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, The Vampire Lovers took full advantage of a more relaxed period in cinema, when sexuality was ripe for exploitation.
The tale begins in Austria in the early 19th century, when vampire hunter Baron Joachim von Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) tracks an enchanting female vampire to her castle and slays her, believing he’s put an end to the Karnstein lineage. Many years later, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt), appears, insinuating herself among a class of aristocrats in her search for a mate to accompany her in eternal life. Marcilla, whose name is an anagram for Carmilla, sets her sites (and her fangs) on the voluptuous young beauty Emma (Madeleine Smith) and attempts to flee with her into the night.
Gratuitous nudity and overt lesbian themes aside, The Vampire Lovers is vampires done right. We get the pain and longing of the undead mixed with their outright viciousness. We get diaphanous, shrouded figures floating about in foggy graveyards, and dreamlike Technicolor cinematography by Moray Grant that’s worthy of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. And it’s genuinely scary. The film is the first in what’s become known as Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy, and it was followed with Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil, both 1971. The Vampire Lovers is the best of the three, and despite it’s immodesty (Smith later said that she regretted her nude scenes), it’s a well-acted and compelling production. One of Hammer’s best. Rated R, 91 minutes, Amazon Prime
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Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film is a hallucinatory experience that touches on themes of eroticism. A wanderer named Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg, credited onscreen as Julian West) journeys to an inn where Gray is given a sealed parcel bearing the message “To be opened upon my death.” Parcel in hand, Gray steps outside where ominous shadows lead him to a foreboding castle. Inside the castle, the shadows dance and wander, and Gray has his first glimpse of the vampire, Marguerite Chopin, who’s been feeding on the young, female occupants of a nearby manor house. The mysterious parcel may hold the key to ending her reign of terror.
Dreyer’s inspiration was 19th-century gothic fiction author Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 short story collection, In a Glass Darkly, which featured the lesbian vampire tale “Carmilla.” Dreyer loosely adapted Fanu’s story for Vampyr, taking out any overt references to lesbianism. But the film is notable for its disorienting, dreamlike visual effects and haunting imagery. Not rated, 75 minutes, YouTube, Amazon Prime ◀