Fangs for the Memory: Our Favourite Vampires
Come Halloween there's nothing we like better than to sink our teeth into a good vampire movie, and this week the re-release of Christopher Lee's Dracula and the simultaneous arrival of David Slade's 30 Days Of Night invites us to compare the classic blood-sucker with a more contemporary take.
Tales of the undead feeding on the blood of the living go all the way back to ancient times, and crop up in cultures far beyond the borders of Transylvania and Eastern Europe, cropping up in South America and the Far East, New England and olde England for that matter.
It's generally assumed these tales derive from the once mystifying effects of natural diseases. Tuberculosis, for example, would leave other-worldly, bloated corpses (hopefully you're not eating as you read this): the victims' skin might tighten, giving the impression that teeth have extended; hair and fingernails might continue to grow - and there might be bloody spittle around the mouth. All of which adds up to a pretty fair thumbnail of the cinema's first iconic vampire, Baron Orlok, aka Nosferatu (1922) - and virtually nothing like the romantic conception of Count Dracula, a seductively dark, brooding aristocrat as personified by Bela Lugosi in 1931, Christopher Lee nearly three decades later, and Messrs Cruise, Pitt and Banderas in Interview With The Vampire (1994).
It's this exotic, erotic but dangerous, shadowy creature that has traditionally fascinated filmgoers. As David Pirie observed, this brand of vampire marks "the triumph of sex over dearth, of flesh over spirit… it denies almost everything other than the gratification of the senses by physical means."
But times change, and while vampires live forever, they're not immune to shifts in fashion - or audience demographics.
Teenage boys aren't much interested in European counts (at least, not as a rule). And as they've dominated the box office numbers over the past quarter century, we've seen new types of vampire emerging in films like The Lost Boys, Blade, and Near Dark. In these films, vampires may be a social menace, but they're also quite often heroic underdogs or a persecuted minority, just like your average teenager. There's less emphasis on necking and more on kicking ass (whether that also reflects the priorities of today's adolescents I'm not sure).
In 30 Days of Night - set in deepest, darkest Alaska and based on the comic strip by Steve Niles - the vampires are a marauding clan of feral (but style-conscious) outlaws, a bit like the motorcycle gangs who terrorized small towns in films like The Wild One, or before them, rampaging cowboys in countless westerns. They're led by Marlow (Danny Huston), who looks more like Neil Tennant than Bela Lugosi, but who talks up a storm in what sounds like a guttural David Lynch language (or rather: "egaugnal hcnyL a"), and flashes a mouthful of rat's teeth with alarming regularity.
The movie isn't subtle and the script is nothing to write home about, but at least this high concept horror makes no bones about the physical threat these interlopers represent. When Marlow strikes, he goes for the jugular, and he's not squeamish about the mess… There's nothing sexy about any of this, it's vampirism as a pestilence, an infection to make your blood run cold.
OUR FAVOURITE VAMPIRES
Count Orlock (Max Schreck) Nosferatu 1922
Bald and spindly, with bat like ears and teeth, and long, claw-like fingers, Nosferatu was Dracula by another name. Even now he's still a fearsome sight. The actor, Max Schreck was impersonated by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's remake of the same name and Willem Dafoe in the cult classic Shadow Of The Vampire (2000), and lent his name to Christopher Walken's baddie in Batman Returns (1992). Coincidentally, Schreck is the German for 'Terror'.
Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) Ed Wood 1994
Seen today, Bela Lugosi's 1931 Dracula is pure ham, but at the time the movie was a great success, and the actor's thick Hungarian accent was considered a mark of continental sophistication. It limited Lugosi's career prospects though, and he wound up playing vampires forever after, including his post-humus appearance in the legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space. He was even buried in his Dracula cape. Martin Landau won an Oscar for his very funny but sympathetic portrait of the "ex-boogeyman".
Dracula (Christopher Lee) Dracula 1957
Tall (six foot 5 inches), aristocratic and charming - until you cross him - Christopher Lee radically redefined the way we saw Dracula. This was also the first time audiences got a look at the count in colour. (Those piercing bloodshot eyes.) This was a sexed up vampire, all set for the swinging 60s, and of course Lee went on to play him another six times. The 1957 Dracula is currently getting a rerelease in cinemas courtesy of the BFI.
Santanico Pandemonium (Selma Hayek) From Dusk Till Dawn 1996
The main attraction at the Titty Twister - and how! - Santanico is an exotic dancer by trade, and a vampire queen by calling. Played by Selma Hayek, she's not afraid to show some skin - or to shed it for that matter. Sadly her bite is much, more worse than her bark. Don't know if Tarantino ripped it off, but the role seems to owe something to Grace Jones in the cult item, Vamp.
Eric Brooks (Wesley Snipes) Blade 1998
He's only half vampire but "Daywalker" Eric Brooks - aka Blade - is something else. Snipes isn't the first black bloodsucka (that honour would go to William Marshall, aka Blacula), but he's the first where skin colour isn't really the issue. With his shades and his leather and his Hong Kong action moves, Blade is a techno, twenty first century Van Helsing. Two sequels and tax evasion charges followed.
Dracula (Gary Oldman) Bram Stoker's Dracula 1992
Director Francis Coppola and actor Gary Oldman gives us both the most flamboyant and the most haunting Count Dracula since Max Schreck. Eiko Ishioka's ornate costumes help, and some of the most spellbinding camera tricks you'll ever see, but Oldman creates a terrible freak and then he makes us care. Too bad Winona and Keanu are his costars - you find yourself rooting for the undead all the way.
Selene (Kate Beckinsale) Underworld 2003
How to make vampires heroic? Pit them against a wild pack of good for nothing werewolves (under the command of Tony Blair-alike Michael Sheen). Cast Kate Beckinsale as sharp-toothed Death-dealer Selene. And dress her head-to-toe in fetish gear.
Severin (Bill Paxton) Near Dark 1987
Bill Paxton's redneck vampire is a cowboy veteran of the American civil war who will open up an artery with his silver spurs and moan if a male victim hasn't shaved his neck. When Bill Paxton's on, he's really on, and in Kathryn Bigelow's inventive nocturnal road movie, he's smokin'.
Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) Interview with a Vampire 1994
Opinions on Neil Jordan's film of the Anne Rice best-seller vary widely. While Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt do fine as Lestat and Louis, I think everyone can agree that the creepiest character in the movie is little girl lost Claudia, played with scary maturity by a very young but not very innocent Kirsten Dunst (she was 12 at the time, looks younger, but acts much older). Even creepier, the character apparently came out of Rice mourning her own dead daughter.
Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage) Vampire's Kiss 1989
If ever an actor was born to play vampires, Nicolas Cage would be that man. Peter Loew is an uptight yuppie literary agent who loses it big time when Jennifer Beals bites him on the neck. Convinced that he's become a vampire, he stalks New York City with plastic fangs, sunglasses and a video of Nosferatu for inspiration. He even constructs his own coffin to lie in. This is an extraordinary performance that has to be seen to be disbelieved. Oh, yeah, Cage even ate a real live cockroach on camera!
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