Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bloodsuckers: The 15 Best Vampire Films

Vampires are probably the most frequently revisited of all the classic horror archetypes, since their inception in 1922 with F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. The subtle combination of sex and death have made them popular through every generation, where they are reinvented again and again. Despite the current trend in nonsensical teen vampires, such as those in Twlight, which I am not fond of, the creatures of the night endure. There have been so many interpretations that to develop a list was an interesting task. There's many to be reccomended, but I decided to cut the list at 15. Many more are just as worthy, however, and I do hope that fas seek out the excellent, Dracula's Daughter(1936), Fright Night(1985), Count Dracula(1977), and The Kiss of the Vampire(1962), among others.
This list constitutes the essentials in this subgenre, the ones that are the most important and best made. Number one should be no surprise, as it seems to be the only logical conclusion on any serious list, given the truly frightful depiction of the character and the impact and influence. Many different vampires are covered, from Dracula and beyond. So, as Dracula intoned to his guests, "I bid you welcome!"

1. Nosferatu(1922)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck, Greta Schroeder, Alexander Granach

The granddaddy of all vampire movies, Nosferatu is also the scariest and most disturbing one ever made. Loosely based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, copyright issues forced the producers to switch the locales from Transylvania to the Baltic states and rename the characters. It didn't matter, since the film was still in trouble and the Stoker estate ordered all copies destroyed. Happily for film fans, the order was never carried out.
Nosferatu features many stunning images, including the vampire rising from his coffin like a switchblade, a carriage ride through a ghostly forest(achieved through shooting the film in negative) and the climatic destruction by sunlight, which was perhaps this film's most lasting contribution to vampire lore. It also contains the mysterious Max Schreck's performance as the vampire, which has to be the creepiest vampire of them all and one of the most unforgettable of all horror film performances. His stiff walk and mannerisms appear so unreal, that one believes he may be a real vampire! And look at his eyes throughout. He never blinks. Besides Schreck's performance, the atmosphere in this film has never been topped. The use of real castles and spooky rustic locations, combined with the primitive special effects, give this film an otherwordly feel that no other version was ever able to capture. Even if it was an unofficial adaption, no other version of Dracula was able to achieve what this one did.
Nosferatu is available through many public domain companies and online, so if you haven't seen this, make a point of doing so. It's one of the all-time greats.

2. Horror of Dracula(1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough

The best Dracula movie and the finest Hammer horror of them all. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster brilliantly re-invents Stoker's novel, changing the character from stuffy disciplinarian, to something more animalistic and more threatening. Christopher Lee would go on to portray the character numerous other times, and appeared as the Count, the most on film. His characterization is brutal and terrifying and set the standard for many imitators to follow. Likewise, Peter Cushing sells the role of Van Helsing, better than anyone before or since. His determination borders on madness(who else would engage in hand to hand combat with Dracula?) and his sincerity makes him the definitive screen vampire hunter.
The combination of revolutionary gore and sex, made this one of the defining pictures in the horror canon and laid the groudwork for many modern horror films to follow. The brilliant color photography and lightning pacing by director Terence Fisher, has made this age quite well. A true landmark in the history of the genre.

3. Dracula(1931)
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye

All-time classic horror film that ushered in a whole new era, may be a bit creaky today, but still retains it's original power and charm. Bela Lugosi forever defined the role of vampire in the public eye and is still the most imitated today. His slow, deliberate line readings, as well as his florid hand gestures, became among the most imitated and quoted in horror history. The Stoker novel is widely condensed here, the filmmakers opting more for the stageplay, and it's not nearly as epic as the novel was. However, Lugosi's commanding performance and the addition of Dwight Frye as Renfield("Rats! Rats! Rats!") and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing, have helped make this a classic. Tod Browning was no great director, but the early scenes in Dracula's crypt are the stuff of nightmares.
The film was remade in spanish at the same time and is actually cinematically superior. Directed by George Melford, his Dracula is more atmospheric and sensual, with a better leading lady performance by Lupita Tovar, than the ice-cold Helen Chandler. Sadly, Carlos Villaris, is no match for Lugosi and one only wishes that Lugosi was directed in like fashion. Both are fascinating pieces of work and essential to vampire lore.

4. Vampyr(1932)
Director: Carl Dreyer
Cast: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel

Dreyer's dreamlike film is very much like a nightmare on film. It's plot was loosely based on Sheridan La Fanu's Carmilla, but is largely an abstract piece of filmmaking, focusing more on visual asthetics. In most cases, this would be a major debit, but here it works. Dreyer creates a truly eerie world with shadows and light, focusing on supernatural suggestion, rather than blunt horror, a much different style than most filmgoers were accustomed to, especially when one studies contemporary horror films. Scenes like the protagonist witnessing his own funeral procession and a character getting buried alive in flour, remain long in the memory and are unforgettable. Truly one of the most frightening horror excercises of all time.

5. Black Sunday(1960)
Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checci

Italian horror maestro, Mario Bava, creates one of the most beautifully gothic of all horror films with this seminal 1960 film.Utilizing German expressionist influences and shooting in stark black and white, Bava creates one of the most frightening and visually fascinating vampire movies. Black Sunday concerns a vampire/witch who is burned at the stake, but comes back centuries later to enact her revenge, by taking the identity of a beautiful relative(Barbara Steele) whom she hopes to use to re-enter this world. This was Steele's best horror movie and would set her on the path to horror immortality, where she would become the "Queen of the horror film." Bava made many more stylish horror films throughout his career, including creating the "giallo" film, but nothing was as effective as this masterpiece, the finest Italian horror film ever made.

6. Nosferatu, The Vampyre(1979)
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Gantz

Arthouse remake of Nosferatu, directed by acclaimed filmaker, Werner Herzog, is one of the most sumptuous and ambitious horror movies ever made. A very creepy film, this manages to be totally different in tone, while still duplicating much of Murnau's original scene for scene. Part of the effectiveness is Kinski's very different take on the Count, who is still parasitic and disturbing, but also infused with a streak of pathos this time. Isabelle Adjani's classical beauty is fully utilized and her climatic encounter with the Count is even more erotic than in the original. Nosferatu, the Vampyre is a beautiful looking film with unforgettable imagery and a dash of humor, which makes for a particularly beguiling film experience. One of the finest horror remakes ever made.

7. The Night Stalker(1971)
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Cast: Darren Mcgavin, Simon Oakland, Carol Lynley

The best television horror movie ever made and the one that led to the well-remembered, but short-lived, tv series of the same name. This film updates the vampire to the contemporary more believably than number of subsequent films could. A vampire is loose in Las Vegas and is causing a string of murders, and only one intrepid reporter, Carl Kolchak(Darren Mcgavin) can stop him. Mcgavin is brilliant in this film, combining humor with a hardnosed cynical streak, as he has to fight to save the city from the menace that only he knows really exists. Peppered with an intelligent, witty script and a cast of professionals, The Night Stalker is both fun and spooky and contains one of the best vampires, in Barry Atwater's silent but menacing, Janos Skorzeny.

8. Daughters of Darkness(1970)
Director: Harry Kumel
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet, Andrea Rau

The most artistically lensed erotic vampire film ever made is also one of the most disturbing. Taking a page from history, and suggesting that the Countess(Delphine Seyrig) is Countess Bathory, who has retained her beauty through the centuries, this film also reveals her taste for young women. Several lesbian vampire films were made at the time, most glorified softcore porn, but this one offers better characters and more complexity than one would expect, as well, as an emphasis on genuine eroticsim. Early feminist and repression themes are handled with subtly and there's a certain tragedy to the characters that make them compelling. Seyrig is one of the great vampires, quietly menacing and evil as she seduces Danielle Ouimet away from her oblivious lover, John Karlen. Andrea Rau is the definitive gothic vampire in this picture, a sad character who is both cute and beautiful, and meets a nasty end through running water.

9. Blood and Roses(1960)
Director: Roger Vadim
Cast: Mel Ferrer, Elsa Martinelli, Annette Vadim

The first of the lesbian vampire films, also based on Carmilla, is also one of the most sensual and subtle of all gothic horror films. The spirit of a vampire manifests itself in the body of the beautiful Carmilla(Annette Vadim) who proceeds to seduce a young married couple, Mel Ferrer and Elsa Martinelli. Very ahead of it's time and tasteful, this contains some strikingly erotic scenes, my favorite being Vadim's seduction of Martinelli in a rain drenched garden. Both women are ravishing, but Martinelli has never appeared more gorgeous than in this film. The ending is bizarrely romantic and suggests another side to the vampire that would not surface again for several decades, as it was clear that blood was not the only interest in this film.

10. Martin(1976)
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest

A completely original take on the vampire story and probably the most personal film that Romero made, outside of the greatly underrated, Knightriders(1981). John Amplas is a disturbed young man who believes that he is actually an ancinet vampire. In reality he is a painfully shy loner who cannot connect to people and resorts to using razor blades and hyperdermic needles to get blood from young women. Romero cleverly plays with the vampire myths, even utilizing flashbacks that are in the fashion of the classic films to represent Martin's past or dreams. No other vampire film has ever really captured what Romero does here and it's one of the sharpest and demanding films of the era and deserves more of a reputation.

11. The Brides of Dracula(1960)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlar, David Peel

Excellent sequel to Horror of Dracula(1958) is actually not about Dracula at all, but focuses more on the continued adventures of Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, as he discovers another vampire in a mountain village that has been freed from imprisonment. The most fairy tale like of Hammer's gothics, this is the best example of Fisher's artistry as a filmmaker, utilizing the color cinematography to it's full advantage and presenting a very different vampire in David Peel, an evil aristrocratic bastard, who even resorts to biting his own mother. There's real invention in store here, including a gripping sequence where Van Helsing uses a brutal remedy on himsefl to cure vampirisim and yet another novel Hammer way to dispatch a vampire by film's conclusion. Another gold standard chiller from England's finest frightmakers.

12. Cronos(1992)
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast" Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook

Del Toro's fondness for classic horror shines through in his debut effort, which combines elements that amde the classics so indelible, while giving the story a new spin. The vampire in this film is created accidently through an ancinet device created by an alchemist hundreds of years before. Federico Luppi delivers a splendid performance as an old antiques dealer who becomes addicted to the device that ultimately transforms him into a monster. The film is reminiscent of both the gothic horrors of the past and the more modern works of David Cronenberg, though the real thread that holds it together is the heart, particularly the relationship between Luppi and his granddaughter, Aurora(Tamara Shanath), which is very personal and moving. Both comical and sentimental, this film stands tall as one of the best horror films made in the last twenty years and the best modern vampire film.

13. Bram Stoker's Dracula(1992)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder

Controversial adaption of Stoker's novel is neither the most faithful(Count Dracula(1977) was) or the best, but it's one of the handsomest and epic horror films ever attempted. Admittebly, alot of Stoker's novel is retained, at least in basic structure, though the addition of a love story and reincarnation seems to have been borrowed from The Mummy(1932). Gary Oldman is a very impressive Dracula and is believable going from old to young, through the aid of amazing Oscar-winning special effects. Coppola's film is breathtaking, using every known practical effect possible, while tipping it's hat to over a hundred years of cinematic horror. Filled with bravura performances from Oldman and Hopkins(as Van Helsing) and dripping with pictorial beauty, this version of Dracula is not to be missed. Plus, girl-watchers of all ages should delight in seeing future sex symbol Monica Belucci in her first role as one of Dracula's nude brides, in a particularly memorable seduction scene.

14. Near Dark(1987)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright

Probably the best vampire film of the decade(though Fright Night(1985) was fun, fun, fun), Near Dark is like a Sam Peckinpah movie meets Dracula, as a group of vagrant, outlaw vampires, pick up a farmer's son(Adrian Pasdar) and give him an ultimatum: kill or be killed by them. The film's mixture of brutal action and quiet romance is nicely played, as is the emphasis on characterization, which was often missed in horror films of the 1980s. Henriksen, always a treat, is especially good as the leader of the pack, as is a totally over the top, Bill Paxton. Violent and fast-paced, this is among the more underrated horror classics. Don't let the recent Twilight-inspired cover for the DVD fool you. This is a tough and rough movie, well worth seeing.

15. The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967)
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jack Macgowran, Ferdy Mayne, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski

Bizarre and oftentimes, hilarious spoof of Hammer horror films, this was practically the apex of the 60s vampire film. The plot revolves around two vampire killers, Jack Macgowran and apprentice, Roman Polanski. They are out to stop a villainous Count(Ferdy Mayne) who is situated atop a mountain town in a castle, where he is holding a ball for vampires! Extremely goofy film that contains a jewish vampire who goes for a sled ride in his coffin and the beautiful Tate, whose favorite place to be is in the bathtub. Probably not for all tastes, this is still the most succesful vampire comedy(not counting Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein(1948), which had Bela Lugosi as Dracula) and is still a hoot to watch today.

Vampire films continue to endure and fascinate audiences, and will probably do so for a long time. This genre of horror has always been able to reinvent itself, though the best were always based in the gothic tradition and it's those that have endured the longest. As mentioned earlier, there are several other fine vampire films to view throughout the genre's history, from Dracula's Daughter(1936) to Let The Right One In(2008), but this list should serve as a primer for where to begin such a dark journey into the supernatural. All are essential and important in the diet of a true film buff. Hopefully, all these creatures of the night won't frighten you too badly. So when you are done viewing these classics, and you believe that a demonic face is staring at you from the window, well pull yourself together and just remember that, "there are such things."

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