My Favorite Monsters: Vampires
Let’s face it, most movie monsters these days suck. Sparkly vampires, shirtless werewolves, Nazi zombies…Hollywood keeps ruining our best bogey men. It wasn’t always this way, though. Back when the world was young and easily startled, the classic movie monsters were born: Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein‘s monster, and the Mummy, sans Brendan Frazer. Even the Creature from the Black Lagoon was good for a shiver…or at least a chuckle when he ran into Abbot and Costello. This October we’re dedicating a new feature to celebrating movies that got it right.
Bloodsuckers that Don’t Suck
Universal Pictures is hoping to reboot their classic monster movie franchises, and their first stop is the old classic, Dracula. So, it is only fitting we begin our tour of horror by looking at some of the best films starring the sanguinary creatures. Over the years, vampires have transitioned from hideous cadavers into regal blue bloods, from royalty to sex symbols, and from sex symbols to stylish but insubstantial heart throbs. They’ve been diluted from terrifying into stupefying. But every once in a while, a film maker gets it right, and restores some of the luster to the old fangs and cowl. Here are my favorites:
Who Got it Right?
1. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
Nosferatu is an important film, not only in the realm of horror (and it remains plenty creepy despite being silent and filmed in a grainy black and white) but as film in its own right. From the German Expressionist school of directors, F. W. Murnau used shadow and light to mesmerizing effect, and deft work with wipes and dissolves created a truly supernatural feel to the action.
Based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Murnau could not get rights to the book, and so alters the setting and names, all while staying dedicated to the mystique and tension of the original. Sued by Stoker’s estate, only one copy of the film survived a purge. Rising from the dead, the film went on to become extremely influential. One look at Max Schreck as the un-dead Count Orloff convinces any film lover that this film brings the goods when it comes to terror.
2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppala take on the classic vampire story injects sensuality and pathos into the tale of dread. A cautionary story of of romance followed to a bloodthirsty extreme, Coppala’s Count Dracula was a brutal and unflinching warlord in life, tempered only by his love for his wife. When she is taken from him, he makes a deal with the devil in order to remain alive and powerful until he can somehow find a new incarnation of his doomed love. This comes to pass when Dracula discovers that poor Jonathan Harker’s wife, Mena, is the very image of his lost bride. From this discovery, the familiar tale of Dracula traveling from medieval Transylvania to “modern” London proceeds.
The added characterization of Dracula gives new depth and resonance to the classic tale. Dracula becomes less of an avatar of terror and more of a very human monster…all the more chilling for his single-mindedness and drive to possess. The love story could easily become maudlin or silly (looking at you, Twilight) but for the intensity and sensuality that actor Gary Oldman brings to the Count as a handsome young noble. Coupled with the hideous, ancient wreck that the Lord displays while at home (also Oldman, in fantastic costume), Coppala manages to thread the needle and create a nuanced and terrifying creature.
3. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Anne Rice was for a time the premier vampire story teller. While her later work became self involved and venal, it is in Interview with the Vampire that she presents her strongest imagining of the creatures – ironically as monstrously self involved and venal creatures of pleasure.
Rice’s vampires are strong, beautiful, sensual, and damnably bored. The immortal sociopaths feud, fume, and attempt to murder each other over the smallest of slights. When not engaged in competition with each other, they often retreat into a gruesome simulacrum of mortal life, dressing up thralls and victims as lovers, family members, colleagues, and play mates. They toy with their victims, including those who admire them and wish to be like them. These vampires are the pampered and fey celebrities of eternity. It is fitting that Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt bring these characters to un-life with alternating joy and malevolence.
Who Got it Wrong!
In the immortal rat race, there are winners and losers. Here we have three of the worst offenders when it comes to de-fanging the ancient terror of the vampire. OK, more than three, because Hollywood just cannot quit when it comes to driving a franchise into the ground.
3. Queen of the Damned (2002)
As a sad counter-point to Interview with the Vampire, we have Rice’s Queen of the Damned. Horribly miscast, the film also manages to slip past the point of metaphor into awkward self-parody. These vampires are no longer fretting celebrity stand ins: they are full on rock and roll stars!
The conceit of the earlier works fall flat as Lestat, once tormented and listless, becomes a preening rock star. Subtlety works wonders, Anne. This film attempts to tomahawk the audience over the head with a six-string of blunt comparison. Add to it all a convoluted and silly back story about the progenitors of the vampire race (it’s best not to over think these things, and once again imagination works wonders when it comes to making your monster terrifying) and a climatic battle that makes the immortal monsters seem like a feuding slumber party, and you get a mess that probably ensured that Hollywood will avoid the rest of the Vampire Chronicles like Dracula avoids garlic.
2. Twilight (all of them)
What a travesty! These creatures are just not vampires. They don’t drink blood, they sparkle in sunlight, and they endlessly repeat high school in hopes of picking up some dopey sophomore who is slow witted enough to think brooding emo angst is sexy.
The concept is absurd, and the author lazily hijacks the vampire myth to no discernible effect. Apparently the script where she described her sparkly pedophile protaganist got panned, so she crossed out her first effort and simply exchanged “vampire” for “magical loser” and fooled enough studio execs into biting.
1. Underworld (all of them)
Another hatchet job where some lazy script writer wanted to skip actually creating an engrossing mythology, and so co-opted vampires as an expedient stand in.
The main character nearly bleeds to death from a single gunshot wound early in the first film. What? All that hooplah about crucifixes and holy water, garlic and wooden stakes…and all it would take to down these daft Hot-Topic advertisements is a single bullet? Where has the mystique gone! Where is the larger than life embodiment of terror!
Kate Beckinsale phones in one banal performance after the next while the plot lines get progressively sillier. Apparently nobody told her that she wasn’t on a runway, so just pouting at the camera doesn’t count as acting. A train wreck franchise that unfortunately seems unable to die, at least this series got one part of the vampire myth right!