Vampires have been on screen for almost as long as there have been screens for vampires to be on. Why? One answer is that they're the exact intersection of sex and violence, two things cinema is regularly accused of being inordinately fascinated by.
Whether they're retribution for having too much sex, or an awakening for someone who's after more of it, vampires have a charge which other horror movie staples – yer zombies, yer Frankenstein's monsters, yer all-purpose ghouls – just don't have. They're a mirror-image of conventional sexual morality: sneaking around at night, sexily pale, drawing strength from cannibalistic attacks which are still a lot more sensual than a common-or-garden disemboweling but never fully satisfied. Bram Stoker wasn't exactly shy about sex in Dracula either: there's a lot of sneaking around bedchambers, stakes being driven into flesh, voyeurism, writhing, quivering, frothing, and spurting.
And the blood. Oh boy, the blood. Whether it comes in buckets or in demure trickles, whether characters are lightly punctured or ripped to pieces, there's going to be a lot of blood. As splashy and lurid as they can be, though, vampire stories ultimately reach back into a folk mythos bigger and deeper than any of cinema's other marauding undead types, which lets them ask the big questions about mortality and morality. These are eight of the best.
There are so many enduring images of silent horror cinema within Nosferatu – a long-taloned silhouette stalking up the stairs, the creepy count rising eerily from his coffin, his toothy grin at the window – that you might think you've pretty much got the measure of it. It's much more than that, though. Albin Grau, an occultist, artist and the co-founder of Prana Films, had wanted to make a vampire film since a Serbian farmer had confessed to him that his father was one of the undead. They couldn't get the rights to Dracula, but Henrik Galeen's poetic script and FW Murnau's meticulous direction – he paced scenes using a metronome – made it far more than a pastiche. There's a sense of genuine terror at the idea of a vampire, and Max Schreck's Count Orlok continues to haunt horror nearly a century on.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
In the eerily empty Bad City in Iran, a drug dealer and pimp takes a young woman wearing a chador back to his flat. He doesn't get exactly what he bargained for: suddenly she's got fangs, and she's snapped off his finger, and she's gone for his jugular. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a prime example of how ripe vampires are for reinvention: Ana Lily Amirpour's film nods at Nosferatu in its monochrome look and dialogue-light style, but this time we're on the vampire's side as our skateboarding avenger takes out men preying on and repressing women.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
This mockumentary, written by Taika Waititi and Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement, follows four Kiwi vampires living in Te Aro, Wellington. There's uptight dandy Viago (Waititi), tyranical Vladislav the Poker (Clement), grumpy rebel Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and sarcophagus-dwelling Nosferatu-style horror Petyr (Ben Fransham), who tends to keep himself to himself. Their eternal life spent bickering over housework is interrupted by the arrival of a new vampire, Nick, who threatens to blow their cover. It's a smart, deeply Waititi riff on all the old vampire tropes. "If you're going to eat a sandwich," Vladislav says, while explaining why they drink virgins' blood, "you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it."
Near Dark (1987)
Kathryn Bigelow's cult favourite mashes up vampirism with neo-Western stylings, pitching the newly nibbled midwestern everyman Caleb into a motorhome full of undead bloodsuckers. They're not sure about Caleb, and are all for ripping him to bits, especially after he gets all squeamish about murdering people. He tries to win them round during a week of vampire probation, but the call of his family and human life are too strong. It's extremely gory and extremely late Eighties, in the best possible way.
Blade II (2002)
Wesley Snipes' Blade is a daywalker: a part-human, part-vampire hybrid who's holding back the full-on vampires from destroying humanity using his mad sword skills. Guillermo Del Toro brings a lyrically splenetic feel to this Marvel adaptation, from before anyone expected Marvel adaptations to be any good whatsoever, plus Luke Goss from Bros pops up. His wisdom from their retrospective doc After the Screaming Stops seems even more true in the vampire movie realm: "Once bitten, twice shy. Twenty times bitten, a little shy."
Blade II wasn't Del Toro's first foray into vampirism, though. His first feature follows Jesus, an antique dealer who chances upon a scarab which grants him eternal life and youth, which is terrific. Less terrifically, he gets a lust for – all together now – human blood. On top of that, there's a Ron Perlman-shaped avenger on the warpath who wants the scarab back. Jesus isn't about to give up the chance to live sexily ever after, though.
The battle between your vampires and your Bible-clutching Christian pastor is one as a tale as old as time, but Oldboy and The Handmaiden director Park Chan-wook's take on it feels fresh. Sang-hyun, a Catholic priest who tends to get props for being particularly steadfast even for a Catholic priest, is ministering at a hospital when he volunteers for a medical trial. It goes terribly wrong, and he's only saved by a blood transfusion. Unfortunately, that blood turns him into a vampire. Drawn to human blood to stave off a relapse of his illness but appalled by himself, things get even more complicated when he decides the only way to carry on an affair he's having is to bump off his lover's husband.
Some horror heads will go for Bela Lugosi as the essential Dracula, while the more perverse will insist that Gary Oldman's wheezing Count from Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film. They are, of course, wrong. Christopher Lee's imperious Dracula first appeared in this Hammer horror, and met his greatest foe: Peter Cushing's urbane savant vampire killer Van Helsing. The two men first met in the dressing room before shooting Dracula, when Lee burst in, sulking that he hadn't got any lines.
"You’re lucky," said Cushing. "I’ve read the script." They were immediately close friends, and remained so for the rest of their lives, even celebrating their birthdays together. Not that you'd know it by the way Van Helsing, keeper of Christian morality, sets about destroying the decadent, sexy Dracula.
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