by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Vampires. The perennial monsters of Filmland. They’ve been around for a while and they’ll probably stick with us for a long, long time. While teenage girls that head to see the Vampirus domesticus in Twilight might think the vampire is romantic and sexy, there have been plenty of filmmakers who have given us darker, funnier or more moving visions of this creature. The following list is a compilation of the lesser-known vampires, the ones who gave an old trope a twist. You will not find Lugosi or Lee here. Neither will you find Buffy and her friends. The vampires on this list are the ones you need to watch and you have probably not encountered yet.
When Brad Pitt or another attractive vampire complains about the loneliness of immortality, I always wonder what the hell they are talking about. Pitt in Interview With the Vampire is seriously hot. He won’t have a problem getting a date. But look at the vampire in Nosferatu. Would you let him buy you chocolates and send you flowers? There is nothing romantic about the first vampire to be immortalized on film. He looks like he just stepped fresh out of a grave. Count Not-Dracula and the sets are spectacular, but that’s not all. The movie milks the use of shadows and light for all that it’s worth and creates a genuinely creepy, decadent atmosphere. It’s stylish. It’s cool. Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, this is a movie seriously ahead of its time. It was remade in the ’70s.
Do not let the title fool you. There is no Dracula in this film. A young woman finds a guy chained in the dungeons and sets him free. Bad idea. He turns out to be a vampire who wants to suck the blood of all the pretty girls in the neighborhood. I really like this movie. It has some delicious Freudian details: the vampire is kept in chains by his mother and when he escapes, he proceeds to vampirize her. Van Helsing is hard-core. He cauterizes a vampire wound with an iron! Which really begs the question: what happened to Van Helsing? It used to be that you could always count on a cool guy like Peter Cushing to vanquish the undead, but nowadays the reliable vampire killer seems to have gone the way of the dodo. And no, that travesty with Hugh Jackman does not count as a good, modern Mr. Helsing.
The title of this movie is even better in Italian (Dracula Must Have Virgin Blood or Die!), but it is a funny movie, nevertheless. Dracula looks like I sometimes imagine the Count would: pale, cadaverous and weak, probably as the result of many generations of decadent, aristocratic inbreeding. The Count is in a bit of a pickle. He needs virgin blood to survive, but there are few virgins at home, so he packs his bags and heads for Italy. Dracula meets his nemesis there: a Marxist gardener. You could say this is an allegory about the fall of the aristocracy at the hands of the proletariat. Or you could just laugh. Also know as Andy Warhol’s Dracula.
George Romero is better known for his zombies from the Night of the Living Dead series. He also did a nifty vampire. Martin has no fangs (except if they are prosthetic) and has to drug his victims to suck their blood. In fact, you spend the movie wondering if Martin is a creature of the night or just a sick young kid. Romero makes fun of the old vampire clichés and at one point, Martin dresses up in a Lugosi cape as a joke. Nevertheless, Martin is not any less dangerous than the Hammer-film vampires. Does it matter if Martin is not a vampire if he is convinced he is one? The results are still bloody, violent attacks.
Canada has a reputation for being a very bland, polite country. I have two words for you: David Cronenberg. He’s Canadian and he has produced some of the most bizarre movies you’ll ever see. Videodrome, anyone? In Rabid, a crazy medical procedure turns a young woman into a Typhoid Mary. Instead of typhoid, she’s transmitting some kind of vampire virus, but otherwise, Rabid’s heroine behaves as the real-life Mary: she does not believe she is source of the infection. The heroine-in-denial is sympathetic, even if her method for obtaining blood – she sucks it with a stinger growing under her armpit – is unorthodox. Like many of Cronenberg’s movies, there is a fear of the body and the theme of body transforming into an enemy.
Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie are yuppie vampires trolling the nightclubs for dinner. They have no fangs and live in a really posh building, but they are still deadly. When Bowie starts aging, it is time for Deneuve to find a replacement. There are plenty of pretty, billowy curtains and a nifty sex scene between Deneuve and Susan Sarandon with Lakmé playing in the background. This is a quintessential ’80s movies and the vampires are probably representations of the excess and unabashed consumerism of that era. At the same time, they would feel right at home today in the land of botox and eternal youth. Gorgeous and slow, it is worth a look.
If you ever wondered what vampire drifters might look like, this is the film for you. A classic story of girl bites boy, boy turns into vampire, vampires ride an RV. While other vampire films try to show us the suffering that is being a vampire, there is no space for emo vampires here. Working hard on ensuring their survival, the clan of vampires can be best described as mundane and deadly. No vegetarian vamps in their cabal either. There are long empty highways and blood-drenched encounters at a roadhouse, long before Tarantino and Rodriguez set From Dusk Until Dawn in the American southwest.
The first feature film by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is probably one of the sweetest vampire movies you’ll ever see. That’s right. There is blood and there is violence, but at its core, Cronos is a movie about the love between a vampirized man and his granddaughter. An antiquarian accidentally stumbles onto a mechanical device that grants the user strength and immortality but at a high price. Few vampire movies explore what happens when a normal person becomes a vampire. The vampire in Cronos is not young, handsome or aristocratic, and he does not live in a castle with a moat. He’s just an old man who has unwittingly become a monster. This is a sad, lovely tale about family.
What is better than Jesus Christ battling vampires? How about El Santo and Jesus Christ battling vampires? What, who is El Santo, you ask? El Santo is a Mexican wrestler who appeared in a series of cheesy movies. He battled all kinds of things, including vampire women and monsters. What can I say? It was the sixties. Anyhow, Jesus Christ is back and he is about to kick some mean vampire butt. His buddy El Santo joins him in a series of ultra-low-budget, kung-fu actions fight sequences. Lesbian vampires! Gangs of atheists! Did I mention it is Canadian? How do you feel about all those normal, polite Canadians now, eh?
Sweden looks depressing, dangerous and lonely in this movie about a young boy who befriends a vampire girl. Eli, the vampire, looks like a 12-year-old, but she is a dangerous, hungry creature. Her human companion, Oskar, is an alienated, bullied child. Together, they form a twisted little partnership and a strong friendship. This is a slow-paced movie concerned with its characters and punctuated with some disturbing moments of violence. Unlike other vampire movies which try to unsuccessfully exploit the pathos of eternal life, Let the Right One In manages to show the horror of being frozen in time, as a lonely, dangerous child. It is also a moving and creepy love story.