Is it just me or do modern vampire movies…suck?
I blame Anne Rice. Ever since Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt cruised the back alleys and boulevards of 18th Century New Orleans in the big-screen adaptation of her homoerotic classic, Interview With The Vampire, vampires have kinda lost their bite.
Once upon a time vampires haunted our dreams and stalked our nightmares. Just as almost every culture has their own version of the creation and deluge myths, the myth of the vampire is universal. From Transylvania to Ancient Mesopotamia, South America to the Philippines, the vampire is as ingrained in our collective psyche as fear of the dark. And they’ve been flickering across our screens ever since the dawn of cinema. But despite the rich and terrifying source myths from around the world, whether they’re monstrous ghouls like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or dapper Eurotrash like Bela Lugosi or the lewd and libidinous nymphets of Jean Rollin, cinema’s vision of the vampire owes a lot to the Victorians.
The dawn of the Industrial Age symbolised the victory of science, technology and reason over superstition and the supernatural, allowing the Victorians to embrace a lifestyle of strict social rigidity, liberating them from their more carnal instincts. For the stiff, buttoned-up Victorians nothing was more transgressive and threatening (or alluring) than the vampire. Forced to live in the shadows and reeking both of the corruption of the grave and their own rampant sexuality, the vampire horrified Victorian sensibilities because he was everything they wouldn’t allow themselves to be; free. A creature of illicit appetites, existing outside of cosy human society, preying on the weak, indulging their lust for blood and their raging libidos. Immoral and immortal, obeying neither God’s laws nor man’s, vampires didn’t just threaten our lives, they threatened the fabric of our lives. The vampire came to symbolise the ultimate outsider.
Each generation since has reinvented the vampire myth for their own time. In the 20’s, with The War to End All Wars still a recent memory, Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlock in the silent classic Nosferatu as a perpetually starved, ratty ghoul spreading fear and contagion, resonated with a shattered Germany while in the 30’s, Bela Lugosi’s aristocratic Dracula seemed perfectly in tune with the times; a suave, sinister, dispossessed foreigner, insidiously worming his way into British society.
In the 60’s and 70’s, Hammer Films gave us the robust Christopher Lee as Dracula while also flouting the UK’s antiquated censorship laws with the equally robust Ingrid Pitt in their breathless adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, The Vampire Lovers. Now I love a good lesbian vampire flick as much as the next guy. Particularly if the next guy dribbles and mutters to himself at the thought of nubile girls biting each other. And after the success of The Vampire Lovers, Hammer made a bunch.
While never approaching the surreal lunacy of Jean Rollin’s lesbian vampire movies (La Vampire Nue, Requiem Pour Un Vampire) or the hallucinatory eroticism of Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders, films like Lust For A Vampire (lesbian vampire sucks her way through a girls boarding school) and Twins Of Evil (not that much lesbianism but hey, naked Playboy twins), by placing a greater emphasis on violence and sexuality, pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable but also pushed Hammer further into camp. When they tried to drag Christopher Lee’s caped Count into the Twentieth Century in the lamentable Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula the writing was on the wall for the failing studio.
With the exception of the Blacula films which gave the vampire a blaxploitation makeover, the 70s were a lean time for the vampire as the films got camper and audiences deserted in droves in favour of more explicit slasher movies and video nasties. It wasn’t until the 80s that the vampire truly escaped Ye Olde Worlde.
Tony Scott’s terminally stylish The Hunger gave us sophisticated omnisexual vampires, Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, stalking 80’s New York’s club scene. Despite it’s emphasis on style over substance, the film also boasts an erotically charged scene where Deneuve seduces Susan Sarandon, a scene that’s scorched into the minds of every teenage boy who’s ever seen it.
The Lost Boys gave us a motorcycle gang of teen vampires who, just like J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys, will never grow old while in perhaps the most underrated vampire film of them all, Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow gave us a surrogate family of trailer trash vampires, slaughtering their way across America’s Mid-West.
In the 90s, while Interview With The Vampire reigned supreme, movies like Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, Michael Almereyda’s Nadja and even Francis Ford Coppola’s old-fashioned Bram Stoker’s Dracula offered a decidedly arthouse vision of the vampire while Mexico’s Cronos had originality to burn and introduced us to the saviour of modern horror and fantasy, Guillermo del Toro. From Dusk Till Dawn gave us motor-mouthed bank robbing killers (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) and Harvey Keitel’s “mean motherf@cking servant of God” battling an army of vampire strippers while Blade’s comic book sensibilities gave us the first vampire action movie.
But by the noughties, the rot had set in. While on TV, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel were reinventing the vampire genre, on the big screen we had Kate Beckinsale’s boyish frame poured into a leather catsuit for The Matrix-lite Underworld series (seriously, UV bullets?), the diminishing returns of the Blade sequels (he was barely even in the third one) and Anne Rice’s Queen Of The Damned (with emo-leprechaun Stuart Townsend taking over from Tom Cruise as antihero Lestat), a film so bad it made both being a vampire and a rock star look, well, a bit shit. While recent years have seen some fantastic vampire movies like the scary/sweet Let The Right One In, the stunning and demented Night Watch movies and the darkly erotic lunacy of Korea’s Thirst, not one of them has been in English.
Sure, 30 Days Of Night might have featured the dreamy Josh Hartnett battling an army of feral vampires laying waste to his small Alaskan town but despite a foreboding first half and an orgy of bloodletting it failed to find its feet. The recent Daybreakers, which borrowed not just its visuals but its plot from The Matrix, gave us an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying vision of the future where human’s are farmed as livestock. Which is disappointing because now that he’s outgrown his healthy slacker image and looks like a cadaverous meth-head, Ethan Hawke is perfectly cast as the vampire trying to give up blood. And this is in a movie where Willem Dafoe plays an Elvis-fixated ex-vampire. Despite (because of) that Daybreakers is unlikely to find favour with today’s pubescent audience.
The problem is that the Children of the Night have become just that; children. Movies like Twilight and New Moon* and their tweenage audience have castrated cinema’s most virile outsider, killing him in a way no wooden stake ever could. The vampire for the new millennia isn’t a beautiful monster or a bloodthirsty killing machine but a floppy-haired, fey, young man moodily shoegazing his way through eternal damnation, seeking true love against an emo soundtrack. But true love waits kids and when he finds that special girl he’ll respect her far too much to suck her blood. At least until around the fourth film when they’re happily married.
Vampires everywhere are turning in their graves.
* New Moon has also made the werewolf look a bit pussywhipped too…
(A version of this article appeared on filmjuice.com)