I have watched A LOT of vampire films. Not all of them are wonderful or even watchable. I recall one, Jugular Wine, that I only lasted fifteen minutes. Don’t take that as a dare to watch it. It’s not worth your effort. Although the film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter sounds interesting, it is too odd to really enjoy. And then there are the musical numbers (yes, you heard me right).
In honor of my book, The Changing Vampire of Film and Television, passing the 500 sales mark, I picked the top ten vampire films every horror devote should see. My criteria for choosing these films were the following: Could I watch this movie over and over and not be bored; was there some nifty artistic qualities (like cinematography, set and costume design, and direction); Finally, did any of it make me laugh.
10. Son of Dracula
Why put a Dracula sequel (the third in Universal’s series), with the inscrutable Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula, on a list of vampire movies? The short answer is that it sticks with me. Take Dr. Brewster, who pokes his nose where it doesn’t belong as only an American can do. There’s also a very physical Dracula, who strangles his adversaries. The special effects are well done for the 1940s. Dracula transforms into mist and a bat, and also dissolves when the sun rises (the first on screen since Nosferatu).
Okay, I know this was part of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s and as a time capsule for that era you couldn’t do any better. This is the one film where a vampire walking around in a cape attracts no attention. Surprisingly, Blacula has a lot to offer even as a vampire film. William Marshall puts depth into his portrayal of Mamuwalde, an African Prince who has been imprisoned in a coffin by Dracula. His original love, Luva, is reincarnated as Tina. And check out this this love line: “I live again, to loose you twice.” In the end, when Tina is destroyed, Blacula decides to take his own life, staggering up into the sunlight and dissolving. After you get past the camp factor, Blacula has a lot to offer as a vampire film.
I know I’m going to get crucified for putting the Bela Lugosi film in 8th. But let’s be serious, is this film really frightening anymore? The film drags, and this is due to Tod Browning’s direction. Browning did not pay close attention to how the film was shot and edited. In one scene, on the balcony, there is an “endless take” of about three minutes where the camera never moves. Dracula remains, however, a strong film. It has some stunning visuals (due mostly to Karl Freund, the camera man) like when Dracula emerges from his coffin. Bela Lugosi’s performance remains unmatched. Because he had to learn his English lines phonetically, he inserted odd pauses to his delivery, thus creating the famous Lugosi accent. Finally, Dracula would not be complete without Dwight Frye’s manic performance as Renfield. His laughter alone should put this movie on anyone’s list.
7. Return of the Vampire
This film marked the return of Bela Lugosi to the role of a vampire, Armand Tesla. The werewolf servant (now a staple in Halloween lore) had its start in this film with Andreas Obry, played by Matt Willis. He redeems himself in the end, dragging the hapless vampire into the sunlight, which oddly doesn’t kill him. Tesla seems merely stunned by the daylight. Andreas drives spike through his chest, causing the vampire to melt away, a special effect quite gruesome in its day.
Guns, vampires, werewolves, and tight leather outfits. How could you loose? Underworld takes the art direction of the Matrix and meshes it with a Mafioso-style action movie. The casting of Bill Nighy as the head vampire, Viktor, added just a bit more panache (he also was Davy Jones in the Pirates movies). The film’s original concept was to remake Romeo and Juliet only with werewolves and vampires. If you extract the sappy romance and beef up the Tybalt, you get Underworld.
5. From Dusk Till Dawn
Technically this is only half a vampire flick. The first part is pure Quentin Tarantino dialogue and plot line. Robert Rodriguez’s shoot ‘em style doesn’t take charge until the main characters reach the Titty Twister bar across the Mexican border. Tom Savini (the makeup master for Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th) sports a penis shaped pistol that springs from his belt buckle. The priest, played by Harvey Keitel, can’t bring himself to curse, yet blows away multiple vampires with a shotgun that doubles as a cross. Honestly, if you haven’t seen this movie, then stop what you’re doing and rent it. You have a nearly naked Salma Hayek dancing with a snake. Need I say more?
4. Fright Night (The Original)
A campy vampire film set dead in the middle of the 1980s. With that said, it single handedly revived the vampire genre. What works about this film is that writer-director, Tom Holland, did his homework. The main character, Charley Brewster, has a name borrowed from Son of Dracula. While the actor and vampire hunter, Peter Vincent, is a combination of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing (See Horror of Dracula below). Peter Vincent is unusual in that he is terrified of vampires and cowardly through most of the film. While the vampire Jerry Dandrige, played to the hilt by Chris Sarandon, eats up the scenery, and several apples. I read that Sarandon added the apples because somewhere in his family tree was a fruit bat. (Insert rim shot.) As a film it nears perfection, but you have to overlook the sad 1980’s attire and mandatory dance scene.
3. Horror of Dracula
This film marked the first color Dracula and spawned eight sequels. It also starred a pair of actors that became notorious in their own right: Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula. Hammer Films took full advantage of Technicolor with dripping fangs and bloodshot eyes. The studio acquired the rights from Universal so long as they didn’t use any of the trademark looks or plots from the original Dracula movies. The result is a somewhat haphazard tale set in Germany. In the final face-off between the two adversaries, Peter Cushing crosses two candlesticks to from a crucifix, thereby driving Dracula into the sunlight. A classic move now a part of vampire lore.
2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Some people hate this film. I choose to embrace it, bad acting and all. In terms of the acting, I am of course referring to Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves. Winona was so adamant about not showing guilt (apparently she doesn’t believe in the emotion) that director and cast members had to shout obscene things to her from off camera to get any reaction. However, this movie best portrays the novel by Bram Stoker. Yes it inserted a reincarnated love. (Remember Blacula? You never thought that movie could be so groundbreaking did you?) Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula was spot on, adding layers of back story to a traditionally flat character. Finally factor in Francis Ford Coppola’s fauvist set and lighting and you have a masterpiece of a movie.
1. Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles
Let me say this up front, I am not an Anne Rice fan. However, I love the movie Neil Jordan crafted from her prose. Even Anne Rice, who at first threw a fit over the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat, had to eat crow. Brad Pitt admirably butches up the role of Louis, and a young Kirsten Dunst holds her own as Claudia. One particularly moving scene is when Claudia and her newly transformed companion are set in a sewer at sunrise. We see the light slice down the wall, and strike the couple, now embracing. When Louis discovers them, the bodies flake away as ash. This film is the culmination of the mood and themes from sixty years of vampire films.
I know I will get flack for the films on this list. You may have your own favorites that didn’t make it. Or perhaps you feel the order is wrong. I invite you to share your opinion. Remember, these are all great vampire films, whatever order you put them in.