Tom Jolliffe takes a look at the essential vampire films…
This iconic piece of cinema remains timeless and its visual influence can still be seen today. If you’ve seen anything from Tim Burton, you’ve seen run off from films like Nosferatu.
German director F.W Murnau, blazed a stylistic trail like a lot of directors coming out of Europe at that time. Think Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, Sergei M. Eisenstein, et al. One of the earliest examples of the vampire film and the one that really triggered a fascination with the legend. Even if you haven’t seen Nosferatu you will know of certain iconic images like the looming shadow of Orlof stalking his victim before he’s even in view.
Dracula (1931, 1958)
I’m cheating here. This is a double entry. You cannot think of the classic image of the count without envisioning two distinct and legendary actors. For starters, there is Bela Lugosi, star of Todd Browning’s 1931 incarnation of the legend.
Again, much like Nosferatu, this is one of those films with a lot of iconic imagery that people have seen, even if they haven’t necessarily seen the film. However it’s there in reference, almost persistent throughout cinematic history since. Lugosi became synonymous with horror but as Dracula he left his most lasting impression.
Then we have Christopher Lee. An absolute iconic of horror cinema. A gargantuan CV, largely populated with villain roles and he was particularly prolific during the Hammer horror era. In Terence Fishers excellent version of the Dracula tale, Lee is joined by another Hammer and horror icon, Peter Cushing. The first thought when you think of Van Helsing is Peter Cushing (unless you’re weird and think of Hugh Jackman).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Putting aside the flaws in this, such as Keanu Reeves being horrifically miscast as Jonathan Harker, this is an epically grandiose and lavishly stylish film from Francis Ford Coppola. It may have come at a point in time where his CV was beginning to hit more and more bumps in the road after such a cinematically important period in the 1970’s. By the end of the century it seemed like a foggy memory the last time Coppola made something defining.
The film is gorgeous. It’s lack of substance is fully compensated with an over abundance of style. Gary Oldman is on fine, scenery (and neck) chewing form as Dracula too.
It’s not a great film if you go in expecting something Godfather level, but after all this is horror genre fare and what Coppola does is paint a picture as pretty as anything you’re likely to see in the genre. It’s beautifully shot, dressed and scored. Pure, unadulterated eye candy. It almost borders on trashy at times (to an extent like Branagh’s Frankenstein) but it’s great fun.
The Lost Boys
One of the best years in cinema for the vampire film was 1987. Not one but two classic and inventive takes on the genre. The first of which, was The Lost Boys. This cult classic directed by Joel Schumacher is cool, hip (okay, it probably was in 1987) and looks fantastic. There’s also a really excellent soundtrack too.
The film is also a who’s who of 80’s youth cinema. The two Corey’s, Haim and Feldman both star and Keither Sutherland is on fine form as the villain. The mix of genre thrills, slick style, great visuals and wry humour makes The Lost Boys an absolutely essential vampire film. The fashion alone is monumentally dazzling to the eyes.
The second entry from 1987 to make our list is a change of pace from The Lost Boys. It’s also a film not enough people have seen. It’s an odd film but it you’ve ever watch Twilight (then you need to question your life) you’ve essentially watch an inferior, soulless version of Near Dark.
Kathryn Bigelow’s breakout film is typically stylish, compelling and features a beautifully atmospheric score by Tangerine Dream. If you want to see a Vampire film with a difference in which our leading man encounters a strange rag-tag gang of roaming vampires, led by Lance Henriksen, then this is the film for you. It’s not as iconic, cool or energetic as Joel Schumacher’s film, but there’s something a little more melancholic and atmospheric.
Okay…this one pushes the definition of vampire film somewhat. Chances are you’ve seen parts of this in memes or Nic Cage overacting compilations. Vampire’s Kiss is one of the oddest films ever made. It’s actually got a very similar arc as American Psycho, as a sociopathic and cold 80’s businessman (Cage) begins to struggle distinguishing between fantasy and reality (believing in this case, he’s turning into a vampire).
It’s not a brilliant film by any stretch but Cage is a complete force of nature here. He is unrestrained energy, constantly exploding with mannerisms. If you think you’ve seen overacting or scenery chomping, you’ve seen nothing in comparison to Nic Cage here. It’s iconic, trashy and unique. Double bill it with American Psycho.
A mid-80’s staple. Straight out of the John Landis school of horror with body transformations and wry comedy which infuse well in the horror shell. Writer-director Tom Holland delivers one of the most enjoyable horror films of the era. The film is campy, fun, atmospheric and visually dynamic.
Along with a great soundtrack and a solid synth score which is unashamedly 80’s (in the best possible way) from Brad Fiedel, Fright Night is also bolstered by a mesmerizing and dashingly charismatic performance from Chris Sarandon as the villainous vamp. The whole concept, “what if your next door neighbour is a vampire?” is a great set up and duly delivered with tongue in cheek and genuine dramatic effect.
Before he did Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro was making a name for himself in Mexican cinema. He did some really fantastic little films full of cult appeal. Cronos is one of the finer examples of his pre-Hollywood CV.
In a sort of melding of Dracula, The Mummy and Hellraiser, all injected with a wealth of classic era homage and modern (at the time) Raimi/Burtonesque flair, Cronos was a delightful mix of old and new. del Toro’s visual flair was clearly evident in a film which really marked him out as one to watch. This made people pay attention like Braindead did for Peter Jackson, or Evil Dead did for Sam Raimi.
Likewise, the ever reliable Ron Perlman (who of course would later become Hellboy for del Toro among other things) pops up. He tended to appear every now and again in a few notable world cinema films such as this and The City of Lost Children (fantastic film).
From Dusk Till Dawn
Before Robert Rodriguez became somewhat obsessed with 3D, Digital film and CGI, he used to make fantastic and wonderful looking films, loaded to the brim with practical effects work. This is one such film. Written by Quentin Tarantino this starts out very much as a sort of QT road movie about a pair of outlaw brothers on the run. At the half way point it then descends into a love letter to vintage Romero, Raimi and Italian monster horror. Full blown vampire carnage with wonderful fx work.
As you’d expect with Tarantino involved (who also co-stars), a fine cast board the project. This would launch George Clooney from TV sexual tyrannosaur to movie star, whilst Harvel Keitel, Juliette Lewis and a host of cult legends also appear. Lest we also not forget the wonderful Salma Hayek.
Only Lovers Left Alive
You wouldn’t imagine the quirky and indie sensibilities of Jim Jarmusch would lend themselves to the vampire genre but this film, an interesting entry on his CV proves otherwise.
An on/off couple of vampires played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston reconnect. Over the centuries they’ve been together and apart but always intrinsically drawn back together. Matters get complicated by the arrival of Swinton’s younger (and free-spirited) sister (Mia Wasikowska).
A wry wit, subversive take and excellent performances really make this a film worth watching. Perhaps one that will end up drifting out of cinematic consciousness over time as one of those “do you remember?” kind of films, but a creative and compelling film nethertheless and I absolutely love Swinton. She’s almost always utterly amazing.
A love triangle of vampires in Tony Scott’s dark, compelling and beautiful horror. It’s all too easy to forget that Ridley’s younger brother was a fine visual auteur in his own right. The Hunger was an interesting and sexy take on a (then) tired genre. In some ways having been somewhat out of fashion at the tale end of Hammer, in the mid 80’s the vampire genre seemed to be re-invigorated, and The Hunger certainly seemed to play a part in beginning a new wave.
It wasn’t a particularly big box office hit but slowly gained popularity. Whilst the majority of vamp films in the mid and latter stages of the decade would be decidedly lighter, this, much like Near Dark in some ways (which was not without its humour) opted for something more considered and artistically laced. The late great David Bowie stars in one of his iconic roles, whilst Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon are also fantastic.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
An Iranian vampire film with an odd melding of early 20th century central and Eastern European horror, and Spaghetti Western…not convinced? Hey! Come back here now! Right…good. Watch the film!
Ana Lily Amirpour writes and directs a languid, beautiful and delightfully odd take on the vampire mythology. Wonderful visuals combine with an engrossing and atmospheric style, all accompanied by a nice soundtrack.
Sheila Vand as the titular “girl” has the most amazing eyes which say both nothing and everything all in one. She almost looks handdrawn at times, straight from an anime. If you want something a bit quirky from the genre, look no further.
Let The Right One In
I’ll say it right now but if I had to pick a favourite from the list, it would probably be this one. This is also one of my favourite films of the century and when it came out it was a bolt of re-invention sorely needed, not just in the vampire genre specifically, but horror in general (which was becoming increasingly stale).
Tomas Alfredson’s impeccably paced, engrossing and thoughtful tale, teeming with allegory and wonderfully encapsulating the trials of growing up is a masterful piece of cinema. Not only does it have the dramatic heft and intelligence but the “genre” moments hit with such power that it often takes your breath away. Whether it’s the hospital window, the hospital blinds rising or the swimming pool finale, every “horror” element is staged with subtlety, skill and maximum impact. There’s no reliance on editing cheats, emotional manipulation through sheer sound volume or any other post trickery to maximise scares or impact. It’s just skilfully and minimalistically done.
The two youngsters, Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson are excellent in a film which is equally intelligent, touching, gripping, harrowing and horrifying. In addition it’s got a perfectly complementary and low-key score and beautiful visuals. Hyper realism at its finest. Every frame perfectly captures an almost fantastical beauty of a starkly cold retro Sweden, in what looks like it’s been intricately hand painted such is the artistic beauty of every frame.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.