With the release of Daybreakers and the current Twilight saga in full swing the vampire’s charm seems as enticing as ever for cinema goers, so here’s a not so little history of the evolution of this immortal creatures place in cinema.
From the Ancient Greek bloodsuckers Empusa and Lamia to modern day half human, soulless, zombie hybrids the idea of monsters living by night and sucking our blood seems to be woven into the collective subconscious. But the forms these fiends have taken and the ‘rules’ of their existence and possible demise are as varied as the hundreds of cultures they derive from. From having iron teeth to having the ability to turn into a firefly, any number of supernatural capabilities can be attributed to what we would call vampires. So the next time some smug know-it-all tells you that vampires don’t have a reflection or that they always sleep in a coffin or even that they can’t go out in the day feel free to don your best Stephen Fry manner and politely tell them to go suck themselves.
All that said it is generally accepted that the vampires of popular western fiction are based on the ‘vampirs’ of medieval Serbia and Bulgaria. This is certainly the basis for the two books that did such a huge amount to popularize the genre in the West, John Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre and the better known Dracula by Bram Stoker from 1897, and it is from these that Hollywood takes its cues.
The first incarnation of the vampire on the big screen was the iconic Nosferatu a symphony of Horror (1922) which is loosely based on Stoker’s novel, unclicensed though it was, hence the change in character names. This did not prevent the German film studio ‘Prada Film’ losing a copyright infringement case against the Stoker estate thus ending the company’s one film history.
The type of vampire portrayed by Max Schrek in the film is representative of the less popular of two types, the other being the charming, often sexual, well mannered, vampire popularized by Bela Ligosi in the later (and fully licensed) Stoker adaptation Dracula (1931).Count Orlok and his vampiric genre are more associated with death and disease and are incapable of siring new vampires. Although they are significantly less used in cinema it is this vampire type that played a huge role in cinematic horror, as we shall see. It is also worth noting that Nosferatu is the first vampire to be killed by sunlight, a ‘rule’ that is now a staple of almost all incarnations but one that seems uncommon in pre cinematic legend, Stoker’s Dracula was weakened by the sun and was also nocturnal but was capable of existing outside.
The suave Ligosi ‘Dracula’ type was the depiction of choice for the 1958 classic Horror of Dracula or just Dracula if you’re a fan of brevity over originality. The film starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing respectively, a partnership that would not only define the actors but also the cinema of vampires for more than a decade. Once again the film is loosely based on the Stoker novel, but loosely is the operative word, the film deviates significantly from the story and the ‘rules’. Here once again we see sunlight being deadly to Dracula, his shape-shifting abilities seem to be entirely missing and he no longer uses the blood of others to reduce his apparent age. It seems that this film marks a definite moment in the vampire’s evolution as these rules seem to become staples from this point onwards in cinematic vampire storytelling. The film did not shirk from the violence and graphic depictions of it as it was considered part of the violent ‘Hammer Horror’ genre and was given an ‘x’ rating upon its release. (It was reclassified in 2007 when the uncut version was released as a 12A.)
After the success of Dracula (1958) the genre grew in popularity resulting in a string of vampire films being made throughout the 60’s. One of the lesser known of these films was Black Sunday or The Mask of the Devil (1960) the story tells of a vampire witch burned at the stake in the 1600’s who vows revenge on the descendants of her killers when she is revived hundreds of years later. The film is regarded as a cult classic and has had a great influence on modern horror films and their directors, including Tim Burton and Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). 1964 saw the release of The Last Man on Earth a film based on the Richard Matheson Novel I Am Legend. The film stands out for two major reasons (the 2007 title not being one of them). First it is one of the few returns to the Nosferatu vampire type wreaking of death and plague. Which leads to the second, the ugliness and decay of the vampires is so extreme, in comparison to the now overriding Lee/Bigosi model, that a new monster is beginning to appear, a modern cinematic example of speciation, and perhaps this monster is the only one capable of fighting the vampire, for box office revenue anyway, the Zombie. As well as the Will Smith incarnation of I Am Legend(2007), The Omega Man (1971) and to a lesser extent 28 Days Later (2002) are also direct products of this diegesis.
The popularity of Dracula exploded towards the end of the 60’s and throughout the 70’s and the genre began to split into smaller sub genre’s as film makers deviated more and more from the old ‘rules’ and the Stoker idea of Dracula. 1967 saw the release of Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) a must for fans of Mel Brooks and Young Frankenstein (1974) so the horror comedy was established and taken to even more disconcerting levels with Blacula in 1972. Vampyros Lesbos (1970) exploited the sexual nature of the story for the ‘erotic horror’ genre something done to a lesser extent by films such as The Vampire Lovers (1970) starring Peter Cushing but not Christopher Lee who turned the role down. Even Andy Warhol was in on the action creating Blood for Dracula or Andy Warhol’s Dracula in 1974. By 1974 the second age of vampire films was truly over, highlighted by Christopher Lee hanging up his fangs in the less than successful Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) and Legend of the 7 golden vampires (1974).
As the 70’s ended and the disturbing prospect of the 80’s began to rise the vampire film continued in the direction of insanity, examples of which include The Hunger (1981), an art horror love triangle starring Susan Serandon and David Bowie (as 80’s as it sounds) and Lifeforce (1985), which includes Patick Stewart in it’s credits. It has been described by one IMDB user as ‘the greatest naked space vampire zombies from Halley’s Comet running amok in London end-of-the-world movie ever made’, and what greater praise is there?
After a decade of vampiric cock snot being broadcast across the silver screen there began to be a glimmer of hope, a pin prick of light representing originality appearing on the horizon. Vampire Hunter D (1985) was released but this was a time before popularized anime semi sub culture and so little attention was paid to it. However the remake released in 2000 seems to have garnered more attention and even higher praise. It tells the story of a half human half vampire bounty hunter in the year 12090 (that’s not a typo) who is in a race against time to recover a girl from a powerful vampire. For the rest of us more at home with popular culture set in a century that doesn’t represent a phone number, the mid 80’s saw the release of The Lost Boys (1987). An action/comedy/horror/ coming of age film about two boys moving to California and fighting a gang of teenage vampires starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric and Corey Feldman. Beyond its cult status The Lost Boys represents a reincarnation of imagination in the genre, playing with the ideas of immortality and eternal youth and using the lore of the vampire for good effect not just tagging on ‘with vampires’ to the end of a run of the mill plot just to get a film commissioned. Another film that was part of the 80’s vampire revival was Near Dark (1987), a western/vampire/road movie intentionally and brilliantly avoiding the conventions that had been laid down and were responsible for destroying the vampire movie genre for the previous decade. The film tells the story of a young man who joins a small group of vampires, inhabiting the edges of normal society as a motorcycle gang. Avoiding the mythical rules/lore pitfalls of the genre the film concentrates on the ideas of acceptance and belonging to a sub group of people outside of normal society. As with The Lost Boys the film manages to use the preconceptions of the genre to its advantage but not be led by them down all too familiar paths, the gun fight in the motel with bullet holes creating deadly beams of light is a perfect example of this. The film had been green lit for a remake but has been postponed because of its similarity to a certain teen vampire film series currently in cinemas.
It seems to be a trait of modern cinema that every time a genre has a period of popularity a parody must be on the horizon but few parodies are as double edged as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). With the reinvention of Vampire films in the mid to late 80s and the rise of feminism and ‘girl power’ about to erupt in the nineties Buffy stands astride them both waving one past and ushering the other forward. But it is not Buffy’s role in cinema that she is remembered for, in fact the 1992 film is all but a footnote on the high heels of the huge TV series that was to follow in 1997, which would once again reinvent the genre for a whole new generation. It is really this teenage, kick ass, vampire killing wave that we are just coming off of today. But Buffy the film seems somewhat ahead of its time, before the TV series the vampire genre was still undergoing a classical adult rebirth. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was released in the same year as Buffy and as it suggests Coppola’s version picks up right where Werner Herzog left off. What’s more, this is perhaps the closest rendition to the original story to date. An all star cast including Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing) and Gary Oldman (Dracula) are at least a match for the classic Lee/Cushing combination. Before the revolution came there was still one last triumph for the classic vampire film, Interview with a Vampire:The Vampire Chronicles (1994) based on the Anne Rice novel. This film can really be seen as the hinge on which the new breed of vampire film opened, it contains such brilliant aspects of both periods. Post modern in the sense that it’s set in modern day city, the vampire with a soul is present in Louis (Pitt) and this relationship of old style versus new is played out in his relationship with LeStat (Cruise) who portrays the classic evil vampire, sexual and charismatic a latter day image of Ligosi. The film is steeped in the lore and mythology of the vampire but is set against the background of an interview for a modern newspaper. Louis recounts the story of his life (or death depending on your view) and this chronological look at the history of the vampire seems a fitting end for what was about to happen to the whole genre. In 1995 The Addiction was released, it was part of the new form of vampire film, a psychoanalytical look at why vampires are the way they are ostensibly it was an attempt to break down the whole genre, its appeal, its meaning and what it said about the human race and it’s 200 year obsession with this one monster. Again it seems fitting that this film was released when it was because in the next three years everything was about to change. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) ushered in the Tarantino generation with it’s barefaced, unashamed violence and comic book characterization. The year after Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released on TV (I have intentionally avoided muddying the waters by talking about TV as well but this series stands out as such a landmark in my generation’s vampire landscape I feel it cannot be avoided) and 1998 saw Blade explode onto cinema screens. In less than 5 years the genre had again gone through an enormous transformation, from the resurrection in the mid 80’s, the return to the classical in the early 90’s and now to balls to the wall, full blown, head exploding, blood splattering action as the vampire film headed into the 21st century. But as with everything these waves cannot last forever and the 00’s brought few vampire films and very few good ones. Underworld (2002), Queen of the Damned (2002) and Van Helsing (2004) are just some of the awful examples of how not to make vampire films. But originality once more glistens in the dark and some excellent films have been made abroad where the obsession of dollar return seems to weigh less heavily on the minds of film makers. Night Watch (2004), Park Chan Wook’s Thirst (2009)and Let the Right One in (2008) not only make up for the short comings of Hollywood but pay for them tenfold, truly original re-imaginings of the same classic ideas. As we enter a new decade, we stand halfway through a vampire saga set to be one of the biggest of all time. Regardless of whether Twilight (2008)is regarded in the future as a Dracula or The Queen of the Damned it will remain a sizeable landmark on the map of this genre and the vampire films that surround it, such as Daybreakers (2010) will make up the next chapter of the story of this immortal creature.
Daybreakers is due for general release on 6th January 2010