Vampire movies are box office magic. They’re scary, sexy, spooky, goofy, gory, campy and bizarre, sometimes all at once. Face it - having a drop-dead gorgeous creature with enormous erotic and physical power bite your neck isn't such a bad way to go.
I’m a sucker (sorry) for modern vampire movies from Blade to Buffy. But older vampire movies are worth a look. It’s fun to watch vampire style evolve over the years, and see how the classics influenced the modern movies.
This amazing silent film features an uncanny performance by Max Schreck, more ghoul than gorgeous. Gaunt, with ratlike teeth and long fingernails, he’s an animated corpse preying on the townsfolk, bringing rats and plague with him. The unabashed, unauthorized rip-off of Bram Stoker‘s novel changed just a few details - like calling the fiend "Count Orloc" instead of Count Dracula. Directed by German expressionist F.W. Murnau, the cinematography is gorgeous, the story compelling. Schreck’s undead ugliness and vile nature make the eroticism very dark, as a woman of “pure heart“ must tempt him to forget the rooster‘s crow and be undone by the sun.
20th Century Fox
Werner Herzog’s remake of the Murnau film stars a well-cast Klaus Kinski in makeup just as repulsive as Shreck’s, but somehow a more appealing character, weary of his own immortality and bloodlust. An alabaster-skinned Isabelle Adjani stars as the pure-hearted woman who must seduce him to save the village. A faithful homage to the original, this version stands on its own, a critical and commercial success. Herzog filmed in both German and English -- if you can, get the German version, Nosferatu - Phantom der Nacht
, with subtitles. It’s better.
Famous as the first American movie based on Stoker’s novel and a hit in its day, Dracula
established Bela Lugosi as the suave, mesmerizing aristocrat. Unfortunately, this Dracula
hasn’t stood the test of time. It drags, with stilted, clumsy dialog and uninspired, stagy sets. Lugosi’s performance and heavy accent (“I vant to drink your blooooooood“) have been parodied so often, it’s almost impossible to see it as fresh, the way 1931 audiences did. Still, every movie bloodsucker from Blade to Hannibal Lecter owes a little something to this film and to Lugosi.
Frank Langella makes a toothsome treat in John Badham’s underappreciated version, a sensual, gorgeous production with opulent sets and a smashing score by John Williams. Like the 1931 version, this 1979 release was based on a hit Broadway play, also with Langella in the lead role. No pale monster or cartoon count here. Langella is supremely erotic, hypnotic and utterly charismatic. An arrogant aristocrat, a dark and lonely brooder, he’s catnip for the ladies. He’s also evil and undead, but, hey, nobody’s perfect.
American Pictures International
This full-on, funny spoof has George Hamilton as the charming count, kicked out of his Romanian digs by the Cold War Communists to make room for an athletic training center. He’s trying to make his old-world ways work in New York during the days of disco, and pursuing his possibly reincarnated soul mate Susan Saint James. Meanwhile, her neurotic psychiatrist Richard Benjamin, a distant Van Helsing descendant, tries to stop him in a hilarious turn. Cheesy ’70s production values, but a hoot nonetheless.
Warner Brothers Television
The TV mini-series from the Stephen King novel is flat-out terrifying, and brings back the nasty Nosferatu type. No aristocratic seducer for the Master of Horror, but instead a vile monster bringing ruin on the often unpleasant residents of small New England town. James Mason invests the role of Renfrew with elegant menace instead of gibbering insanity, and director Tobe Hooper maintains taut suspense. It’s a little dated, and the special effects are not up to par, but it will still give you nightmares.
This may be heresy, but I just never got into Hammer Films horror. Some say this Dracula
, from the studio that dominated horror pictures in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, is the best version of all, but I think that’s nostalgia talking. It has many firsts -- the first color Dracula
, the first fangs, the first contact lenses to give the monster creepy eyes, and far more gore and overt eroticism than any horror film before it. And of course, it featured Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the staunch Brits who lent their acting talents to many Hammer movies. It just doesn’t have the dramatic scope and sweep of other, better versions.