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Roger Luckhurst’s top 10 vampire films

There are many film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; many, of course, that are rubbish. If you need fresh blood and your faith restored that there is still life to be drained from the vampire trope, here are ten recommendations for films that rework Stoker’s vampire in innovative and inventive ways.

1. Vampyr (Carl Dreyer, 1932)

The story of Dracula on film tends to jump from Murnau’s silent masterpiece, Nosferatu (1920) to the invention of the ‘horror’ film with Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931). Interestingly, Bram Stoker’s widow sued Nosferatu for breach of copyright and set about trying to destroy every print of the film in Europe: lucky for us, she didn’t succeed. Universal at least remembered to pay Florence Stoker for the rights, and safely launched Bela Lugosi in the iconic form of the Count. Amidst all this noise, Dreyer’s wondrous film Vampyr sometimes gets forgotten, and yet it is a delirious, dream-like experience full of striking, unforgettable imagery. Go compare!

2. Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Hammer films reinvented itself as a ‘House of Horror’ with this splash of vivid Technicolor gore – shocking riches of gaudy colour in a drab post-war England. Christopher Lee embodies the model of the Count after the war, a relentless menace played off against the febrile and neurotic Van Helsing of Peter Cushing. It feels like an eloquent commentary on England’s decline somehow, full of an odd nostalgia for the life and death struggles of the past.

3. Cuaedcuc, Vampir (Pere Portabella, 1971)

A rare and subversive miracle of a film. Portabella was one of Luis Bunuel’s producers, who had been effectively banned from making films in Spain by the fascist regime. Portabella shot this film on the set of Jess Franco’s film Count Dracula, which stars Christopher Lee. It is a scratchy, over-exposed black and white avant-garde poaching of images from a slick Technicolor pulp. Scenes are played out from Franco’s film, yet Portabella’s camera keeps moving after the action stops, gliding into the wings, revealing the rickety wooden sets, the lights and smoke machines that generate all that fake Gothic atmosphere. We see Lee laughing and joking as he is made up as the Count. It was banned in Spain: everyone understood this Count Dracula to be a portrait of the undead fascist dictator General Franco, who finally died in 1976.

4. Martin (George Romero, 1978)

The perennial Pittsburgh outsider George Romero is better known for inventing the modern zombie with Night of the Living Dead (1968), yet his vampire film is a brilliant revision of the whole genre. We are never quite sure if the misfit teenager Martin is actually a vampire, a sexual neurotic, a serial killer, or just a monster created by the cracked religious fantasies of his crazy family. An extraordinary evocation of the collapse of the steel belt in America, too, undeadness a product of post-industrial ruin. After this, it becomes extremely hard to take any Count Dracula seriously, so effectively does it modernize the vampire trope. This is why Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula gets nowhere near this list.

5. Pure Blood (Luis Ospina, 1982)

Colombian artist and activist Ospina made a satirical short film called Vampires of Poverty in 1977, a rather heavy-handed satire on documentary-makers and photographers who trade on beautiful images of the urban poor. He took this one step further with the film, Pure Blood, about the abduction and exsanguination of the urban poor by a couple of serial killers. It is uninterested in the rhythms of tension and release typical of genre horror films, and is deliberately slow and alienating: it insists, however, that B-movie vampires can be a resource for political films.

6. Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)

Del Toro went on to become a Hollywood block-buster giant, and his Blade films are amongst the best of their kind. Before that, he made this almost perfect Mexican vampire film, a moving story of the love of a small child for her accidentally vampirized grand-dad, who has discovered a mysterious alchemical device that feeds on blood. There is another great political story here about the vampirism of North America on Latin America, as a super-rich gringo seeks this device that promises eternal life amongst the barrios. Unlike Ospina’s rather serious and laborious film, Cronos has a lightness of touch and a wonderful mordant wit.

7. Daybreakers (Spierig brothers, 2009)

The B-movie still gets made and is still the place where startlingly clever ideas can be worked out in low down and dirty narratives a long way from twitchy executives looking at the bottom line. It has a great cast (Willem Defoe, Ethan Hawke) who clearly enjoy their subversive slumming. Daybreakers is set in a future where 95% of the Earth’s population are vampires and the remaining 5% of humans are farmed and commoditized for their blood. Vampirism becomes an allegory of growing inequality: it spoke eloquently to a post-crash world with a sly and cynical wit.

8. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)

Jarmusch’s ultra-hip, slow and deadpan style is not to everyone’s taste. In this film it fits the languid account of two good-looking vampires living out a privileged but dwindling existence in the ruins of Detroit. Their options diminishing, they eventually travel back to the old world, with the last section set in the winding streets of Tangiers. The locations are used to impressive effect and you’ll either love the erotic languor of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston or hate it. It seems to announce the exhaustion of the vampire genre, a living on after the end of something. That, of course, is a risky thing to propose…

9. What We Do in the Shadows (Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, 2014)

A spoof ‘reality’ documentary on the flat-share of four vampires in New Zealand, which shows to wonderful comic effect and with a judicious dash of CGI special effects, how the vampire can be reinvented. After the tiresome culture wars between the sparkly vampires of Twilight and the sexy vampires of True Blood, this comedy feels like it has found new avenues of vampire life to exploit.

10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

Stark, high-contrast black and white images reveal the strange and wonderful story of a young woman vampire in contemporary Iran. Maybe don’t try harassing her as she walks home alone at night? Stoker exploited fantasies about the East, the ‘whirlpool’ from which pollution would infect the West. One of the delights of world cinema is to see how the vampire trope is reworked for different cultures and locales, subverting Stoker’s conservative impulses.

Featured image: Chicago Theatre by gautherottiphaine. CC0 via Pixabay.

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  1. […] stimulating review of the ten best vampire films from the Gothic scholar Roger Luckhurst of Birkbech College. Some familiar ones, some new ones, and […]

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