With all the recent interest in vampires (the Twilight saga, HBO’s True Blood, CW’s Vampire Diaries), it seems essential to note that the vampire character is one of the most ubiquitous in the history of cinema, extending from the earliest days of cinema to present-day manifestations. Dark, primitive, and revolting characters that simultaneously attract and repel us form the irresistible heart of big-screen vampire tales.
Vampire Source Material
Vampires began to emerge in popular fiction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which time Irish writer Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel, Dracula, was written. It has become the most popular, influential, and preeminent source material for many vampire films. Stoker’s seminal book hatched all the elements of future vampire films: predatory female vampires kissing the necks of male victims for their human blood, in order to remain immortal; an elderly count dwelling in a sinister Transylvanian castle; and a vampire hunter armed with a wooden stake and garlic to ward off the Prince of Darkness. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Carmilla was a close second to Stoker’s writings, becoming the source of numerous lesbian-vampire tales.
Earliest Variations on the Vampire
The first horror movie was a silent film of 1896 made by imaginative
French filmmaker Georges Méliès, titled Le manoir du diable (a.k.a. The House of the Devil), containing familiar elements of later horror and vampire films: a flying
bat, a medieval castle, a cauldron, a demon figure (Mephistopheles),
and a crucifix to dispatch with evil. Female vampires made an appearance in
Robert Vignola’s melodramatic Vampire: they were
femmes fatales who seductively sucked the lifeblood from foolish men. (See also the popular vampire actress Theda Bara in A Fool
There Was.) The earliest significant vampire film was director
Arthur Robison’s 1916 German silent film, Nächte des Grauens (a.k.a.
A Night of Horror), which featured strange, vampirelike people.
Until recently, the lost 1921 Hungarian film Drakula halála (a.k.a. Dracula’s Death) was widely assumed to be the first adaptation of
Stoker’s vampire novel, and it featured cinema’s first Dracula.
The first genuine vampire picture was produced by German director F.W.
Murnau — 1922’s feature-length Nosferatu.
Shot on location, it was an unauthorized film adaptation of Stoker’s
novel, with Max Schreck in the title role as the screen’s first vampire —
a mysterious aristocrat named Count Orlok, who lived in the late
1830s in the town of Bremen. Because of copyright problems, the vampire
was named Nosferatu, rather than Dracula, and the action was moved from
Transylvania to Bremen. The emaciated, balding, undead vampire’s image
was unforgettable, with a devil-rat face, pointy ears, elongated fingers,
sunken cheeks, and long fangs, with plague rats following him wherever
he went. There were many attempts to copy or remake the film: German
director Werner Herzog’s faithful shot-by-shot color remake, Nosferatu
the Vampyre, starred Klaus Kinski as a nauseating Count
Dracula and beautiful Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker. The fanciful Shadow
of the Vampire retold the making of the 1922 classic, with
John Malkovich as obsessive director F.W. Murnau and Willem Dafoe as
vampirish actor Schreck.
With Tod Browning’s direction, Universal Studios produced a film version
of Bela Lugosi’s 1927 Broadway stage success about a bloodsucking 500-year-old menacing-yet-suave vampire named Dracula. His opening
line of dialogue — “I…am…Dracula. I bid you…welcome” — was one of the
most memorable entrances in horror-film history. The atmospheric,
commercially successful film adaptation of Stoker’s novel played
upon fears of sexuality, blood, and the nebulous period between life and
death. The heavily accented voice and acting of Hungarian actor Lugosi was frightening to early audiences: the undead villain
hypnotically charmed his victims with a predatory gaze. To capitalize on
its earlier successes, Universal slowly churned out other Dracula
sagas, including their first official Dracula sequel — the lesbian-tinged Dracula’s Daughter, starring Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska.
Hammer’s Cycle of Dracula Films
The U.K.’s Hammer Studios reinvigorated and sexually liberated the Stoker novel in a vast collection of provocative low-budget
films, by employing garishly sensual colors, bloody reds, and more
overtly gory violence. The British production company remained faithful
to the genre’s material (the classics from Universal) in
tightly produced, spectacular Technicolor sequels featuring a seductive,
alluring, and virile vampire. Talented director Terence Fisher (with
Christopher Lee — in one of his best appearances — as the reclusive Count
Dracula and Peter Cushing as arch-nemesis vampire hunter Dr. Van
Helsing) created the classic 1958 flick Horror of Dracula. A
flood of other romantic-gothic horror films followed.
Revisionist Interpretations or Portrayals of Vampires
As with all successful franchises, the key to Dracula’s longevity
was imagination and creativity. Although the basic elements of Stoker’s
novel remain in most vampire films, the revisionist variations have
been striking and dramatic. A wide variety of vampire tales were put on
celluloid in the eighties and afterward, usually with more overtly sexual
overtones and bloody violence. There have been blaxploitation vampires (Blacula), lesbian vampires (The Vampire Lovers, Vampyres: Daughters of Darkness, and The Hunger), comic vampires (Once
Bitten), a sickly junkie count (Andy Warhol’s Dracula),
a dog vampire (Dracula’s Dog), teenage-punk vampires (The Lost Boys), Western-outlaw
vampires (Near Dark), a cursed virginal rock-star vampire (Rockula), a Valley Girl vampire-hunter (Buffy the Vampire Slayer),
a homoerotic vampire bromance (Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles), a trio of postmodern heroin-chic vampire films (Nadja,
The Addiction, and Habit), Mexican strip-joint vampires (From Dusk Till Dawn), comic-book-adapted vampires (Blade), a goth-rock vampire (Queen
of the Damned), an anti-lycanthropic vampire warrior (Underworld), viral mutant vampires (I Am Legend),
Alaskan subzero vampires (30 Days of Night), and (yes) romantic teen vampires in the throes of forbidden love (Twilight).