It's surprising that it took Universal so long to conceive of a sequel to its 1931 smash Dracula, and it's even more surprising that they should some up with this spooky, camp oddity. Eschewing the original monster, Dracula's Daughter focuses on, well, Dracula's daughter, Countess Marya Zeleska (Gloria Holden), and how she seeks to use psychiatry to rid herself of her vampire curse. It doesn't take too much critical limbo to see that the film is all a lesbian metaphor, and that “vampire” really means “gay.” The film is a bit silly, but it's still plenty spooky, and its sexual symbolism makes it daring and rich for a film of its era.
Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for really weird little kids, the Rankin/Bass stop-motion Halloween special Mad Monster Party will be near and dear to anyone who saw it when they were the right age. One of the original comedic Monster Mash movies, Mad Monster Party follows a goofy obscure descendent of Dr. Frankenstein as he is about to unwittingly inherit monster island. Count Dracula, of course, cannot allow this, and teams up with Christina Hendricks (well, she looks like Christina Hendricks) to stop it. If you want your kid to be strange, show them this film when they're 5 or 6.
Okay, okay, technically, she's not a vampire. Amanda Donohoe merely plays a vampire-like snake woman in Ken Russell's gloriously weird and truly campy horror film from the late '80s. But she bites people with big fangs, and can turn them into other fanged monsters in doing so, so I think The Lair of the White Worm oughtta count. Plus, this is a great time to recommend one of the great overlooked horror oddities of its decade. Peter Capaldi and Hugh Grant discover that the local recluse billionaire is actually a snake woman in league with an ancient underground worm demon that requires virgin's blood to survive. Hallucinations and murderous codpieces ensue. What a ball.
Lots of vampire movies are about the sick and decadent lifestyles these monsters lead, but few feel as twisted as Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural. Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith stars as a 13-year-old girl who runs away from her southern, Bible-thumping caretaker and into the arms of a seductive, utterly unwholesome female vampire named Lemora. Richard Blackburn's film plays like a naive children's theatrical production, making all the sleazy, uncomfortable subtext come across like an accidental confession of a sinful heart. This is the polar opposite of wholesome, and it's only rated PG.
Generally vampire movies focus on the upper crust society, which only adds to the seductive appeal of their clans. Neil Jordan made one film (Interview with the Vampire) that focused on such aristocratic creatures. Byzantium is Jordan's portrait, at the turn of the 20th century, of two lower-class vampires (Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton). They've existed for two centuries amongst the Irish underclass, which -- under the thumb of Britain -- is doubly underclass.
Mexican luchador films are a curious footnote in the realm of international cinema, typically starring real-life masked wrestlers (like the legendary El Santo) playing themselves, but usually wrestling fantasy creatures. While they're all pretty cheap, and almost unilaterally stupid, there is a little-boy glee that runs through them all, making them hugely enjoyable. I haven't seen too many, but the best Santo film I have seen is the 1970 cheapie Santo el enmascarado de plata y Blue Demon contra los monstruos wherein Santo and his buddy Blue Demon fight a Dracula. Also a Frankenstein's monster. Also a Wolf Man. Also a mummy. Also a dwarf creature with an exposed brain. Bliss.
There aren't very many vampire musicals in the world, but Rockula is the best. Dean Cameron stars as a 400-year-old vampire virgin whose true love gets reincarnated over and over again, but always dies before he can seal the deal. This time she's a flashy pop star, forcing our hero to start a band of his own, performing vampire-themed rock and rap songs. Music legend Bo Diddley (!) performs with him while wearing a bumblebee costume. One-hit wonders Toni Basil ("Hey Mickey") and Thomas Dolby ("She Blinded Me with Science") also co-star in this campy, silly, and very funny comedy that features one unexpectedly infectious song after another.
One of Jim Carrey’s first movies could be a companion piece to Teen Wolf. Carrey plays horny teenager Mark Kendall, who just wants to get laid, and when his girlfriend won’t put out, he’s seduced by a vampire (Lauren Hutton) who needs virgin blood to stay young. Once Bitten is a comedy in which Mark’s new thirst for blood and aversion to sunlight are played for laughs. Since it was 1985, there is also a dance-off between Hutton and Mark’s girlfriend (Karen Kopnis). I suppose it has something to say about virginity but in that dangerous ‘80s way of promoting peer pressure. It was a product of its time, but it’s still fun to see a pre-”In Living Color” Jim Carrey vamp out.
The 1970s ushered in the lesbian vampire. The Vampire Lovers was one of the first, but it has the distinction of being the first lesbian vampire Hammer film. As such, the production is handsome, but Vampire Lovers is distinct for Hammer attempting a new spin on their old stories (now we'd call it "rebooting") with Hammer Horror nude scenes!
Wow, writer/director Park Chan-wook’s take on vampires is an intense, slow burn masterpiece. A priest (Sang Kang-ho) becomes a vampire through a blood transfusion, and tries to maintain his religious faith while fighting his new instincts and, well, thirst. Park explores the priest’s temptations and indulgences through sequences of atmosphere unfolding in long takes. Even the vampire scenes trust the audience to know vampire mythology and understand what is unfolding on screen, so it doesn’t need to be over-explained. The climax is a subtle battle between good self-sacrifice and evil self-indulgence that seems to never end as it drags on back and forth, back and forth. By the time it reaches the inevitable conclusion, it is a cathartic relief.
I wish surrealism would make a comeback. In the 1920s and 1930s, there seemed to be a lot more experimentation with mood, with atmosphere, with pure emotion unfettered by story. Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr is one such film. A film about mood. An opera, if you will. A traveler stops at an inn looking for vampires, and finds a dreamy, hazy miasma of nightmarish images that may be a vision, a hallucination, or just an abstract interpretation of what vampires really are. Vampyr is not quite as terrifying as Nosferatu, but it belongs in the same breath.
The original movie has long since been eclipsed by the far superior television series, which achieved what creator Joss Whedon wanted to do all along in terms of high school/growing up metaphors. The 1992 movie is still fun though. Kristy Swanson plays Buffy, a cheerleader who discovers she is destined to slay vampires. Paul Reubens steals the show as the most persistent vampire henchman of Lothos (Rutger Hauer). Alas, the film version never quite gets past the logline joke of the title. It’s a good joke though: cheerleader becomes badass vampire slayer. And in the movie, when the vampires are slain they don’t dissolve. I always wondered why the clothes disappeared with them on the show.
Over a 60-year period, Jesus Franco directed 201 films under 52 different names (take that Franco, James!). Many of Franco, Jesus' pseudonyms took first names and surnames from famous jazz musicians, which Franco did to get past censors in his native Spain. But he also made films like jazz: lots of camera zooms to accentuate sexy body movements. Vampyros Lesbos is the one that he seemingly spent the most time on. Because its the best composition.
The sophomore film from The Spierig Brothers takes the fundamental idea of vampirism to its logical extreme. If vampires were real, and could live forever, who wouldn't want to be a vampire? But after everyone on Earth converts, human blood becomes scarce, and a scientist played by Ethan Hawke is humanity's (vampirity's?) last hope to find an alternative food supply before everyone starves to death. It's a rather obvious allegory for our real-life oil problems, but it's still an effective one, and Daybreakers fills in the gaps between all its pointed commentaries with very clever new interpretations of all the vampire tropes we usually take for granted.
The first cinematic adaptation of the Richard Matheson story I Am Legend is true to Matheson’s idea that the monsters are vampires. Just like the Will Smith version though, the point of The Last Man on Earth isn’t the creatures. It’s to see Vincent Price as the last living person fortifying his house from nighttime attacks, and exploring the empty city for supplies. When the vampires show up, they’re just actors who speak English, although still more effective than the CGI in I Am Legend. They spoke in the Matheson story too, so that’s all fair, and the question becomes: in a world populated mostly by vampires, who is really the monster now?
A misty, smoky, sultry, nylon-wrapped somnambulist lesbian vampire romance, Tony Scott's The Hunger is either a brilliant dissection of female sexuality told through cutting-edge and romantic cinematic visuals, or a campy and somewhat silly sex-soaked exploitation film wearing the clothes of a brilliant dissection of female sexuality told through cutting-edge and romantic cinematic visuals. David Bowie (!) plays the boyfriend of Catherine Deneuve, an ancient vampire who can grant immortality to her lovers, so long as she is interested. When she sets her sights on a new lover (Susan Sarandon), Bowie begins to shrivel. The Hunger is most notable for its infamous gay sex scene, one of the hottest in an era of hot smoky sex scenes.
George A. Romero is best known for reinventing the zombie genre, but his contemporary version of the classic vampire myth may actually be his best film. John Amplas plays a young man who has convinced himself that he's a vampire, who travels the night with razor blades fulfilling his purely psychological urges. Between shocking home invasions and murders in public places, he calls in to a local radio station for absolution, and dodges his elderly cousin, who seems to believe that Martin is a real supernatural entity. Martin offers all the macabre horror and overwhelming guilt of the greatest vampire tales, but takes away the excuse of being a monster. Martin might very well be redeemable, he might just be a deeply sick person, but even so, his humanity is always in question.
Michael Almereyda's hip and sexy post-modern vampire tale stars Elina Löwensohn as the title character, a daughter of Dracula struggling to connect in an urban landscape that feels alien and dreamlike. Meanwhile, her brother (Jared Harris) gets psychic faxes and Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) appears to be high out of his mind. Concepts like malleable identities and sexual confusion fall like snowflakes over a sexy, and unexpectedly funny reinterpretation of the Dracula saga, told with as much artsiness as you can possibly handle.
Every classic Universal monster is represented in this team-up for kids. A group of middle schoolers obsessed with monsters gets the chance to save the world when Dracula (Duncan Regehr) brings Frankenstein’s monster (Tom Noonan), the Wolfman (Jon Gries/Carl Thibault) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Tom Woodruff, Jr.) together to destroy an amulet that can send them back to Limbo. Regehr gives a classical Dracula performance, with cape and slicked hair. He’s just scary enough for kids and nostalgic enough for grown-ups. The real hook though is not so much the vampire movie, but the mashup of all the classic monsters working together for evil. This Dracula even has his succubi, but his true intentions for them might have flown over kids’ heads.
What if a shallow, hipster douchebag screenwriter had the opportunity to become a vampire? You think he'd take it? Of course he would. Xan Cassavetes' new film playfully displays all the nudity and sexuality usually associated with vampires, but places them into an elite social society that most struggling douchebags would love to be a part of. Our boring hero (Milo Ventimiglia) is deliberately kinda of bored by his vampire powers (if you're bored, then you're boring); for him, it's just a thing that happened. To keep things spicy, the preternaturally attractive Roxane Mesquida plays the film's vulpine villainess.
Horror master John Carpenter added his take to the vampire mythos with his 1998 action horror. John Carpenter’s Vampires portrays vampire hunters as essentially exterminators. Jack Crow (James Woods) has a very methodical approach to clearing out vampire lairs. Then there’s a MacGuffin that he has to find before the vampires use it to gain the power to withstand daylight, but the really cool part is just watching Woods lead his gang to exterminate whole hives of vampires. The idea that the Catholic church is aware of vampires and keeps it mum is pretty fun too.
Shot on the same sets as Tod Browning's classic Dracula, but at night while Bela Lugosi was getting some much-needed sleep, this Spanish-language interpretation of the same script arguably surpasses the original. George Melford (who didn't speak Spanish) and Enrique Tovar Ávalos restage Browning's stodgy English-language version with even more atmosphere and vigor, making a livelier, much more entertaining version. Sadly, Carlos Villarías just isn't as charismatic a Dracula as Bela Lugosi, and never sells the villain's sexuality and menace as well as his counterpart. If he had, Drácula would be the indisputably better film. As it stands, it's all a matter of personal preference. Give me Drácula any day.
Remember, in 1979, most American movie audiences only knew Dracula as “I vant to suck your blooooood.” They probably hadn’t widely seen the Hammer series of Dracula movies. This was a pretty straightforward adaptation of Bram Stoker, anchored by Frank Langella’s suave performance as the Count himself. The characters are switched up a bit, with Lucy (Kate Nelligan) the focus of Drac’s seduction rather than Mina (Jan Francis), but the gist is the same. Added bonus, Donald Pleasance as Jack Seward, Lucy’s dad, and Laurence Frickin’ Olivier as Van Helsing.
Abel Ferrara's stark and subtext-soaked vampire tale stars Lili Taylor as a philosophy major who falls prey to a vampire and becomes a compulsive killer, warping her old beliefs to excuse her new homicidal tendencies. Set against the stark streets and diverse night life of New York City, Ferrara uses The Addiction to intelligently explore potent themes of morality, religion, academia, rape, addiction (naturally) and the frightening AIDS epidemic. But his masterstroke was casting Taylor, whose conflicted, captivating and insidiously emotional performance ranks among her best. Bonus points awarded for one of the best party scenes in movie history.
After decades of romantic heartthrobs, vampires got scary again in this adaptation of the Steve Niles comic book. Vampires descend on an Alaskan town where they can enjoy a whole month without sunlight, leaving the citizens who haven’t evacuated as easy prey. Danny Huston leads the vicious pack of vampires, speaking their own ancient language with minimal English. The vampire attacks are bloody, and particularly memorable in the overhead view sequence. It’s also survival horror as Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) tries to keep his wife (Melissa George) and neighbors safe to wait out the month. It is an intense thrill ride with outrageous kills and terrifying villains.
Vampire movies are about blood, yes, but they are more about what we connect with blood: life, youth, beauty, death, sexuality, legacy. Guillermo Del Toro's thoughtful/clunky Cronos is less about killing people to survive as it is about the burdens of immortality. The film is about a magical golden egg that can latch onto its owner and give it eternal life. But the way our protagonist (Federico Luppi) handles that eternal life is more like an addict. He doesn't think he's doing wrong, even when he's clearly crossing lines. He is tortured by his need for the vampire machine. Cronos is a creative way to look at the vampire myth without too many scenes of neck biting.
Craig Gillespie's remake of the vampire classic Fright Night eschews the non-stop self-awareness of the original, in favor of something even scarier. Colin Farrell plays the seductive next door neighbor, whom nobody but our hero believes is a vampire, and it's easy to see why everyone else would be too distracted by his dreaminess to think the worst of him. But when he finally strikes, it's a spectacularly cinematic showdown, bristling with energy and slick filmmaking trickiness. David Tennant co-stars as a Kriss Angel-like stage magician who must prove his mettle when the supernatural turns out to be very real, and he's a total hoot too.
What an amazing deconstruction of the vampire myth. We’ve all seen the pathos of guilty vampire lamenting his morbid biology (hello, Anne Rice/Stephenie Meyer), but what if all that was bullshit? Nicolas Cage plays Peter Loew, a yuppie book editor in 1988 New York who believes he was bitten by a vampire. He wasn’t, but he goes through the whole transformation cycle, pretty much delusionally since there was no bite from the undead. This is Cage’s most unhinged performance, as he does the vampire walk a la Bela Lugosi/Max Schreck, wears Halloween vampire teeth and eats a cockroach. Watch it for the alphabet scene.
The late 1990s was still long before anyone thought comic books would make good movies, so it was something of a boon for comic book fans that Blade, based on an obscure Marvel character, should be as fun as it is. Blade, played by Wesley Snipes, is a half-vampire warrior who kills vampires. In this universe, vampires spend their nights at noisy techno-raves, dancing to pounding music and literally showering in human blood. It's slick, it's cool, and it's fun to watch. And Stephen Dorff makes a fun villain.
Roman Polanski definitely has a playful side, as most strongly evidenced in his 1967 vampire spoof, The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. The late 1960s were a wonderful time for broad camp and silly spoofs (1967 was also the year of Casino Royale and The Producers), and vampire material was ripe for the staking. Jack MacGowran plays a vampire hunting professor, and Polanski plays his bumbling sidekick. This was the first film that posited what would happen if a Jewish person became a vampire: a cross, it turns out, wouldn't do much. The bloody insanity is too much to resist.
A love letter to horror fans, Fright Night tells us we’re all right for watching lots of horror movies and being suspicious of our neighbors. We might actually have a vampire living next door. And if we do, who better to turn to but the host of our favorite horror movie show? Oh yeah, this was when we had to watch movies on TV hosted by an Elvira knockoff. I actually discovered Joe Bob Briggs, my greatest influence as a film critic, when he hosted “drive-in” movies on TMC in the ‘90s. I later met Briggs, but we didn’t hunt vampires together. That’s just in Fright Night. Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) turned to Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to help slay his neighbor Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon). Fright Night mixed domestic paranoia with loving cinematic homage.
Bela Lugosi taught us everything we need to know about vampires. He taught us how they look, how they move, how they talk, how they dress. Everything we think about vampires – and Dracula in particular – began with Tod Browning's sick and wonderfully mythic classic. When we think of monster movies, we start here. The film is delightfully theatrical, stagey, and undeniably rococo. It's quiet, and, in an odd way, powerfully nightmarish. It's easy to see the sexual allure and the surreal gross monster elements of Dracula through Lugosi's immortal performance and Browning's deliberately staid aesthetic. It's the great American vampire movie.
Even though everyone knows this is a vampire movie, and the vampires were certainly all over the trailers, From Dusk Till Dawn amazingly pulls off a shocking mid-film turn. It’s a normal Quentin Tarantino movie (he wrote the script and costars) until they get to... The Titty Twister. Then, when it becomes a vampire movie, all the characters react like it’s just another normal thing they have to deal with. George Clooney and Tarantino play the Gecko brothers, escaped bank robbers who take a family (Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu) hostage across the border. Director Robert Rodriguez is in top form with all the vampire action; it's gory as hell and clever with practical effects.
An American Werewolf in London director John Landis turned his clever eye towards vampires in Innocent Blood, a film that was originally ignored but has since picked up a well-deserved cult following. Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita) stars as a French vampire in New York City, picking off mobsters and making her feeding frenzies look like rival gang hits. When her attempt to eat Sal "The Shark" Macelli goes awry, he starts turning his henchmen into unstoppable demons and taking over the city. Parillaud smolders as the lead, a sexy and dangerous monster who seduces an undercover cop (Anthony LaPaglia) to help her save the day. The script is witty, the action is badass, the sex scenes are smoking hot, the romance is endearing and the unexpected cameos fly fast and furious. Innocent Blood is an underrated vampire movie classic.
If anyone could remake a timeless classic and somehow turn it into another timeless classic, it's Werner Herzog. The filmmaker brings an intoxicating sensuality to Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, pitting gorgeous flesh against deformed beasts and a pestilence gradually rampaging across the land in the wake of Count Dracula, played with absolute eeriness by Klaus Kinski. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is a dream upon a dream. Beautiful, haunting and frightening.
If you were a kid growing up in the ‘80s, this might be where you even learned the full mythology of vampires. I didn’t know the rule about inviting vampires in until the big reveal of The Lost Boys. Diane Wiest moves her boys to a California beach town where a gang of vampires prowl at night. Jason Patric falls in with the vamps led by Kiefer Sutherland, and younger bro Corey Haim teams up with the Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) to slay the vampires and get his brother back. The magic of the two Coreys was born and it was a pretty great youth empowerment fantasy to be hunting vampires with your best bros.
Francis Ford Coppola's oft-underappreciated retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula throws all the rules of vampirism, physics and common sense out the window. The result is a flashy, theatrical, sexual, violent display of truly chaotic evil. Gary Oldman steams up the screen as the sexiest Dracula on record (after he ditches the powdered wig, at least), and Sir Anthony Hopkins camps it up as an eccentric Van Helsing. Sure, Keanu Reeves is a bore, but if he wasn't then you'd never sympathize with the heroine for choosing the Prince of Darkness over her fiancé. And Bram Stoker's Dracula is all about getting tempted by something utterly wrong, whether it's necrophilia, sacrilegious ideas or just Coppola's wild, fantastically entertaining cinematic experimentations. How big can one movie possibly get without collapsing? Exactly this big.
F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu hangs over all of horror cinema like a fetid bat, so it's natural we should have a film about its making. Look for it down this list. Nosferatu's vampire actor, Max Schreck, was so convincing as a diseased creature of the night that director E. Elias Merhige logically posited that he was indeed a real vampire only posing as a human actor. As Schreck, Willem Dafoe gives one of his best and most ghoulish performances. Shadow of the Vampire is a comment on horror, yes, but also the mad extremes to which an artist will go to get the right shot. No horror fan can do without Nosferatu, and no cinephile can ignore Shadow of the Vampire.
Too soon? We don't think so. Jim Jarmusch's dreamy vampire riff is an instant classic in the genre, casting Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton - two of the most ethereal actors of their generation - as immortal lovers whose relationship is even stronger for having weathered the centuries. They aren't old, they're mature, and spend their nights bonding, sharing ideas gleaned from lives long lived, and pondering the mysteries of fungus. When an unexpected visit from their "sister" (an unusually spritely Mia Wasikowska) sends them on the run, they are faced with the decision to starve to death with dignity or embrace their inner monster. Of all the vampire movies, Only Lovers Left Alive may be the most utterly human. It's romantic, intelligent, funny, and absolutely captivating.
How to describe Tomas Alfredsson's 2008 film Let the Right One In? Fantastical realism? An exploration of the vampire mundane? A penetrating analysis of the darkness within the average 12-year-old? A subtle examination of the pedophile? Based on a Stephen King-like potboiler, Let the Right One In manages to be both a ripping vampire myth, and a tender romance of two per-adolescent kids. It's cold (largely because of the bland and bitter Swedish housing project exteriors), it's meticulous (the details of keeping a 12-year-old vampire alive are explained), and it's strangely tender. In a very, very twisted sort of way.