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Friday, August 19, 2011

A brief history of vampire movies

Bela Lugosi in his iconic role as Dracula.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The guys over at the Dumbdrum recently asked me to attend a sneak preview of the remake of the classic vampire flick, Fright Night, and write a review for them. I thoroughly enjoyed it (you can read my review here) and it was nice to see an actual vampire flick for once given the recent crop of films that have been released lately (I'm looking at you Twilight). So that had me wondering, what happened to the vampire movie? How did it turn from something that terrified people to something that sparkled in the sun?

The first "official" vampire movie was the classic German film Nosferatu which was released in 1922. What some people may not be aware of is that this was an unlicensed version of Bram Stoker's Dracula (instead of Count Dracula, it was Count Orlok for example) and was so similar to the novel that Stoker's estate sued the filmmakers and won with all copies to be destroyed. Luckily in 1994 a team of European scholars were able to restore the film from five prints that had managed to escape destruction. Another interesting note is that instead of a stake through the heart it was sunlight that destroyed the vampire, a plot device which would later be influential on vampire films and was accepted as part of vampire lore.

The next vampire movie that set a milestone was Universal's Dracula in 1931. The iconic film stared Bela Lugosi and his portrayal is considered to be the definitive Dracula by both film lovers and critics alike. Lugosi had a powerful screen presence, even when he had no dialog audiences were still terrified of him. Unfortunately the role of Dracula led to typecasting for Lugosi. Even though he had success with an earlier stage carrier, the role of Count Dracula would haunt him for the rest of his life.

The character Dracula was used in several other movies in the 1930's and 40's. There was a direct sequel to Dracula, Dracula's Daughter (1936), with another sequel in 1943 called Son of Dracula. And even though the Count had met his apparent death in the 1931 film, he returned for three more Universal films: House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula as well as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)which was Bela Lugosi's second and last turn at playing Count Dracula.

Dracula was introduced to a new generation in 1958 when Christopher Lee played the Count for Hammer Films in Dracula. It was in this film with the spectacular death of Dracula vie being exposed to direct sunlight that reinforced this part of vampire lore that was first introduced in Nosferatu. Christopher played the role in all but two of the seven sequels in the Hammer Film series.

Vampire films weren't just about Dracula, or were horror movies in general. A sub-genre of vampire films, distinct in their own right, formed their own niche. Beginning with the afore mentioned Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the vampire became a subject of comedy. Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) was a notable parody of the vampire genre. Others like Vampira (1974). Love at First Bite (1979) and Mel Brook's Dracula: Dead and Loving it (1995) were other examples of vampire movies that had received the comedic touch. But it didn't stop there. Several vampire films shot in the 60's and 70's explored the topic of lesbianism. Blood and Roses (1960) was the first followed by the more explicit Hammer Karnstein's Trilogy which started with The Vampire Lovers in 1970. Lesbianism wasn't the only sexual topic as there were also several blaxploitation films made, most notably Blacula (1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973).

Cue the 1980's and vampire films returned to their original horror roots. Movies like Salem's Lot (1979), The Lost Boys (1987) as well as the original Fright Night (1985) were extremely popular and are considered cult classics of the vampire genre. The trend continued with Francis Ford Copolla's modern take on Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), from Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) continued the horror trend.

It was at this time that the vampire movie really started to incorporate romantic elements into it's story line. Copolla's remake had Mina Harker the reincarnation of Dracula's wife. Then there was Interview with the Vampire. Say what you want about it, but both Louis and Lestat were lovers. The film toned down their affair, but in the book it was obvious. Underworld (2003) also had romantic undertones as well. But the original novel by Bram Stoker had these same tones but they were more of commentary on the restrictions of the Victorian era when the novel was written.

Fast forward to the 2000's and there's a sudden shift in the tone of vampire movies. Gone are the elements of horror and terror that had been a staple of the genre for decades. The seductive characteristics were still there, but with the introduction of the Twilight it seems that vampires were no longer creatures or the night that were ruthless killers but troubled souls that sparkled in the sunlight (really?). I know there have been the more traditional vampire movies released this decade (Blade trilogy for example) but for some reason Twilight overshadows them all. Why is that? Is it due to numerous fans out there that scream at the mere mention of Robert Pattinson's name? Or is this the path the vampire genre is heading to? It seems there are clones of Twilight everywhere you look (books, TV series, etc.) and it's possible that there will be another movie out there that tries to mimic it in an attempt to ride it's coattails.

But I honestly doubt that. I don't thing there will be a bunch of Twilight clones out there. It's a fad. And as soon as the last one is released, people will forget about it. There actually have been some fantastic vampire movies recently. 2010's Let Me In was one of the best I had seen in years and I had recommended it to many friends who had been disenchanted with the whole vampire genre. And yes it's a remake, which I usually disdain; I really enjoyed Fright Night (mostly cause of David Tennant). Hopefully more films of this quality will continue to be released and continue the tradition of horror that was started nearly 100 years ago with Nosferatu.


Unknown said...

but what about buffy the vampire slayer?

Michael said...

Honestly I was never a big fan of the movie. TV show on the other hand I loved.

Unknown said...

i was referring to the series (i forget there was a movie)