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Let’s face it, vampires are everywhere: on film, in books, on TV, the world has gone, it seems, bats about vampires!

In recent years we’ve had Russian vampire epic, Night Watch (and its sequel Day Watch), 30 Days of Night, the brilliant Polish flick, Let the Right One In, and not forgetting the Twilight series, on TV we’ve had True Blood, Being Human and The Vampire Diaries, and where do you start with books? The young adult section of your local supermarket chain’s bookshelves are littered (or should that be, splattered?) with books about vampires and vampire series.

Let us concentrate on the blood-soaked celluloid variety, here, though, because I don’t know about you, but I love a good vampire movie! (So that rules out Twilight,then – sorry Twilight lovers out there ha ha – because are they really vampires?)

Well, they are not in the traditional sense, but as we shall see, we’ve come a long way since Nosferatu first crept his way onto our screens in the silent days.

No other screen monster has had as many movies made about it than the vampire. That blood-hungry, nocturnal card-paying member of the undead. There have been vampire circuses, vampire dances, vampire lovers, a black Dracula, a deaf Dracula, gay Draculas, hounds of Dracula, a “Drag”ula and even a vampire motorbike that runs on blood, in the dire British film – I Bought A Vampire Motorcycle!

In recent years there has been something of a revival of the vampire flick, following the success of new horrors in the 90s like Scream and The Blair Witch Project. The most notable examples being John Carpenter’s Vampires, Blade, Dracula 2000, Underworld, and more recently of course, Van Helsing.

The vampire has always been portrayed as an outsider – in fact it’s become, over the years, something of an anti-establishment figure. A rebel (with a cause – that of survival.) These tales being of a creature condemned to living (well not exactly living) an unconventional lifestyle (to say the least!) This bloodsucking rebel has had its story reworked over and over again in countless books, and on screen in numerous films, and it shows no evidence of finally lying down dead once and for all.

One of the first encounters with the mythical being on screen was in FW Murnau's, Nosferatu, made in 1922. Count Graf Orlok played by Max Schreck, unlike the later Lugosi and Lee’s Dracula, actually seems like a creature in pain. Dealing with the life (or living death, more appropriately) that it's been lumbered with. This Count is more animal than human, with bat-like pointed ears, long fingers and claw-like nails. It's interesting to note that, unlike in the later portrayals, the fangs are in the centre of the mouth instead of at either side, actually adding to the animal-like look of the Count.

Although the film was based on Stoker’s Dracula, Murnau had to change the title and names because the author’s widow claimed that her husband’s estate was being ripped off. Even so, the film still ran into difficulties after it was made, with Florence Stoker successfully suing Prana (the film company responsible for the production) because it hadn’t obtained copyright permission to adapt the novel. In 1925, a court ruled that the negative of the film and all copies should be destroyed. Fortunately, some copies survived, and it was finally released in America in 1929.

After Nosferatu, the next screen appearance by our bloodsucking nobleman fiend was in Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Lon Chaney Snr. was originally lined up for the part but died in 1930, and short of bringing him back from the dead – a feat which even a horror studio like Universal were incapable of – another actor had to be found. Enter an unknown Hungarian stage and screen actor by the name of Bela Lugosi! Lugosi had played Dracula on Broadway in 1927 and toured it for two years; the rest is neck-biting history.

This early classic, a box office success that virtually saved Universal studios, seems a bit dated now. The bats, for instance, look; suspiciously, like they’re being dangled on fishing line, and some of the performances by the actors are a bit stagy, Bela Lugosi seems to think that his name is Da-ra-cula.

Lugosi went on to play, Da-ra-cula, in the ludicrous 1943 movie, The Return Of The Vampire, and his monstrous creation changes its name to Armand Tesla. Funny that, still looks like Dracula to me – he's dressed in the same getup and everything! This time the story is set during World War II and in this film; a wolfman is thrown in for good measure to act as Dracula’s – sorry, Tesla’s – guard.

The actor next reprised his Dracula role – and this time he was actually called Dracula – in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A film, in which the two lovable, bumbling comedians meet Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Monster, but never actually meet Frankenstein!

The final film in which Lugosi played, his bloodsucking character was in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, where the Count is used more for novelty value than anything.

After this, the actor went into a bit of decline, hooked up with worst director of all time, Ed Wood, and became dependant on drink and drugs. Bela Lugosi, towards the end, relied on morphine, not blood, to keep him alive. When the screen legend died he was actually buried in his Dracula cape. His final performance was in Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, using stock footage of the actor and a stand-in, a taller actor (in actual fact – a Chiropodist!) who kept his cape over his mouth to disguise that fact that he wasn’t Lugosi.

Hammer breathed some life into the genre in 1958, arriving in full, glorious, dripping blood red Technicolor! The vampire films that it produced, introduced a more sexual aspect to old Drac, and also introduced us to sexy buxom vampire wenches in low-cut dresses (and very often those buxom vampire wenches would shed those low-cut dresses!) Gone was the creaky old black and white, hammy acting of the old Universal days, to be replaced by an altogether more dramatic, kick-ass approach.

Hammer’s Dracula was played by Christopher Lee, who brought us a character a world apart from Lugosi's creation. Gone is the dinner-suit that made Lugosi look like a headwaiter. Lee’s monster is more appealing, attractive, sexier, in fact: tall, dark and, er … fangsome.

‘Dracula is tremendously sensual,’ said Terence Fisher (director of Hammer’s Dracula), ‘This is one of the great attractions of evil.’

It is well documented that Lee was very unhappy a lot of the time about the way his Dracula character was portrayed. He would often be disappointed with scripts: whether it was due to a lack of dialogue, or not sticking to the Stoker character to the letter (which Lee was always very adamant about.)

Lee played the role of Dracula more times than any other actor, including Lugosi – playing him eight times to Lugosi’s five (if you include the abysmal Plan 9.)

But it was the ladies in the Hammer films who really made the pulses race in the sexual stakes (er … sorry) with offerings such as: The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil, Lust for a Vampire and the female counterpart of the Prince of Darkness herself, Countess Dracula.

These gothic flicks involved sexuality of all kinds and introduced us to the lesbian Vampire once again. They'd already surfaced in European films and in Universal’s follow-up to Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter. Dracula’s Daughter is significant as being the first ever lesbian vampire movie. Quite bold for its time (remember this was the 30s!)

In fact the sexual aspect to the vampire was really nothing new at all. The vampire myth derives quite literally from the fear of sexual disease, both in the myths of the Hungarian folklore and in the inspiration for the granddaddy of all vampire stories, Bram Stoker’s Dracula itself.

And nowhere was the sexual metaphor more prominent than in the films involving the female of the species, who was even more deadly than the male. These creatures weren’t fussy who they sank their teeth into either: man or woman!

Until the 70s, the female vampire hadn’t been that prominent in Hammer films, and so we have Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla, to thank for its influence, which the studio turned to, along with the legend of Elizabeth Bathory.

Bathory was a real life vampire who, legend has it, used to drink the blood of the victims she tortured within the walls of her castle (what better basis for a horror film could that be!)

As I said earlier, the films that came about gloried in lesbian overtones and the slightest excuse for its female stars to get their kit off.

The leading light in this new breed of bleeding ladies was the luscious, voluptuous, Ingrid Pitt, who starred in the first of the offerings, The Vampire Lovers. The film also starred veteran of the genre, Peter Cushing and was directed by Roy Ward Baker, who introduced Carmilla’s lesbianism into the picture. At the same time (1970) Vampiros Lesbos began production (if ever a title gave the game away – this was it!)

Carmilla made her next appearance in a nineteenth-century girls’ school in, Lust for a Vampire, directed by Jimmy Sangster. Yutte Stengaard and Ralph Bates replaced Pitt and Cushing. The third film of Hammer’s Carmilla Trilogy was Twins of Evil (1971). This took as its premise that Carmilla had vampirised her relative, Count Karnstein, and together they had to face witch hunter Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing). The film starred two twin Playboy models Madeline and Mary Collinson, who not surprisingly shed their clothes for a scene or two!

The Elizabeth Bathory legend finally manifested itself fully in, Countess Dracula, with Ingrid Pitt playing the title role. The film was made as a follow-up to Pitt’s earlier success in The Vampire Lovers.

It was around the same time Hammer unleashed their, Countess Dracula, that director Harry Kumel released his Belgian film, Daughters of Darkness, featuring Delphine Seygig, as a modern day Countess Bathory. She befriends a young, newlywed couple. The husband is a sadist; the wife and Bathory join forces and kill him. Later, the Countess is killed and the wife, now a vampire, takes her place.

In the Hammer films, and in many films since, the staple of the female vampire being very often of lesbian persuasion – or at least bisexual – seems to be a deliberately titillating act. Where the question must sometimes be asked: are the filmmakers making horror films – or soft porn?

There was little sympathy for the vampire in these early films, representing the vampire instead as a bloodthirsty monster hell-bent on depraved and evil acts. But sympathy for the old devil began to creep into the films that were produced much later on.

In The Hunger, in 1983, Mariam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is a vampire whose main problem is that her male human partners began to age rapidly, and to decay after a century or so of vampiric life. In her attempts to save her current lover (played by David Bowie), she seduces a blood researcher (Susan Sarandon), but in the end is unable to find a cure. Early eighties Goth kings Bauhaus, perform their song, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, at the beginning of the film, which sets the tone of this stylish look at this long suffering bunch of bloodsuckers. In this movie, you feel pity for these monsters, unlike in previous films, where it was the victims you felt sorry for.

There have been all manner of variations and permutations of the vampire tale over the bloodstained years.

In The Lair of the White Worm, Amanda Donahue plays a vampire with a difference – one of the snake variety, with a fondness for seducing boy scouts, and who can be charmed by the sound of the bagpipes!

In 1985, actress Matilda May portrayed a space vampire who wanders through most of Lifeforce without a stitch of clothing, and with a kiss that could blow your head off (literally!) What a woman!

In Vamp, Grace Jones plays a sexy exotic dancer at the nightclub, After Dark, in which a group of college kids are in search of a stripper for a frat party. Our Grace takes a shine to one of the lads, or should that be: "takes a bite out of one of them", backstage, and a huge bite at that (what an appetite some of these vampires have!)

In From Dusk till Dawn, Salma Hyek plays another exotic dancer, at the Titty Twister truckers club on the Mexican border. Who transforms into a vampire after her performance, and then together with her Aztec vampire buddies sets about vampirising the entire clientele of the club.

Kathryn Bigelow (director of The Hurt Locker) directed Near Dark. A farm boy, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) befriends one of a gang of vampires, Mae (Jenny Wright), unknowing that she is one. Once he’s become a vampire, he is unable to bring himself to kill and suck the blood of an innocent victim. He has to rely upon Mae to feed him. The vampires are portrayed as a bunch of wandering gypsies who have to keep moving. Any exposure to sunlight causes their skin to burn, or smoulder. The story climaxes in a confrontation between them, Mae, Caleb, and Caleb’s family.
Renowned director Francis Ford Coppolla resurrected the old Count in, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Gary Oldman is this new Dracula, and Anthony Hopkins plays his archenemy, Van Helsing, supported by Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, who put on unconvincing English accents in this gimmicky version of the story. At times the film resembles a MTV music video, and at others a surrealist art film. Some nice touches though; at one point the Count’s shadow seems to have a life of its own (cleverly sent up later in the Mel Brooks spoof, Dracula, Dead and Loving It.) Oldman and Hopkins are okay as the Count and Van Helsing respectively, but again Oldman’s performance is a bit too over the top and theatrical.

John Carpenter’s Vampires, a more recent addition to the genre, is something of vampire western. In it, Crow (James Woods) and his band of vampire slayers go after the creatures of the night with crossbows, dragging them out into the sunlight on a winch to destroy them.

But never in any film has the vampire been portrayed more subversive than in Razorblade Smile, which stars Eileen Daly as a vampire hit woman. The film contains some extremely bloody scenes and Lilith Silver, Daly’s character, as usual is not fussy who she beds (men and women) to get her fix of blood.

It's in the club scene at the beginning where our Lilith first spouts her anti-establishment ideals, sighting the vampire as an outcast, much like the Goths in the club Transalvania, pretending to be vampires. She, unknown to them, is the real deal.

A wannabe vampirette engages our Miss Silver in a conversation about – what else – vampires.

‘Convention sucks: nine-to-five, dress codes, anally retentative rules and politicians’ statistics. There’s the real horror in life, the real evil that sucks the soul,’ Lilith informs her.

But she has more to say on the subject. ‘A vampire is an unconditional individual who enjoys life beyond talking about petty problems and piss-boring jobs.’

Lilith struts through almost the entire movie wearing a PVC cat suit, brandishing her weapons (apart from her fangs that is – her knives and guns.)

These vampires are shown to be subversive, this is the underlying subtext contained within the movie; underneath all the blood and fangs that is masquerading as a vampire flick. There is even computer hacking in the film!

Blade, Underworld (and their sequels) and Van Helsing are more recent offerings. The vampire movie seems to be becoming more of an action film these days!

Over the years the screen and the literature vampire has become more and more of a sympathetic character, we feel for the poor guy! Forced to walk the earth, in a state of un-dead, doomed to find victims to drink their blood. Vampires are seen as having some weird form of alcoholism, in need of their fix of blood. Can you imagine the Count and others attending the blood-drinking equivalent of AA meetings to get themselves off the stuff?

Films like The Hunger and Near Dark take this sympathetic stance. It seems that the vampire is no longer a monster that would frighten you if you ever came face-to-face with it, but a creature for whom you’d have pity and to who you'd say: ‘You poor chap, you look a bit peaky,’ offer him your neck and add: ‘Here, have a bite, take as much as you want – I've got plenty!’

In the days of the old vampires, they feared everything from sunlight to holy water, but its modern day cousin: ain't too miffed about garlic, goes out in the daylight, and laughs in the face of the cross, as the filmmakers dream up new permutations of the vampire tale.

In the 90s vampires are played by the likes of Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy, a far cry from Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee.

Vampire movies didn’t go away in the 2000s either – no, they came back to suck some more, and the films just got gorier and bloodier! It seemed that the 2000s version was an even more bloodthirsty creature than its predecessors!

Night Watch (2005) is a kind of vampire Matrix, and has vampires, shape-shifters, rocket-powered vans … there are also surreal moments, one involving a falling plane rivet – and it’s an epic! There was sequel too, Day Watch.

30 Days of Night, that came along in 2007, is probably one of the goriest examples of modern day vampire flicks and takes place in an isolated Alaskan town, which spends 30 days of the year in complete darkness (ideal picking grounds for vampires, I’m sure you’ll agree!)

The bloodsuckers descend on the town all of sudden, the power goes, phone lines go down, the internet, and the nearest town is 80 miles away – uh-oh! The sheriff holes up in a police station with a group of survivors and tries to defend them against the attacking undead. A proverbial orgy of brutal violence, blood and gore, ensues, as humans run out into the street brandishing weapons, mistakenly thinking they can fight off the bloodthirsty vampires.

Let the Right One In (in 2009) is about a 12-yr-old boy, Oskar, who befriends what he thinks is a similar aged girl, Eli, (but who obviously turns out to be a little bit older – how about a few hundred years!!) who lives with Hakan, a middle-aged man who is supposed to be her father (but who is really the guy who helps her get her blood – by draining people of theirs!)

Vampires don’t look like they’re in any danger of disappearing from our cinema screens within the foreseeable future, as they become even stronger, more immune and almost completely indestructible.

In today’s vampire film, as I said earlier, vampires can go out in the sun, don’t have any fangs, don’t drink blood from humans, laugh at garlic and crosses, and ain’t even evil or monsters anymore!

Bram Stoker would turn in his grave – or get up out of it, even!

Copyright David Barton 2011 

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