Late-night funnyman Craig Ferguson has a running joke in which he rants about the Twilight phenomenon, referring to the series’ whiny teen vampires as a bunch of “sparkly twinks.” I hear you, Craig. Having suffered through the first two pictures in the series, I know I’ve got two long hours ahead of me at some point this summer; I feel obligated to watch the latest appearances of Bella, Edward, and Jacob because the Twilight series is such a huge part of the current pop-culture conversation. While bracing myself for that experience, I started thinking about some of the vampire movies I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, and I thought I would share my recommendations since everyone seems to have bloodsuckers on the brain these days. I promise none of these movies features sparkly twinks.
Blacula (1972). This cheaply made Blaxploitation riff on Dracula boasts a great leading turn by Shakespearean actor William Marshall, who lends the picture a resonant speaking voice and a commanding presence — even when he’s wearing goofy sideburns that track all the way from his eye sockets to his jaw line. Enjoyable as a kitschy time capsule, or on its own merits as a competently executed tragedy, Blacula delivers everything its title promises. I’m just sorry I can’t say the same for the disappointing 1973 sequel, which boasts an even better title — Scream, Blacula, Scream! — and the presence of Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier.
Blade (1998). The movie that kicked off the phenomenon of Marvel Comics adaptations, this slick (and very bloody) action picture stars Wesley Snipes, still at the top of his badass game, as a human/bloodsucker hybrid fighting his dual nature while using all sorts of a colorful weapons to annihilate vampires. Stephen Dorff makes a surprisingly formidable opponent, Kris Kristofferson offers grizzled support, and director Stephen Norrington shoots the whole thing in high style, right from the memorable credit sequence of a vampire rave with blood shooting out of the club’s overhead sprinkler system. Don’t let the shoddy sequels discourage you.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Francis Ford Coppola bounced back from The Godfather, Part III with this paycheck gig helming a new vision of the granddaddy of all vampire novels. Indulging every film-geek fancy that crossed his mind, Coppola had a field day using simple on-set effects like rear projection, reverse photography, and even puppets (!) to give the picture an old-school feel that suits James V. Hart’s histrionic script. The movie suffers by replicating problems present in the original book’s plot, but it’s pleasant to criticize a movie for being too faithful to its source material. And even if Keanu Reeves is beyond goofy trying to play a period role, the central love story enacted by Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder is quite sexy.
Count Dracula (1977). If Coppola’s blood-drenched adaptation is too sensationalistic for your tastes, then you might enjoy this epic BBC version of the same material from the late ’70s. Boasting an ambitious 162-minute running time, this made-for-TV version puts more of Stoker’s narrative onscreen than almost any other version, even if leading man Louis Jordan seems rather fey and ineffectual. Modern audiences may also be jarred by the fact that the movie’s interiors are shot on video, while the exteriors are shot on film — but this is still one of the only Stoker adaptations that features the haunting image of Count Dracula scaling the walls of his castle.
Dracula: The Spanish Version (1931). For many years, catching a screening of this obscure film was a kind of Holy Grail among movie buffs — but luckily, this once-lost marvel is now widely available on DVD. Made at night on the same sets that Bela Lugosi walked during the day while making his famous English-language version, this secondary product, intended primarily for the Mexican market, actually boasts more vivid camerawork and staging than the Lugosi film. It also contains more horrific content because the censors for the Mexican market were less aggressive than their American counterparts. The leading man in this version, Carlos Villarias, comes across more like a dentist than a supernatural sophisticate, but you can’t have everything — part of the fun is envisioning a mash-up of this version’s robust visuals and the Lugosi version’s justifiably famous lead performance.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936). This first sequel to the Lugosi movie is actually a far better movie than its predecessor, even though it feels more like a psychological thriller than an actual horror picture. Additionally, Dracula’s Daughter is especially interesting because it’s considered the first example of an endlessly popular subgenre: lesbian-themed vampire flicks. Yes, you read that right — even after the installation of the highly moralistic Hays Code of 1934, which clamped down on naughty images in Hollywood movies, Universal managed to shoot and release a quickie horror picture in which the lead character indulges unmistakably Sapphic tastes.
The Hunger (1983). Cut to a few decades later, and the subgenre of ladies-on-ladies vampirism was in full bloom when director Tony Scott made his feature debut with this stylish thriller about contemporary bloodsuckers. One of the most attractive casts of the era — David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon — plays out a romantic triangle complicated by themes of mortality and immortality. The movie ultimately opts for style over substance, with a few sequences completely overwhelmed by production design, but at least two scenes are deservedly notorious: The opening bit featuring goth band Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and the Deneuve-Sarandon love scene. As a whole, the movie is highly problematic, but it’s also undeniably seductive — a sexy romp for grown-ups.
Lifeforce (1985). Speaking of problematic movies, I’m including Tobe Hooper’s costly flop as a nod to another subgenre: movies about outer-space vampirism. The plot concerns earthly space explorers who inadvertently bring extraterrestrial bloodsuckers back to our planet, leading to an inevitable rampage and an even more inevitable confrontation. The special effects are impressive, the scares are fairly intense, and leading man Steve Railsback (The Stunt Man) is appropriately weird, but the star attraction of this trashy endeavor is lovely French actress Mathilda May. Let’s just say her costume budget wasn’t very high and leave it at that.
The Lost Boys (1987). Director Joel Schumacher’s surprise hit has one great strength: The movie doesn’t take itself the least bit seriously. A romp about teenagers who discover that their California town is infested with vampires, the picture is a sampler platter of ’80s cheese, from MTV-style montages of vampire attacks to campy sequences of the Coreys (Mr. Feldman and the late Mr. Haim) consulting comic books for clues about how to stake bloodsuckers. Featuring a number of amusing performances (Kiefer Sutherland as the top monster, Barnard Hughes as a crotchety grandpa), The Lost Boys is so silly that it took me years to appreciate its mild charms, but it holds up relatively well — even though the ’80s fashions are more cringe-inducing than any of the scary bits.
Near Dark (1987). Conversely, the same year’s Near Dark wears its ’80s-ness quite comfortably 20 years later. The first solo directorial effort by future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Near Dark concerns a gang of vampires traveling through the American Southwest in a tricked-out RV, laying waste to one redneck enclave after another until one of their number falls in love with a human. The cast is choice from top to bottom, with Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton standing out in the showiest vampire roles. Beautifully shot and edited, stylishly scored by European synth specialists Tangerine Dream, and powered by a strong blend of teen romance and straight-out action, Near Dark is a minor classic whose cult grows with each passing years.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). And now for something completely bizarre: Eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog simultaneously shot English- and German-language versions of this movie, casting his frequent onscreen foil Klaus Kinski in the lead role of both versions. With his shaved head, pale skin, and long fingernails, Kinski’s vampire was designed to mimic the title character in the 1922 silent masterpiece Nosferatu, an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula. In Herzog’s version(s), ennui is the overriding theme, because in between strange sequences depicting the vampire’s onslaught, the movie focuses on angst-ridden conversations about the sublime torture of living forever. Kinski’s otherworldly quality and his inherent intensity serve the role perfectly.
The Night Stalker (1972). A list of beloved vampire flicks would be incomplete without something from the pen of Richard Matheson, the sci-fi/fantasy writer who took vampirism into truly unexpected directions. For this early-’70s TV movie, which eventually led to a short-lived series called Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Matheson imagined a low-rent reporter who investigates paranormal phenomena while searching for the exclusive that will shoot him to the big time. Darren McGavin plays the reporter with a wonderful mix of hucksterism and world-weariness, so putting the character face-to-face with a real vampire, as this picture does, leads to a vivid combination of humor and horror.
The Omega Man (1971). Speaking of Matheson, his vampire-themed novel I Am Legend has been filmed on several occasions, first with Vincent Price (1964’s The Last Man on Earth) and most recently with Will Smith (2007’s I Am Legend). But for many fans, the best version to date is 1971’s The Omega Man, not so much because it’s a scary ride (even though it is) but because this version doubles as a giant serving of ’70s kitsch. Charlton Heston plays a survivor who scours post-apocalyptic Earth by day, then fends off the vampires who infest the planet by night. Heston plays for the cheap seats, so he’s either wonderfully virile or wonderfully awful, depending on your taste, and the production design is pure garish ’70s — check out the vampires with the giant Afros and pale contact lenses! Nonetheless, the inherent sadness of Matheson’s story pierces through the campiness.
Salem’s Lot (1979). Given my remarks about Lifeforce, it seems courteous to also include a Tobe Hooper movie that pretty much works from start to finish, so I give you Salem’s Lot, his straightforward made-for-TV adaptation of an early Stephen King novel about a vampire who wreaks havoc on a small town. Featuring Starsky and Hutch guy David Soul and the always-compelling British thespian James Mason, the picture is inconsistent from an acting perspective, but it delivers the goods in terms of old-fashion jolts and creepy atmosphere. Under the heading of “buyer beware,” don’t confuse Hooper’s project with the pointless 2004 remake starring Rob Lowe, and make sure you get the version you want: The original miniseries runs 183 minutes, and an abbreviated 112-minute version is available as well.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000). In Steven Katz’ audacious script, as directed by E. Elias Merhige, the “secret” behind the making of the 1922 movie Nosferatu is revealed: The leading actor, Max Schreck, is actually a vampire, and he’s manipulating director F.W. Murnau into filming his exploits. Virtually no movie could live up to that outrageous premise, but this one — featuring an entertaining performance by Willem Dafoe as Schreck — comes admirably close. John Malkovich costars as Murnau, endlessly suffering because his inhuman leading man is a Method actor with a tendency to kill other performers when he gets too enthusiastic about playing scenes.