Five Film Favorites: Vampire Films

Earlier this year, our own Peter Schilling wrote that there are no great baseball films, and I would tend to agree with him. (However, if we classify the amazing Sugar (2008) as a baseball film, then I think the statement might become false.  I am a big fan.) Of course people like baseball and film, so the tendency to combine two great tastes produces a slew of baseball films. Unfortunately, two great tastes do not always go great together.  The combination of baseball and film is one sterling example.

Another example arises with the combination of film and vampire stories.  Vampires are sexy, supernatural creatures, so they would seem to be perfect fodder for the cinematic lens.  However, similar to baseball, the combination falls apart, and the final product is rarely, if ever, as enticing as the idea of the vampire movie.  Despite failure after failure,  a few excellent vampire films lurk in our midst.  Without further ado, my five favorite vampire films.

Nosferatu: a symphony of horror (1922) – Directed by F.W. Murnau

Even more than any of the Bela Lugosi flicks, none of which made my list, the iconic image of Max Schreck’s Count Orlock remains the quintessential image by which all film vampires are to be judged.  Even given the rather “primitive” technology that Murnau had available in 1922, no other cinematic vision of a vampire has seemed quite as immediate and real.  This was the film that was to cast a shadow over all other vampire films.  Indeed, Shadow of the Vampire (2000) pays homage to the 1922 film with its own unique interpretation of how Schreck appeared so damned vampiric.  (By the way, I am using “damned” to intensify the vampiric image of Count Orlock.  I know that, by definition, all vampires are damned.) And thanks to SpongeBob SquarePants, even today’s kids recognize Schreck’s lasting image.

Martin (1976) – Directed by George A. Romero

Romero is obviously most recognized for his zombie flicks, some of which are worth watching and re-watching.  Yet he does possess one vampire film in his catalogue, if you can call Martin a vampire film.  While the lead character, Martin (John Amplas) believes himself to be a vampire, he is not.  Martin’s non-supernatural presence makes his crimes all the more disturbing.  Martin belongs to the class of 1970s horror films that were shot in natural light and had regular people doing really horrible things.  Out of all of the vampire films that I have seen, it was the one without an actual vampire that creeped me out the most.

The Hunger (1983) – Directed by Tony Scott

If vampires are supposed to be sexy, then Tony Scott got it right with The Hunger. (On a bizarre side note, this was the film that Scott directed prior to his biggest hit, Top Gun. Odd.)  Casting Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie in a vampire film seems too easy and obvious.  But it works.  Actually, all this film needed was its first sequence in the bar with classic goth band Bauhuas playing their signature song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”  Lead singer and consummate cool guy Peter Murphy is not actually playing a vampire, but he might come closest to approximating Schreck’s ghastly Orlock. 

On another side note, Peter Murphy supposedly had a minor role in one of the Twilight films.  I (shamefully) saw the first two, so it must have been the third in which Murphy appeared. I do not care to look it up.  The only thing of which I am certain is that Team Peter Murphy could destroy the collective asses of Teams Edward and Jacob.  Even without being a vampire, Peter Murphy is more vampire than any pseudo teen-hunk in those lamentable films. 

Shadow of the Vampire (2000) – Directed by E. Elias Merhige

This is a fun film that re-imagines the filming of Nosferatu.  With John Malkovich playing the obsessed director Murnau and Willem Defoe playing some wonderful imaginary likeness of Max Schreck’s Count Orlock, it is hard not to like this film.  Shadow of the Vampire nearly made it onto my list of five favorite films about films.  While it is not great, it does not have to be in order to make list of top vampire films.  Malkovich and Defoe make this episode about the undead a lively exploration of the horrors one will commit to reproduce horror in art. 

Let the Right One In (2008) – Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Out of every vampire film I have seen, Afredson’s effort does the best at doing what much of the Victorian literature about vampires did.  Bram Stoker did not write Dracula (1897) to produce a vampire tale; he used it as a vehicle to discuss a slew of other late Victorian anxieties: immigration, national decline, anti-Semitism, internationalism, masculine crisis, female sexuality, etc.  Similarly, Let the Right One In deftly discusses a variety of early twenty-first century concerns: sexuality, body policing, transgender issues, bullying, etc.  Alfredson cleverly casts his protagonists and antagonists as somewhat androgynous.  He seems to make it intentionally difficult to discern male from female and masculine from feminine.  While the human school kids are boys, the constant depiction of them as something other than “traditionally masculine” young men makes us reconsider how we interpret and see gender. 

The romantic relationship between Oskar, the young bullied boy, and Eli, the “twelve-year-old” vampire who comes to defend him, demonstrates that erotic desire does not necessarily connect with specific gender identifications.  When Eli climbs in bed with Oscar, Oscar asks if she “wants to go steady.”  Eli informs Oscar that she is “not a girl.”  (This is true, since no vampire could be “boy” or “girl,” and any attraction to vampires would immediately be something other than heteronormative.)  Oscar does not consider Eli’s gender relevant to his own romantic and sexual impulses and asks her once again.  When she answers in the affirmative, he smiles broadly.   

I should also remark that Alfredson uses light and the color white (a lot of Norwegian snow) to wonderful effect.  He also has, at least in this film, an odd affinity for rectangles.  His shots constantly had four-sided shapes with right angles framing the scene.  Nearly every shot was set against apartments, buildings, windows, doorways, swimming pools, or some other rectangular object.  An unenclosed space was rare. 

The vampire can be sexy or frightening, but it is most effective as a vehicle to express anxiety, and Let the Right One In captures this perfectly.  It is the rare gem that combines vampires and intelligent cinema. 

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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2 Responses to Five Film Favorites: Vampire Films

  1. anubhavbist says:

    No Dracula films!?(Count Orlock doesn’t count!) Well anyways great list. I’d have Vampyr (1932) and Near Dark (1986) on my own list.

  2. Oh, man, “Martin” is a great movie. My wife and I drove to Windsor, Canada to see this movie at this dingy little theater, actually a playhouse, where they put up a big sheet. There was us, the two volunteers, and a strung-out guy eating what sounded like Doritos made out of glass. We were stunned. Fantastic!

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