Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau)
The father of a race of monsters, to purloin a phrase. Although there are references to a Roumanian film named Drakula from a year earlier this ‘lost’ film is apparently a biopic of the original Vlad. So Nosferatu is arguably the first vampire film. Illegally produced, we’re lucky to have this expressionist masterpiece. Refulgent with evil, disease and decay, 85 years old and still magisterially above all that came after. One tomb rose larger and more lordly than the rest and on it but one word, Nosferatu.
Dreyer is now mainly praised for his later (and earlier) weightier films and Vampyr would appear to be an oddity in his canon. It is a genuinely odd experience. It’s supposedly a ‘talkie’ but the dialogue is so sparse as to make that a misnomer. I would argue it is the final European Expressionist horror, at the border with the American Universal horrors. It’s almost plotless, dreamy, almost hypnotic. The hero’s waking interment is perhaps the most notable moment. The curious pervasive bleached out effect was caused by the brief and deliberate opening of the film cans to the light after shooting.
Forget poor old Bela a while and track down a copy of this. During the silent era films could be exported round the world with only the inter-titles needing to be changed but as sound came the studios were posed a problem of exportability. The answer initially for companies like Universal was to make their films again in Spanish for the South American market. These versions were filmed using the same sets and often the same storyboards but they had one startling difference: they were exempted the strictures of the Hays Code. While Browning’s version is ponderously directed, restrained, rather slow and bound to the stage version and therefore stagy, this Spanish language version has a more spooky atmosphere, better acting, a looser feel (it’s half an hour longer), an eroticism entirely absent from the Lugosi version, heaving bosoms and an expanded climax (Lugosi’s demise is entirely off-screen and denies the audience resolution). The minor flaw is that this Dracula is only marginally better acted than Lugosi’s.
This is praised here. I suspect this is the best vampire film from the 40’s. By the time Lewton came along Universal were reaching the bottom of the barrel, packaging and repackaging their classic creatures in increasingly desperate ways. This was something else, something different, and it had Karloff.
Dracula (a.k.a. Horror Of Dracula) (1958, Terence Fisher)
One of the big ones and an obvious choice. Never mind that about the only thing it kept from the novel was the title, this is a good film of the old man. It’s well cast, well made, makes good use of this new-fangled colour thing and Christopher Lee surely makes one of the most imposing presences as Dracula. 1966’s Dracula, Prince Of Darkness is maybe, marginally, the better film with it’s widescreen and bolder conception but this has a much better ending… which harks back to the original Nosferatu.
The Hunger (1983, Tony Scott)
Alright, it’s more flash than real substance but is that a major problem? This has several of the same themes as brother Ridley’s contemporaneous Blade Runner: mortality, passage of time and memory, etc. This also seems to prefigure Anne Rice’s Queen Of The Damned. On top of this there’s the luminous Catherine Deneuve and a great piece of Schubert. Recent pictures of Deneuve would seem to indicate that she’s as ageless and timeless as her character here.
Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
Hellraiser? A vampire film? The bad guy’s a dead man revivified with blood who then gains strength through drinking blood from the necks of his victim. This is one of the few modern horrors to actually take itself and the genre seriously: cinematic, intelligent and generally well-acted. The score is a marvellous work in itself. All of this is carried over into the sequel, which has better acting by the presence of Kenneth Cranham. Personally, I think there are unconscious references to Dracula, Prince Of Darkness even though Barker asserts that he doesn’t much care for the Hammer Draculas.
Vampirism brought kicking and screaming into the modern age in a way that Dracula A.D. 1972 could only have dreamed about. This has a genuinely grimy edge of society outcast feel that is impossible when the bloodsucker is in a tuxedo. These are vampires that exude a sense of threat reinforced by the fact that it could be the guy next to you in the bus station.
Nightlife (1989, Daniel Taplitz)
A strange sad comedy-horror. It’s set in Mexico City which lends a new angle to the proceedings. The story is a love triangle: evil vampire and young doctor in love with the same vampiric Maryam d’Abo. Strangely, it’s quite melancholy for an ostensibly light comedy.
Sundown, The Vampire In Retreat (1990, Anthony Hickox)
Vampire comedy with everything thrown into the mix from mad scientists to cowboys. This is great fun. I initially watched this trepidation expecting something stupid but passable… then all of a sudden it’s excellent, smart, scary and funny. And it’s full of people that make you say ‘that’s what’s-his-name… you know…’
An unfairly maligned, deeply flawed film. Deeply romantic, deeply melancholy. Virtually a three-hander from Kenneth Cranham, Julian Sands and Suzanna Hamilton. It’s a little slow, a little dreamy and very good-looking. It’s not a perfect film by a long distance but it has a certain something; a spot of imagination that is lacking in many films with many times the budget. And what happened to director? He apparently returned to Japan to continue making films.
Nadja (1994, Michael Almereyda)
A playful yet serious film, seemingly a deliberate return to the atmosphere of Vampyr with a plot liberated from Lambert Hillyer’s 1936 Dracula’s Daughter. This is from the days of American Indie cinema when there was genuine variety. Quirkily cast with memorable turns from Elina Löwensohn in a role she seems to have been destined to play as Dracula’s Daughter and Peter Fonda as a Van Helsing only eclipsed in eccentricity by Hopkins for Coppola. The chiaroscuro photography is radiant with a nifty trick of becoming ‘pixelvision’ for the vampire’s p.o.v. as filmed with a toy camera.
A fine version of Anne Rice’s only genuinely readable ‘Chronicle’. The tale of a strange and dysfunctional vampire family this film shouldn’t work: while the costumes and design are as sumptuous as would be expected and the direction is great, it does have Tom Cruise, a story told entirely in flashback narrated by a main character who’s clearly still ‘alive’ and a strangely enervated performance from Pitt. Strangely all the script drafts pre-release solely have Jordan’s name as writer by the time the film was released the sole writer was Rice. There seem to be few differences between the early scripts and the film. Quite odd.
Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington)
Portentous and groaning under the weight of it’s own seriousness it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable and very stylish action-horror-thriller. Del Toro’s sequel is interesting; Goyer’s isn’t.
Dracula- Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2003, Guy Maddin)
Dracula the ballet. This is a wonderful dreamlike, mist-enshrouded film. Maddin is clearly indebted to expressionism and the black and white is only broken by the addition of vivid blood red. The music’s Mahler. That should have been enough to get it on the list.
How can you not love a film that has the central conceit that Murnau’s Nosferatu wasn’t fiction? This is more than just an interesting concept: this is a film about film. This is about the artist, about what or who they are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of their vision. Dafoe’s performance as Nosferatu is superb as is the make-up that renders him nigh-on unrecognizable. And that brings us neatly back to where we came in. Aren’t the cycles of life wonderful?
And that’s that. So, have a happy Hallowe’en and, should you observe such things, a contemplative, commemorative and comforting All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. And the sun arose once more, shining its light and life across the land...