And so this weekend gives us Eclipse, the latest film in the Twilight series, in which non-threatening vampires and non-threatening werewolves threaten to entertain us but, probably, never will. In all seriousness, Twilight has a loyal throng of ravenous fans who eat this stuff up, but critics haven’t really jumped on the bandwagon. Maybe it’s the half-hearted plotting, the sleepy performances or bizarre hidden subtexts that bother us. Then again, maybe it’s just the fact that there are so many better vampire movies to be found. With that said, The Weekly Listicle presents this list of Sparkle-Free Vampire Classics as selected by Julia Rhodes and myself (William Bibbiani!).
What classics made our list? What obscure wonders will make their way onto your Netflix queue? Find out now!
Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (dir. Brian Clemens, 1974)
Towards the end of the great Hammer Horror cycle the Powers That Be started to get a little creative, with increasingly “hip” productions like Dracula A.D. 1972 and my personal favorite Hammer Film, the underseen and completely badass action adventure called Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The swashbuckling vampire yarn is the sole directorial effort of prolific screenwriter Brian Clemens, who brought us such genre gems as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde.
German actor Horst Janson plays Kronos, a former Naval officer in a Jack Harkness-esque blue coat who carries a samurai sword and meditates when he isn’t doing drugs and sleeping with busty babes like future Bond Girl Caroline Munro. But most importantly he hunts vampires, and in this film (the first of an intended series, plans for which were scuttled due to poor box office returns) he travels to Eastern Europe to locate and kill a vampire which doesn’t suck blood from its victims, but instead devours their youth, leaving behind not corpses but withered old shells of the teenaged villagers’ former selves. He is accompanied by a lively hunchback named Professor Hieronymous Grost (John Cater), an expert in the supernatural.
Much of Captain Kronos feels experimental, from the decidedly “Hippy Friendly” protagonist, to its at the time very unique take on the vampire myth. Every vampire movie has to establish its own rules about vampirism: What kills them, what powers they have, and so on. In Captain Kronos, Clemens posits that there are many different kinds of vampires in the world, each with their own set of rules that must be learned through trial and error. There’s a fantastic scene in which one of Kronos’s friends realizes that he’s been turned into a vampire, and Kronos and Grost take the opportunity to try out the countless ways of killing him in order to find out which one works for this breed of vampire. The scientific take on the vampire myth was uncommon at the time, and with all the overt sexuality, humor and incredible action sequences it’s hard to imagine why Kronos wasn’t a bigger success. The last swordfight is between Janson and William Hobbs, who also choreographed the action for this film and such other classics as Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies, and it’s a doozy.
Rockula (dir. Luca Bercovici, 1990)
There’s a distinct temptation to watch Rockula ironically. It’s certainly ludicrous enough to warrant a few raised eyebrows. Comedy heartthrob Dean Cameron (Summer School, Ski School) stars as Ralph, a vampire who’s been alive – or at least undead – for hundreds of years and yet somehow remains a virgin. Twilight fans will be happy to learn that the reason is because he’s in love, but every time his dream girl is reincarnated she gets murdered by a pirate wearing a rhinestone peg leg, using a hambone as the murder weapon. Twilight fans might be less enthused by that part. This time Mona (Tawny Fere) has been reincarnated as an 80’s rock star, and Ralph starts his own vampire-themed rock band – called “Rockula,” obviously – to grab her attention. All of his lyrics are about being a vampire. Some of them even rhyme with Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient William Safire.
Yeah, I love this film.
Rockula is a bizarre concoction of a movie: part romantic comedy, part rock opera and all bizarre. Dean Cameron’s wide-eyed innocence provides a perfect latching-on point for audiences, who will then be very distracted by cameos from such music icons as Toni Basil, Bo Diddley and Thomas Dolby. Dolby and Basil stand out in thoroughly unhinged performances, although between them only Basil gets a musical number (see above, it’s totally awesome). Basil plays Ralph’s sexually uninhibited live-in mother, and her frequent sexual conquests are often laid bare in front of her son, making his centuries-old pursuit of conjugal bliss all the more excruciating, and all the more hilarious.
But for all of us who love Rockula for its many charms (it’s hard not to love a movie that features Susan Tyrrell in a bumblebee suit), it’s an absurd story filled with unusual set pieces that may cause saner audience members to pull their hair out due to the film’s sheer madness. There’s an entirely unexplained subplot about how Ralph, alone amongst all vampires, has a reflection, and that reflection has a personality of its own, and will only be freed from the world of mirrors when Ralph loses his virginity. It’s best not to think about it so much, and just listen to the music. “I just want to rock you… I just want to rock you… LA!”
Innocent Blood (dir. John Landis, 1992)
Innocent Blood is a movie most people have never heard of, which is weird when you discover that the all-star cast includes Anthony LaPaglia (TV’s “Without a Trace”), Robert Loggia (Lost Highway), Luis Guzman (Boogie Nights), Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got To Do With It?), Chazz Palmenteri (The Usual Suspects), Don Rickles and countless other recognizable character actors whose names you don’t even know. Also, look for cameos by directors Sam Raimi and Frank Oz. How have you not seen this?
John Landis directed this unsung classic about a French vampire, played by La Femme Nikita’s Anne Parrilaud, living in New York and feeding off of mafia goons whose heads she then blows off with a shotgun to make it look like a gang hit. One night she finds herself hunting the particularly deserving victim Sal the Shark (Loggia), but is thrown off her game by his love of garlicy food. Before she can finish killing him all the henchmen make their move, forcing her flee and eventually team up with an undercover cop (LaPaglia) to stop freshly vampiric Sal from creating an army of the undead to take over the criminal underworld.
As with all of Landis’s better movies, Innocent Blood has a sense of humor tempered with great characters. Anne Parrilaud gives a wonderful performance as a vampire alone in a strange country, powerful but hungry for victims and yes, even love. Her sexual power is overwhelming (Innocent Blood also qualifies as an aphrodisiac), as is her ability to perform acts of bloody violence. But it’s Don Rickles who gets the best scene in the film, and perhaps the best “Death by Sunlight” scene in vampire history, as he burns to a crisp from the inside, rapidly falling apart in coal-like chunks in his hospital bed. Innocent Blood is an underappreciated movie (it’s not even available on DVD in widescreen), but it’s a must-see for vampire fans of all ilks.
Nadja (dir. Michael Almereyda, 1994)
Independent director Michael Almereyda is probably best known for his 2000 adapation of Hamlet, which found Ethan Hawke leading an all-star cast in a present-day reimagining of the classic tale. But it’s Nadja, a brilliant if slightly pretentious vampire tale from 1994 that may prove to be his masterpiece. Elina Lowensohn (Schindler’s List) stars as Nadja, the daughter of Dracula who lives a life of apathetic malaise in New York City in the mid-1990’s. She hates her father but isn’t too proud to live off his money, but when he’s killed by Van Helsing, played by a particularly groovy Peter Fonda, she sets off on a journey to be loved… at any cost.
The striking black and white cinematography – some of it shot on a Fisher Price Pixelvision Camera – tells you all you need to know about Nadja: that it’s an art film. Like many art films from the 1990’s, Nadja tells a story of youthful hypocrisy and selfishness, but unlike many art films from the 1990’s it feels like Nadja is aware of this and critical of it. Martin Donovan (The Opposite of Sex) and the fantastically-named Galaxy Craze (Husbands & Wives) play the married couple torn apart by the vampire’s seductions, but are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t see the mystical terrors that surround them as anything but distractions from their day-to-day issues. “Mad Men’s” Jared Harris steals many of his scenes as Nadja’s brother, a vampire whose heart actually works properly, and who suffers intensely for it. I’m particularly fond of the way he receives Nadja’s psychic faxes.
Hypnotic but a little full of itself, Nadja is a Thinking Man’s vampire movie, full of ideas and distinctive storytelling, and thoroughly unforgettable.
Daybreakers (dir. Michael & Peter Spierig, 2010)
Earlier this year and to little fanfare, The Spierig Brothers released their follow-up to Undead – their homemade horror comedy that could – and it was a surprisingly clever little genre exercise called Daybreakers. At the center of the film is a conceit I can fully appreciate: After vampirism was discovered to be very real, people throughout the world clamored to be infected, and therefore live forever. (Dibs! I call dibs!) Now, most of the Earth’s population is vampire, and all of society is geared towards their needs. Since all anyone needs to survive is blood, most humans get all of their nourishment directly from Starbucks. The catch, of course, is that now that everyone’s a vampire there’s almost nobody left to feed off of. Ethan Hawke stars as a research scientist frantically searching for a blood-substitute before all of humanity – such as it is – turns on each other and civilization falls to utter chaos.
As metaphors for our planetary problem with scarcity (not just with oil either, but water, food, you name it), it’s a strong one. Civilization changed swiftly and dramatically for immediate gains, but nobody thought long-term so the suffering is about to begin. The Spierig Brothers find cute ways to fit vampire mythology into their film: Vampires who don’t ingest human blood gradually turn into pointy-eared Nosferatus (drinking vampire blood expedites this process), and sunlight has a surprising consequence nobody could have envisioned (which I won’t ruin for you here). Willem Dafoe plays a human, or rather a cured vampire, who seeks out Hawke’s help in saving the human race. Of course, not everyone wants to be saved. There’s a lot of money to be made in human exploitation, you know?
The presence of the always-reliable Ethan Hawke, along with the surprisingly well-conceived nature of this fantasy world, makes Daybreakers feel like a supernatural Gattaca, but that’s not a bad comparison. Both are very good high concept movies in which the ideas are often better than the plot, but Daybreakers hasn’t found its cult audience yet. It will. Though not an instant classic it’s one of the best vampire movies in many years, and highly recommended.
The Lost Boys (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1987)
Of all the vampire movies I’ve seen (there are more than I care to mention), The Lost Boys is consistently a favorite. The movie is about a broken family who move to the fictional town of Santa Carla, California. Mom Lucy (Dianne Wiest, who always, always plays mothers) and sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (the late great Corey Haim) shortly realize Santa Carla isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…although “all the damn vampires” seem to find it a lovely place to live. The Lost Boys is about as far removed from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula as you can get: picture the undead clad in leather and whitewashed denim, with Twisted Sister curls, and surrounded by California surfers. It’s brilliant.
When Michael falls in love at first sight with Star (Jami Gertz), he finds himself falling in with a bad crowd of naughty boys who disrupt the boardwalk’s carousel and wreak havoc for fun. Alpha male David (Kiefer Sutherland) lures Michael into the midst of crazy blood-drinking, bad boy fun. (The poster on my bedroom wall features the tag line, “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” Vampires historically are these sexy, brooding, pouty bastards who long for humanity—well, I say suck it, Cullens. Pun intended.)
The Lost Boys was filmed in Santa Cruz, and when, at age fourteen, I ended up there on a family vacation, I walked endlessly up and down the boardwalk having a total “Hallelujah!” moment. That’s how much I love this movie. It marks the first feature film that starred both Coreys (Haim and Feldman). It features a pre-Bill and Ted Alex Winter, a fantastic ‘80s soundtrack, big hair, surfers, and a gorgeous California backdrop. Sam has a picture of Rob Lowe in his bedroom clad in a half-shirt (I have had an internal debate for some years over whether Sam is gay, or if it really was just the ‘80s. Share thoughts on this topic in the comments, please).
Long story short, The Lost Boys is a classic vampire story told to a new generation. It’s a sincere, fun period piece with a great soundtrack, a hilarious script, and good gore.
Interview with the Vampire (dir. Neil Jordan, 1994)
Interview with the Vampire is by no means a perfect movie. It’s overwrought, silly, and overloaded with heartthrobs. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles have fascinated generations, her sensual language and focus on the deep South a precursor to, say, Poppy Z. Brite (whose novel Lost Souls is one of the most dazzling vampire books out there, in case you’re interested). Rice’s novels have seen many adaptations, but Interview with the Vampire is the most faithful, probably because Rice wrote the screenplay.
Whiny (or as I mentioned above, sexy, brooding, pouty) vampire Louis (Brad Pitt) reaches out to a newspaperman (Christian Slater) to tell his story, which to give Rice credit is a hypnotic and fantastic retelling of American history, from pre-Civil War plantations to the mid 1990s. Louis’s mentor and best friend/enemy Lestat (Rice’s favorite protagonist, played in Interview by Tom Cruise—one of his best roles) enjoys vampirism, and Lestat’s cruelty and sometimes outright malice make a lovely foil to Louis’s pious humanity. Louis and his problematic child companion Claudia (a very, very young Kirsten Dunst) encounter a group of vampires (including yet another heartthrob, Antonio Banderas) who perform in a kind of Grand Guignol theater, eating humans alive onstage while other humans watch—oh, what a grotesque show! they walk away murmuring, fanning themselves. Louis must watch Claudia age as her body remains the same; the idea of a woman maturing mentally while trapped in a child’s body is too much for some to take.
Perhaps one of the most horrifying aspects of historical vampirism is the idea of immortality. It sounds like something to which we should all aspire, but in reality it’s a terrible thought. Louis’s tale, told in spectacular visual fashion by director Jordan, is evidence that being undead, being immortal, is not everything it seems it should be. Though it’s by no means my favorite vampire movie, it’s one of the best epic horror films, spanning hundreds of years with grace.
Near Dark (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
Before Kathryn Bigelow made history as the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, she made a little vampire Western called Near Dark, which starred Adrian Pasdar (“Heroes”), Bill Paxton, and Lance Henriksen. In Near Dark, small-town cowboy Caleb (Pasdar) falls in love at first sight with Mae, a lovely ingénue at a bar (oh, them wimmenz, always causing men trouble). Little does Caleb know, Mae’s “family” consists of utterly horrifying rednecks who also happen to be vampires—and they love what they do.
Near Dark is interesting because it’s one of the few notable gory horror films directed by a woman (as The Hurt Locker is one of the only female-helmed war movies). It’s also interesting for its AIDS allegory. Once Caleb discovers he’s a vampire, his dad and brother seek a cure—and manage to find one. Vampirism has long been a symbol of sexually transmitted illnesses; the very term “succubus” intimates sexuality, and historically vampires are sexy, promiscuous, gorgeous creatures to whom humans are slaves. The fact that Near Dark released in the late ‘80s is no mistake, and it’s hard to think of a film that better defines the AIDS epidemic and terror of STDs—and the hope for a cure.
Near Dark is gory, graphic, and intelligent. It’s a gorgeous horror movie told in an extremely American fashion. Like The Lost Boys, it places one of the oldest literary tales directly in the midst of ‘80s America. Near Dark’s setting in the land of corn, wheat, cowboys, and pretty ladies makes it a perfect addition to a cadre of action-Westerns that focus on the American frontier, the lands to be conquered, and the mindsets that breed there.
30 Days of Night (dir. David Slade, 2007)
David Slade’s Twilight Saga: Eclipse released yesterday — the man apparently likes vampires as much as I do. 30 Days of Night takes place in the small town of Barrow, Alaska, during the state’s period of night: a month in which the sun doesn’t shine. Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the film’s notable mostly because of the vampires it features. The creatures, led by Danny Huston in a remarkably creepy role, are completely inhuman. They don’t speak English; their features are oddly distorted; their movements are just off enough to remind us that fictional vampires are, in fact, monsters.
At the zenith of the vampire coven’s rampage, a massacre takes place in snowy Main Street in Barrow. The cinematography in this scene is epic—though Slade uses a long, sweeping shot to downplay the violence, crimson splatters on newly fallen snow are hard to get out of one’s head. Sherriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) reunite in the midst of chaos, and Eben redeems himself at the movie’s end in a ridiculous manner. Ben Foster had humble beginnings as a gawky Jewish teenager in Barry Levinson’s underrated Liberty Heights that didn’t peg him as such of a much. However, he crept onto my radar with really impressive performances in Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Messenger. His character The Stranger in 30 Days of Night is one of the film’s really eerie, redeeming qualities. The Stranger is a scout for the vampires and adores them—he is, perhaps, what the residents of Bon Temps, Louisiana would refer to as a fang-banger. When they don’t come for him, when they leave him behind like trash, his anguish is palpable.
30 Days of Night, while flawed in a lot of ways, depicts vampires for the completely inhuman creatures they should be. Its premise is terrifying. Most of us would go completely nuts without sunshine for 30 days—toss some real monsters in the mix and you’ve got a seriously spooky flick. But I guarantee that if you’re suffering through a heat wave right now, if you watch this film in a dark room, you’ll feel the chill.
The Horror of Dracula (dir. Terence Fisher, 1958)
I blame all those sexy, pouting vampires on Christopher Lee. There have been so many retellings of the original Dracula that this one is named on IMDb simply as Dracula 1958. It’s one of the classic Hammer films, a pure and simple B-movie starring a young, sultry, and terrifying Lee as the Count himself. After the novel’s protagonist Jonathan Harker becomes one of the undead himself, Dracula flees and takes it upon himself to destroy Harker’s fiancée Lucy and her family. It’s up to Harker’s friend Van Helsing (just…ignore that Hugh Jackman movie) to protect them from, well, the horror of Dracula.
Blood, gore, and promiscuity play major parts in The Horror of Dracula—but luckily it was so low-budget it made it past the censors. Lee makes a brilliant Dracula—as good as or better than the master himself, Bela Lugosi. Pacing is flawless, sets and costumes intriguing and pretty, cinematography tight and smooth. Every other vampire legend is, somehow, derived from Stoker’s novel, and this is probably my favorite movie that deals with the Count himself.