Sunday, 4 July 2010

New Dawn Rising: The Vampire Movie

Anders Hove as Radu in Subspecies (Ted Nicolaou, 1991).

Vampirism, it seems, is no longer moonlight exclusive. Peruse the shelves of your local DVD store, check the cinema listings of your nearest multiplex or flick through the channels of Sky Movies and, clear as day, you'll find bloodsuckers present. With the release of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (David Slade, 2010) the world is once again going mad for vampires. The teen based series is harmless - moody, angsty and a little bit dull, aimed at a generation that have never heard of Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922). But every time one of these films comes around (which is about every six months) it raises some discussion about the history of vampires in cinema. Of course they also have a rich history in literature with Bram Stoker's 1897 novel 'Dracula' being a popular point of reference for tales to come. They've emerged in comic books (the underrated Batman: Nosferatu), kids entertainment (Mona The Vampire) and of course, TV. In the wake of Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008) a slew of vampires hit the small screen in British sitcom Being Human and the more adult US series True Blood and The Vampire Diaries (both of which present a more romanticized version of the creatures). There's also the classic Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which popularized an all-american, ass-kicking female protagonist who did battle against vampires and demons. It was great (for a while), launching the career of Sarah Michelle Gellar and providing a spin-off in the form of Angel. There's also the little seen but absolutely brilliant Ultraviolet, a six-part Channel 4 series starring Jack Davenport and Idris Elba, revolving around a government team waging war against underground vampires. You can now get vampires in whatever form you want; Japanese mash-ups (Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Naoyuki Tomomatsu, 2009), popcorn based blockbusters (Van Helsing, Stephen Sommers, 2004) or kung-fu comedy musicals (Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, Lee Demarbre, 2001). So, where to start?

Obviously it's important to begin with the classics. Nosferatu is a film in the German Expressionism/Weimar movement, which fundamentally focus on darkness and shadows. Real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) travels to Transylvania to meet the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck) who plans to buy a property in Wisborg. The Count casts his eye on a picture of Hutter's wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) and sets sail to Wisborg to make her his victim. It's a classic story of loneliness, terror and sexuality, with some viewers reading anti-Semitic themes into the lead character and his voyage. It's certainly an effective film, Schreck investing Orlok with a reserved, rat-like presence that ensures we feel for him while being repulsed by him. One scene sees the crew of the Wisborg set ship dead with only the Captain and a sailor remaining. The sailor, hatchet in hand, heads below deck in search of Nosferatu. The score (by Hans Erdmann) crescendos into a thunderous state of horror as the vampire rises from his coffin. The sailor runs above deck, jumping into the water for safety. Nosferatu has taken control of the ship. Blood stains the wooden deck. Wisborg and Ellen aren't so far away. The true horror of the film comes from the stunning use of light and shadow, as Nosferatu creeps his way up the stairs to Ellen his darker self is projected large onto a nearby wall, enhancing the tension and terror. Her ultimate willing to be a martyr for the town is both the axis of emotion and also a compelling sexual metaphor - the bite that Orlok wishes to plant on her neck a sign of her sexual liberation in a repressed time? Nosferatu may not be perfect, but its place in history is deserved.

The film was remade in 1979 by master Bavarian director Werner Herzog. Starring the immortal Klaus Kinski as Dracula (renamed from Orlok), the tale was a much more eerie, intense and weird affair, given a strong injection of sex by the brilliant Isabelle Adjani (Possession, Andrzej Zulawski, 1981). The beautiful actress lends a strong sense of femininity to the role but she also grounds Lucy (renamed from Ellen) believably as the loyal wife, investing us more into the relationship. The scene where Dracula enters Lucy's room for the first time, unseen in the reflection of her mirror, is a sinister delight with strong sexual undertones and an emotional gravity. Dracula asks Lucy "give me your love". The sexuality that was more metaphorical in Murnau's vision is here fully embraced by Herzog. Although no sex is present in the film, the climax is much more sensualised and graphic, with Kinski's performance providing more in the way of a longing for flesh (before biting on her neck he lifts up Lucy's nightgown). The true highlight of Herzog's work though is the plague-ridden town of Wismar. A strong, cold wind blows through the empty streets. The camera pans down to the ground, revealing rats infesting the gutter. Coffins are laid out ready for the dead. It's eerie as hell and the score by Popol Vuh makes it all the more haunting. As well as being one of the best remakes of all time Herzog's Nosferatu is also one of the best vampire movies. It gives a true sense of impending doom as well as making us feel something for Dracula - a man eternal who wishes for nothing more than to die.

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) is a direct adaptation of Stoker's novel and another classic genre entry. Shot in a creeping black and white around perfectly designed, creaking locales, Bela Lugosi plays Dracula as a brilliantly controlled killer. It may seem hammy by todays standards but the immortal line "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make" is like a dark poetry coming from his ghostly presence. It's not perfect (Browning was clearly struggling to adjust to talkies) but it benefits from the cinematography by Karl Freund, who lit many films in the Expressionist/Weimar period and clearly understands the power of light and shadow. The entire film has an ominous and eerie tone, from the misty roads to the moonlight chambers of the castle and it's one of the better films in the Universal production line. The film was also remade (or some would argue readapted) by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992 to lesser results. Gary Oldman impresses in the title role of Dracula but the film, like Herzog's Nosferatu, fully embraces sexuality, this time losing something for it. Some of the creeping atmosphere is lost and the supporting cast (including a cringeworthy Keanu Reeves) do little to help matters.

Gary Oldman as Dracula in Dracula (1992).

The character has also been immortalized, of course, by Christopher Lee in the classic Hammer Horror films of the 1970s. He made his pasty, theatrical (and a little camp) mark on the character (and indeed the horror genre) in films like Count Dracula (Jesus Franco, 1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972), The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (Alan Gibson, 1973) and Dracula And Son (Edouard Molinaro, 1976) among others. The character has seen many incarnations over the last 80 years and has been played by actors as diverse as John Carradine (Nocturna, Harry Hurwitz, 1979) and Frank Langella (Dracula, John Badham, 1979) - but none have really beat the classic quad of Schreck, Lugosi, Kinski and Oldman.

Hammer Film Productions were responsible for many great British horror films, taking in characters like The Mummy and Frankenstein as well as Dracula (they also made a group of 'cave girl' movies including the classic Raquel Welch starring One Million Years B.C., Don Chaffey, 1966). But the British have a larger, sadly forgotten stake in the vampire movie - Vampyres: Daughters Of Darkness (José Ramón Larraz, 1974). A trashy but beautifully shot lesbian vampire movie, Vampyres retains the same oddworld, eerie tone of The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973). Like so many vampire movies it supposes a relationship between sex and death and the unexplainable thrill that lies in the climax of both acts. Vampyres portrays some pretty graphic softcore scenes between the main characters - two seductive vamps of the night, buxom beauties caped head-to-toe in doom, the black velvet that secures their deadly bodies luring in any weak-willed man that may pass by - played by the excellent Marianne Morris (Percy's Progress, Ralph Thomas, 1974) and Playboy model Anulka Dziubinska. One scene sees them bathing together in a shower - they grasp each others wet bodies and embrace in a passionate kiss. The camera (a P.O.V. shot from leading man Murray Brown) spies on them from afar, making us the voyeur. There is a genuinely erotic sense to the sex scenes, partly down to the smoldering leading ladies and their performances, but also because of the cinematography by Harry Waxman (who also photographed The Wicker Man, explaining the haunted, misty visual style the films share). Every room of the old castle is creaky and worn down with most rooms having only a candle, lamp or dim chandelier to shed light onto the dusty, deadly corners. The countryside is brilliantly captured - graveyards seemingly come alive in spirit and one shot sees early dawn filtering through the woods - it's really astonishingly beautiful. This is a gem of British and vampire cinema that deserves to be rediscovered!
Of course, this wasn't the first or last in lesbian vampire cinema. The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970), Lust For A Vampire (Jimmy Sangster, 1971) and Countess Dracula (Peter Sasdy, 1971) made their mark on the sub-genre. The weak-blooded 2009 parody Lesbian Vampire Killers (Phil Claydon) is less notable, although... plentiful.

The 1970s was really the decade that sexualized Dracula, with Andy Warhol's Blood For Dracula (Paul Morrisey, 1974) being a particular point of interest (indeed the tagline is 'He couldn't live without a virgin's blood... So a virgin had to die!"). It's not a masterpiece in any sense of the word. Given Warhol's reputation and legacy it could probably be best described as 'trash art'. But there is something ghostly and unnerving about Udo Kier's ("the blood of these whores is killing me") interpretation of the fanged lothario that stands confidently alongside the more famous performances by Christopher Lee. Much like the Warhol/Morrisey/Kier collaboration Flesh For Frankenstein (1973, still the best 3D movie) this is the traditional tale with a twist and given an injection of softcore sex and sloppy guts. It's notable for its intense sexuality as from the 1980s onwards the main theme of vampire movies became rather more repressed again... which came with good and bad consequences...

Andy Warhol's Blood For Dracula (1974) takes a more sexualized approach.

The 1980s started to shift its focus to teens and angst. Sure there's the full-blooded Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987) and the bitingly satirical Vampire's Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1988) ("Am I getting through to you, Alva?"). But the 1980s was undeniably ruled by John Hughes and The Brat Pack. Teens and their troubles were in, and nobody was stopping them. It could be argued that the movement started with Martin (George A. Romero, 1977) but the real incarnation is The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987), which follows Mike (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) moving into a small town supposedly inhabited by vampires. Stylish and superbly soundtracked (INXS, Echo & The Bunnymen), it's best summed up by its tagline 'Sleep All Day. Party All Night. Never Grow Old. Never Die. It's Fun To Be A Vampire'. It was the movie that injected a sense of youthfulness and entertainment into the genre - fast paced, glossy and loud was the order of the day. This led somewhat to the screen incarnation of Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008, Chris Weitz, 2009, David Slade, 2010), conveniently around the same time as the 80s revival. The adaptations of Stephanie Meyer's books have become mega-blockbusters making stars out of leads Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, despite being rather hollow and miserable vampire regressions. The 00s have also given kids a taste of the myth with The Little Vampire (Uli Edel, 2000) and adults have rejoiced the stylish smarts of Daybreakers (Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, 2009) and the full-blooded but rather dull 30 Days Of Night (David Slade, 2007). The foreign market has also had a say in the current trend with Park Chan-wook's excellent Thirst (2009) and my favorite vampire movie of the last thirty years, Sweden's Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008).

Let The Right One In does everything Twilight wishes it could do but can't and remains a unique and strangely sensitive entry into the screen vampire canon. Beautifully shot by DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema, it tells the story of lonely, bullied Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson), and their midnight meetings in a snowy playground. But she holds a dark secret - she's really a vampire. It does have scenes of violence (a bed bursting into flames and the gorgeous, emotional swimming pool finale) but the real theme of the movie is innocence and love. The quiet, unexpected romance that forms between Oskar and Eli is wonderfully etched and thoughtfully played, as well as honest and believable. The upcoming American remake will surely be terrible (for one it has been retitled, showing a gross misunderstanding of the movies theme of trust - god only knows how it will treat the films most iconic and important scene; see below image), but for now the memory of Let The Right One In is an enrapturing one. The performances are perfect, the score is lovely and its treatment of the vampire legend and character is perfect for study. Oh, and the ending is painfully, demonstrably heartbreaking.

Vampires have been a staple of the silver screen for decades - from Schreck to Lee to Morris and Leandersson, may their legacy live forever...

Eli in Let The Right One In (2008).

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