So a bunch of us horror-scribblin’ nerds on Facebook have been sharing our top 10 favorite vampires movies as of late. Like the good conformist that I am, I thought I’d throw my two cents in. And since it’s been more than a month since my last blog post (sorry kiddos, I’ve been distracted hammering away on a couple new story ideas), I figured instead of just doing a list on social media I’d write a little about each of my picks here to tell you why I love them so.
I’ll make the same disclaimer I always do when ranking any of my favorite anything: Remember that this is not a list of what I consider the “best” vampire movies of all time. These are simply my personal favorites. There are a whole bunch of reasons to like a movie other than just technical accomplishment, most of which are subjective, such as nostalgia or other biases. Nothing wrong with that. So just keep it in mind before you ask me why your favorite vampire movie didn’t make my list, or how in the hell I could’ve possibly liked that piece of crap, or whatever.
And, yeah, I cheated. I was able to narrow my list of favorites down to 11 but couldn’t bear to cut even one more after that. So fuck it. This is my website, not yours. Bite me.
Without further ado, in no particular order, here are my Top 10 Favorite Vampire Movies (+1)…
No, not the bloated, overcooked Warner Herzog remake. F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic is a moody, stylish chiller. Despite being a lawsuit-worthy copycat of Bram Stoker’s genre-defining novel Dracula, I’d argue it’s actually superior to any “official” adaptation to come after. Yes, that even goes for the Bela Lugosi one. Murnau’s twisted, otherworldly visuals exemplify how black-and-white filmmaking can utilize light and shadow to get under a viewer’s skin skin better than any color picture ever could, and actor Max Schreck’s performance as the gnarled, inhuman Count Orlok is genuinely unnerving. Nosferatu’s vision of the vampire as a loathsome, plague-carrying parasite remains to this day the prototype for every bloodsucker story more interested in being scary than in portraying the undead as misunderstood heartthrobs.
If you only know George Romero as “that guy who makes all those zombie movies,” you’re missing out. Chief among the overlooked gems in the man’s filmography is 1978’s Martin, an inspired low-budget masterpiece that brilliantly deconstructs vampire tropes. The film’s namesake sanguinarian believes himself a centuries-old creature of the night, but is he? He can’t suck blood, so he slashes his prey with a razor. He can’t hypnotize his victims, so he knocks them out with a syringe full of sedatives. He has visions of a life lived hundreds of years ago, but are they memories or just fantasies? Martin informs everyone who will listen that much of the vampire myth is just that: Myth. Yet he still claims to be one. When you strip the vampire of all its supernatural trappings, what’s left? Is there really anything to it but outright lunacy? And, in the end, what’s more dangerous, the reality or the myth? The answer might surprise you.
Let the Right One In
Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindquist, this Swedish film (skip the American remake; it’s redundant at best) is a bittersweet portrait of loneliness and unlikely friendship, every bit as alternately delicate and deadly as its frozen setting. It introduces us to Oskar, a 12-year-old outcast who spends his time trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube and daydreaming about murdering the bullies who torment him, and Eli, a girl (or is she?) about the same age (or is she?) who lives a sheltered, secretive existence in the apartment next door. They soon find kinship in their shared isolation and hidden darkness, but when the man Eli lives with is caught while attempting a murder meant to feed Eli’s bloodlust, she is forced to reveal her true nature to Oskar. With its methodical pacing, haunting atmosphere, tender performances, and powerful themes of love, morality, adolescence, and alienation, Let the Right One In is undoubtedly one of the best vampire moves in recent memory.
From Dusk till Dawn
This is one of those movies I can watch over and over and over. From Dusk till Dawn was directed by Robert Rodriguez, written by Quentin Tarantino, based on an idea by K.N.B. EFX co-founder Robert Kurtzman, and flaunts a cast featuring Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Salma Hayek, Danny Trejo, Juliette Lewis, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, Michael Parks, and Cheech Marin. What more could you want? Telling the story of the most out-of-control barroom brawl in recorded history, this gory grindhouse throwback pits a pair of psychopathic bank-robbers and a faithless preacher against a whole army of vamps in a slimy Mexican strip club called The Titty Twister. It’s a real special effects pigout, taking inspiration from the mythological associations bloodsuckers have with such cuddly critters as bats, rats, and snakes to unleash some of the gnarliest, nastiest fangbangers you’ve ever seen slither across a screen. Without a doubt the raunchiest, rockingest entry on this list, turn off your brain for this one, kids, and turn up the volume.
The Reflecting Skin
I’m probably going to catch some flak for this one, as it’s debatable if The Reflecting Skin has any actual vampires in it at all (although, the same could be said of the previously mentioned Martin). But that ambiguity is one of the things that endears me so much to this oft-forgotten, art-horror masterwork. Told from the perspective of Seth Dove, a troubled young boy trapped in the endless wheat-gold wasteland of 1950s Midwest America, his reality becomes our reality. It doesn’t matter that enigmatic widow Dolphin Blue likely shuns the rest of the world and dresses only in black simply because she’s never gotten over her lost husband; to Seth, it’s obvious she’s a vampire. Nor does it matter that Seth’s older brother, Cameron, just returned home from being stationed in the Pacific, where he helped test atomic bombs; the reason he’s wasting away isn’t radiation sickness, it’s because he’s the vampire’s latest victim. A grim reminder of how scary this big ol’ world is when you’re young enough to still believe in monsters, mysteries, and miracles, The Reflecting Skin is a brooding, surreal, and, at times, blackly comic meditation on the meaning of “American Gothic.”
Honestly, if I didn’t have more self-control, this list could have easily been populated with nothing but Hammer films. From the classic Christopher Lee Dracula series to the carnal Karnstein trilogy to the end-of-the-line oddities that were Captain Kronos and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, undead bloodsuckers were always Hammer’s bread and butter, and they did ‘em better than everybody else. Vampire Circus is one of those Hammer offering skewing closer to the “oddities” end of the spectrum, chock-full of gypsy bloodsuckers, animal shapeshifters, body-painted babes, and harlequin dwarfs. It’s also one hell of a piece of eye candy, with its lush, psychedelic visuals. Plus, as a barnburner of a tale about an ancient curse being fulfilled in a plague-ravaged Serbian village by a bunch of undead Cirque du Soleil rejects, it’s a pitch-perfect snapshot of Hammer at its over-the-top, baroque best. Need I say more?
The quintessential lesbian vampire film (a subgenre I’m so enamored with that I may have to do a whole ‘nother top 10 list someday), Vampyros Lesbos is one of Spanish director Jess Franco’s all-time best. Franco is one of those rare filmmakers capable of hybridizing the pinnacle of high-art pretension with the nadir of low-brow schlock. I say that as a compliment. As with all Franco films, the story is secondary here, boiling down to little more than “Um, there’s this hot countess who lives on an island and hates wearing clothes, and there’s this lawyer lady who visits the island on business, Jonathan Harker-style, and she falls under the countess’ sexy spell and becomes infatuated with her, which her boyfriend is none too pleased about; gratuitous nudity and blood-drinking ensues.” What elevates this lurid, languid Eurotrash into something as equally mesmerizing as it is sleazy is the icy beauty of lead actress Soledad Miranda, a riotous jazz soundtrack, and Franco’s signature trippy, arthouse aesthetic.
The dirty, RV-driving, leather jacket-clad, ex-Confederate Army vampires of Near Dark are a far cry from the elegant pomp of Bela Lugosi, Tom Cruise, or even Robert Pattinson. These freaks? These are my kind of vampires. Feral and nihilistic, these fangbangers care about only two things: Blood and fun. Written by Eric Red (who gave us the similarly awesome cult classic The Hitcher the year before), Near Dark fuses the horror film with the western to undeniable effect. It vacillates effortlessly between sunburnt honky-tonk hellraising and trance-inducing moonlit ruminations on the implications of an endless, ageless existence spent entirely in the shadows. It also sports a scintillating synth score from Tangerine Dream, and boasts a stellar cast which includes Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Tim Thomerson, Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, and, most memorably, the recently departed Bill Paxton. Rest in Peace, Bill. Thanks for the memories.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Most vampires are content to simply drain you of your blood. The one in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, meanwhile, wants something else too. She wants to steal your sanity. Enter poor titular Jessica, freshly released from a mental institution. She needs to get away, so she and her husband move out to a quiet farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Too bad everyone in town is so hostile to outsiders. And they all have strange wounds on their necks. Weird. Then there’s that drifter they met, Emily. She’s been getting a little too cozy with Jessica’s husband. As Jessica begins hearing voices and discovers a local legend of a drowned vampire temptress roaming the countryside, more questions arise. The audience is left to guessing just like the characters onscreen as to how much of what’s happening is real and how much is imagined. More suggestive and subtle than out-and-out horrific, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is psychological chiller that works terrible wonders from out of the corner of your eye.
The Lair of the White Worm
If you’re familiar with director Ken Russell, you know that when his name is attached to project, you best expect some epic crazy. He is, after all, the same man who gave us Altered States, The Devils, and Gothic. Sure enough, The Lair of the White Worm has got crazy to spare. Don’t kid yourself, this flick was never going to bear more than a passing resemblance to the Bram Stoker novel from whence it takes its name. Starring a young Hugh Grant (of all people) and the seductive Amanda Donohoe, Lair of the White Worm recasts its vampires as the venom-spitting, serpentine servants of a subterranean snake god. The plot is serviceable, but what really stands out here are the visuals. The best word I can use to describe them is “hallucinogenic.” Campy, sacrilegious, and psychosexual, this isn’t so much a movie as it is a weapons-grade hit of LSD in celluloid form.
If you haven’t noticed already, I tend to gravitate towards stories that take a less than traditional stab at the sanguinarian undead. Of the movies listed here, however, Guillermo Del Toro’s feature film debut, Cronos, might just take the cake in terms of depicting a completely unique kind of vampire. It comes in the form of a golden, clockwork insect invented by a 16th century alchemist as a means of attaining eternal life. Chanced upon by an elderly antiques dealer, that’s exactly what it does. But it comes with a price. It mutates the old man, turning his flesh marble-white and imbuing him with (surprise, surprise) a hunger for blood. From there, things don’t quite go where you’d expect, with a dying millionaire soon entering the picture, ready to do anything for a new lease on life. Despite all the supernatural intrigue, the emotional core of the film turns out to be the relationship between the old man and his granddaughter, who never stops loving her pop-pop no matter how inhuman he becomes. A deceptively sweet story influenced as much by fairy tales as the horror canon, Cronos remains one of the best entries in Del Toro’s long and outstanding career.
We started with a silent film, and now we’re ending with a silent film. Kind of. It’s technically a talkie, but, being Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound production, the furtive filmmaker relied almost entirely on static title cards in place of spoken dialogue. The film’s bare-bones narrative, about an occult investigator trying to lift the vampiric curse that’s befallen a mysterious village, is little more than a patchwork of moments pilfered piecemeal from Sheridan Le Fanu, existing mainly as a framework from which Dreyer could hang this dreamy, depressive tone-poem drudged up from the darkest parts of the unconscious mind. It’s noteworthy how utterly reviled Vampyr was upon initial release, even instigating a riot at one screening. Fast forward to present day, and the film has finally found its audience, even earning a coveted spot in the vaunted Criterion Collection. I guess that’s what happens when you make something ahead of its time. Today, Vampyr stands as an awe-inspiring opus, a nightmare-logic phantasmagoria of morbid, mythic imagery.