My Top Ten Favorite Hammer Horror Movies (+1)

We’re just days away from the NecronomiCon debut of Behold the Undead of Dracula, a new anthology from Muzzleland Press that acts as a lurid love-letter to the tawdry Technicolor terrors of ‘60s and ‘70s genre cinema. And I’m happy to say it features a new story from yours truly, “Diabolus in Musica.” It’s about an English film composer pushed to the bleeding edge by the demands of his producers, his own insecurities, and, oh yeah, the forces of Hell itself.

My biggest inspiration in writing this piece? The stiff-upper-lip gothic pulse-pounders of England’s iconic house of horrors, Hammer Film Productions.

Starting in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein and ending in 1976 with To the Devil a Daughter, the company drip-fed audiences both young and old a steady diet of bloodsuckers, graverobbers, and devil-worshipers. While the Hammer style was often copied, few production houses succeeded in replicating that perfect balance between the pomp ‘n’ propriety of Victorian literature and the sex ‘n’ violence of the penny dreadfuls. The fact that said violence was presented for the first time in (un)living color made it all the better. Finally cineastes and sadists alike could gorge themselves on scenes of carnal carnage in full gory glory.

Not since the original Universal Monster days had a single film company been so synonymous with the macabre. Indeed, only the Universal Monsters themselves overshadow Hammer’s stable in terms of lasting impact. When people think of Dracula, if they don’t think of Bela Lugosi then they probably think of Christopher Lee. Being the second most iconic film studio in horror history might not sound as good as being number one, but it’s better than being third… or fourth… or fifth… or…

So draw the curtains, light a candelabra, and pour yourself a glass of red wine (or cranberry juice if you’re a teetotaler like me). These are My Top Ten Favorite Hammer Horror Movies (+1)…

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Dracula Has Risen from the Grave

No list of Hammer horrors would be complete without at least one Dracula flick and one Frankenstein. Not only were these the properties that propelled Hammer (as well stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) into genre immortality, they were also the company’s longest-running and most bankable franchises. So let’s get both out of the way right off the, ahem, bat. In the interest of shining a light on some of the less-lauded entries that I love, I’m going to forgo the first installments of both series. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Horror of Dracula is a must-see classic. Instead, permit me to explain why Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is equally as great.

The storyline is simplistic but solid: While the Count is away on vacation (AKA being dead) a priest comes and consecrates Castle Dracula. Returning home from his latest date with oblivion to find out some asshole has locked him out of his own crib, Big Bad Vlad is understandably pissed, embarking on a campaign of petty revenge against the holy man and his beautiful daughter (played beautifully by the beautiful Veronica Carlson, who is beautiful). In a twist, it turns out the girl’s boyfriend is an atheist, rendering him powerless against Hammer’s strictly satanic iteration of Dracula. Meanwhile, director Freddie Francis serves up a sumptuous soufflé of style-over-substance. From the Count’s bloodshot (and occasionally bleeding) eyes to the candy-colored gels which soak the screen in lysergic hues, Francis embellishes the foreboding atmosphere with a proto-Argento panache. It may not be as tasteful as previous entries, nor as trashy as later ones, but Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is doubtlessly the franchise’s visual zenith.

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Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Now that I’ve pissed off all the purists who prefer Terence Fisher to Freddie Francis, how about I take off the kid gloves for real? Often singled out as the worst in Hammer’s long-running Frankenstein franchise, 1973’s series swan-song Frankenstein & the Monster from Hell is actually pretty damn great. Sure it’s kind of inconsequential, less interested in pushing forward the larger narrative than in rehashing a bare-bones plot that can be summarized as “Victor Frankenstein builds yet another monster, because why not? The monster goes on a rampage, as usual. The monster gets killed, as usual. Frankenstein cleans up the mess and gets back to work. The end.” It’s not the broad strokes that make Monster from Hell stand out, though. It’s the stitched-together pieces.

To wit, this entry takes place almost entirely in an insane asylum, where Peter Cushing’s aging Baron has continued his fruitless experiments in secret. The grim setting establishes an oppressive mood, underlining the tragedy of Frankenstein’s life of obsession and failure. Having burned his hands to the point of virtual uselessness (one memorable scene sees him operating on a blood-dripping artery with his teeth), the not-so-good doctor seeks the aid of Simon, a recently committed fledgling bodysnatcher. The dynamic between the men adds a deeper dimension of horror to the otherwise fantastical costume melodrama. The characters serve as dark mirrors of one another; Simon reflects Frankenstein’s youthful sins back at him, while the haunted, withered Baron is a warning of what Simon could someday become. Like its namesake creature Monster from Hell may be a flawed patchwork, but as a whole it’s far greater than the sum of its parts.

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The Lost Continent

Okay, now that we’ve tackled Hammer’s two most famous properties, let’s take a look at one of its lesser-known oddities. If the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises are the equivalents of greatest hits records, then The Lost Continent is a b-sides/rarities collection unto itself. A quirky mishmash of the company’s less popular non-gothic offerings, this adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel Uncharted Seas is part historical actioner (à la Captain Clegg), part fantasy adventure (à la One Million Years B.C.), and part drive-in creature-feature (à la The Quatermass Xperiment).

When the one-two punch of a violent hurricane and a smuggling scheme gone awry strands a tramp steamer in the middle of the mystery-shrouded Saragasso Sea, the vessel’s ragtag assortment of passengers must contend with glowing-eyed octopuses, flesh-eating seaweed, prehistoric crab-monsters, a pre-Star Wars Sarclacc pit, and a time-lost sect of Spanish Inquisitors led by the Napoleonic boy-king El Supremo! If you’re wondering who spiked your drink right now, you’re not alone; The Lost Continent is easily one of the most WTF indulgences in Hammer’s vast and varied library. It fluctuates between unintentional hilarity and ominous otherworldliness (the dirty orange skies above the shipwreck-strewn Saragasso are an especially eerie touch). As the ancient maps often warned, “here there be monsters.”

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The Vampire Lovers

The recipe for a truly classic Hammer horror is simple enough, but requires a few key ingredients in precisely the right amounts. Supernatural forces are a must, as are opulent manors, questionable haircuts, and gallons of stage blood so bright it’s practically fluorescent. Oh yeah, and some gorgeous women in frilly Underoos. That last one is non-negotiable. Taking its cues from Britain’s other major silver-screen export, James Bond, Hammer always saved room for at least one slice of cheesecake. If you’ve got a sweet-tooth for that ol’ “Hammer glamour,” then 1970’s The Vampire Lovers will send your blood sugar into diabetic meltdown.

The cast-list for this one is absolutely stacked (in more ways than one) with wide-eyed, well-endowed beauties in diaphanous gowns: Madeline Smith, Pippa Steel, Dawn Addams, Kate O’Mara, Kirsten Lindholm. Some of them are predators, most are prey. All are stunning. And presiding over this sex-kitten litter like a sultry succubus queen is Ingrid Pitt, here playing the title character from Sheridan Le Fanu’s prototypical lesbian-vampire novella Carmilla. Considering Carmilla gets my vote as the best bloodsucker book of all time (outranking even Bram Stoker’s Dracula), it’s gratifying to see The Vampire Lovers hew so close to its source material, achieving a similarly enigmatic, ethereal, and erotic effect. What’s more, Pitt’s onscreen presence is so strong that despite starring in only two movies for Hammer (this and the following year’s Erzsébet Báthory-inspired Countess Dracula), she’s rightfully become as synonymous with the company as her male counterparts, Cushing and Lee.

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Vampire Circus

I already talked about Vampire Circus back when I did my list of favorite vampire films (which ironically had less movies with the word “vampire” in their titles than this list does), but I never really went in-depth as to what makes the movie so exemplary. By far the most iconoclastic of Hammer’s many, many undead chillers, this one departs from the studio’s standard Victorian fare in favor of something more like a fairy tale: “Once upon a time there was a vampire whose favorite food was children. When a mob of townsfolk finally slayed him, he put a curse on their village with his dying breath. In time, a plague spread through the village, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Only a colorful troupe of clowns, acrobats, and strong-men dared to cross the quarantine, but it was more than fun and games that this circus brought to town.”

Playing fast and loose with nosferatu lore, Vampire Circus defies expectations on multiple levels. A Hammer film where bloodsuckers can morph into panthers and travel through mirrors proves as wondrous a novelty as the sensual, show-stopping dance routine performed by a naked woman in tiger-stripe body-paint. The envelope-pushing doesn’t stop at the carnivalesque, however. This is a movie with a mean-streak, and I’m not just talking about blood ‘n’ guts (although this flick is impressively gruesome). Genuine depravity lurks between the lines, with taboo-busting subtext evident in everything from the aforementioned dance scene’s less-than-subtle allusions to bestiality to the villains’ predatory preference for very young children. Such a dichotomy between the transgressive and the sublime is discomforting, but also fitting. After all, even the most sanitized Grimm tale was once something far grimmer.

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The Plague of the Zombies

In 1968, my kindred Pennsylvanian spirit George A. Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, a film which signaled a sea change in genre cinema. Studio-produced gothic period-pieces were out. Independently made interrogations of contemporary anxieties were in. No one knew it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end for Hammer. Less than ten years later, the company would close its doors after an artistically fruitful but financially ruinous bid to hold onto a sharply shrinking market. A bitter irony, then, that two years prior Hammer had released its own living-dead nightmare, one which can today be seen as a missing link between the Haitian exploitation of early poverty-row shockers like White Zombie and Romero’s shambling hordes of greasepainted poli-sci allegories.

Set in a foggy 19th century Cornish hamlet, Plague of the Zombies pits a rationally minded doctor against a black-magic blue blood who uses secrets learned during his travels in the Caribbean to knock off his enemies and put their blank-eyed corpses to work in his tin mine. In stark contrast to Hammer’s usual aristocratic pretensions, the film’s caustic criticisms of exploitative capitalism are barely obscured behind director John Gilling’s skewed camera angles and artful shot compositions. Oh, and if the Romero connection weren’t enough, I personally am convinced that Lucio Fulci saw this movie at some point. I’d even go so far as to say he consciously referenced it in his surreal Lovecraftian epic The Gates of Hell (AKA City of the Living Dead). Do I have any hard evidence to back this up? No. But watch the fiery subterranean climaxes of both movies back-to-back and try to deny the similarities. Even if you think I’m talking out of my ass, at least it’ll make for a ghoulishly good double-feature.

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Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

First there was Dracula and his brides. Then Dr. Ravna and his cult. Then Carmilla and the Karnstein clan. Then Count Mitterhaus and the Circus of Night. In the sixteen years since Christopher Lee had first donned the velvet cape and plastic fangs, Hammer’s house of horrors had its halls overrun by sinister sanguinarians. Come 1974, it was time to call an exterminator. Enter Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. Custom-built for Hammer by Brian Clemens, writer-producer of The Avengers (Steed and Peel, not Stark and Rogers), Kronos is a swashbuckling swordsman wandering Europe with his scholarly hunchback sidekick, in the process rescuing/romancing damsels and re-deading the undead.

Canonizing Hammer’s infamously inconsistent vampire rulebook, the movie reveals that there are hundreds of different bloodsucker breeds, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. So when he’s called upon to help a village besieged by a very different kind of vampire, one that feeds on youth, Kronos has to employ every nosferatu detection (and destruction) trick he’s got to put the kibosh on the big bad’s nosh. Despite its inventive combo-platter of action, horror, mystery, and comedy (one mordant scene features a suicidal vamp begging for death, only for repeated execution attempts to fail), poor distribution resulted in Captain Kronos flopping upon release, foiling Clemens’ obvious sequel ambitions. Since then, however, the picture has become a fan favorite, recognized as a pulpy precursor to the monster-slayer template later made famous by Buffy and Blade.

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Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb

Mummies, ya gotta love ‘em. They’re the underdogs of the creature-feature pantheon, silent servants covered in decaying bandages that only barely mask their hideous scarab-eaten skull-faces and… uh, wait… is that Valerie Leon? Okay, I can see why some folks don’t consider Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb a “real” mummy movie, but the truth is such flicks tend to be samey as hell. Swapping out the typical gauze-wrapped galoot for a perfectly preserved Egyptian witch-queen who psychically assaults an archaeologist’s comely daughter is a welcome change. Besides, I’m not going to argue with someone who looks like that in a pharaoh’s headdress. If Valerie Leon says she’s a mummy, she’s a mummy. Shit, she can be my “mummy” if she wants. I mean… oh god, forget I said that.

Apparently a victim of a curse itself, the troubled production saw Peter Cushing bow out when his wife’s health took a nasty turn, director Seth Holt suffer a fatal on-set heart attack before he could finish filming, and producer Michael Carreras scramble to shoot enough footage to assemble a passable cut. Despite all that, the final product is more than merely passable. It’s exceptional. Sure it’s awkward and uneven in fits, but it’s also dreamlike, sexy, and fun. Maybe it’s the source material, this being an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars. Or maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern, as Hammer uncharacteristically eschewed a period setting in favor of swingin’ ’70s London. Or maybe it’s that evil ambulatory severed hand crawling about, oozing gore from its ragged stump. Whatever it is, something about Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb just clicks. Honestly, my money is on Valerie Leon in dual roles. Two Valerie Leons at the same time? Someone’s been reading my diary.

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The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

By 1974, Hammer horror was in dire straits. Despite releasing some of its best movies (including the aforementioned Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos, as well as lesser-known gems like Demons of the Mind, which came very close to making this list), the ’70s were not a profitable time for the company, with audiences moving onto the more visceral, contemporary thrills of The Exorcist and The Last House on the Left. In a last-ditch effort to rejuvenate its increasingly anemic bloodsucker formula, Hammer decided it needed a heady dose of Asian action. Picture a room full of stuffy Brits sipping tea and grumbling about box office receipts before finally proclaiming “Chop-sockey pictures, that’s what kids like these days! I say we bloody well give ‘em one! Pip pip! Jolly good! Bangers and mash!”

Taking a little from Column A and a little from Column B, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires drops Peter Cushing smack-dab in the middle of Hong Kong to hang out with Shaw Brothers Studio, a company that was much to kung-fu what Hammer was to horror. The resulting culture clash pits Cushing’s Van Helsing and a family of martial-arts masters (including cult actor David Chiang) against an army of sword-swingin’ rot-faced nosferatu (some of whom constantly hop up and down in accordance with Chinese folklore). Plot is almost nonexistent, consisting of little more than characters beelining from one frenetic fight scene to the next. Nevertheless, the briskly paced go-for-brokeness proves insanely charming and charmingly insane. It’s also one of Hammer’s most stylish efforts, bathing Buddhist temples in Bava-esque red and green lights. It’s hard to believe The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires hit theaters the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that just adds to its flamboyant, fang-flashing, fury-fisted fun.

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The Devil Rides Out

Crowned the “Prince of Thriller Writers” in life and in death (the epithet is actually inscribed on his tombstone), Dennis Wheatley was basically England’s homegrown Stephen King back in the day, selling over 50 million books in almost 30 different languages. One enthusiastic peer called his 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out “the best thing of its kind since Dracula.” His work has not aged well, however. Though entertaining as pure pulp fiction, much of his oeuvre is shot through with overt racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, imperialism, and a kind of shrill conservative Christian alarmism. Fortunately, the same could not be said about Hammer’s adaptation of The Devil Rides Out, which glosses over the worst of Wheatley’s above-listed prejudices and actually makes a virtue of that last one.

Starring Christopher Lee in a rare heroic turn as steely occult-adventurer Duke de Richleau, The Devil Rides Out (the first of three Wheatley adaptations Hammer produced, the others being the previously discussed The Lost Continent and what would be the studio’s final horror film, To the Devil a Daughter) sees Lee butting heads with a devil-worshiping secret society’s high priest (played by Charles Gray, who Rocky Horror fans will recognize for his lack of neck). The Duke ends up staring down a gauntlet of spiritual threats, including a giant spectral tarantula, a goat-headed demon, and even the Angel of Death itself, before the conflict resolves with a literal deus ex machina. Crap climax aside, The Devil Rides Out has a lot to recommend it: Terence Fisher’s elegant direction, Lee and Gray’s antagonistic chemistry, enough hocus-pocus hokum to fill a hundred heavy-metal records, and a screenplay by none other than Richard F’N Matheson, who manages to keep the story from feeling like a sermon (at least until the last few minutes). Watch this one while hailing Satan for best results.

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Twins of Evil

As noted throughout this list, one of Hammer’s defining characteristics was a penchant for casting eye-catching beauties, initially in secondary roles (such as Veronica Carlson in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) but increasingly as top-billed leads (such as Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers and Valerie Leon in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb). Not too proud to pat itself on the back, the studio made a habit of promoting its films with self-congratulatory boasts about every “hot new discovery.” One of the hottest of Hammer’s new discoveries was actually two discoveries: Mary and Madeleine Collinson, who’d made history in 1970 as Playboy’s first ever identical twin centerfolds. Hammer produced Twins of Evil a year later specifically as a vehicle for the sisters.

This final entry in the Karnstein trilogy (following The Vampire Lovers and its so-so sequel Lust for a Vampire) brilliantly combines the lesbian-vampire and witchfinder subgenres. As a fanatical Puritan on a quest to immolate anyone unlucky enough to own a vagina, Peter Cushing is even scarier than the requisite bloodsuckers. When his archnemesis, a fanged libertine under royal protection, sets his sanguinarian sights on those beautiful, bouncy Collinson cuties, the result is much girl-on-girl neck-nuzzling, dripping wet penetration (of the arterial kind; get your mind out of the gutter), mistaken-identity mishaps, and scenes of incest both implicit and explicit. At the staked heart of Twins of Evil is a war between repression and debauchery, embodied by Cushing’s torch-bearing zealot and his libidinous adversary, as well as by the titular sisters themselves. Providing more than just verboten sex-appeal, the Collinsons’ mirrored features allow them to be understood as two halves of a larger whole, initially inseparable but fatefully fragmented by religion’s assault on their natural curiosities and desires.

My Top Ten Favorite Vampire Movies (+1)

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 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)…

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Nosferatu

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.

marMartin

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.

letLet 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 Oskara 12-year-old outcast who spends his time trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube and daydreaming about murdering the bullies who torment himand Elia 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 Eli’s “father” is caught attempting a murder meant to feed Eli’s bloodlust, she has no choice but 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.

froFrom Dusk till Dawn

This is one of those movies I can watch over and over and over again. 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.

refThe Reflecting Skin

I’m probably going to catch some flack 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.”

cirVampire Circus

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 oddity that was Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, undead bloodsuckers were always Hammer’s bread and butter, and nobody did ’em better. Vampire Circus is one of those Hammer offerings skewing closer to the “oddity” end of the spectrum, chock-full as it is with gypsy bloodsuckers, animal shapeshifters, body-painted babes, and harlequin dwarfs. It’s also one hell of a piece of eye candy, with its arch, psychedelic visuals. Plus, as a barnburner of a tale about an ancient curse on a plague-ravaged Serbian village being fulfilled by a bunch of undead Cirque du Soleil rejects, it’s a pitch-perfect snapshot of Hammer at its over-the-top, baroque best.

lesVampyros Lesbos

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-ass arthouse aesthetic.

nearNear Dark

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. Fangs for the memories.

lettLet’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 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 a psychological chiller that works terrible wonders from out of the corner of your eye.

cronCronos

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 provides. 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.

vamVampyr

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 a 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. Today, however, the film has finally found an 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 a genuinely awe-inspiring opus, a nightmare-logic phantasmagoria of morbid, mythic imagery.