Children of the Night: The Vampire Film at 90

4 Mar

Ninety years ago today, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was premiered in the Marmorsaal of the British Zoological Gardens. Nosferatu was an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel Dracula and Stoker’s widow successfully sued for copyright infringement and almost in succeeded in destroying all prints of the film. For all intents and purposes, Nosferatu was the first vampire film and over the years hundreds more have followed in its wake.

Lord Ruthven, one of the first vampire figures in English literature, was based on the genuine Lord Byron – one of the leading figures of the Romantic movement and one of the original ‘bad boys’ of popular culture. As one of his lovers described him, Lord Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know” and that is the typical stencil of a vampire – physically attractive but not someone you’d necessarily want to settle down with. Indeed, the earliest cinematic vampires weren’t of the supernatural variety we know today but simply ‘vamps’ – now more commonly known as femme fatales.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire provided the title for the 1915 film A Fool There Was which featured Theda Bara as a femme fatale who seduces a Wall Street lawyer. The film earned Bara the nickname “The Vamp” and rocketed her to stardom, spawning imitators across the globe including Pola Negri who became one of the most popular stars of the silent era and is today known for her many collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch.

With Murnau’s influential Nosferatu, the cinematic vampire evolved into the blood-sucking supernatural beings that we all know today but they retain the metaphor for repressed or forbidden desire that was present in the femme fatale figure. However, the femme fatale figure didn’t disappear from the screens, in fact they didn’t reach their peak until the 40s and 50s where they were a staple of American film noir.

Over the past ninety years an immeasurable number have been produced with varying quality and Count Dracula himself has the distinction of being the most portrayed fictional character in cinema with over 170 film appearances. So, which of these are bloody good?

Nosferatu

In F.W. Murnau’s landmark vampire film, Max Schreck gives a chilling, career-defining performance as Count Orlok (aka the eponymous Nosferatu) – a nobleman, analogous to Dracula, who has a certain hunger for human blood. Orlok has the distinction of being one of the most unattractive vampires in cinema, with a positively repulsive appearance. Rather than the more elegant vampires that followed, Orlok was animalistic and conveyed what giving in to your carnal desires would reduce you to – Murnau’s way of conveying that sex or the lust for it was the source of evil. Nosferatu‘s eerie, gothic atmosphere retains it’s haunting qualities nine decades on and remains one of the defining masterpieces of the silent era. It’s also worth watching Werner Herzog’s stylish remake/adaptation, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, which features Klaus Kinski in the title role.

Dracula

Of all his 170 films, Count Dracula has never been quite as iconic as in this 1931 Universal adaptation where he’s played by Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s performance is generally regarded as the definitive portrayal of the Count with his authoritative screen presence and measured pacing (not to mention his accent) proving a match for the character’s cadaverous nature. Perhaps only Christopher Lee has come close to matching Lugosi in the role but the latter remains the best.

Vampyr

After directing what is a prime candidate for the greatest film of all time, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer turned his hand to sound – and horror. With a disorientating atmosphere that straddles the border between reality and nightmare, Vampyr features a series of mysterious – and possibly supernatural – killings and stars Julian West as a traveller who has to come to terms that there may be more than just heaven and earth. Deemed by Alfred Hitchcock as “the only film worth watching…twice”, Dreyer’s unsettling tale is now regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Black Sunday

Possibly the finest film to come out of the Italian horror renaissance, Mario Bava’s debut feature Black Sunday concerns a vampire/witch who was put to death by her brother, only to return 200 years later to feast on her descendants. With impressive expressionist visuals and a unsettling and genuinely creepy narrative, Bava’s atmospheric horror is one of the finest vampire film.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders mixes together fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland and vampire folklore into a horror/fantasy where the supernatural becomes surrealistic. Jaroslava Schallerová plays the titular Valerie who’s nascent sexuality puts her in danger from the town’s adult inhabitants who are all after her “magic earrings”. One of the most radical depictions of vampires in cinema, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a mindbending Czech tour de force.

Near Dark

Recent Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow directed this vampire film in the late 80s. A tale of a farm boy who reluctantly becomes a member of a family of vampires when a girl he meets turns out to be of the undead variety, Near Dark is a western/horror hybrid that has an almost poetic poignancy and features some beautiful cinematography. It remains the finest example of vampiric romance (I’m looking at you Twilight!).

Cronos

The feature film debut of Guillermo del Toro, Cronos is a chilly spin on the vampire tale. It concerns Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) who stumbles upon an extraordinary alchemic device in his antique shop that holds the promise of immortality but dying millionaire Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) is aware of the device’s existence and will do anything to get his hands on it. Like the vast majority of vampire films, Cronos focuses on forbidden desire but rather than concerning itself with sexuality, it’s an atmospheric exploration on the perils on immortality. Who wants to live forever?

Let the Right One In

One of the standout films of the noughties, Let the Right One In is set in an eerie, atmospheric Stockholm suburb in the 80s where a 12-year-old outcast, Oskar, befriends his enigmatic neighbour, Eli, who turns out to be a vampire. Tomas Alfredson reinvented the vampire film with this touching realist fantasy where the vampirism is symbolic of a boy’s pent-up rage at his tormentors and loneliness.

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