Dracula is the touchstone of vampire movies. It wasn’t the first book about vampires and Stoker’s good friend, the actor Sir Henry Irving, walked out of an early reading of Dracula, muttering to himself and anyone within earshot how longwinded it was. So it didn’t have the most auspicious of beginnings. But Dracula has risen from the grave again and again. He is a Halloween staple. Dracula isn’t the only vampire in movies and there are vampire films that don’t have a drop of his blood. Some of these sprung out of other literary creations, some out of local mythology and some were conjured from the magic of motion pictures.
Vampires are much older than any myth associated with the terror of Transylvania. It is a primordial fear that probably goes back to the dawn of man. Of course, back then there were very real beasts that were just looking to take a nip and drink someone dry. Why not the other people in the cave? Everyone was always looking over their shoulder and just when you think someone’s got your back, they nip your jugular and leave you in the dirt watching them lick their fingers. Every culture has its vampire. Corpses saw to that. Hair and fingernails still grow after death, the teeth look elongated because the gums decay. All very cinematic.
Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows
Before I start with the movies, I’d like to bring up two television vampires that should get more renown. One is the vampire icon Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows. Played by Jonathan Frid, this was a menacing vampire. The danger of Barnabas Collins didn’t come through his incisors, it came from Frid’s unpredictability. At any moment he might call Julia by the name Cassandra or even by the name Barnabus. He might step on the hem of Angelique’s dress as she’s supposed to rise to hit a mark. He might knock over a candle on the stage-hand who was pulling strings on a fake séance or fiddle with a knob and open a trap door by mistake. Collingswood lived in fear of Barnabas Collins. American children rushed home from middle school to catch the ultimate old-school sanguinarian. Barnabus was no count. He had no Romanian or Eastern European heritage. No Collins ever beheaded a Turk. They were too civilized and New English for that.
Montgomery Burns, The Simpsons
“All the tinctures and all the tonics and all I needed was the blood of a young boy.” I am calling out Montgomery Burns as a vampire, and not just because he did shadow puppets in “Treehouse of Horrors IV.” Montgomery Burns has been alive forever. And he didn’t pay royalties on the very first song. He dines with the undead, deals with the devil and discos with Stu. Burns always gets his way. Burns is only kept barely alive through a Rube Goldbergian network of mysterious anatomical replacements and doodads. He has a son he keeps on the side in case he ever needs a liver and, like Humphrey Bogart in The Return of Dr. X, will die without his daily medicinal regimen. He feeds on the despair of others. If he can’t keep people in their place, why bother being their boss? He has Vlad Tepes’ heart, but it doesn’t pump the blood of Dracula.
Honorable Mention: Salem’s Lot (1979)
Salem’s Lot isn’t a movie, it’s a TV miniseries and it had David Soul, the guy who thought he could play Rick Blaine. But Salem’s Lot it was made by Tobe Hooper and he made Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was the tightest of modern suspense films with the greatest performances in abject horror history. Jerusalem’s Lot is in Maine, Stephen King’s Maine, but it could have been anywhere. Salem’s Lot has fun with its vampire powers. Kids fly, their eyes glow in the dark. It’s got a Nosferatu homage. Salem’s Lot also has James Mason, who Eddie Izzard says is the voice of god and when you have that authority in a vampire, it can easily go nationwide. Which it did. But not enough. Salem’s Lot is never repeated on TV that I noticed and it’s tough to root out. But you should. It’s a blast. And in the end you got to take it on the road because the vampires win the town. Vampires don’t win that often in the movies, so cheers to Stephen King TV.
The first two films that you just gotta see if you want a Dracula-free vampire Halloween are southern delights.
13. Near Dark (1987)
“Well, cut off my legs and call me shorty,” Near Dark is a spicy western omelet of blood and beer. Very simple, it rips through the story like a bat in the night. The dusk of the desert lights most of the film. The vampires would have been cowboys at around the time Dracula was coming to England to put the bite on Lucy and Mina. These guys could have tasted Billy the Kid, but horses just don’t like them. Here they are as a kind of mini gang of desperadoes having a good old time. Katherine Bigelow directed this and co-wrote it with Eric Reed. Before he was Frank Black on Millenium and The X-Files, Lance Henriksen was Jesse Hooker, the leader of a traveling band of nihilistic neckbiters.
12. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
These ain’t no Mafia mosquitoes. Vampires met The Godfather in Innocent Blood, but From Dusk Till Dawn, directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Quentin Tarantino, pits the small time crook against the chupacabra gang. I don’t think I ever wanted to be bit more by a vampire than I did by Salma Hayek, with or without her snake. From Dusk Till Dawn is as ridiculous as George Clooney’s tattoo and as fun as Cheech Marin’s porn-carney barking. These vampires are descended from the Aztecs and that’s about as far as you get from the buttoned down Transylvanian, Tepes. Geographically, that is. Ancient Aztec rituals include bloodletting by the barrelful. People would line up for miles for the honor of being bashed on the head and rolled down a long stone staircase. That’s Miller time. Like the vampires in Near Dark, these are desert bloodsuckers who party rough.
11. Twins of Evil (1971)
Twins of Evil took twin Playboy Playmates Mary Collinson and Madeleine Collinson out from behind the staples. It is a loose prequel to The Vampire Lovers and this time the Karnstein family is represented by Count Karnstein, played by Damien Thomas. Mircalla, played by German actress Katya Wyeth, is only in it for a quickie. Just long enough to turn Count Karnstein into a vampire. It takes place about a hundred years before The Vampire Lovers. Count Karnstein has a great vampire pickup line, “One who is dedicated to the devil and his deeds will not die by a vampire’s bite, but will become one of the undead.” This was the last of Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy, which were basically really soft lesbian vampire horror porn. They were all written by Tudor Gates, which is also what opened to the Castle Karnstein, as they didn’t have a two-door garage. There was supposed to another Karnstein vampire movie, Vampire Virgins, but it never got out of the ground. But good vampires never truly die, there is a vampire named Karnstein in the 1974 film Captain Kronos.
10. Lost Boys (1987)
Vampires on the beach. Vampires in the mall. Lost Boys is fun. I never really liked the facial transformations of vampires that became vogue in the eighties. Vampires are scarier when they look just like regular, breathing people. (But don’t get me started on vampires and cigarettes. All movie vampires smoke. They’re dead. They don’t draw breath. How could they smoke?) Lost Boys is as much a comic book as the wise literature that saves the little buttinksy bastards from the older, cooler Lost Boys. All kids who want to fly away to Never Neverland in Peter Pan or Pleasure Island in Pinocchio want to sleep in Jim Morrison’s cave in Santa Carla when they hit their teens. Directed by Joel Schumacher, Lost Boys starred the perennial lost boy, Corey Haim as the villainous, deceitful younger brother of vampire wannabe Jason Patric, who owes Kiefer Sutherland for takeout and Jami Gertz for early burnout. Lost Boys also featured Corey Feldman, Dianne Wiest and Rory Gilmore’s grandfather, Edward Herrmann as the hero head vampire who dies too soon.
9. Let Me In (2010)
Let Me In is here because vampire kids are scary, even if they are the saviors of the playground. There’s just something about evil children that evokes a primal fight or flight response. Let Me In was filmed very dark and almost completely in shadow. It was written and directed by Matt Reeves and starred Chloë Grace Moretz as a young-looking vampire who needs a place to dig in and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the kid who lets her in. He’s probably the safest 12-year-old in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Everyone else is a potential happy meal.
8. The Return of Doctor X (1939)
This is the movie Humphrey Bogart never wanted you to see, this and Swing Your Lady. Of course it’s one of the first movies Bogart fans seek out because well, it’s the only time Bogie played a monster. Here he’s a kind of sci fi vampire, not the kind who needs to slip into his native dirt every night. Bogart’s vampire is more scientific than that. He needs blood to survive. He died in an accident and blood gives the vampire Marshall Quesne, the late Dr. Maurice Xavier, that extra boost to get up in the morning. Dr. Flegg mixes up the first True Blood, but it’s unstable and Bogie’s gotta get something warmer. The Return of Doctor X had really nothing to do with Doctor X, which is a classic seminal horror film. Warner Bros didn’t make that many horror movies. When you see it, you know why Bogart wanted it buried. It’s all very wooden and they’re not making stakes. But it does have Huntz Hall from the Dead End Kids. It was directed by Vincent Sherman and both Hal B. Wallis and Jack Warner had their names scratched from the credits.
7. Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Mark of the Vampire was supposed to be the sound version of Tod Browning’s 1927 lost silent classic London After Midnight, but they messed up the ending, copping out in a big way. Supposedly they cut the original movie because the relationship between Bela Lugosi’s Count Mora and his daughter Luna, was too much of a family affair. That closeness carried itself past the film. Carole Borland very often confused Lugosi with her real life father. She may or may not have been at Lugosi’s funeral, but she wrote about it with great detail. What we’re left with is a murder mystery. But the buildup is wonderful. Luna and Bela bring a great presence to weigh against the Lionels, Barrymore and Atwell.
6. The Hunger (1983)
I went to see this equally for David Bowie and Susan Sarandon, because I was still under her Janet Weiss spell, but fell in love with Catherine Deneuve. The Hunger was filled with class and substance and introduced the Ankh into vampire movie mythology and vampire houses all over America. And what a great soundtrack. It opens with Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” What could go wrong? This was the vampire scene before the vampire scene. Science is at play here as Bowie’s classically trained musician is taking his final bow. It’s a long tortuous ride to nowhere. The scary thing is that they don’t die, they just wither away forever. Never losing consciousness. Just forever dying. The Hunger is the first film to really explore and explain the possibility of an immortal’s death. The deal-breaker in even the most satanic contracts, never take immortal life without a guarantee of immortal youth.
5. Lust for a Vampire (1971)
The second in the Karnstein Trilogy, Lust for a Vampire starred Danish actress Yutte Stensgaard as Countess Mircalla. This time Hammer slips the sexy succubus into a sorority school. Mircalla mentally mesmerizes the matriculating women and when she gets down with men strange music plays. Carmilla Karnstein wears her blood fashionably in this movie. Sometimes it’s the only thing she’s wearing. But oh how she wears it. Stensgaard has a commanding presence that soon has everyone under her spell or wanting to be. To be denied her presence is torture. Lust for a Vampire, as its title suggests, is very sexy fare. Ralph Bates, who replaced Peter Cushing in the role of Giles Barton while Cushing was taking care of his sick wife, described Lust for a Vampire as “one of the worst films ever made.” I personally have the hots for this movie.
4. Black Sunday ( 1960)
Black Sunday was a masterpiece. This was Mario Bava’s first film and it heralded in an Italian horror renaissance that mirrored the Spaghetti western revolution. If you can’t find it, look up The Mask of Satan. The lady in the mask who spits a curse on an entire village is the magnificent Barbara Steele. She’s a witch burned at the stake by her own brother and she plays it all earth and fire. Steele plays Asa Vajda as an earth goddess. Bava evokes atmosphere from the black and white shadows, like the best expressionistic horror. But what he does in Black Sunday is give the first real taste of cinematic gore. Films weren’t this bloody in 1960. He transcended what you could do with violence and sex and the film was banned in England. Black Sunday opens with Asa Vajda being branded a witch and they nail a mask to her face so no one looks on her. Let me say that again, they nail a mask to her face. In 1960. But Bava knew how to set a good meal, even if it was on ice for 200 years. Vajda completes her mission of revenge before bowing out.
3. Vampire Lovers (1970)
Vampire Lovers is based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 short story “Carmilla,” which is kind of Dracula’s lesser-known literary aunt. “Carmilla” is usually the first book vampire fans pick up after discovering Stoker. In this Hammer Classic, Ingrid Pitt, one of the most iconic women of horror, plays Mircalla Karnstein, a young, mesmerizing vampire with slow burning moves and even more smoldering eyes. The year after making this, Pitt would play another vampire, this one based on the Hungarian royal who believed bathing in blood did wonders for the skin, Countess Elizabeth Báthory. I would include it in this list, but it was called Countess Dracula and that disqualifies it. As a vampiress, Pitt has a standing reservation at The House That Dripped Blood (1971). She may be the greatest female vampire on film. Subtle and sexy, delicious and deadly, Ingrid Pitt is otherworldly, but not ethereal. Vampire Lovers is the first and best film of Hammer Studio’s Karnstein Trilogy.
2. Vampire Circus (1972)
Vampire Circus gave me the idea for Vampyr Theatre, so it’s an absolute essential for me, even though it’s very difficult to get hold of. The last time I saw it was at one of Fangoria’s Chiller Fests. It’s got lions and tigers and other fanged creatures, like werepanther gymnasts and nude dancers in tiger stripes. Aerialists turn into owls and fly away. It also has Adrienne Corri from Clockwork Orange as a gypsy. Everyone loves the circus. And a Vampire Circus has something for everyone else. It gets your mind off the plague and it keeps the kids off the streets, or in this case, out of the dirt. The kids love The Circus of Night so much, they don’t want to come home. This is pretty much where parents wanted their kids in the middle of the 1800s. The vampires in Vampire Circus can come out during the day and are immune to fire. They glide through the air with the greatest of ease.
1. The Addiction (1995)
Set on the Lower East Side, Abel Ferraro cast all the struggling actors from New York’s Vampyr Theatre in extras parts, so I’d love Abel Ferraro even if he never imagined the dark indie classic with Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant. The Addiction meanders and plays with its food, but it is a good city meal. There aren’t enough urban vampires. Vampires are always stuck in the Carpathian Mountains or Dickens’ London. Lily Taylor is at her beast when she is upsetting the elements. She knows how to throw down at a party. Okay, she’s got a problem. There’s a monkey on her back and she just needs a taste. Christopher Walken’s walked down that road. He kicked. It didn’t take him twelve steps though, just one book: The perennial junkie fave by one of the longest-lasting junkies, William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch. Now how perfect is that. Burroughs proved that you don’t have to die young just because you’re a heroin junkie and well, what vampire could turn down a naked lunch? And it’s got half the cast of The Sopranos in it. Anabella Sciora, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli and Aida Torturro all donated to the cause. It’s essential.