Humanity has long been fascinated with monsters of all shapes and guises. There is, however, one monster that has held a hypnotic sway over popular culture for the past 200 hundred years: the vampire. The vampire first travelled to Western literature in John Polidori’s The Vampyre, published in 1819. The 19th century saw them slowly infiltrate literature at all levels – from the novel Carmilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu, to the pages of penny dreadfuls. However, it wasn’t until 1897 when the vampire myth really took hold with the arrival of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Dracula was a sensation and has continued to influence just about everything vampire-related that followed. It is a novel brimming with social anxiety, with Dracula representing everything from European migration to evolutionary fears. It is hardly surprising that the motion picture business seized upon the Count when horror made its way from page to screen. Stoker’s tale has inspired films ranging from Christopher Lee classics Taste The Blood Of Dracula and Dracula A.D. 1972, to lavish Anne Rice adaptations Interview With The Vampire and Queen Of The Damned.
Early films based on Stoker’s novel, chief of which was Nosferatu (1922), set the template for the way in which vampires have been presented. They are both sophisticated and animalistic, hypnotic and repulsive, tragic figures and irredeemable villains. As the vampire continued its journey through the 20th century, the deep-rooted anxieties they represented changed and diversified, leading to a broad spectrum of vampires in cinemas who are good, evil, and everything in between.
As iconic as Bela Lugosi and just as stylish in aristocrat chic, Christopher Lee took on the infamous role when Dracula made his move to Hammer. More liberated in terms of the overtly sexual aspects of Dracula and vampirism as a theme, Hammer would produce nine films related to the Transylvanian menace. Lee’s iteration of Dracula upped the charisma and charm, while never forgetting the element of horror that accompanied him. In 1970’s Taste The Blood Of Dracula and Dracula A.D. 1972, the lesson is don’t take part in black magic or blood-drinking ceremonies in case the Count reappears to kill you. Both Taste and A.D. 1972 make fresh strides in the genre and, as the title suggests, A.D. 1972 brings Dracula into the modern world, a move which later films would develop in order to continue the trend of using vampires to represent real-life horror. Proof, if ever it were needed, that vampires break new cinematic ground as time progresses.
By the time the 80s rolled around, vampires were no longer enigmatic castle-dwellers with a penchant for capes, but cool biker types with leather jackets, matchstick sneers, and in-vogue haircuts. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys burst on to the pop culture landscape in 1987. Near Dark took a more found family approach to its fanged characters, but it would be The Lost Boys and its vampires-as-teen-gang nightmare that resonated most. Jason Patric’s Michael fights for the acceptance of Kiefer Sutherland’s David and his mates (hello to Alex Winter). When David offers him a mysterious, blood-red drink, Michael drinks deeply. From there, the film becomes a battle for Michael’s immortal soul, fought out between the temptation of David’s world and his younger brother Sam (Corey Haim).
The parallels to a spiral into drug addiction are easy to see in The Lost Boys; Michael withdraws, becomes moody, and takes to wearing sunglasses in the day while his body goes through all sorts of changes he doesn’t understand. Not only were the vampires cool youths, the social anxieties that they represented here were very much an aspect of wider concerns around youth culture and the potential detrimental effects. Vampires could be young and sexy now, rather than old and alluring, a trend which would crop up again and again through the 90s and into the new millennium.
In 1994, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire arrived, boasting a superstar cast in Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Christian Slater, while launching the career of Kirsten Dunst. Interview would combine all of the various elements seen in vampire movies so far – social anxiety, youth, sex, addiction – and add a healthy dose of tragedy by playing up the loneliness of the long-living vampire. Jordan’s film played with both the history and the future of the vampire figure in this respect. Lestat, played by Cruise, is every bit the dangerous, charismatic character that audiences had come to recognise.
Lestat would reappear as a rock star in 2002’s Queen Of The Damned, played by Stuart Townsend, further playing around with the vampire identity. The film also featured an iconic performance from Aaliyah (in her final screen role) as Akasha, the seductive queen and first vampire ever born. This had followed Blade in 1998 and its Guillermo del Toro-directed sequel, which also arrived in 2002. This brought a dynamic, superhero angle to the vampire myth. The character had been around in his Marvel Comics form since 1973 and here appeared in the guise of Wesley Snipes. Cemented firmly in the darker end of the vampire screen tradition, Blade was a stylised slice of modern gothic that launched a largely successful franchise.
From the templates set by these earlier films, vampires diversified even further on screen for the 21st century. Some would be the invasive, animalistic killers as in 30 Days Of Night, some the romantic tortured souls, seen in Twilight’s Edward Cullen. Twilight also controversially introduced the concept of vampires sparkling in the sunlight, but we’re not sure that’ll catch on elsewhere. And, lest we forget, vampires remain a global phenomenon. The Iranian-set A Girl Walks Home At Night explores the lonesome vampire romance from a female perspective. Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish hit Let The Right One In also looks at the isolation of vampirism through its quiet childhood relationship between human Oskar and vampire Eli.
Though it may dip in and out of fashion, the vampire myth is such an amorphous form that the monsters can be made to fit just about any metaphor or style and can represent any human anxiety. They can be lovers, friends, foes, heroes or killers, sometimes they can be all at once. They’re going to be around for a long while yet.