The Vampire Movies That Aren’t Really About Bloodsuckers

You might think these are movies about vampires, but you'd be wrong. Mostly.

Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (or at least the stage play loosely based on the novel) may not have been the first vampire movie ever made, but it did solidly establish the mythology of the vampire within the mainstream American consciousness. It also established horror as a solid and profitable film genre to be reckoned with, and further established the vampire as a regular go-to character for thousands of films and TV shows down the line.

But it didn’t take long for other filmmakers to step back and take a closer look at vampiric mythology, seeing a way to at once commercially exploit the public’s hunger for vampire movies while screwing with the legend…

The Vampire Bat (1933)

From the outside, everything about Frank Strayer’s low-budget film screamed “horror movie” and “Dracula knockoff.” the title was a gimme, as was the story, which concerned a string of mysterious deaths in a small German village, each of the victims having been drained of blood through two small puncture wounds on the neck. Add to that the numerous sightings of an unusually large bat flapping around town at night and the increasingly odd behavior of the village simpleton, and there you go. What else could it be but a vampire movie?  

The outward perception was only bolstered by the cast, which featured Lionel Atwill (who’d starred in 1931’s Mystery of the Wax Museum and 1932’s Dr. X), Fay Wray (who’d co-starred with Atwill in both those films) and Dwight Frye, who’d made such a splash as Renfield, the real star of Browning’s Dracula. Audiences, even that early in the game, bought their tickets knowing what they could expect. Or so they thought.

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It’s a slow and stagebound film, but still and intelligent, fascinating and still timely one, as Atwill’s scientific investigation into the deaths eventually reveals it to be (much to the audience’s dismay and disappointment) not a vampire movie at all, but a film about the horrors of mass hysteria.

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Four years after the massive success of Dracula and three years after the near career-ending debacle of Freaks, it seemed that Tod Browning was feeling contrite, returning to offer a crowd pleasing sort-of follow up to his 1931 hit. He re-teamed with Bela Lugosi, brought on increasingly familiar horror icon Lionel Atwill, as well as the venerable Lionel Barrymore, and tossed them together in something called Mark of the Vampire. Once again, that early in the horror game what else could an audience conclude? But Browning being Browning, the film was less an attempt to exploit his earlier success than a twist of the knife, almost a big “fuck you” to Universal.

He’d only made Dracula reluctantly, after all, having taken the job with the understanding Universal brass would allow him to make Freaks if he did them this little favor. His lack of enthusiasm is right up there on the screen. Dracula, if you’re honest about it, was a fairly stiff, low-energy, lackluster picture compared with Browning’s earlier silent weirdies with Lon Chaney, and especially compared with the film he really wanted to make, Freaks. But Dracula was the hit, and at the time the film for which he was best known. So after being banished from Universal after Freaks was yanked and buried, Brownning, finding himself at MGM, saw a chance to pull a little prank with a remake of his tragically lost silent film, London After Midnight, with Lugosi taking over the Chaney role.

Sucker audiences in with Lugosi and Atwill, sucker them in further (at least those unfamiliar with ’30s underworld slang) with a title like Mark of the Vampire, and top it off by touting the fact it was directed by the same guy who directed Dracula. Better still, put Lugosi in a cape, call him Count Mora, and have him lurk around the edges and shadows of the story, looking menacing but not saying a word. Toy with the crowd for awhile the same way 1933’s The Vampire Bat did, keep tossing in the vampiric hints and ramping up the paranoia. Then yank the rug out, revealing the film to be not only not a vampire movie, but a comedy to boot, if a decidedly Browningian one that skewers all the conventions of a horror film.

Then give Lugosi a single closing (and very funny) line, and pound the nail in the vampire coffin lid before moving on, praying someone rediscovers Freaks a few decades down the line.

The Devil Bat (1940)

By 1940 Bela Lugosi’s career was starting to hit the skids, as his increasingly obvious morphine addiction found him relegated to making sub-B no budget quickies at Poverty Row’s PRC studios. Universal or RKO would invite him back now and again if they wanted to capitalize on his name for a horror movie, but even then he usually ended up with small supporting roles. At least at PRC he was always top-billed, and was even allowed on occasion to show off his range as an actor (as in Bowery at Midnight).

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That wasn’t so much the case with Jean Yarborough’s The Devil Bat, but that’s beside the point.

Okay, so you’ve got Dracula himself starring in a movie called The Devil Bat. What’s more, the poster features a sinister-looking Lugosi together with, well, a really big bat. What the hell else could potential audiences conclude? Percentage-wise, deceptive non-vampire movies were still few and far between compared with actual Dracula knockoffs, so there were no real lessons to be learned,   

As per the standard formula of most PRC horror films (they didn’t exactly have the time or budget for luxuries like new and original scripts), Lugosi plays a scientist seeking revenge against the men who betrayed him, as well as their families. This he accomplishes, thanks to the magic of electrobiology, by not only growing a standard vampire bat to the size of an Irish Setter, but training it to attack anyone wearing the new aftershave Lugosi’s Dr. Carruthers has just developed.

Despite thwarted audience expectations and the fact the film featured no actual vampires, The Devil Bat went on to become one of the most popular and profitable films PRC produced, which right there may say something about the rest of their output.   

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

After watching Tod Browning’s Dracula, author Richard Matheson had a thought. If one vampire is scary, what about a whole world full of vampires? So in 1954 he sat down to write his seminal novella, I Am Legend, about a medical researcher who finds himself the last man on earth after a mysterious plague turns the rest of the world’s population into vampires.

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At heart, and after a good deal of medical research himself, Matheson saw the story as a chance to explore viable scientific explanations for various aspects of the standard vampire mythology. Not casting a reflection was the result of hysterical blindness, a form of anemia led to the thirst for blood, and, because they heal so quickly, the stake through the heart was necessary to keep a wound open, allowing bacteria to enter the body. And so forth.

In 1963, Hammer Studios hired Matheson to write the script for a film version, but after the studio began running into some serious censorship troubles with their own Dracula and Frankenstein films, they realized pits full of burning corpses and the like simply wasn’t going to fly. They sold Matheson’s script to American International, who brought in another screenwriter to spruce things up a bit, and Matheson, who could be fairly petulant at times, took his name off the finished product.

Directed by Ubaldo B. Ragona and starring Vincent Price, The Last Man on Earth was filmed in Italy for a small Italian production company that was a division of AIP. Something somewhere along the way was apparently lost in the translation. Although anti-vampiric trappings like garlic, wooden stakes and mirrors are used for defensive purposes throughout the film, Matheson’s scientific explanations for why they worked were left by the wayside. Maybe it was for the best, as the marauding hordes of vampyres weren’t even vampires anymore. Suddenly they were just moaning, shuffling pasty-faced zombies with a blood disease.

In all subsequent adaptations of the novel, the whole “vampire” angle would be dropped completely in favor of the zombies. Which may help explain why Matheson was quite open about how much he hated them all.

THe Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

For their 80th entry in the long-running Dracula franchise, Hammer Studios did what was expected of them by re-teaming Christopher Lee as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Then they went in some wildly unexpected directions.

First they ditched all the tired Gothic trappings, setting the film in the decidedly contemporary London of the early ’70s. Van Helsing is now a scientist working with Scotland Yard, investigating the mysterious death of a friend and fellow scientist. Dracula, under an assumed name, now heads up a powerful, wealthy, and evil multinational corporation headquartered in the heart of London.

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The company also acts as a front for a wide-reaching Satanic cult. Director Alan Gibson even throws in a couple zippy motorcycle chases and helmeted thugs in jean jackets with white fur trim. Most important of all, they drop that dusty old notion, except for one or two brief scenes, that Dracula is a vampire. Yeah, that whole blood sucking business was getting mighty weary after seven films.

As the title implies, Count Dracula, who only dons the cape when absolutely necessary, is in fact the Antichrist, on the verge of unleashing the bubonic plague on an unsuspecting world, just for fun.

There’s precious little vampirism afoot here, but a whole lotta Satanism and conspiracy theory, likely in order to cash in on all the success Hammer had been having with their recent spate of devil movies while still trying to keep the franchise alive. It’s a gorgeous, stylish and exciting film that makes no sense whatsoever, but who the hell cares?

Interestingly, several Satanist friends have cited this as one of the most faithful and accurate portrayals of Satanism ever put on screen. I’m not exactly sure how to take that.

Martin (1977)

In cinematic terms, during the 1970s genres, traditions, and icons of all kind were being seriously questioned, rewritten, or outright trashed. Long before hip, navel-gazing and fashionable teen vampires came to so dominate the culture over the first decade and a half of the 21st century, George Romero gave us a mopey teen vampire story of his own. Sort of.

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After a couple Night of The Living Dead follow-ups like The Crazies and Knightriders, but before getting suckered back into the whole zombie shtick, he wrote a script about an aging, centuries-old vampire trying to get by in the modern world. After John Amplas, who was far too young for the part as scripted, auditioned for the role, however, Romero rewrote the story.

Ampliss now plays Martin, a schlubby, alienated and awkward teenager who’se been sent to live with his uncle in a rusty little town just outside Pittsburgh. His family is from the proverbial Old Country, and has been convinced for centuries they were cursed with vampirism. Every generation or two, one seemed to pop up. All his life, relatives have told Martin he was a vampire, and his uncle, a true believer, is no different. So much so he informs Martin upon his arrival at the train station that he intends to kill him.

Of course there is no solid evidence that Martin is any kind of traditional vampire, but if people tell you you’re a vampire every single goddamn day, part of you is going to start believing it. In what is arguably Romero’s best and most subtle film, he plays with perception, tradition, memory, and expectation, crafting a complex and melancholy character study that offers no easy answers, at least in genre terms, but one of the most shocking and unexpected final scenes of Romero’s career.

Is Martin really a vampire? Probably not, but, um…maybe?

Habit (1995)

Although as an actor, writer and director, Larry Fessenden had been plenty busy for well over a decade beforehand, it was this disturbing, sometimes shocking, sometimes disgusting, and sometimes frustrating sort-of vampire movie that brought him to the attention of a wider indie genre crowd. It may or may not have something to do with the fact he spends much of the movie naked.  

Fessenden stars as Sam, a young alcoholic New Yorker who gets drawn into an obsessive and dangerous relationship with a possibly psychotic Goth nymphomaniac named Anna (Meredith Snaider). Anna refuses to eat, only comes out at night, and is in the habit of disappearing for days at a time, only to reappear unexpectedly in the most unlikely places (like Sam’s father’s funeral). She’s also in the unsanitary habit of biting him and lapping up the blood whenever they have sex, and they have a lot of sex, in closets, in parks, on floors, whatever seems convenient at the time. Although his friends repeatedly warn him to get away from the clearly, deeply unstable woman, Sam can’t stop, even after he develops a taste for raw meat and blood himself.

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So is Anna really a vampire, or just nuts? Fessenden, like Romero, offers evidence for both sides (she does seem to have a knack for controlling wolves), but never offers any final conclusions. It’s a long, tangled, dark and ultimately very grim and hopeless film, with hints not only of Martin but both versions of The Cat People as well. More than anything, and I guess this can be said of most more straightforward contemporary vampire films, Habit, as the title implies, is less about the unearthly curse of immortality and the lust for warm blood than it is a thinly-veiled parable about addiction, obsession and, given the times in which it was made, AIDS.