Few horror-movie themes are as enduring as the vampire: ambassador of darkness, seducer of innocence, often stylishly dressed and usually peckish to boot. You’ve seen the classics, or at least you should have by now (Dracula, Nosferatu), and you’ve seen the goth-sexy ones (The Hunger, Interview with a Vampire) and the increasingly ridiculous variations on a theme (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Van Helsing). But have you seen these?
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
This Roman Polanski horror-comedy would be worth the rental price just for the surreal carriage scene. But there’s way more to recommend it: awesome set design, performances pitched at high camp, wacky Transylvanian high-jinks, lots of suspense and the gorgeous Sharon Tate. Like a lot of Polanski movies (Rosemary’s Baby, The Ninth Gate), FVK is preoccupied with a great evil going loose in the world, which here makes for a rather unsatisfying ending. Look! There goes the evil!
Count Dracula (1970)
You can’t really go wrong with Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski in the same movie. Or can you? Count Dracula has got that corny Hammer touch—we’re talking jiggly rubber bats flapping around outside windows—but on the whole it’s kind of dull. Spanish director Jess Franco’s style seems to be to shoot first and cobble scenes together later, which is OK insofar as the gothic atmospheres are wonderful. So are Kinski and Lee, who could read nutritional information off a box of Count Chocula cereal and still be creepy, but the narrative is completely incomprehensible and the supporting cast, particularly Lom, stiff as a board.
Lust for a Vampire (1971)
A plot twist typical of the Hammer Films universe: Richard Lestrange, a kind of 1830s Stephen King, travels to Transylvania to do some research at Karnstein Castle, whose undead inhabitants assume human form once every 40 years—coincidentally enough, the very week he’s visiting! Cheerfully dismissing the warnings of the superstitious village folk, he proceeds to Karnstein Castle and finds that it’s been secretly converted into a finishing school for Danish supermodel-types who only stop doing aerobic exercises long enough to give each other topless massages. Plot? Who cares! Lust is generally considered the weakest of Hammer’s “Karnstein trilogy” (with The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil), but it has its many charms.
The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972)
Based on the same Sheridan Le Fanu story as Lust for a Vampire, this Mexican movie is somewhat atypical for a vampire movie in that it emphasizes the association between vampires and the implicit violence of the sex act to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Drinking blood is almost an afterthought. The she-vampires of The Blood-Spattered Bride are out for revenge on the men who “spit inside” women after piercing them with their phallic daggers. And they pursue it with an agenda that would have made Valerie Solanas trigger-happy with glee. The movie seems to end right when the producers ran out of money, but not, thankfully, before the surreal scene where a man finds a live, nude, amnesiac female scuba diver buried in a sandy beach.
Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973)
A touch of blaxploitation class from Roger Corman’s American International Pictures. William Marshall stars as the titular superfly bloodsucker, a “black prince” cursed by Dracula himself, who couldn’t resist adding a little insult to injury by dubbing him Blacula. (Hey, the guy’s a 500-year-old Romanian—what does he know about political correctness?). Richard Lawson co-stars as Big Willis, aspirant to a voodoo society, who brings Blacula back to life with a ridiculous incantation. Blacula is signally unpsyched about being reincarnated in an era of plaid suits and platform shoes and sees the impending showdown between voodoo and vampire powers as his only way out.
Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979)
Nice try, Werner Herzog, but no dice with this ploddingly slow remake of the 1922 classic. Still, it’s a damn sight better than E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, an infuriatingly literal movie about the making of the original. Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu mops the floor with Willem Dafoe’s Max Schreck, and yes, in this case it is a contest.
Dracula 2000 (2000)
Awful. Just awful. And not the good kind of awful, either. Call it Dracula Does Mardi Gras, hitching a ride to New Orleans with a bunch of hapless would-be thieves who abscond with his coffin after a botched heist attempt on Dr. Van Helsing’s (Christopher Plummer) antiquities dealership. Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy from Trainspotting), as Van Helsing’s enforcer, utters the not-too-terribly “immortal” line “Never fuck with an antiques dealer!”—presumably after drawing the short straw on a between-takes coffee break. To top it all off, the whole pile of crap is basically a feature-length infomercial for a Virgin Records superstore. Awful. Just awful.
Blood for Dracula (1974)
Aka Andy Warhol’s Dracula. Finally! An anchor of self-conscious nonsense in this raging sea of crap, and the movie that should have put the vampire genre out of its misery forever. Adam Ant look-alike Udo Kier stars as the most impotent, anemic and perverted Count Dracula in the whole long history of movie Draculas. He looks like a pinky that’s had a Band-Aid on it for a week, and he’s looking for virgin brides in Italy. Classiest moments: 1) Dracula retching into a bathtub after mistakenly drinking the blood of a non-virgin; 2) Dracula licking blood off the floor on the spot where a 14-year-old is deflowered by a Marxist handyman; 3) Dracula’s incremental dismembering by the same handyman. The end.