When it comes to vampires, Mormon is less.
The vampire movie as a genre has spent the better part of the past decade being drained of life by the sullen Twilight series, which is based on the young-adult books by Stephenie Meyer. Meyer happens to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the values based on the church’s own mythology, which glare through the stories, provide an incongruous—if amusingly odd—fit with vampire folklore and the inherently sensual nature of vampirism.
Twilight has perma-teen bloodsucker Edward protecting young Bella from her own physical urges in a long-winded allegory for abstinence until wedlock and a woman’s responsibility to spawn children immediately thereafter. Its greatest fictional stretch is not the presence of vampires and werewolves, but that its teenage characters don’t swear, drink or have much interest in sex (they engage in more wholesome activities, like murder).
The delicious ironies of Twilight’s conversion from page to screen are more fun to contemplate than the bloodless books and fangless films themselves. The movies give lustable flesh to the sketched characters of the chaste novels, sending adolescent girls, closeted fathers, bored housewives and lonely gay men swooning over a pasty, fashionably messy-haired Brit and a puppy-dog-eyed slab of jailbait.
And what are viewers to do should the sight of a shirtless, wet, throbbingly muscled Taylor Lautner titillate? Certainly not masturbate; that’s frowned upon by The Church. As is homosexuality, which is why I was delighted that Bill Condon, an openly gay filmmaker who gave us an aging movie director salivating over his male gardener in Gods and Monsters and a middle-age scientist exploring bisexuality in Kinsey, was chosen to wrangle buff, half-naked werewolves for the final two Twilight movies, which, of course, were based on one book.
Despite the cultural foothold of Twilight and the televised teen-vampire nonsense it spawned, a stake hasn’t yet been driven through the heart of the vampire genre. Ana Lily Amirpour twisted conventions in the atmospheric A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), and last year brought us the batshit What We Do in the Shadows, which deserves a larger cult. Following are 10 more vampire movies with a pulse.
10. Vampyr (1932)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is not just my favorite vampire movie, but one of my favorite films and one of cinema’s most delectable visual feasts.
Allan Gray, a young traveler obsessed with the occult, stumbles into a vampiric conspiracy upon arriving in a small, European village. The film exists in a kind of continual waking state, in which both Gray and the viewers are conscious of what’s happening but can’t be certain how much is real.
Vampyr lacks the raw emotional power of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or the focused social commentary of his Day of Wrath; it is the director at his most playful (the disembodied shadows scampering along a lakeshore) and instructively cinematic (the chilling scene in which Gray observes himself in a coffin being prepared for burial is said to have inspired the dream sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries in which the professor contends with his ghostly, casket-encased self).
After years of languishing in the public domain, Vampyr in 2008 received a proper DVD release of its revelatory 1998 restoration in a typically lovely and typically pricey Criterion Collection package.
9. Thirst (2009)
As with Dreyer, vampires seem to have tapped into the friskier side of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, who remains best known in the United States for Oldboy (though that may change with the recently released treat that is The Handmaiden). But with Thirst, the tale of a Catholic priest who becomes a vampire after volunteering for a medical experiment, the director delights in the more unsavory aspects of vampirism.
Park employs a biting sense of humor right down to the squeam-inducing soundtrack, on which we hear every pierce of flesh and blood-sucking slurp. As the conflicted priest grudgingly caves to his carnal desires and the necessities of his situation, he is countered by a young woman who is both the object of his attraction and who, once turned, embraces the excesses—flying, owning the night, thrilling in the hunt—that their condition allows.
8. The Reflecting Skin (1991)
The vampire at the heart of The Reflecting Skin is not really a vampire; she is imagined by the boy who passes as the film’s protagonist, Seth Dove, an 8-year-old growing up amid an abusive, collapsing family on an Idaho farm in the 1950s. But the presence of vampires permeates Philip Ridley’s dark—and often darkly comic—film, from the pulpy horror stories beloved by Seth’s troubled father to the visual palette, which is drained of ripe color.
Despite a devout cult following, the film has not received a stateside release since the salad days of VHS, an act that should be considered criminal.
7. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
There are few valid reasons to remake a film, and one of them is Klaus Kinski. Werner Herzog called on his mad muse not only to remake 1922’s landmark Nosferatu, but to replay one of the most distinctive roles in cinema history.
Kinski, though menacing, is restrained here, bringing a solemnity and sense of humanity—or at least a palpable longing for it—to the character who, unlike in the silent classic, is allowed to be called Count Dracula (thanks to Bram Stoker’s novel, the source for both versions, being in the public domain by this time). Herzog is a fan of his countryman F.W. Murnau’s original, and he lifts some scenes almost verbatim. But he also bathes the film in muted colors that enhance the dreamy sense of dread.
6. Nosferatu (1922)
The bar for vampire movies was set high and early with F.W. Murnau’s silent (and unauthorized) take on Dracula.
Less scary than insinuating and creepy, Nosferatu features one of the screen’s most unforgettable performances in Max Schreck’s bat-eared, rodent-toothed, talon-fingered Orlok and images that, once experienced, haunt the memory forever (the stacking of caskets, the speeding stagecoach, Orlok rising from his coffin).
Although part of the German Expressionist film movement, Nosferatu features more location shots and fewer studio sets than contemporaries like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the use of natural settings infuses Nosferatu with an element of eerie realism matched by its star (whose rumored immersion into the role is detailed in 2000’s fine Shadow of the Vampire).
5. Near Dark (1987)
In a 60 Minutes interview that aired soon before she became the first woman to win an Academy Award as Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow related the transformative experience that made her want to be a filmmaker: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
With her second feature film, Bigelow left indelible marks on both the Western and the vampire genres. Near Dark focuses on a marauding band of vampires (not dissimilar to the titular gang of Peckinpah’s classic), whose ranks begin to crack when an outsider is turned bloodsucker but lacks the group’s will to kill.
The film makes gorgeous use of its settings, not just in the expansive plains, but in the seedy bars and motels that dot the landscape, and Bigelow deftly blends a tricky mix of action, heart and humor into something both grisly and poetic. The film is marred only by the insistent, elevator-music-from-hell score of Tangerine Dream, a group whose glorified Muzak nearly destroyed a number of otherwise excellent movies of the 1980s.
4. Martin (1978)
George Romero’s ideas have always been bigger than his budgets, but the constraints of thrift suited his two early milestones, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and the 1978 suburban vampire tale Martin, which may be Romero’s most fully realized film.
Whether or not young Martin is actually a vampire is debatable, although he certainly behaves like one on occasion (preferring to drug his victims, then neatly slit and drink from their wrists as opposed to going garishly for the throat). His uncle, with whom Martin shares a home in the decaying outskirts of Pittsburgh, believes him to be one, going so far as to brandish garlic and a crucifix.
And then there are those … what? Flashbacks? Dreams? Fantasies?
Martin is Romero at his slyest and most subversive, a queasy, quasi-comedy that builds to a literally heart-stopping climax.
3. Let the Right One In (2008)
Let the Right One In happens to be a vampire movie, but it is so observational about the brand of anger and loneliness peculiar to adolescence that if the vampire aspect was discarded, viewers would be left with a beautiful, if morbid, coming-of-age story … albeit a less resonant one.
Bullied Oskar enacts revenge fantasies by knifing a tree in his apartment building courtyard, and he saves newspaper clippings of violent crimes. One lonely, snowy night he is joined by the pallid Eli, a fragile-looking creature with a secret that viewers learn well before Oskar.
The genre trappings are here—the neck piercing, the aversion to light, the need to be invited in—but director Tomas Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the book on which the film is based) give these tropes a fresh twist backed up by depth, perhaps most powerfully when a frustrated Oskar teasingly refuses to ask Eli into his flat but leaves the door open; she enters and begins bleeding from her eyes, as much out of rejection as a broken rule of vampire mythology.
2. Habit (1997)
Like George Romero, Larry Fessenden is a filmmaker whose reach frequently exceeds his finances; also like Romero, he often channels his ideas through the horror genre, as in the solid Wendigo and the terrific The Last Winter. But Fessenden has an inherent visual flair and sense of staging, pacing and rhythm that lends his movies a populist polish and elevates them to heights grander than their fiscal limitations.
Sometimes, however, low-budget naturalism is a perfect fit for the material, as is the case with Fessenden’s Habit, the best of the rash of New York-set vampire movies from the 1990s that also includes The Addiction, the stylish Nadja and the messy Vampire in Brooklyn.
Fessenden himself plays Sam, an alcoholic with a certain chipped-tooth charm who falls for a beautiful young woman prone to late-night sexual encounters that leave Sam emotionally and physically drained.
Fessenden scatters bits of vampire lore throughout the film while playing cryptically with whether or not Sam is the victim of a true vampire.
1. The Addiction (1995)
Filled with dialogue that sounds like it was written by a pretentious high school student who just discovered Nietzsche and handled with dire (or, one can hope, deadpan) seriousness by director Abel Ferrara and a capable cast that includes Lili Taylor, Annabella Sciorra and, briefly, Christopher Walken, The Addiction is a deliriously freaky and, intentionally or not, funny experience.
A philosophy student is turned vampire in a New York alley and becomes prone to such musings as:
“The old adage from Santayana, that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is a lie. There is no history.”
“We drink to escape the fact we’re alcoholics. Existence is the search for relief from our habit, and our habit is the only relief we can find.”
In between the Willard-esque voiceover interludes, there are heavy-handed parallels drawn between vampirism and drug addiction and the spread of AIDS, and something about the My Lai massacre and Central America. That the proceedings remain above Mesa of Lost Women-level bad is a tribute to the committed cast and, especially, to the blunt prowess of Ferrara, who uses turbid, black-and-white photography and a grimy, seductive score to somehow immerse us in this gorgeous nonsense.