Top Ten Vampire Films That Don’t Sparkle
By: Steve Van Samson
When INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE came out in 1994, I was a teenager. And though it did not inspire me to seek out the books, I can still remember driving home from the theater really pleased. In fact, I liked the film a lot. Now though, I can think of no other author who did more to neuter the VAMPIRE than Anne Rice. In the years that followed, these classic were presented as tragic (sometimes clinically depressed) heartthrobs, intended to inspire loin stirrings rather than fear. For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that Bram Stoker’s famous novel contains its share of romanticism—but if Dracula became an accidental sex symbol, he was also a cold-hearted predator that killed without mercy or remorse. It’s how I take my vampires—terror-inducing—monstrous.
This list contains ten examples of what I consider to be the ten best, non romantic vampire films. In some cases, there is humor to be found, but you can rest assured that none of the beasts on this list are even remotely datable.
10.) Vampire In Brooklyn (1995)
I start the list with a bit of a head-scratcher. I think when VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN came out, most people thought the same thing I did—time for an eye roll. Seemingly, the poster told you all you needed to know. Eddie Murphy (still in his prime) had slapped on a Jheri curl wig and made a dumb comedy about vampires. It was a fair assumption considering the poster (and that title certainly didn’t help matters). Having said all that, I did eventually see the movie on video… and then many more times. Though not perfect, Wes Craven’s VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN is a very capable dark comedy (very different from the more family-friendly stuff Murphy was known for) with a stellar cast of black actors (including Angela Bassett, for crying out loud). Yes, there is some comedy and romantic elements, but Murphy’s Maximilian is no mopey heartthrob. And though the character is pretty likable throughout, he goes out in true villain fashion. If you can bring an open mind, VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN is a hell of a good time and one of the few takes on a classic monster with a cast that isn’t chock full of white people.
9.) From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
A year after BROOKLYN, Robert Rodriguez directed a far better-remembered film that was actually of a pretty similar tone. Here was another dark comedy with vampires but crossed again with a Tarantino style gangster flick. Starring the unlikely pairing of George (still in E.R.) Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as the bank robbing, hostage taking Gecko brothers. On the lamb and on their way to Mexico, the Geckos run afoul of a debaucherous strip club which is run (oops) entirely by vampires. The violence in this one starts early, showing us very human monsters before we ever get to the sort with fangs. In the world of vampire shoot em ups, if UNDERWORLD (2003) is the popular kid, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is the drunk high school dropout who used to steal UNDERWORLD’s lunch money. Other cast members include the excellent Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis and Salma Hayek in a tragically too-small role as the vampire queen, Satanico Pandemonium.
I struggled whether or not to include one of the “Blades” on this list. Afterall, like the UNDERWORLD films, they were unflinching action flicks and light on the horror. What earned BLADE II its rank was what it did for evolving the concept of a frightening vampire. Helmed by the monster-loving master Guillermo del Toro, this sequel presents a truly unique spin. What if vampires knew that to survive, they had to weed out some of their more crippling weaknesses? And since they existed outside of nature, any evolution was going to first happen in a test tube. Of course, as with all scientific breakthroughs, the failures outnumber the successes. Hence the villain of the piece—a failed experiment by all accounts, Nomak (played with brilliant subtlety by Luke Goss) had an anatomy that was built for feeding—with a bisected lower jaw that could unhinge and flare open like the Predator’s. He was a tragic character but far from romantic and he and his bestial progeny injected something truly new into the genre. Plus… Wesley Snipes was still ridiculously awesome as Blade, so whatever.
I don’t know exactly how old I was when I first saw FRIGHT NIGHT, but I’m sure it wasn’t old enough. It was that poster that did it. Entering my brain like a living worm, it squirmed and bore in deep. I stared at the thing every time we went to the video store. No fighting it, that horrific cloud of teeth and gums had my number and I wanted to know more. At its core, the plot of this one can be boiled down to a reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW… with vampires. To this day, Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandridge remains one of my all-time favorite cinematic vampires. There were so many interesting quirks they worked into the character that made him unique. His penchant for snacking on apples, for example. But despite his likable exterior and silly name, Jerry was a scary bastard when all was said and done. Also worth mentioning are Roddy McDowall who plays fictional horror host Peter Vincent (named for Peter Cushing and Vincent Price) and Stephen Geoffreys’ unforgettable performance as the only quasi-tragic Evil Ed.
Based on the book “Vampire$” by John Steakley, this film holds a special place in my cold, black heart. It’s one of those cases where performance wins out over plot. James Woods is such an unlikely actor to ever be cast in the role of a vampire slayer that from his first seconds on screen, it’s hard not to be hooked. Woods plays Jack Crow with a well-honed and thoroughly venomous wit. He’s the leader of a special team of American based vamp hunters who work for the Vatican. The plot is simple. Crow and his team have been sent to stop the monstrous Valek from finding an ancient Catholic relic which will allow all vampires to finally walk in daylight. Directed by the legendary John Carpenter, Vampires is technically a little movie with an unforgettable lead performance. Woods may be a scumbag in real life, but he owns this movie.
5.) 30 Days of Night (2007)
There’s a big difference between violence and true terror and thus far, this list has been populated by the former. By 2007, vampires hadn’t been scary in quite a while, but 30 DAYS OF NIGHT aimed to change all that. Adapted from the limited comic series by Steve Niles, the film’s greatest strength lies in a simple yet novel concept. What if a pack of vampires descended upon a small Alaskan town during its annual month of total darkness? Lead by Josh Hartnett, the cast is forced to endure a gauntlet unlike any other. A slow burn for survival amidst a frozen world of endless night. The digital effects in this one are subtle. Looking at the faces of the monsters (lead by a nigh-unrecognizable Danny Huston), it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly makes them so frightening. As best as I can tell, the actor’s eyes were altered in post-production. In some cases, they look to have been spread further apart—even rotated slightly to achieve a unique, inhuman look. It’s all very effective. My main gripe with this movie is a bit petty, I grant you—but it drives me crazy how wasteful the vamps are with their food! Spraying whole gallons of precious blood over snowy set pieces as well as themselves. I can’t help but be reminded of the first time my daughter tried chocolate cake. Did you manage to get any in your mouth?
4.) Horror of Dracula (1958)
In truth, I probably could have made a top ten Dracula list, but in an act of restraint, I have chosen to include only my two favorites. Though probably not the first face to pop into your head at the mention of the name Dracula, Christopher Lee made quite a run at the role. For Hammer Studios, he donned the cape and fangs no less than ten times! HORROR OF DRACULA was not only the one that started it all, it was the one film of the lot to actually look to the book. And all things considered, it was a pretty solid adaptation. Lee had the voice, the presence and the powerful stature the character needed. And while he lacked that trademark Lugosi stare, the film made more of a run at the horror aspects of the story. With bloodshot eyes and actual fangs (believe it or not, Lugosi’s count had normal teeth) the character felt far more of a physical threat.
While I am a serious Bela Lugosi fan, his performance is not the only thing to write home about here. For me, what makes Tod Browning’s seminal film so successful, is how well it is able to adapt and streamline Stoker’s novel—combining and rethinking certain characters in ways that ends up benefiting the overall narrative. My favorite example is the bug eating madman, Renfield (played hauntingly by the inimitable Dwight Frye). In this version, it is Renfield (not Jonathan Harker) who kicks the film off. Traveling deep into the Carpathian mountains, only to be warned by local peasants that the eccentric Transylvanian Count he intends to meet, is actually a monster. We all know the story. But after the creepiest dinner of all time, instead being left behind as a snack for a trio of vampire brides (as in the book and most film versions) Renfield is immediately enslaved and put to work. Dracula uses the man as a guard, to watch over his coffin on the long journey to England. And then, when the ship finally arrives in port, we are shown that everyone on board has been killed—all that is, but for poor Renfield who, having watched it all, is now quite insane. Renfield’s insanity is heartbreaking because we glimpsed the man he was before, and were privy to his very justified descent into madness. No doubt about it, this one is a timeless classic. Perhaps not the most accurate adaptation of Stoker’s novel, but in some ways, superior.
2.) Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
I hope this entry comes as a surprise to those reading this, but rest assured, I have not placed this film so high on the list for simple shock value. The unfortunate fact is, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE is a fantastic film that gets criminally little recognition. High in concept, the film tells the highly fictionalized account of the filming of the very first vampire film: NOSFERATU (1922)—purporting that the actor who portrayed the titular creature was in fact, a real freaking vampire. The primary characters in the films are based off real-life director F. W. Murnau and the mysterious actor Max Schreck (played by John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe, respectively). The acting in this one is nothing short of superb. Malkovich (despite being a full eleven inches shorter than the real Murnau) delivers one of his absolute finest performances, as a tortured filmmaker who has made a literal deal with a devil in order to ensure the utmost accuracy in his picture. Likewise, Dafoe disappears into the role of Schreck—a real vampire who tries for a time to deny his true nature in order to deliver what has been promised—the performance of a lifetime. As vampire films go, this one is not just well made, it is damn unique and memorable… not to mention incredibly fun to watch when paired with the final film on this list.
1.) Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
You’ve seen the shadow moving up the staircase—the ghoul looking up from feeding whilst hunched over its helpless victim. Released in 1922, this seminal silent film actually started as an adaptation of the 1897 Stoker novel “Dracula”, but when the studio could not obtain rights to the story, they sort of… made the movie anyway. Sure some details had to be changed (Count Dracula became Count Orlok) but many of the essential plot points remained intact. Too many it turned out. Because after the film’s release, the studio was sued by the Stoker estate, lost, and all copies of the film were supposedly destroyed. Let that sink in for a second. By all rights, this should be a lost film. Fortunately, someone hung onto their copy because F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece contains some of the most memorable and terror-inducing shots of any movie ever filmed. Schreck’s Count Orlok is a creepy, gaunt, hunched over, rat-faced ghoul, with an overbite that could open cans. In other words… totally undateable. Perhaps most unsettling of all is that you can’t tell where the makeup ended and the actor began. Makes you wonder if SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE had it right afterall.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
I had to mention this one for having the number one most horrifying vampire make up. Reggie Nalder’s Mr. Barlow only shows up for a few quick scenes but rest assured, his horrific Nosferatu’esque visage will be burned into your retinas for all time.