The vampire is one of the most reliable movie creatures. What zombies, werewolves, and demons lack in personality, vampires more than make up for. They have style, charisma, and class even when giant fangs are protruding from their hideous mouths. Well, they did anyway until Twilight and True Blood came along and sanitized them. What those two pieces of pop culture failed completely to understand is that vampires are first and foremost MONSTERS who drink human blood. That’s not something you should cuddle up to. Oh sure, you can have sympathy for some and they can be used as metaphors to explore the human condition but we must always remember that they are dangerous, deadly creatures. Thank heaven for The Strain, a show that went to great lengths to make vampires scary again. With Halloween right around the corner I decided to write up the ten best and five worst vampire flicks of all time in my not so humble opinion. The best vampire films are the ones that treat them as monsters but also understand what a miserable, torturous existence they must suffer through. Eternity is a long time after all and being controlled by an insatiable thirst for blood would only make it more unbearable. So, without further ado, lets see what’s hiding under the coffin…
From Dusk Till Dawn
It’s a toss-up between Rodriquez and Tarantino’s insane genre mash-up and John Carpenter’s western themed Vampires for the best action extravagnza featuring bloodsucking fiends but I’m listing From Dusk Till Dawn cuz I think it’s just a little bit more fun. The movie is not at all interested in exploring the tortured existence of an immortal creature like the great vampire films are but it’s still smart enough to treat them as powerful threats, not sparkly pre-teens. Part of the reason the flick works so well is due to the well structured first half that effectively establishes the characters and their relationships. This makes them all the more relateable when they spend the second half dispatching creatures of the night in increasingly violenty ways. From Dusk Till Dawn offers nothing special for you to think about but it’s a hell of a fun ride made with style, energy, and an appropriately crass sense of humor. It’s a much better film than the similar Grindhouse, the Tarantino/Rodriquez double feature. Didn’t they realize they had already successfully made a double feature in half the time with From Dusk Till Dawn? I also have to give the flick points for featuring this hilarious dialogue exchange after George Clooney and Juliette Lewis have been rescued by Carlos (Cheech Marin):
CARLOS: What were they psychos or…?
CLOONEY: They look like pyschos? Was that what they looked like? They were VAMPIRES. Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them. I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are!
Kathryn Bigelow’s neo noir western has one of the more original takes on vampires. They’re portrayed as a roving clan of maniacs not too far removed from the Manson family. It’s a clever way to use supernatural creatures to reflect real world monsters. Adrian Pasdar stars as the young farm boy drawn into their clan by a pretty girl (Jenny Wright). His infatuation with her obscures their true nature for a little while but when they turn him, he is forced to either embrace the madness or fight back. Pasdar makes for an engaging hero but it’s Lance Henriksen as the patriarch and Bill Paxton as the deranged, wild member of the clan who steal the show. The flick is action packed and uses gory special effects without over-relying on them. Also, note to Twilgiht: This is how you do a vampire romance. You portray the creatures as awful monsters but don’t forget their humanity. You provide scary, intense, actual villains who threaten the relationship for reasons that make sense. And you don’t skimp out on the implication that a romance with a vampire is a horribly dangerous thing on its best day.
Stephen King’s loose update on the Dracula legend is one of the best adaptations of his work and the second best film (after Texas Chainsaw Massacre) of director Tobe Hooper. It’s an atmospheric and truly scary movie that features one of the creepiest vampires of all time in it’s villain, Kurt Barlow. His make up was clearly inspired by the original Nosferatu but making his skin that off color blue turns him into a stunningly unique monster. The scenes of dead children floating outside windows remain some of the scariest images ever in a vampire movie. They more than make up for the slow pace and made for TV cheesiness.
George Romero is the undisputed king of the zombie genre but he also made his mark on the vampire genre with the haunting, elegant Martin. The title character is a disturbed young man, tormented by stories his grandfather told him in his youth, who sneaks out at night to attack young women, slit their wrists with razors, and drink their blood. The central mystery of whether he is an actual vampire or a serial killer is one that Romero does not reveal until the very end. It doesn’t really matter though as that’s not what Romero is focused on. Martin is a movie about abuse; how it can be psychological as well as physical, how society fosters it by refusing to accept outsiders, and how its victims can come to believe they deserved it. It’s a deeply disturbing film that uses vampire mythology to explore some very real issues, similar to his best zombie movies.
South Korean director Park Chan Wook is most known for tearing apart the revenge film with the fantastic Oldboy. But he also tore apart the vampire film with 2009’s underseen Thirst. The film follows a Catholic Priest who transforms into a vampire after taking part in an experiment to find a vaccine for a deadly disease. He’s at first pleased with his powers, which included heightend strength and mobility, but is horrified to discover he needs to drink human blood to sustain them. He begins to accept his fate though when he becomes disenfranchised with the Church and falls in love with a young woman, whom he turns. The two of them have an incredibly bizarre romance, which includes some hardcore, vampire powered sex and a slew of gruesome murders. There’s a lot going on in Thirst: you’ve got a Catholic priest struggling with his faith after becoming a demon, you’ve got a sneaky metaphor about vampirism as a virus, a harsh look at what fuels people’s most passionate relationships, and some out of this world slapstick comedy in the last act. It’s a serious horror movie that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself while also taking the idea of vampires in directions that very few films have.
Interview with the Vampire
I’ve never read the book but Neil Jordan’s film adaptation is the most gorgeous vampire movie ever made. From the period setting to the lavish costumes to the lighting design, Interview with the Vampire is simply a fantastic looking movie. It also has a great deal of depth, introspective characters, and scenes of real terror. Writer Anne Rice has always said the book and film are not about vampires but about us and that rings true. Her vampires are mirror images of humans, saddled with the same kinds of hopes, dreams, and fears. I’m aware that many fans of the book were not pleased with Tom Cruise being cast as Lestat, but I think it’s one of his best performances. He’s intimidating, funny, charming and brings a surprising amount of pathos to the character. He’s a lot more interesting than Brad Pitt’s Louie, who has to be one of the whiniest vampires to ever grace the screen. Pitt is good in the role though; it’s just that we want to slap Louie for a good portion of the film. The most fascinating character however is Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia, the near a century old vampire trapped in the body of a young girl. As stated earlier, the best vampire movies understand that these are tortured creatures doomed to an eternal hell. And they are even more tortured when their bodies do not reflect their age. Claudia’s plight is affecting and horrifying; she can’t help who she is or how she looks but is stuck with herself anyway. Name a person on earth who can’t relate to that.
Nosferatu the Vampyre
The original Nosferatu is a masterpiece in its own way but Werner Herzog’s remake is even better. First of all, is there an actor on earth more perfect to play a vampire than Klaus Kinski? Other than the original’s Max Schreck of course. Herzog follows the beats of F.W. Murnau’s film but uses them to create a movie that is much more meditative and slow moving. Kinski portrays the saddest vampire to ever appear on screen. He’s so plagued by his existence and yet can do nothing but embrace it. His desire for the young woman, Lucy, is not based in malice or hunger but in the desperate need for companionship. He’s a predator disgusted and tired of his hunger. It’s fascinating the way Herzog sympathizes with the monster and paints the heroes in a much harsher light. Van Helsing is portrayed as a blowhard and Jonathan Harker only becomes likeable when he transforms into a vampire at the end. All of these characters are ultimately doomed and it’s only the ones who accept their fate that achieve some form of victory. And when the vampire is vanquished, we do not feel triumph but a deep seeded sense of loss.
Dracula gave birth to our idea of the modern vampire and for that alone, it deserves a place on this list. Bela Lugosi’s performance may be considered cheesy by today’s standards but in 1931, it must have been absolutely terrifying. He brings such a level of class and malice to the character and he looks so otherworldly. The effect of his glowing eyes (achieved by shinging tiny spotlights into them) is incredibly creepy and come on, who doesn’t love the beckoning motions he makes with his hand? The other great thing about Dracula is the atmosphere that director Tod Browning creates. Right from that very first shot, which uses matte paintings to portray the Transvlvanian mountains, we know we have entered a gothic, dread filled world of horror. I also love the way Browning keeps cutting to things like bugs, armadillos, and spider webs. It lets us know that there’s something very sinister lurking under the surface of this charming Count. Then there’s Dwight Frye’s hilarious and sinister perforamance as Renfield. One of the film’s most chilling moments occurs when those men peer down into the bowels of that ship and find him smiling up at them. “He’s mad,” they cry even though they have no idea how right they are. Dracula is one of the classics and if you’ve never gotten around to watching it because of the mistaken impression that it’s old and therefore boring, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Give it a watch, it deserves to be seen by everyone at least once and you’ll be surprised by the staggering number of films it influenced.
Several of the movies on this list are based off the Dracula legend. Nosferatu asked audiences to sympathize with the monster, Salem’s Lot put Stephen King’s stamp on the legend, and Dracula brought it to the masses for the first time. It’s Fright Night though that has the most fun with Dracula by transplanting the basic idea into suburbia. Our hero, Charlie is sort of a modern day Dr. Seward/Jonathan Harker as he realizes there is a vampire living next door to him. His girlfriend Amy, who becomes the object of the creature’s affections, serves as an updated Mina Harker while his sometimes friend, Evil Ed, is an 80’s spin on Renfield. The vampire himself, Jerry Dandridge, is a modern Dracula complete with all the expected charm, pathos and menace. However, it’s Roddy McDowall as an out of work, bumbling Van Helsing type figure, who makes Fright Night into a classic. His Peter Vincent (inspired by Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), a fallen horror film star, is one of the all time great cowardly heroes. We first see him in one of his films brandishing a backwards stake and he only gets funnier from there. He has a moment of triumph when he finally decides to face his fears and help Charlie only to squander it a minute later by suggesting they sneak in through the back door and then running for the hills. All of the actors and perfectly cast here: William Ragsdale is completely relateable as the gawky, average high school kid. Amanda Bearse is warm and convincing as his loyal girlfiend. Stephen Geoffreys brings his strange personality to the role of Ed and Chris Sarandon has a grand old time as the vampire. But this is McDowall’s show and he gives it everything he’s got. His performance, coupled with Tom Holland’s assured direction and witty script (which can be viewed as precursor to things like Scream and Cabin in the Woods) make Fright Night into the most fun you’ll ever have watching a vampire movie.
Let The Right One In
Let the Right One In is the best vampire movie ever made for several reasons: (1). No other film understands the tortured existence of a vampire with this much depth. (2). It highlights the idea of vampires being lonely outsiders in a touching, thoughtful manner. (3). It explores childhood fears with a brutally other films don’t have the courage for. And finally (4). It’s terrifying. The story of put upon young Oskar and the mysterious girl named Eli who moves in next door, Let the Right One In treats them first as relatable characters and second as elements for a horror movie. Oskar, bullied at school and ignored at home, has much in common with Eli and accepts her for what she is despite being frightened of her. Eli is a fascinating, morose creature, stuck in childhood because of when she was turned and unable to care for herself. Oskar represents a friend she never got to have but is he just another pawn in her endgame? The question is ultimately immaterial because for the duration of the film, these two characters form such a deep, moving connection that we don’t care about her ultimate motivations. This makes the ending equal parts moving and horrifying. The movie has a terrifically creepy atmosphere, horrifying sequences directed with a subtle hand, wonderfully written characters, and more depth than most Oscar winners. It’s not just a great vampire movie or a great horror movie; it’s one of the great films.
If I had seen Dracula Untold, it would probably have a place on this list but since I haven’t we’ll have to wait and see. So here’s another terrible Dracula movie. Dracula 2000 is an ill conceived mess. The twist that Dracula is actually Judas Iscariot makes NO FUCKING SENSE at all and Gerard Butler is so awful he probably wishes he could permanently wipe this role off his resume.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
I know there are people who like this movie but I have a hard time understanding why. It’s the very definition of ‘over produced’. The gothic sets and absurd costumes only serve to highlight how thin the rest of the movie is. It works hard to make Dracula a tortured, sympathetic soul but never comes close to the heights of Herzog’s Nosferatu. And the acting? It’s all over the map. Gary Oldman is an accent and a wig, Anthony Hopkins has never been hammier, Winon Ryder is herself, and Keanu Reeves is just terrible. There are probably worse vampire films out there but this one, with it’s A-list cast and Francis Ford Coppola behind the camera, is the biggest disappointment.
Vampire in Brooklyn
Wes Craven’s worst movie suffers mostly from conflicting tones. Craven reportedly wanted to get away from horror and make the film more humorous while Eddie Murphy wanted the opposite. So we get a film that is neither scary nor funny. The best words to describe the flick are ‘boring as all hell’. It drags on for hours, twiddling its thumbs while a bunch of confused actors look for a purpose that they never find.
Queen of the Damned
UGH. Queen of the Damned is just painful. It’s as bad as Interview with the Vampire is good. I know some people hated Tom Cruise but is there anyone out there who thinks Stuart Townsend was better in the role of Lestat? People swear to me that the book is good but I found the movie so unwatchable and unfocused that I don’t ever want to read it.
Come on, did you expect anything else to take the last spot? Twilight is the worst for all the reasons that people are aware of: the terrible acting (guys seriously, Kristen Stewart is the worst), the laughable special effects, the insipid ideas (or lack thereof) about teenage romance, the way Stephanie Myer gives vampires superpowers whenever it suits her with no regard for rules or logic, and, of course, the sparkly vampires. But let’s put all that aside and attack this thing at the basic premise. Any immortal being with limitless power who chooses to spend eternity by repeating the same four years in high school over and over and fucking over again is not someone anybody should want to sepnd time with. Why? Cuz, that immortal being is a fucking idiot. Think about it, if you were a vampire, where is the last place you’d want to spend your time? That’s right, the place that EVERYBODY ON EARTH cannot wait to get out of. Hell, goddamn prison would be a better option for a vampire than high school. Or the bottom of the ocean. Or Antarctica. Or Outer Space. Or LITERALLY ANYWHERE ELSE.