Popular culture is in the grip of vampire mania. With “The Vampire Diaries,” “True Blood” and “The Gates” on television and the latest chapter of “The Twilight Saga” in movie theaters, it’s a wonder there’s enough hemoglobin to go around.
But what about the great vampire movies, the ones you can really sink your teeth into?
Perhaps the greatest and most lyrical of vampire movies is “Vampyr” (1932), which Criterion brought out a while back on DVD in a marvelous restoration.
Made four years after his masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” it was the first sound film by the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The imagery is thick with specters, shadows and ravenous revenants. Ingmar Bergman was greatly influenced by this film. The famous shot of the hero looking at himself in a coffin was lifted directly by Bergman for the early dream sequence in “Wild Strawberries.”
Dreyer was only able to get the film financed with the assistance of the Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, a Russian- Brazilian-Polish cinephile who also plays the lead under the pseudonym Julian West. The Baron, playing an innocent voyager in the creepy countryside, looks even more zonked than the living dead. There’s also a mad doctor who looks like a cross between Mark Twain and Professor Irwin Corey.
But absurdities such as these are not uncommon in great horror films. Sometimes, they’re actually the reason we have such affection for them.
Tod Browning’s “Dracula” (1931) with Bela Lugosi is probably the most famous Hollywood movie featuring the Fanged One. As his career wore on Lugosi became a camp caricature, but in this film he’s startlingly scary. You may want to laugh him off but, like Boris Karloff in “The Mummy,” this guy gets into your dreams.
F. W. Murnau’s wonderful “Nosferatu” (1922) boasts perhaps the creepiest of all bloodsuckers. He’s played by the perfectly named Max Schreck (schreck means fright or terror in German.) His Count Orlok is more rat than bat. His bald pate, pointed ears and splayed, elongated fingers are the stuff nightmares are made of. When Orlok says to the poor soul who has ventured into his castle, “Your wife has a beautiful neck,” you may reach up to cover up your own.
Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night” (1979) stars bug-eyed Klaus Kinski, who often looked like a vampire even when he wasn’t playing one. His performance, as is also true of the movie, celebrates Murnau and Schreck. But it has its own terrors, including the moment when Nosferatu applies his dental work to the porcelain-smooth neck of the luscious heroine played by Isabelle Adjani. Herzog’s film, more than any other, mines the everpresent carnality of the genre.
Vampire movies used to be suggestively scary but, for the past couple of decades, the horrors are much more up front. Kathryn Bigelow’s first mainstream film, “Near Dark” (1987), is a prime example of how blood-soaked these movies can get. Her scurvy, van-riding outlaws are perpetually thirsty.
Mercifully, a few good vampire movies are funny-scary rather than scary-funny or scary-scary. George Hamilton never showed off his tan to better advantage than in “Love at First Bite” (1979). His Count has to leave Transylvania because the Romanian government has converted his castle into a gymnastic clinic.
In “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988), Nicolas Cage plays a New York literary agent -- a modern-day vampire. It’s the most over-the- top performance Cage has ever given, which is saying something. He even gets to eat a live cockroach.
I’d like to see the “Twilight” wimps try that.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).
To contact the writer responsible for this story: Peter Rainer at Fi1L2E@aol.com.