Welcome to Psycho Drive-In’s 31 Days of Schlocktober celebration! This year we’ve decided to present the ABCs of Horror, with entries every day this month providing Director information, Best-of lists, Genre overviews, and Reviews of films and franchises, all in alphabetical order! Today brings us V is for Vampires! If I thought tackling Dracula’s cinematic adventures was a daunting task, then you can imagine how I felt when I started researching vampires. The Count’s brothers and sisters in blood have an equally complex and long history. The rise to prominence in popular culture that started with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and the 1931 film1) has continued to evolve and remain modern and relevant centuries after its first appearance. In many ways, the vampire truly is immortal. Before I get started, I need to thank those without whom this article wouldn’t be possible. I stood on the shoulders of many giants in order to tackle such a vast topic. Perhaps the most important of which is the horror historian and cultural critic David J. Skal. His books The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (1993), and V Is for Vampire: The A-Z Guide to Everything Undead (1996) both proved to be essential to breaking down the topic into bite-sized chunks. I also have to thank /r/Horror on Reddit for helping me navigate vampire films through the decades. Lastly, Uncle John’s All-Purpose Extra-Strength Bathroom Reader courtesy of Neatorama provided a very succinct introduction to Dracula’s leap from page to screen. In the beginning there was Nosferatu… Lugosi might be responsible for Dracula’s popularity in modern cinema, but he was not the first vampire on screen. That title belongs to the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu starring Max Shreck. Unfortunately, the producers ran afoul of the Stoker estate and Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, did her best to have all copies of it destroyed. Shreck’s version of Count Orlock is actually more true to the Stoker story, being a pale, ugly creature, more fearsome than seductive. Arguably, this version also reflects the underscore of anti-Semitism that scholars like Jeffrey Weinstock2 and historians like Skal believe permeates some early vampire stories. I bring that up not to argue the point one way or another, but to illustrate the means by which vampires historically act as a reflection of their times (which is possibly ironic given that vampires themselves often have no reflections of their own). As Skal points out, “Vampire stories tend to assume the form of each generations special fears and afflictions,” thus making vampires into the quintessential “Other”. Orlock is an ugly monster, and perhaps, combined with Mrs. Stoker’s crusade, that is why e Bela Lugosi’s version became the progenitor of our modern image of the vampire. Lugosi’s Count was regal, a monster with a certain pedigree and air of class. He was seductive, with his slicked black hair and glowing eyes. He was an “Other” that was as intriguing as he was deadly. I imagine that his attractive qualities made him even more frightening, as he inspired his victims to come to him instead of, rightfully, running away in shock and fear. Lugosi’s Dracula, and the subsequent release of Frankenstein in the same year, would help launch what has come to be known as the Universal Monsters, demonstrating Universal Studios dominance of the Horror Genre for decades to come. Two comedians walk into a castle… Universal’s dominance started to wane as the 40s came to a close. Bela, in only his second reprisal of the character he made famous, starred alongside comedians Abbot and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Skal posits that the 1930s were a boon for Horror films because “the bottom fell out of the tubs into which America had poured its hopes and faiths.” The Great Depression imbued the Universal films with “perceptible, if unintended, metaphors of economic and class warfare.” By the start of the 50s Americans had just come out of the Second World War Abbot and Costello comedies, having saved Universal from bankruptcy, had replaced the monsters. I imagine this was also due in large part to the quality of films being put out by Universal at the time. By most accounts the monster films had been reduced to little more than B Movies and retreads of common ground. It makes sense that a war-weary populace would be more interested in a good, intentional, laugh as opposed to the unintentional ones provided by schlock versions of creatures they had seen ad nauseum. Who would choose to be afraid when you’ve just lived through some of your worst fears? I think it’s entirely likely that the descent of the genre was a mix of poor quality product and a society who just wanted to escape their fears for a while. However, there was a horror resurgence on the horizon thanks to a studio in Britain. Werewolves Vampires of London… British company Hammer Film Productions would become the reigning king of monsters starting in the 1950s and running well into the 1970s. Dracula, previously defined almost exclusively by Lugosi’s portrayal, took on a frightening new face in 1958’s Horror of Dracula. Christopher Lee’s portrayal would take the original regal nature to an entirely new level and Hammer, taking full advantage of producing films in color, would introduce a bloodier, sometimes more gory, version of the vampire than audiences had previously seen. The Hammer Horror would redefine the previous generation’s monsters, including vampires, and their influence would extend beyond just the films they produced. For example, author Bestselling author Terry Pratchet cites Hammer films as inspiring the country of Überwald in his successful Discworld series. Moving into the 1970s Hammer produced the The Karnstein Trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust For A Vampire, and Twins Of Evil), which more or less created the subgenre of Vampire Lesbian films. The series is also notable for introducing the concept of vampires who are able to withstand both sunlight and fire. In 1971 Jesus Franco would produce the exploitation film Vampyros Lesbos using vampire lesbians as the central conceit. This subgenre would use the vampire as way to explore in a context removed from usual societal norms. Sapphic themes aren’t new to vampire mythology, with roots in the 1872 novella Carmilla, written by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu. However, where Carmilla maintains a degree of romance, the lesbian vampires tend to lean more towards shock and titillation. In general, exploitation films tend to reflect society in an almost accidental manner. Attempts at being transgressive are often done simply to grab headlines and, hopefully, moviegoers. However, it’s hard to ignore the role that the so-called “sexual revolution” played in the themes of these movies. In 1973 the landmark Rowe v. Wade case would be decided making abortion legal across the country. This decision was seen as a massive step forward with regards to women’s reproductive rights. If you remove the titillation aspect, the idea of women being able to procreate without the need of men takes on a whole new perspective in light of that decision. While It’s very easy to make a case that vampire lesbians are designed to entertain the more puerile, base instincts of a male audience, I think you’d be remiss if that’s all that was taken away from such films. Sexual control is a rather undeniable theme throughout vampire fiction. I think a strong case could be made the 70s reflect the rise of sexual independence beginning to take hold in more modern times. Leather jackets and neon… For those of us that grew up in the 1980s, everything was big, bombastic and over the top. The clothes, the colors, the music, everything was louder, bigger and, at least on the surface, more hedonistic. Vampires proved to be no exception. As evidence, the tagline for the 1987 release of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys was, “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” Both Lost Boys and 1985’s Fright Night brought youth literally into modern vampire lore. The stories revolved around the prototypical new kid/”fish out of water” trope. In the case of Lost Boys, the new kid is the protagonist, Michael (played by Jason Patric), who plays a bit of Romeo to Star (played by Jami Gertz), his Juliet. Except, instead of a rival family, Star belongs to a coven of vampires. You can imagine the particular teen hijinks that ensue as a result. In Fright Night, the vampire is the new kid isn’t a kid but a vampire. The protagonist, a typical awkward teenager, Charlie Brewster (played by William Ragsdale) discovers that a vampire has moved in next door to his family. Jerry (played by Chris Sarandon), the vampire, doesn’t take to kindly to being discovered and decides that he has to kill Charlie and Charlie’s friends. Charlie calls on the supposed “vampire hunter” Peter Vincent (played by Roddy McDowall) to help him kill Jerry and rescue his friends. If these plots sound familiar it’s probably because they’re very similar to most teen movies throughout the 80s. Welcome to the 80s, where vampires party hard and hedonism is the order of the day. Just like the much of 80s pop culture, vampire movies took the sexual revolution and turned it into an easily packaged form of “rebellion” that was marketed it to teenagers. I feel like this period was very similar to the Abbot and Costello period at the end of the 40s. Monsters had lost their fangs. Ghosts of New Orleans… Themes of sexual freedom and independance would continue to remain prevalent into the 1980s and 1990s. Skal believes that “AIDS is the undeniable subtext of the explosive growth of vampire entertainment in [the 90s]. […] [The] vampire represents a complete control over mortality, a supernatural immunity to death in an age of immune dysfunction. The mass appetite for Anne Rice’s vampire novels demonstrates the need for transcendent images in the time of a modern plague.” The AIDS epidemic appeared as a frightening spectre hanging over the hedonism of the 80s. If you party too much, particularly if you’re a “sexually adventurous” or homosexual male, then death awaits you at every turn. The “party hard” attitude (see The Lost Boys) suddenly became life threatening. Interesting to note that during the 80s, from 1980-1989, there were approximately 150 vampire related features released. The early 90s saw almost half of that released in a fifth of the time. Once again, audiences seemed hungry for vampire stories that reflected their reality, as the glitz and glamour of the 80s slowly faded into the grunge of the 90s. Rice’s novels, The Vampire Chronicles, were published from 1976 and throughout the 1980s. The first film, Interview With the Vampire, was released in 1994. By most accounts, Anne Rice defined what it meant to be a vampire until well into the 90s. Perhaps most notably, Rice made vampires who were beautiful and emotional creatures (but not sparkly! More on that to come). Lestat’s alluring qualities makes Lugosi’s Dracula seem like the proverbial “girl next door.” In many ways, Rice’s vampires paved the way for the vampire as a hero. Later vampires like Angel and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, draw a direct lineage to Lestat and his family. The same can be said for Aidan and Mitchell, tortured souls struggling with their blood “addiction,” in the US and UK versions of Being Human respectively3. As noted by Skal, Rice created these beautiful, sexual creatures that can reproduce without fear of death and disease. However, even with all the beauty, wealth and companionship, they remain wounded characters; they are the definition of the Byronic Hero. SPARKLES! As noted above, without Lestat we might not have had Angel or Spike. Unfortunately, that also means, as much as I hate to admit it, without Lestat there would not be Edward Cullen. Granted, The Twilight Saga is leagues removed from The Vampire Chronicles. But, there it is hard to deny how one laid the groundwork for the other. However, where Twilight differs the most is not the addition of glitter into vampire mythology. According to Natalie Wilson in her book Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga,Twilight is perhaps the single most conservative vampire story ever penned; “[Twilight] relies on normative construction of gender, power, race, and class — all is “right” by the end […] meaning that all existing power structures continue unchallenged — that white male privilege remains in its lofty tower – or, more aptly, its gleaming vampire mansion.” Seduced by Twilight is a modern feminist critique of the Twilight series. Wilson argues that the series actually reinforces cultural values instead of challenging them. Wilson also cites the work of Milly Williamson5, who asserts that the western vampire mythology “reassert[s] patriarchy, racial superiority, family values and chaste heterosexuality.” This critique is counter to the perception of what was done in Stoker’s Dracula, and arguably most of the vampire works of the modern era. Where most criticism seems to agree that vampire fiction celebrates unbridled sexuality – including homosexual relationships between men and women – Wilson and Williamson argue that many of the vampires of the modern era aren’t transgressive. Rather they contend that vampire mythologies are more like cautionary tales of what not to do. Ergo, the exploitation films of the 70’s and vampire lesbian sub-genre didn’t challenge societal norms so much as they reinforced stigmas around the dangers of homosexuality and catered to the male gaze. Using this argument, Twilight is just reinforcing the history that came before it, albeit more blatantly than its predecessor. It’s an interesting argument, and not one with which I’m initially inclined to agree. It’s not the first critique regarding vampire lore, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. And, honestly, that might be the true power of the vampire. Whether they represent our own Faustian deals, our struggles with the unknown or our preternatural fear of the undead, the vampire forces us out of the safety of our personal mores and values. They are the shadow that we’d rather ignore, but without whom our identity is incomplete. 1Note here that I’m not arguing that Dracula was the first vampire film, but the first to truly catapult the old myths into the public consciousness. 2See Weinstock’s Circumcising Dracula: The Vampire as Anti-Semitic Trope 3As much as I would have loved to explore the importance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Being Human more, I regret that I only have room for a passing mention here. The contributions of Buffy alone deserve its own article. 4Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve watched Lost Boys, but as I wrote the description I couldn’t help but feel like it was basically The Karate Kid. You just replace Cobra Kai with vampires. 5For more from Williamson see her paper Television, Vampires and the Body: Somatic Pathos or her book The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction, and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.