Slide show: Want a real taste of the genre's rich cinematic legacy? Try these bold, underappreciated classics
10. “Near Dark” (1987)
“Normal folks, they don’t spit out bullets when you shoot ‘em, no sir,” says a character in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark” who meets a gang of undead bank robbers and lives to tell the tale. But invulnerability to lead is the least interesting thing about Bigelow’s bloodsuckers. In contrast to Anne Rice’s similarly long-lived vampires, the characters aren’t haughty underworld aristocrats. They’re hot-tempered proles living off petty scores (rural banks, dive bars) that net just enough blood and cash to keep them going. They’re also a makeshift family unit, and to quote the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” they’ve been around for a long, long year. The patriarch is Lance Henriksen’s Jesse, a glowering despot who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The matriarch is Jesse’s mate, Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein); she’s like a badass biker mama with a yen for blood. Son No. 1 is Severen (Bill Paxton, hamming it up like a redneck Jack Nicholson), a grinning sadist who jokes about “that fire we started in Chicago.” Son No. 2 is Homer (Joshua John Miller), an adult male trapped forever in a 13-year-old boy’s body. (He’s reminiscent of poor Claudia in Rice’s 1976 novel “Interview With the Vampire,” but more pathetic; we meet him long after the last of his innocence was snuffed out, and his mix of bitterness, cruelty and sexual frustration is truly disturbing.) Although a forbidden romance between a hunky young farmer named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and the newest “sibling” in the vampire clan, Mae (Jenny Wright), gives “Near Dark” a wisp of a plot, it’s the film’s least compelling element (though it does result in a grimly funny new-boyfriend-meeting-the-family scene). Bigelow and co-screenwriter Eric Red are plainly less interested in story than in creating a dark sensual mood punctuated by hard-”R” violence and eerily beautiful images: moonlit prairie landscapes, a slow-motion kiss, sunlight streaming through bullet holes in a motel wall.
9. “Cronos” (1993)
To some extent, all vampire movies are about time and mortality. But Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature “Cronos” foregrounds these topics; the result is an alternately horrific and charming fable built around characters doing everything they can to cheat death. The film’s elderly hero, antique dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), discovers an egg-shaped “Cronos device” that confers immortality, youth and a thirst for the red stuff; pretty soon he’s jonesing for blood so bad that he’ll lick it off a bathroom floor. He wants to live forever not just for the obvious primal reasons but because he loves his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) and wants to watch her grow up. Luckily for Jesus, she’s a kind and decent child, his moral compass. When a cancer-ridden industrialist (Claudio Brook, familiar from many Luis Bunuel films) learns of the device’s location and sends his American nephew (Ron Perlman) to steal it, “Cronos” seems as though it’s about to turn into a suspense thriller. But del Toro — who would return to the vampire mythos in the unexpectedly intelligent action sequel “Blade 2″ (2003) — is more interested in the characters’ eccentric personalities and desires and in the metaphysical concerns that many vampire films neglect. As Roger Ebert pointed out, Latin American vampire movies often have “an undercurrent of religiosity: The characters, fully convinced there is a hell, may have excellent reasons for not wanting to go there.”
8. “Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary” (2002)
“Immigrants! Others!” screams a title card in the opening sequence of Guy Maddin’s nouveau silent film, as the screen shows a hyperkinetic jumble of images: ships, coffins, foamy ocean waves and maps marked with arrows. The whole movie is similarly over-the-top and playful, turning subtext into text with such panache that you can’t help grinning. And it’s a musical! This version of Bram Stoker’s novel was originally commissioned by the Royal Winnepeg Ballet; Maddin, whose filmography includes “Cowards Bend the Knee” and “The Saddest Music in the World,” reimagined the production as sheer sexual delirium, casting Chinese actor Zhang Wei-Qiang as the count, filming the action in tinted black-and-white 16mm and Super 8, scoring the entire thing with snippets of Gustav Mahler, and treating vampirism as both a plague and a metaphor for Eastern civilization infiltrating and taking over the West.
7. “Horror of Dracula” (1958)
Bram Stoker’s source material was always steeped in sex: Dracula as seducer, invader, anti-Victorian lothario. And it’s true that the original 1931 film version of “Dracula,” while visually chaste, had a carnal undercurrent. Yet when you read the phrase “sexy vampire,” Bela Lugosi in a cape isn’t the first image that springs to mind. Christopher Lee is a different proposition. The tall, deep-voiced actor sprang to international fame in the 1950s in a series of brutal and frankly sexual Technicolor horror movies from Hammer Studios. Terence Fisher’s 1958 reworking of Stoker’s novel (alternately known as “Dracula” and “Dracula 1958″) cemented Lee’s fame, and it’s easy to see why: He’s a powerful screen presence, devilishly charismatic and confident, the sort of actor who commands a room just by being in it. He’s too much man for any impressionable young viewer introduced to vampire mythology by “Twilight,” a series that seems a likely cover subject for Lisa Simpson’s “Non-Threatening Boys Magazine”. As the vampire hunter Van Helsing, fellow Hammer regular Peter Cushing is an icy counterpart to Lee’s hot-blooded count, truly a worthy foe. The film itself is strong, too — a great example of how to do a lot with a little. As director Joe Dante has noted, Hammer Studios didn’t have much money, so they concentrated on story and characterization and wrote their way around any potential budget limitations — dealing, for instance, with their inability to stage a convincing vampire-turning-into-a-bat scene by writing a bit where Van Helsing explains that vampires can’t actually turn into bats.
6. “Marebito” (2004)
Also known as “The Stranger From Afar,” this Japanese film by Takashi Shimizu starts with a scene in which a freelance news cameraman (Shinya Tsukamoto) studies a video of a disturbed man plunging a blade into his own eyeball. The moment establishes “Marebito” as a low-budget foray into extreme horror — and it certainly is that. But it’s also a dream film, or a maybe-dream film, filled with allusions to touchstone works of horror (including H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”) and situations and images that are tough to define as “real” or “not real” because the tale deliberately muddies that distinction. The hero goes into the subway looking for the suicide victim’s ghost (see what I mean?) and instead finds a naked female vampire with nasty teeth and brings her back to his apartment, where he tries to rehabilitate and civilize her and starts by feeding her fresh blood (first his own, then others’). The movie is slow-paced, flagrantly weird, narrated within an inch of its life, and chock-full of video images that might be 1) a comment on how nothing quite seems real in our surveillance-crazed, media-saturated era unless it’s captured on video, or 2) an attempt to paper over the film’s narrative shortcomings with art-house pretense. Yet somehow the result is one of the most original vampire movies of the last quarter-century, one you’ll remember and obsess over even if you hated it.
5. “Ganja and Hess” (1973)
Bill Gunn’s “Ganja and Hess” tells of a reserved African-American doctor named Hess Green (Duane Jones of “Night of the Living Dead”) who gets attacked by an old friend (Gunn) with a ceremonial dagger that the friend brought back with him from Africa. Hess recovers to find himself immortal and craving blood; he also falls hard for a beautiful woman named Ganja Meda (Marlene Carter) and decides to bring her into his world. One of the most unusual and personal of vampire films, “Ganja” would not exist without the cojones of Gunn, an actor who turned to screenwriting and directing after years of being frustrated that Sidney Poitier got all the best parts. When he saw the box-office grosses for “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssss Song” (1971) and the Afrocentric cheapie “Blacula” (1972), he accepted a distributor’s pitch to make a quickie mixing elements from both. The result, “Ganja and Hess,” was not like either of its supposed inspirations; in fact it was so uncategorizable (and thus so hard to promote) that its distributor dumped it after a one-week run, reedited it to take out all the arty stuff, and rereleased it as “Blood Couple.” Gunn took his original cut to Cannes, where it was hailed as a one-of-a-kind film — a genuinely cinematic, sometimes borderline experimental movie that told much of the story through images and music; less a traditional vampire flick than a tale of doomed love and a meditation on how the inspiring/intimidating image of Africa as a soul-purifying force had etched itself on black Americans’ imaginations. The film is freaky, sexy and incoherent, obsessed with religion, philosophy and culture, and often staggeringly beautiful. To quote critic Ray Young, it “owes less to the myths surrounding Dracula (or Blacula) than the themes of moral decay found in Oscar Wilde and Joseph Conrad.” It’s the vampire picture that “Days of Heaven” director Terrence Malick might have made — if Malick were a brother who loved weed, funk and beautiful sistahs, and kept telling his friends how he was going to just pick up and move to Africa one day and stay there, because man, over there, they get it.
4. Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
“I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!” screams Nicolas Cage’s character in “Vampire’s Kiss” as he runs manically down the street. But what makes this little-seen comedy compelling — besides Cage’s fey accent, spastic body language and other undignified actorly choices — is the prospect that he might not be a vampire. As written by Joseph Minion and directed by Robert Bierman, “Vampire’s Kiss” is a comedy about interracial lust, mental breakdown and spiritual bankruptcy and what happens when a womanizer gets his comeuppance. Cage’s character, Peter, is a hard-driving literary agent and sexaholic who makes the catastrophic error of bringing home a gorgeous young woman in a red dress (Jennifer Beals) who feasts on his neck. It’s all downhill from there; Peter becomes convinced that he was bitten by a vampire and is turning into one himself, and starts smuggling pigeons home under his coat as food and baiting his secretary to murder him. Whether the neck bite causes Peter’s decline or just gives him permission to go, well, batshit, remains an open question. Like a lot of films on this list, “Vampire’s Kiss” is more unusual than perfect, and there are times when it seems to be furiously spinning its wheels rather than going anyplace. But with Cage behind the wheel, it’s still a ride.
3. “Let the Right One In” (2008)
Arguably the one off-the-beaten-track film on this list that “Twilight” fans are likely to have already seen, I’ve included it anyway, for a couple of reasons: First, it wasn’t really an according-to-Hoyle hit, but a hit by art-house standards, a qualified triumph, which, in an all-or-nothing Hollywood economy, is rather like being named one of the greatest hockey players in Madagascar. More important, this tale of the unusual friendship between two barely pubescent kids (one mortal, the other maybe not) is just a flat-out great film — funny, creepy, moving and sincere in every moment and gesture. Directed by Tomas Alfredson and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his novel, the film stars K
2. “Nosferatu the Vampyr” (1979)
F.W. Murnau’s original 1922 “Nosferatu” is the first great vampire film, as well as a key text from which German Expressionism and its American cousin, film noir, sprang. You have to be brilliant, serenely self-confident or crazy to even think about remaking it; luckily all three adjectives apply to Werner Herzog, the mad poet behind “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo,” “Grizzly Man,” “Stroszek” and too many other classics than can be listed in this space. Rather than ape the original in color, Herzog goes his own way, creating a symphony of light and space, a small-scale epic scored to menacing classical cues, in which various characters seek out extreme situations to test themselves against, in hopes of evolving both spiritually and psychologically. Klaus Kinski, aka Herzog’s best fiend, is ideally cast as the pasty, bald yet strangely alluring bloodsucker. (How much makeup did he need, really?) The actor brings out the character’s bitter neediness and his resentment at being unmoored from the rhythms of mortal life. This may be the real reason for his seduction of the innocent and his spreading of the vampire disease: He wants to show the world what it means to be him.
1. “Thirst” (2009)
In light of his history of making shockingly violent yet meticulously controlled films, South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (“Oldboy”) would seem an ideal director to make a vampire picture — and sure enough, when he finally felt the urge to make one, the result, “Thirst,” turned out to be much more than an obligatory entry in a familiar genre. At times it feels like the vampire film to end all vampire films. By turns a parable of souls in torment, a crime thriller with echoes of “Bonnie and Clyde,” a domestic drama, a social satire, a scorching sex fantasy, a love story and a dream film, it’s a movie that keeps morphing as you view it. Its most affecting aspect, though, is its portrayal of the love between its hero, a faithless priest afflicted with a vampire disease (Song Kang-ho), and its heroine (Kim Ok-vin), an abused foundling being raised by the family from whom the priest rents a room. When these loners fall in lust and she begs him to bite her, it seems as though the director is setting the stage for a tragic love story, and he does deliver that. But he also creates a warped romantic comedy about a mentor who raises a young and eager lover/pupil to his level, then is aghast to discover that she has evolved to a point where she no longer needs his guidance or approval, and in fact considers him a bit of a drag. Think “Annie Hall” with fangs.
» Better than "Twilight": 10 must-see vampire films July 2, 2010