The Evolution of Vampires in Film

Despite the widely acknowledged techniques of killing a bloodsucker having stayed the same since the beginning of vampires in film, their portrayal has not. With the final installment of The Twilight Saga soon to be upon us, I have taken a look at how the form of the vampire has changed, in more ways than just into mist and bat.

Nosferatu (1922) set an early tone for the true nature of the vampire. Looking back, it is clear that Max Schreck’s performance as Count Orlok heavily influenced many films that followed. The hideousness of his creature clearly suggested that this was indeed a demon of the night and one to be feared.

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in 1922′s Nosferatu

The problem for F.W. Murnau was that his silent production followed Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In light of this, Murnau instigated a legal attack from Stoker’s widow for copyright infringement, an attack which saw the destruction of all but a few copies of the film. Like any strong vampire though (and with the help of devotees), Nosferatu rose again after being restored in 1994. Aside from the prosthetics, which are later echoed by Salem’s Lot (1979), the ultimate destruction of Count Orlok involving sunlight was a first and subsequently became an accepted death in vampiric lore.

In 1931, Bela Lugosi transformed the way that the world would see vampires. His performance as Count Dracula, with his Hungarian accent and flowing movement, became the common theme among many impersonations both on screen and off. Despite having only played the role twice, Lugosi’s representation of the Prince of Darkness remains a popular choice for many when assuming the guise (including myself at several fancy-dress parties!)

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Although there was no real departure from the form dictated by Lugosi, it would be a mistake not to mention the role Sir Christopher Lee played in striking fear into the hearts of cinemagoers during his time as Dracula. Donning the cape in 1958, Lee starred as the count in the Hammer Films production Dracula. Despite the apparent death of the character, Lee played the role in five of the seven sequels, ending in the 1973 production The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

During the ’70s, the vampire movie began to mutate from out-and-out horror into more explanatory stories of the biology of vampirism and how it came about. Will Smith starred in I Am Legend in 2007, which had already been made twice before; in 1964’s Last Man on Earth and the 1971 production of The Omega, all of which concentrated on how the vampiric effect took hold.

A return to form in 1979′s Salem’s Lot

Salem’s Lot, in 1979, reverted back to the original idea of a vampire being a hunter only, with only one thing in mind: feeding! The form of the beast in this movie was clearly influenced by the Count Orlok figure portrayed by Max Schreck, a terrifying departure from the less-worrying Hammer efforts.

Several vampire films arrived in the ’80s and would go on to be considered classics in their own rights. Fright Night (1985) maintained the scarier, bloodthirsty creature but the element of an alter-ego came into play. To many, Jerry Dandridge (played by Chris Sarandon) was your average man on the street, but by night it was clear for his neighbor, Charley Brewster (played by William Ragsdale), that he was something different altogether. Near Dark (1987) brought the idea of family and association to vampire movies as it tells the story of a group of travelling vampires. Furthering this idea of a collective of the species living together, The Lost Boys (1987) brought a lighter hearted theme to what was once a pure horror genre.

The future of vampire films takes a hard turn with the introduction of the lighter teen-friendly The Lost Boys.

The theme, now, was predominantly that of comedy horror, where the vampire was almost a comical figure, rather than the most feared of all the demonic beasts. Vampire’s Kiss (1988), Fright Night 2 (also 1988 and a poorer sequel) and Once Bitten (1985) are all good examples of this. Even Vamp (1986), with the incredible Grace Jones, had a distinct comedy element, though dark in places.

To a certain degree, the ’90s took vampire films just about as far away from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Count Orlok as possible. Francis Ford Coppola’s presentation of Stoker’s Dracula was very faithful to the author’s vision, with many citing it as a true representation. This was an anomaly though as Interview with the Vampire (1994) told the life story of the vampire Lestat, based on the excellent Anne Rice novel set in the deep south, a feature repeated in the TV series True Blood.

The hunter becomes the hero as Wesley Snipes brings Blade to life.

In 1998, the vampire became the hero when Wesley Snipes became Blade, a half human, half vampire champion whose purpose in life was to avenge his mother’s death caused, of course, by vampires. During this period, TV shows also embraced this heroic nature of vampires. Two of the most notable examples would be Buffy and its spin-off, Angel, depicting vampire characters saving the day (and the world) on many occasions.

More recently, vampires have become accepted members of society and are no longer thought of as myth in movies. The Twilight Saga needs no introduction. The final part of the story is fast approaching and what happens to the vampire in cinema afterwards is anyone’s guess. The driving of a stake through the heart, the removal of the head, direct exposure to sunlight and, recently, UV light remain the methods of death. Some look more spectacular and, if possible, realistic. In particular, the bursting into flames seems more plausible than that of the “sparkles” associated with the vampires in the Twilight movies.

One thing is certain though, vampires used to be pure evil, blood-thirsty animals. They were feared by all and Dracula was the first and most fearsome of them all. Now, they are not scary. They seek to become respected members of society. It is time for the mist to flow through the gaps in the floorboards. It is time for the bat to fly in through the open window and into the house without an invite. It is time for the cape to draw around the victim and for Dracula to have his fill from the throat of another victim once again, and for the blood curdling scream to scare us once again, as it used to.

*Written by JP Wooding

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  1. Melissa Bradley says:

    Great article about vampire in film, but you can’t forget 30 Days of Night or Let The Right One In. Both brought the monster back to vampire.

    I can’t wait until this last Twilight film is over. These guys aren’t even vampires as far as I’m concerned. They’re pretty people with CGI dental work. LOL

    • Josh Lyons says:

      I was never overly fond of Let The Right One In, though thought it was pretty good, if for no reason other than them not fully romanticizing vampires like we’re used to now.

      30 Days of Night, however, is definitely one I was very pleased with by how they portrayed vampires: pure bloodythirsty predators. The way it should be.

  2. J-P Wooding says:

    Too many good and bad films to include them all. Thirty days of night is good as was the anime title Vampire Hunter D. Twilight and, I think, Vampire Diaries should be amongst the last of their kind. Let’s see a return to the almost unstoppable monster of yesterday! Thanks for the comments.

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