Categorizing Vampire Movies

In their classic form, vampires are immortal, nonhuman beings who sustain themselves by drinking human blood.  Sometimes referred to as nosferatu or wurdalak, vampires are most often portrayed as “undead” individuals who have come back to life after death.  These undead are occasionally mindless, zombie-like figures who feel an instinctive desire to feed upon those they loved in life.  More evolved vampires retain much of the personality that they had when they were alive, but they have lost their connection to humanity because of their insatiable thirst for blood.  These “Master” vampires keep their existence secret by living apart from humankind, either in abandoned locations or as members of an underground society akin to the Mafia or the Knights Templar.  At times, these creatures masquerade as human in order to blend in with the civilized world, although some of the older vampires are better at disguising their out-of-date manners and clothing than others.  Nocturnal hunters, most vampires are reluctant to attack more than one human at a time, and seek out prey that is vulnerable and alone.  More often than not, they kill those that they attack.  However, on certain occasions they are so fascinated by their prey that they decide to initiate the victim into the cult of vampirism by forcing the victim to drink vampire blood.  Interestingly enough, vampires become vulnerable when they fall in love with their prey, and the attachment often leads to their destruction.

A popular subject of “B” and independent films, vampires have inspired some of the most lyric, erotic, and violent movies ever made.  These films vary wildly in quality, from the inspired to the unwatchable, and it is nearly impossible to predict their relative worth based on their lurid titles and poster art.  Film connoisseurs generally consider the vampire to be emblematic of escapist entertainment at its most extreme, since the creature’s highly supernatural nature taxes a film viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief to the limit.  However, vampire films often force viewers to confront some of their own darkest impulses, as well as some of the greatest evils of society.  In these cases, the films may be the opposite of escapist—a foray into social and psychological territories many viewers would rather leave unexplored.  After all, vampires are symbols of sin, sex, and death, and the territory in which all three meet.  As such, their social and religious significance is vast and often underestimated.

Seemingly paradoxically, the widespread popularity of the Twilight series of young adult vampire books by Mormon author Stephanie Meyer (and the 2008 film they inspired) is often attributed to the way in which they make taboo subjects such as teen sexuality seem more approachable, largely because of Meyer’s thinly veiled abstinence message. Twilight is about Bella Swan, a human teenager who falls in love with Edward Cullen, a vampire who has taken an oath not to kill humans, but to drink the blood of animals instead. Their forbidden love is challenged by outside figures, including members of Bella’s extended family, who do not trust Edward, and other vampires, who do not share Edward’s reticence to kill humans. As horror novelist Stephen King explained in a February 2009 USA Weekend interview, Meyer is “writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because it’s not overtly sexual… A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like, the [“good”] vampire will touch [Bella’s] forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”

Another 2008 film provided a stark contrast to Twilight by treating similar subject matter in a vastly different manner. Let The Right One In, a Swedish film, emphasized all that is dangerous, violent, and ultra sexual in a first love between its pre-teen protagonists, the human 12-year-old boy Oskar and the seemingly young female vampire Eli. The movie presents a far less sanitized vision of vampires, and shows each murder the child-serial-killer vampire commits as being brutal and tragic. Instead of making the emotions of the young seem “safe,” the film explores the darkest emotions that young boys are capable of, including rage, lust, and despair, and shows the consequences of acting on these feelings. Let the Right One in is clearly an art film, marketed for adults, and would likely horrify the young Twilight readers should they ever choose to watch it. The two films are an object lesson in how different vampire films treat the same subject matter in starkly different ways, and in very different styles.

While Meyer’s vampires are currently the most popular incarnation of the classic figure of the vampire, her vision of the vampire is merely one of many possible. Indeed, there are many different species of vampires, and of vampire films, but they tend to cluster around five most popular types of vampire movies.  The “adventure” film is characterized by frequent use of special effects and liberal doses of martial arts choreography, such as in Van Helsing (2004), Underworld (2003), and Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet (2006). The “sensual” film ranges from the romantic (the Frank Langella Dracula, 1979) to the pornographic (Vampyres, 1974), while the “poetic”—almost art house—meditations focus on death, rape, homosexuality, sexually transmitted disease, addiction, or even ethnic cleansing, and include such films as The Addiction (1995), Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Nadja (1994), Joe Ahearne’s Ultraviolet (BBC-4, 1998), F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu (1922), and Werner Herzog’s remake Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979). There are a number of “campy romps” or spoofs of the over-familiar conventions in this genre, including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Love at First Bite (1979), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), and there are also a number of “melodramas” modeled after Medieval morality plays and the British Gothic tradition, including the films of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, ‘Salem’s Lot (TV, 2004), and the “classic” Universal monster films.

An arguably recent addition to the vampire genre is the vampire “war film,” which may be considered an extension of the vampire adventure film genre depending on the level of escapist action involved. Some vampire action films have the urgency and brutality of war movies, as they often involve a small town, or fortified building, that is besieged by an enemy force of far superior strength and numbers. In films such as the defenders are either massacred, in an outcome akin to the battle of the Alamo, or, incredibly, prevail, as in the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War. In such films, the human defenders are clearly the “heroes” and the attacking vampire army the “villains,” so vampire “war movies” are rarely as morally ambiguous as the circumstances behind the real-life battles that inspired them. Nevertheless, the depiction of mass killings and burning of homes evokes real-life war crimes, genocides, and wars of attrition in an often serious and sobering manner. This scenario is more common to zombie films, westerns, and science fiction blockbusters inspired by Aliens (1986), but it is featured in notable vampire films From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), 30 Days of Night (2007), and I Am Legend (2007). The most recent additions to this genre are, unsurprisingly, replete with 9/11 and war on terror imagery, including the book (and newly minted television) series The Strain.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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