It always hurts my horror-loving heart when people scoff at vampire movies. There’s so much dynamism in vampires to tease out in fiction, from the biological cause of the affliction to the queering of their sexuality and whatever they desire post-transformation.
I’d argue that the problem with most contemporary vampire art is its heteronormativity and adherence to mainstream ideas of sexuality. When Bram Stoker wrote “Dracula,” his pale women driven mad with animalistic lust weren’t necessary meant to titillate the reader. The novel was written in 1897, when rough, casual sex with a male stranger was beyond taboo. It was almost monstrous, and this twisting of human sexuality fit well into Stoker’s Gothic horror story.
The problem with vampire films is, contemporary audiences are accustomed to women writhing around on screen and begging to be satiated. In order to move the vampire genre into a more present frame of reference, filmmakers have had to manipulate sexual preference and desire into explorations of different, more interesting taboos.
Some of my favorite vampire films use the Gothic structure and characterization of vampires in order to wade around in the muck of human sexuality. Vampirism isn’t down-played in these films, but it’s certainly used most effectively as a partner to social commentary. Any good vampire story endeavors to stick a wooden stake in the heart of cliche. Here’s a long, but not exhaustive, list of the recent vampire films I find most exciting:
1. Bakjwi, (2009)
Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy has recently gained some traction in the states with an ill-advised Josh Brolin remake. Park as a film auteur enjoys claustrophobic spaces and a stark dark vs light aesthetic, so it was only a matter of time before he turned to the vampire genre.
What I find most exciting about Bakjwi (in English it’s Bat, but the film released with an English title is called Thirst) is the curious casting of the film’s two leads. I love both actors, but especially Song kang-ho in Gwomuel (a wicked cool monster movie to be reviewed in the future). While many promotional film posters depicted Song kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin in sexual poses or in a fearful embrace, the film is really centered around vampirism and the way its onset affects the characters’ gender expression. Before she is born again as a vampire, Kim’s character Tae-ju is locked in a sexless marriage to a feminized man who worships his mother. His nose constantly drips, and though he begs for her attention while lying in the fetal position, she is unable to rouse any loving emotion for him. It’s clear that she pities her partner before ex-priest Sang-hyun comes along.
Bakjwi honors the original intent of works like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” by embedding a monster story into a plot centered around sexual chemistry. What results is one of the most accurate, engrossing and disturbing sex scenes I’ve ever encountered. When Sang-hyun and Tae-ju finally consummate the lust that’s been building inside both of them, their sex acts are so strange and hungry that it’s almost like they’ve forgotten what intercourse usually entails. They breathe raggedly, touching each other’s feet and almost falling off the hospital bed they’re in together, becoming entangled by their extramarital affair and their eventual transformation into vampires.
Once turned into a vampire, Tae-ju is unable to hide her disdain for his husband anymore, and she becomes increasingly enraged by his presence. I don’t want to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the tension that ramps up to a satisfying ending is based solely around the monsters Tae-ju and Sang-hyun become, once they’ve opened themselves to both lust and bloodlust. This is not a love story, but a monster story about a woman who can’t control herself within the realm of her new freedom.
Swedish cinema billed this film as a “romantic horror,” and I wish this was a more popular genre. The title loosely translates to Let the Right One In in English, which speaks to the adolescent story at the center of the film. Rather than a vampire story based on romance and heterosexual sex, Let the Right One In explores taboos in pre-adolescent intimacy and the grey area between self-defensive violence and victimizing another person.
Toeheaded, meek Oskar is savagely bullied at school and lives in a claustrophobic flat in snowy, dark Stockholm with his mother. Without the focused guidance of either of his parents, Oskar develops an interest in grisly crime photos, and he keeps a huge knife under his mattress at night.
When Oskar meets Eli, a pale girl in his building, he becomes fixated on her. They pass morse code messages through the walls of their apartment and whisper about Rubix cubes and the strange things that interest them. Eli is not obviously a vampire from the beginning of the film, and her true identity is even downplayed once it’s revealed. More than a traditional monster movie, Let the Right One In depicts two young people experimenting with their relationship and what draws them together. What does a vampire’s blood lust look like, if they were changed before they had a chance to experience actual lust? Most notable in Let the Right One In is the de-glamorized mise-en-scene; it’s a story told through muted colors and dark corners. It’s a really beautiful and disturbing look at the horror of being a child.
3. The Vampire Lovers, (1970)
You can’t talk about queer sexuality in horror cinema without delving into pulpy vampire lesbian stories. That’s just a fact.
Of the sensational, stylized films that originated in the late 60s and early 70s, Vampire Lovers is my favorite because of it’s use of color and movement. The characters, though technically monsters, look like Jane Fonda with wide eyes and softly styled hair.
Though it’s not necessarily an empowering film about female sexuality, an ironic humor arises when none of the male characters in the film can figure out why these vampire women are so obsessed with each other. One vampire is crucified not with a wooden stake to the heart, but with a metal crucifix to the breast.
The appeal in Vampire Lovers is not really in its loosely structured plot, and the viewer doesn’t care much about individual characters. There is fun to be had in archetypes, though, and most of the film is just a joy to look at. I’d recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of campy films like Barbarella.
4. Fright Night (1985, 2011)
There’s just something inherently creepy about the 1980s. Everyone walked around practically wearing costumes in the daily lives, and the threat of sexually transmitted diseased undulated beneath beats at glitzy nightclubs. Sex in the 80s was a perfect backdrop for fun films like Fright Night, the story of a boy named Charley who realizes his handsome neighbor Jerry is a vampire. The real set-up being explored here is a teen boy’s discomfort with an older man’s sexuality, and it’s very entertaining to watch Charley squirm as Jerry seduces the women in the neighborhood, including the young lady Charley has a crush on.
The 2011 remake was a successful revision and enhancement of the original film’s intentions, made contemporary in a McMansion style neighborhood, built for middle-class, white families. As a child of the millennium, I thought 2011’s Fright Night had a more effective cast, as Colin Farrell’s Jerry exudes a more modern sexuality not based around pastel polos and perfectly coifed hair.
Both versions of Fright Night have a lot of fun with special effects, although the jaw-breaking ripped smiles of the vampire characters in the original film are more exciting to look at. Effects done with make-up and prosthetics are almost always more effective than CGI when it comes to horror films (think The Thing).
5. Stake Land, (2010)
One way to satiate the contemporary appetite for post-apocalyptic film while straying away from the zombie cliche is changing the terms of the apocalypse. Vampirism as a world-wide outbreak was explored somewhat effectively in Daybreakers starring Ethan Hawke, but I’d argue that Stake Land has more going for it as far as style and experimentation.
Although the film barely made $35,000 in theatres, it was praised by critics as “chilling” and “evocative,” as it illuminates the story of human survival without falling prey to typical tropes from movies in the same vein. Salon magazine praised Stake Land for focusing on “human characters, not monsters.” Though the vampires in the film are certainly frightening, the real threat to the protagonists comes from The Brotherhood, a militant response group whose members believe the outbreak is an extermination from God.
One of the film’s strengths is in its combination of human and literal monsters; both rapists and unusually strong vampires called “berserkers” roam the wilderness. Though the vampires are not sexualized, an undertone of power and sexuality frames the stories of the film’s women.
6. Cronos, (1993)
Cronos, a Mexican horror film written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, returns the concept of vampirism to ancient evil and masculine power. Though it’s not a contemporary experimentation with the vampire archetype, the film’s pure intentions are refreshing. This is not a horror-romance or a horror-comedy, but a straight Gothic film on the lengths businessmen and powerful people will go to in the pursuit of their own needs.
Both intelligent and gory, Cronos is almost a masterwork and begs repeated viewings from anyone interested in crafting a complete story. The cronos device, which looks like a golden scarab, contains a living bug with the power to give men immortality through vampirism. This pits ancient mysticism against Mexican ideals of Catholic piety, and the result is an ominous tone that carries the film all the way to its end.
7. Byzantium, (2012)
I’m a real sucker for twisted mother-daughter stories, and Byzantium plays out like a monstrous, horror-film take on White Oleander. A British-Irish production, the film explores the bond between two vampire women in the face of a series of human, male threats. The daughter, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a likeable, though doe-eyed and sad, teenager attempting to piece her mother’s life together in flashbacks.
Throughout the film, we learn that Clara, Eleanor’s mother, was forced into a prostitution ring and pursued vampirism as a means of escape. When the vampire legion was horrified to discover a woman in their midst, they ordered her never to reproduce.
Byzantium presents a gender divide within a monstrous subculture, and it furthers the conflict by including a scene in which teenage Eleanor is raped. Her mother, in order to help her survive the attack and become stronger, makes a questionable decision and turns her into a vampire, leaving both women immortal victims.
Gemma Arterton was an interesting casting choice for Clara, as she is a classically seductive looking actress without a natural menacing energy. The realism of the film remains intact, as Clara has to defend herself and her daughter from a seemingly endless barrage of male suitors and attackers. My only qualm was Clara choosing one of the men in the end.
8. Blood: The Last Vampire, (2000)
I chose Blood as the only animated film on my list because of its protagonist Saya. There is certainly a wealth of animation (especially Japanese) centered around vampires, but Blood pits a female, teenage assassin against a legion of these monsters, and the conceit allows the film to stand out among its counterparts.
Set in the 1960s, the film follows Saya’s missions surrounding an American airbase which is gearing up for the impending war in Vietnam. Though Saya’s main concern is tracking down bat-like vampire creatures who disguise themselves as schoolgirls, the political unrest is pervasive, and it culminates in the final scenes of the film.
The film was praised globally as “sleek, dark and sexy,” and Katsuya Terada’s character designs are rooted in his previous work in video game development. Saya’s movements are lyrical and the film appears low-lit and is mostly formed using dark shades of brown and grey. There is a whining, almost noir sound to much of the film’s score, which adds to its unique feel as well.
9. Only Lovers Left Alive, (2013)
I include this film, although I haven’t seen it yet, partially because I want the chance to post Tom Hiddleston photos on my blog.
On a more serious note, Only Lovers received the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013, making it one of very few vampire films to receive such an honor. One wonders what sort of interesting cinema we could produce in the vampiric realm, if only we were able to forget all the trash that’s come out in the last decade and explore the genre as a new form.
Though I rolled my eyes when I discovered the main characters’ names are Adam and Eve (seriously?), the story of a contemporary rock musician experiencing depression as a results of his status as a vampire is an interesting one. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much exploration the film will take on, considering the story of an ancient being thrown into our modern world is a little tired. Also, as much as I love Hiddleston, watching Tilda Swinton fall in love with him as she tries to convince him that being a vampire isn’t that bad is…less than appealing.
The film deserves consideration on the grounds of re-examining the vampire as a monster alongside humans, and I will definitely watch it when it’s available.
10. The Strain, (2014)
Guillermo del Toro returns to the world of vampires this summer, with an FX TV series based on his horror novel from 2009. I assume much of the plot will follow closely to the book, which details the release of a vampiric virus released at JFK International Airport. What’s most exciting about the TV series is del Toro’s free reign as far as character design, horrifying make-up and sets. Anytime they let this guy loose, the visuals are just tremendous.
No word yet on the series’ manipulation of vampire tropes and monstrosity, but Corey Stoll (of House of Cards fame) billed as a lead actor is exciting enough to give the show a try. He’s joined, in a minor role, by Sean Astin in the struggle against vampires swarming Queens. The series premieres in July; I’ll review the first episode as soon as it’s available.