My favourite modern vampire films
From Buffy and Blade to the Twilight series, the vampire film has flourished internationally since the early 1990s. To mark the publication of his study New Vampire Cinema, author Ken Gelder picks his favourites.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Director Francis Ford Coppola
by Ken Gelder
Ken Gelder’s book looks at recent vampire films as a genre, and asks what is at stake when the cinematic vampire and the modern world are made to encounter one another.
Ken Gelder is Professor of English in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
This lurid, colour-saturated, exhilarating film brought Coppola’s career to an end and resurrected it at the same time: as if, for a moment, Coppola and Dracula were somehow one and the same thing. It knew all about the origins of cinema and the last gasp of the vampire.
Gary Oldman’s Dracula is infectious, wearing full Gustav Klimt-influenced kabuki dress and resembling what one critic called a “dowager empress”.
The whole thing is overwrought and breathless, an erotic romp saturated with blood and bad acting that concludes like a western, galloping back to where it began. A wonderfully unstable mix of Ken Russell, Jean Cocteau and Gone with the Wind (1939) that makes it possible – almost – to forget Bram Stoker.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Director Fran Rubel Kuzui
I’m fond of this cheeky vampire film, which creates a kind of alternative universe to – and parody of – Coppola’s overwrought film. It jumps from the distant past (the ‘dark ages’) to the present (the ‘lite ages’) in exactly the same way, and even has a comparable kind of ‘cinematographic’ moment: the first thing Buffy and her friends talk about in the film is in fact cinema.
One of the charming things about it is the way Buffy quickly bonds with her watcher Merrick, a rather creepy old man in a raincoat played by Donald Sutherland. Buffy herself is played by Kristy Swanson, in a role that Sarah Michelle Gellar buried when the TV series became so immensely popular. But Swanson is good in this film, even performing her own martial arts (although the fight scenes are godawful). She emasculates the town jocks and keeps her boyfriend in his place. “Did I do all that?” he asks, when the vampires are killed. “No”, she says, shutting his masculinity down with a single word.
This film could have been so much better: its vampire villain Lothos, played by Rutger Hauer, is a waste of talent. But the simple fact that Buffy fans (and critics) ignore it completely is enough to make me want to speak up for this early amiable attempt at SoCal ‘girl power’.
Director Guillermo del Toro
Director Guillermo del Toro has said that he puts “as much care, calculation, planning, thinking into horror as other people would put into what is called an ‘art film’ ”. Cronos is a fine example of a vampire film/art film crossover, a kind of melancholy exploration of the sheer impossibility of eternal life.
Set in Mexico City, an antique store owner, Jesus Gris – the film demonstrates what one critic called a “crazy-Catholic horror sensibility” – one day discovers a strange clockwork device. Naturally, someone else wants the device too, and a struggle ensues between two old men eager to live forever.
This is a strange, touching film that also traces an enchanting relationship between Gris and his young, mute granddaughter Aurora who, at one point, lets him sleep in her toy box. She also has the final word.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Director Neil Jordan
This adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 bestselling novel took the vampire film about as far away from the grotesque decrepitude of Nosferatu (1922) as it was possible to go: turning into a prolonged panegyric to the feminine male beauty of its principal actors, especially Brad Pitt as Louis.
This is a delirious gay-vampire coming out film, except that it triggers off a kind of homosexual panic that sees Louis keep pretty much to himself, turning away from the other beautiful men he continually encounters. Tom Cruise is miscast as Lestat but turns the role into a triumph of laughter and excess.
But the film is also melancholic, about the loss of loved ones and children. It finally brings Louis reluctantly into the modern world (via a cinema, naturally), but more or less fades him away into the shadows as Lestat takes over, literally at the wheel as he speeds across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge playing Guns N’ Roses’ cover of the Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ on the car stereo.
Night Watch (2004)
Director Timur Bekmambetov
This shabby, cluttered, near-incoherent Russian vampire film is undervalued but it offers an exhilarating spectacle. It pastes an epic medieval battle scene over Moscow in 1992: the beginning of Russia’s post-Soviet independence. Its hero makes a wish and opens up a subterranean world of vampires, presided over by two competing organisations that seem to resemble the bustling, make-do bureaucracy of the old Soviet Union on the one hand and the slicker, more westernised ruling party of the new Russia on the other.
The apocalypse comes to Moscow in this delightful film, with its cheap but exuberant special effects and its fatherly anxieties about what the children of a new Russia might become. Half-serious and half-hilarious, the film is a shambolic fantasy about the forces of darkness and light, the laws and constraints they put into place, and the catastrophes – wittingly or otherwise – they unleash.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Director Tomas Alfredson
This remarkable Swedish film certainly pleased those viewers who wanted their vampire films to do something different. But in fact – as it charts the arrival of dark strangers in a bleak, snow-covered Stockholm satellite suburb – it also does something viewers of vampire films would already be familiar with. The difference here is that the vampire is a 12-year-old girl, sort of. Eli and her guardian move into an apartment next door to Oskar, a shy boy who really is 12 years old.
Neighbourliness is the thing that regulates the suspense of this film: the influence of the neighbour, the sounds a neighbour makes, the way neighbours spill over into your own space, the way they draw you out into theirs. The two young actors give this film an awkward intensity; they let each other in, but also keep their distance, amid sharp, grisly moments of brutality. Matt Reeves’s American remake Let Me In (2010) is also excellent, and wrongly underrated.
Director Park Chan-wook
This South Korean vampire film in fact begins in Africa, before it goes on to stage an adaptation of Zola’s 1867 French novel, Thérèse Raquin. Park noted in an interview that “there is no vampire folklore in Korea…That’s why I wanted to turn Thirst into a story about imported culture and objects.”
The film introduces a Korean Catholic priest, Sang-hyun, who becomes a vampire. When he returns to Korea, he is adopted by a local family who knew him as a child. It is a beautifully-paced melodrama that thinks about restraint and responsibility even as Sang-hyun plunges neck-first into a passionate, distraught relationship with another adopted character, the daughter Tae-ju.
Thirst is both touching and preposterous, a crazy romp that unpacks itself as it goes along, with Tae-ju stealing the show: grunting, cursing, slurping and screaming, running amok while her vampire lover looks on, unable to stop the energy he has helped to unleash. A fabulous film, and the ending is exquisite.
Directors Michael and Peter Spierig
This Australian-American ‘post-Ozploitation’ vampire film imagines a near future when vampires are plentiful and humans are scarce and there is barely enough blood to go around. It’s a slick, sometimes clunky film, but totally engaging. Willem Dafoe is drafted in to play a character called Elvis; the film was in fact released in the US in 2010 on Elvis Presley’s birthday, 8 January.
Living longer means learning to cope with less, and thinking of ways to prolong an ever-diminishing resource base. Sam Neill’s character Charles Bromley does just this: in the meantime, his daughter becomes a feral vampire and is put to death in a scene that might remind Australian viewers of old footage of Aboriginal people in chains, taken from their communities and removed from sight.
The film plays out its predicament in the context of austerity capitalism and ecological crisis, with a wonderful escalating scene towards the end. It stages an eternal cycle of consumption that is always about to come to an end even as it threatens to go on, just like vampires, forever.