10 great vampire films 

Fangs for the memories, creatures of the night...

3 November 2022

By Georgina Guthrie

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Like its undead subject, the vampire genre has remained remarkably resilient, spanning more than 200 years and multiple iterations dependent on the lusts and fears of the day. Sure, there have been ebbs and flows in popular interest, but like an entity of the night freshly sated on human vitals, it has always reliably renewed after a period of hibernation. 

As with the zombie and the witch, vampires in popular culture are an amalgamation of centuries of folkloric tales. The originals of Eastern Europe were plump, ruddy-faced mischief-makers – miles away from the gaunt creatures of the last 100 years (we’ve Irish author Bram Stoker, who was influenced by writer and physician John Polidori, to thank for that). But to take the idea of a vampire-esque creature more broadly, it’s the seductive female succubus who predates Count Dracula by several centuries. Jennifer’s Body (2009) and Under the Skin (2013) offer two recent cinematic interpretations of this beautiful parasite. 

It was Sheridan Le Fanu’s sapphic short story ‘Carmilla’ (written 25 years before Dracula) that spawned the trend of decadent, female vampires. Notable additions to the genre include Black Sunday (1960), Blood and Roses (1960) and Alucarda (1977) – a faithful adaptation of Le Fanu’s tale that turns the blood, sex and melodrama up to 11. There’s also Daughters of Darkness (1971), which blends the Carmilla plot with the legend of 16th-century Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, a mass murderer who allegedly bathed in her virginal victims’ blood in a bid for eternal youth.

By the 2000s, the vampire had evolved into a decidedly multifaceted beast. Parasitic monster, suave seducer, serial killer, sapphic babe, drug addict, AIDS victim, camp icon, comedian – few mythical creatures have evolved with such variety.

Nosferatu (1922)

Director: F. W. Murnau

Nosferatu (1922)

Of all the films on this list, Murnau’s silent 1922 film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror stays closest to Stoker’s source material – notable differences being a name change for German audiences (Dracula becomes Orlok) and the count’s bite having deadly, rather than undead-ly repercussions: Murnau’s vamp infiltrates the town to feed, not breed. 

With his bald head, long fingers and rat-like incisors, Count Orlok provided an enduring visual language for cinematic vampires lasting right up until the late 1970s. Tobe Hooper’s two-part miniseries Salem’s Lot (1979) and Werner Herzog’s faithful and fleshed-out remake Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) offer notable examples – though prior entries to the genre had already shaken off his rodent-like aesthetic and bestowed him with hair, wide-set fangs and a certain sex appeal. That’s not to say the original is without carnality – he’s flesh and blood (give or take), after all. Elongated shadows cast by the count’s freakishly long digits transgress boundaries, creeping over parts of the body real fingers mustn’t touch. 

Vampyr (1932)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer 

Vampyr (1932)
© Eureka

Loosely based on Le Fanu’s collection of short stories, In a Glass Darkly – of which ‘Carmilla’ is one – Dreyer’s addition to the canon centres on occult-obsessed Allan Gray, who checks into an inn in a town reportedly haunted by a vampire. The film unfolds with uncanny dream logic. Shortly after checking in, Gray lives a disorienting waking nightmare with one foot in the material world, the other in the supernatural. Rooms and crumbling passageways lead to yet more rooms, while spectral figures uttering gnomic phrases appear then disappear like phantoms in the night. 

In a radical move, Dreyer’s film largely dispenses with conventional narrative, instead creating a cryptic mélange of expressionist imagery that disintegrates into a series of disorienting sequences – including one of Gray experiencing a waking burial. Claustrophobes beware: this film features not one but two buried-alive moments.

Dracula (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher

Dracula (1958)

Twenty-seven years after Bela Lugosi’s iconic turn as Dracula in the 1931 Universal version of Stoker’s novel, Christopher Lee steps (or should that be swoops) into his inaugural appearance as the count. He appears alongside real-life pal Peter Cushing, who plays legendary vampire hunter Dr Van Helsing, in the first of Hammer’s hugely successful Dracula cycle.

Like the cloying scent of funeral flowers used to hide the smell of death, the oppressively lush mid-Victorian set hints at an underlying rot. Darkened walls, dead flowers and heavy velvets in blood red and arsenic green form a sombre backdrop to this tale of overreaching desire and sexuality. Lee brings trademark suaveness to the role, giving us an alluring count who, let’s face it, most would invite in for a bite. Of course, a sharpened stake puts an end to all the fun, but not before we’ve enjoyed his turn as a Byronic vampire oozing dangerous sex appeal. 

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Director: Harry Kümel

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Danger is very clearly imminent when Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig) extends a gleaming boot from her parked car and the camera pans up to a fixed, red-lipped smile. While the plot loosely follows Le Fanu’s sapphic ‘Carmilla’ story, Seyrig’s character is based on a blend of Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks and the real-life Báthory. This wasn’t the first on-screen adaptation of the Báthory story (Hammer’s 1971 Countess Dracula beat it by a few months), but it’s certainly the most polished, with painterly scene compositions and decadent outfits galore. 

Dramatic tension comes from the psychological battle between two bourgeois newlyweds and the countess, who infiltrates their twosome and, with exacting charm and cruelty, uses their own narcissism to drive a wedge between them. Where lesbian vampire films ranged from the pornographic to the flamboyantly aesthetic, Daughters of Darkness errs towards the artistic, with Seyrig exuding chilly poise in a series of fabulous costumes replete with sequins and maribou feather trim. Evil has never looked more ravishing. 

Ganja & Hess (1973)

Director: Bill Gunn 

Ganja & Hess (1973)

When Bill Gunn was approached to make Ganja & Hess as a follow-up to the commercially successful blaxploitation horror Blacula (1972), his backers were unsurprisingly left baffled by the result. Gunn’s film broke multiple barriers on release, not merely because he made his vampires Black and featured full-frontal male nudity (both of which were rarely seen on screen at the time), but because – unlike in most of Hollywood’s output at the time, blaxploitation or otherwise – his Black characters were affluent and refined. Doctor Hess is a cultured man of means who lives in a lavish pile on the Hudson.

With a narrative that includes documentary-style scenes of gospel singers, back-and-forth personal reflections, experimental editing and flashbacks, Ganja & Hess stands apart as a cultural landmark and a particularly rebellious, sophisticated entry to the genre. In Gunn’s hands, vampirism is a tool for exploring Black assimilation and the hypocrisies of organised religion.

Martin (1976)

Director: George A. Romero

Martin (1977)

While ‘Godfather of the Dead’ George A. Romero’s contribution to vampire lore contains all the expected gore, he opens a new vein with Martin, a surprisingly downbeat work of social realism about a serial killer who believes he’s a creature of the night. 

Set in a suburban neighbourhood in decline, this is a story of alienation through the eyes of a second-generation immigrant and his religious father. Introducing ambiguity through a mentally unwell narrator was rare, though not new in the world of vampire films – six years prior, John D. Hancock’s 1971 film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death took this approach in its heartbreaking exploration of mental illness and gaslighting. But Romero was the first to remove any doubt as to where the real monsters lurked. Martin is at once a shrewd satire of literary vampires and an intelligent exploration of religious fundamentalism, loneliness and ignorance run amok.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Director: Werner Herzog

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

The prospect of eternal life in exchange for sunbathing privileges and a solid diet doesn’t sound too bad a deal, until we meet Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (Klaus Kinski). Bringing Aristotelian tragedy to the proceedings, in Herzog’s remake of the 1922 classic eternal life is the count’s curse: watching centuries pass in the blink of an eye spawns nothing but aching dread. 

Less a horror about a supernatural being and more a meditation on the horrors of infinite loneliness, Herzog brings pathos to this prince of darkness and makes him altogether more human in the process. Like an addict and their vice, the count craves blood at a primal level – and he despises himself for it. When our hero Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) cuts his thumb slicing bread, the nocturnal lord leaps forward and offers to suck the wound clean. “It’s the oldest remedy in the world”, he says in his sad, creaky voice. He, of all people, would know. 

Near Dark (1987)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Near Dark (1987)

Where vampires of the 19th and early 20th century embodied the fear of foreignness as the wellspring of corruption, Near Dark makes a different kind of intruder into its monster: the white cowboy. Well, cowboy-vampire. The arid fields and tumbledown dive bars of small-town Oklahoma make an appropriately hostile arena for these outlaws’ reign of terror, while razor-sharp teeth make a deadly stand-in for the fast draw.

Released just two months apart, horror-comedy The Lost Boys (1987) and Near Dark represent the highs of a flurry of high-octane vampire films filled with gangs of roaming bloodsuckers. These films took the vampire-as-addict element from earlier genre entries and transformed the aloof aristocrat into a working-class rebel in the process. Director Kathryn Bigelow takes full, unbridled pleasure in the era’s decadence-turned-decay, with a synth-heavy soundtrack and lashings of macho swagger. You can almost smell the sweat, blood and leather. 

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Directors: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Writers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement treat the vampire myth with gleeful levity in their 2014 offering What We Do in the Shadows, which riffs on centuries of literary and cinematic iconography and turns it into the punchline.

The mockumentary-style comedy follows four vampire housemates – Viago, Vladislav ‘The Poker’, Deacon, and Petyr – who live together in Wellington. Like an ominous shadow which turns out to be something ridiculously benign in the light of day, these ancient entities and their mores become altogether less threatening when dealing with the trials of co-living arrangements. “Petyr is 8,000 years old. We’re not going to have Petyr at the meeting,” says the dandyish Viago (Taika Waititi) as he attempts to restore cleanliness and order to the foursome’s grim abode. 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Promoted as the ‘first Iranian vampire western’, Ana Lily Amirpour’s accomplished debut feature is an achingly cool black comedy centred around the undead. 

It’s set in the fictional Bad City, a run down, eerily empty industrial suburb where a skateboarding bloodsucker (Sheila Vand) roams the streets at night looking for victims. Her sustenance pool consists predominantly of bad men. Vampirism here is neither glamorous nor monstrous, tormented nor pathetic; Amirpour’s creation is glum and untethered, with a vaguely misandric agenda. The Girl, as she’s credited, appears to float along, her black chador obscuring her feet but also her female figure, in contrast with prior female bloodsuckers whose danger largely lay in their ability to seduce using their bodies. Our vampire vigilante may not use overt sex appeal to lure libidinous men to their doom, but, make no mistake, she’s still the predator in these parts.

In Dreams Are Monsters: A Season of Horror Films is in cinemas across the UK and on BFI Player now.

Sight and Sound Presents – The History of Horror Part 1: Vampires

Drawing on extensive material from the Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin archives, Vampires is the first in a major new series exploring the history of horror onscreen. Vampires takes us from the first vampire film in 1922, FW Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, to Carl Dreyer's Vampyr in 1932, and on through the endless versions of Dracula and other vampires that have abounded in cinema since.

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Originally published: 3 November 2022