Let’s face it, most of them aren’t. The aristocratic model is cliche, and the pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is beyond offensive. It’s hard to do the vampire justice. Unlike demons and psychos, they fascinate us more than terrify, because they tend to be driven not by a willful desire to do evil, but by simple need. Sometimes they loathe what they are, other times embrace it in tragedy; and sometimes they’re just mindless savages. Accepted on those terms, what follows are, in my opinion, the truly excellent vampire films.
1. Near Dark. Kathryn Bigelow, 1987. The best vampire film fuses elements of the American Western with a nihilistic mayhem that anticipates Tarantino. The word “vampire” is never even used, as if to keep stereotypes at bay. To these bloodsucking outlaws, life is purposeless boredom for which the remedy is yahoo killing sprees. The famous roadhouse slaughter remains one of my favorite movie sequences of all time. And yet, while there is certainly no seductive glamorizing of these vamps, the romance between Caleb and Mae remains one of the most tender in any vampire story. The happy ending and return to the nuclear family betray the ’80s period; had this been made in the ’70s, Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one of them likely met some tragic end. But the film is so awesome that its faults are invisible.
2. Thirst. Park Chan-wook, 2009. Like the director’s classic Oldboy it revels in sex and violence yet still manages to impress the cinephile elite, mostly for its creative adaptation of a literary work and hard look at human nature. The priest is a good man who becomes a vampire by accident, and does all he can to avoid killing people, mostly by sneaking through hospitals and slurping the intravenous tubes of comatose patients. But when he turns a woman he falls in love with — the wife of his best friend, whom they both end up murdering — it’s not long before she brings out the worst in him. Thirst explores the duality between blood-feeding as sacramental and its more honest Satanic counterpart, which revels in the glory of the hunt and the honesty of evil.
3. From Dusk Till Dawn. Robert Rodriguez, 1996. This doesn’t become a vampire film until halfway through, which caught me completely off guard. I first saw it in the 90s thinking it was a Tarantino-esque crime thriller, and that’s basically what the first half is — Quentin himself stars as one of the fugitives on the run, who enjoys raping his own hostages. It’s nasty, hard-core, and so well done that it could stand as a short film on its own right. When things take a sudden turn in the Titty Twister bar, the ensuing nightmare is an orgy out of hell. The main cast and bar patrons fight non-stop for their lives, pounding stakes into the beasts, shooting their heads off, most of them dying for their efforts. I wish there were more films like this. The structure is brilliant, the horror an adrenaline rush, and the characters a great mix of scumbags and innocent (including kids) driven to common cause.
4. Let the Right One In/Let Me In, Tomas Alfredson/Matt Reeves. 2008/2010. The Swedish original is the better version, but only by a slight margin. As remakes go, Let Me In is actually very good, and it even improves in some ways by omitting extraneous material, like the small town dynamics that did nothing to help the story. On the other hand, as good as Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee are in their roles, they don’t quite match the brilliance of the Swedish kids. Lena Leandersson somehow exudes the aura of an older soul inside a little girl, and Kåre Hedebrant plays the bullied victim without overdoing it at all, which is a tall order for most child actors. In either case, this is a precious story of two lonely and despairing kids (one not really, of course) who find some measure of peace in each others’ horror and misery.
5. Stake Land. Jim Mickle, 2010. I don’t know why it took so long to do vampires in a post-apocalyptic setting, because it’s the perfect mix: an American wasteland overrun with bloodsuckers. The scenario is reminiscent of the zombiefest 28 Days Later though far superior, and the story centers around a teen taken under the wing of a hunter who slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards’ hearts. The two embark on a road-like odyssey and come across small pockets of survivors in barricaded and fortified towns. Worst of all are the religious fundamentalists who see the vampires as instruments of God’s wrath, and use them to turn what’s already a hell on earth into utter annihilation. Their favorite tactic being to load the creatures into helicopters, fly them over barricades, and crash them into the towns.
6. Nosferatu the Vampyre. Werner Herzog, 1979. This is the Dracula film to see. Not the Bela Lugosi classic (which is cheesy), nor Coppola’s modern treatment (which is silly). This and only this. It’s a tribute to Murnau’s silent film of the 20s, which was the earliest adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Herzog basically fused Murnau, Stoker, and his own fevered imagination to create one of the most expressionistic films in the history of cinema. Set in Transylvania and Germany, the love triangle between Harker, Lucy, and Dracula plays out over a grim castle and city overrun with rats and plague. As in Murnau, Dracula is grotesque and ratlike, which works better than the handsome aristocratic version. He’s still a tragic character and full of self-loathing, and remains by far the best interpretation of Dracula to date. All the others besides Murnau’s are awful.
7. The Hunger. Tony Scott, 1983. Scott is known for his avant-garde action thrillers (most of which feature Denzel Washington) that his early vampire film gets forgotten. This is a character film entirely, though the style is the same — fast cuts, overlapping dialogue, edgy camera work. It’s about the fear of getting old, the loss of sexual appetite, and a person’s terror in letting go of youth. As someone nearing 50, watching it today affects me totally differently than it did thirty years ago. The scene where John has accelerated into an old man (after 200 years of vampire youth) and the eternally young Miriam is holding him in her arms, is absolutely heartbreaking.
8. Spring. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2014. I’m cheating a bit with this one, because we never learn if Louise is a vampire or some kind of alien. Mostly because that element is circumstantial. This is a romance that has been endlessly compared to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. If you love the conversations between Jesse and Celine (as I do), and if you’re a horror fan too, then you’ll eat up Evan and Louise. Their relationship evolves out of witty and entirely organic dialogue, and on the occasions when Louise’s body rebels and transforms, and she has to go out and kill, it seems like we’re suddenly in a different movie. The clash works wonderfully, and it’s the kind of cinematic daring I’d like to see more often.
9. 30 Days of Night. David Slade, 2007. If you need an antidote to bubblegum crowd pleasers like Blade and Underworld, look no further. Slade’s bloodbath takes vampires seriously and makes them utterly savage. An army of them invade an Alaskan town during the one month when the sun doesn’t shine at all. They’re are a lot like the vamps in From Dusk Till Dawn (#3) and Stake Land (#5). They kill first, listen later, and they’re bloody fast, jump-pouncing like insects from roof-tops and around corners. The slaughter of the town is non-stop. And yet for all the primitive aggression suggesting little more than beasts, there’s a hint of noble antiquity. The leader coughs up obscenities in a guttural tongue that sounds like archaic Russian. This film was released around Halloween, and it’s a perfect flick for that time of year. It’s the rare vampire film that’s quite scary.
10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014. A feminist spin from the Muslim world is what we need in today’s climate, and this Iranian piece is pure feminine defiance. It’s not preachy; it doesn’t let its message get in the way of a good story. It’s set in a remote town full of pimps and thieves, where a young man is trying to rise above the depraved, and the vampire preys at night. She’s endearing like the girl of Let the Right One In/Let Me In, a lover of music and skateboarding, and her victims tend to be abusive males. Dress attire serves a brilliant inversion. The Iranian chador keeps women stifled, but here it looks like a “Dracula cape” symbolizing the girl’s ferocious liberation. If the movie is light on plot it’s filled with atmosphere, and the Farsi language is a big part of that.