The Power Of Vampires Compelled Them
It’s hard to fathom exactly what the compulsion was for filmmakers to tackle vampire stories at the end of the 20th century. There are just SO MANY goddamn vampire movies out there, so few of them treading new ground. Dracula himself holds the world record for the most oft-filmed character in literature, edging out Sherlock Holmes for the title. One wonders just what story or allegory or metaphor has yet to be wrung from the premise of vampirism, what allure could possibly remain for storytellers. But for whatever reason, for a while there it was almost a rule that every genre director worth his/her salt had to take a swing at the genre. And too often, the results were as uninspired as a mandatory homework assignment. Below are the various takes on vampirism by the “Golden Age Of Horror” generation of filmmakers, and below that - hopefully - is a discussion with you, the reader, as to what worked and what didn’t.
George A. Romero got his vampire assignment out of the way early, with 1977’s Martin. His was the most non-traditional of the bunch and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s maybe his best film. Small and personal, with a completely fresh take on the material (his vampire is probably just insane), Romero’s Martin is an angry blue-collar indictment of blind faith and religious dogma. (Many more of my thoughts on Romero’s film can be found here.)
That same year, David Cronenberg went even looser with his bloodsucker take, and Rabid was really more about a bloodsucking zombie plague than a tale of true vampirism. If Shivers was Cronenberg adapting his art school sensibilities to a commercial audience, Rabid is the director leaning into that drive-in aesthetic and stretching - or more accurately, developing - his storytelling muscles. In portraying a citywide panic, Rabid’s reach extends its grasp somewhat, and perhaps this is why the next few Cronenberg movies went more macro, leaving his “collapse of society” theme relegated to his first two features and focusing on much more personal stories.
On paper, John Landis’ Innocent Blood should have been the most fun of the bunch. The New York mafia as a coven of the undead, peopled with every Italian-American character actor on the East Coast? Where do we sign? But the end result, released in 1992, felt sloppier than Landis’ usual tight pacing, and was saddled with Anne Parillaud and Anthony LaPaglia as two lackluster leads when what we really wanted- a Robert Loggia-led Sopranos with fangs - was only teased at in the second half. Bonus points for a Sam Raimi cameo, and especially for featuring Don Rickles a vampire.
In my youth I always mixed up Innocent Blood with A Vampire In Brooklyn, because a vampire comedy in which Eddie Murphy plays multiple roles SHOULD have been directed by John Landis, no? Alas, Eddie and John were not in a good place by 1995, so that wasn’t in the cards. Instead Wes Craven, one year shy of Scream, came on board. The end result was another lackluster cable staple that is somehow improved by turning it on half way through in the middle of the night. Murphy (who co-scripted with his brother Charlie, among others) tries to mash up Coming To America with Blacula (while rocking a sexy Barry White look) and somehow the film never lives up to that beautiful, beautiful promise.
By the time John Carpenter got around to his vampire story, called John Carpenter’s Vampires (natch), he was pretty much the last of the old gang to do so. And his 1998 film certainly wasn’t the least of the efforts (Sheryl Lee in the throes of ecstasy while a vampire is biting the inside of her thigh and...elsewhere...has to be good for something). But Carpenter’s sun-drenched Southwestern tale has an obligatory, perfunctory quality that suggests the director’s heart just wasn’t in it. (And it would be four years before his next - and to date, last, theatrical release.) James Woods is often amazing in so many roles, and as a stone-cold vampire killer in the employ of the Vatican, he manages to land a one-liner here and there. But as a patented Carpenter badass, his Jack Crow comes up short. So too does Carpenter’s main villain, a more-goth-than-goth Lost Boys knockoff named Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), all inky black hair and flowing overcoat. Not helping things is a score that feels left over from Escape From LA and a dreary pace that is nudged along by no fewer than six montages - some of them in real time, amounting to nothing more than a series of lazy dissolves standing in for a proper sequence. There’s an iconic shot or two in the mix, but too often it’s evident that Carpenter’s distinctive style had, by 1998, been dulled down by time and boredom. And any thematic subtext - a grouchy antihero working for people he hates, staging scenes of carnage that make him miserable, enduring accolades from underlings who idolize him? - must surely be accidental. (PSA: If you're a fan, this just went up on Amazon Prime.)
It’s interesting to note that while our “masters” stumbled and fumbled with vampires in the 80s and 90s, new voices like Tom Holland (Fright Night) and Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark) were doing the interesting vampire movies. Today, vampires have largely abandoned horror to become the purview of young adult fiction (Twilight), TV dramas (Buffy, True Blood, Vampire Diaries) and b-movies that lean more into sci-fi (Daybreakers). On the big screen horror filmmakers seek their allegories in new kinds of monsters (Splice, Spring). Will vampires ever come back in a big way in movies? Will this generation of filmmakers ever feel the same pull toward the creatures of the night that Craven, Carpenter and the others did? Or has the vampre well run creatively dry?