Sex, love, and violence: the allure of the vampire film
The vampire genre is one of the classic strands of horror, reaching from the silent era to the present. These movies cover a wide spectrum of styles, from comedy-camp to blood-soaked gorefest. While almost all horror genres have gotten the arthouse treatment at some point, vampire films seem to lend themselves particularly well to stylized direction. Vampires films are the dreams of humanity, directly transcribed to the screen.
Vampires are in the middle of a pop-culture heyday, with the Twilight series recently in theaters and HBO’s TrueBlood, which just finished its 7-season run. Everyone likes a vampire flick. Vampires are sexy. They live forever without aging, as many people wish they could. Their human source of sustenance makes their morality indeterminate. Subsisting solely on blood makes them gaunt, like heroine-addicted rock stars. All the variables in vampire lore make these not-quite-human but not-entirely-inhuman creatures a perfect metaphor for many different themes. These five vampire movies make the most of what the genre has to offer and really give viewers something to chew over, so to speak.
The Hunger (Dir. Tony Scott, 1983)
The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott (lesser known brother of Ridley), brings together several unlikely acting talents into one production: Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, and David Bowie. The film sometimes moves into so-bad-it’s-good territory, but overall, viewers are treated to a lurid experience that also has disturbing parallels to the AIDS epidemic—just emerging at the time. Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve) takes lovers who spend centuries with her before suddenly withering away when she tires of them. It is in such a predicament that John Blaylock (Bowie) finds himself at the beginning of the movie. Try as he might, John is inevitably unable to reverse the process. Miriam’s lovers don’t truly die. Their bodies simply continue to degrade over the centuries, feeling every second of it, as Miriam asserts. She keeps her collection of former lovers in the attic, carefully stowed in coffins. To replace John, Miriam woos a young scientist, Sarah Roberts (Sarandon), who happens to be looking for a way to slow down the aging process. An early scene of John and Miriam feeding is intercut with Roberts’ lab running tests on a shrieking baboon. Neither process is without its share of violence. As it turns out, long life is easy to come by for Roberts, though it comes with a cost—an insatiable hunger for blood.
The Only Lovers Left Alive (Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2014)
In his films, Jim Jarmusch has a tendency to study the moments in life that often get glossed over in contemporary cinema, like the movement of scenery through a car’s window, a poem read aloud, or a musical performance in its entirety. Lucky for us, he remains true to form in his most recent film. As vampires Adam and Eve, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton reflect their centuries on the earth, demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of music and literature in addition to talents honed over many hundreds of years. Both share a deep reverence for the world around them, but desire nothing more than the intimate solitude of one another’s company. Set for the most part in Detroit, the vampires’ longevity is contrasted against urban decay and blight of the once gleaming industrial center. The vampires scorn humans, referring to them as “zombies” for their lack of insight and penchant for destruction. Still, rather than feeding on them, the vampires visit blood banks and sip elegantly from picardie glasses like true sophisticates. However, when the going gets tough, they reveal their animalistic side. Somehow, by transcending the human, the couple reflects humanities’ best and worst traits back at us.
Trouble Every Day (Dir. Claire Denis, 2001)
The monsters of Claire Denis’ 2001 film are the least characteristic of all the vampires on this list. Technically, these monsters are just humans who have caught an illness. There are very few scenes of actual violence in this stark film, but the few that exist are deeply disturbing. At the center of the movie are Shane (Vincent Gallo) and Core (Beatrice Dalle), who have contracted something insidious during their research in the tropics. The illness fills them with bloodlust and a peculiar addiction: the need to consume the object of their desire—to literally feast on their lovers’ bodies (there’s an element of cannibalism, too). Themes of sex, exploitation, and abuses of power come to the foreground here. The relationship between all these threads is loose, and the film invites you to figure it out for yourself. The question we are really left with, though, is something far more personal. As Shane and his new wife embrace, we question how well we really know the people we love, and how much we are willing to accept about the people who are closest to us.
Daughters of Darkness (Dir. Harry Kumel, 1971)
In Daughters of Darkness, ageless countess Elizabeth Batori (Delphine Seyrig) becomes obsessed with a newly married couple who happen to be the only other inhabitants of her hotel in Belgium. While the film makes it no secret that Batori is a vampire, the question of her motivation remains unclear. Is her fascination is based in lust, loneliness, a sadistic desire for control, or something else entirely? The gothic imagery in this stylized film is unforgettable and Delphine Seyrig’s performance is both haunting and enchanting. The costumes are ostentatious and enshroud her, as if partially shielding Batori from the viewer’s gaze. Rumor has it Kumel modeled her character on Marlene Dietrich in movies like Shanghai Express, where the sheer artifice of Dietrich’s features challenged the male fear of female duplicity. Similarly, the veils and feathered collars donned by Seyrig bring viewers’ eyes constantly to Batori’s face, forcing us to confront the potential deceit hidden in her physignomy, which is far older than it appears to be. Much like Trouble Every Day, Daughters of Darkness is a dark meditation on the conflation of love, sex, and power, and it’s a must-see for fans of the genre, or fans of Seyrig. I have to admit, it’s my favorite on this list.
Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) (Dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Let the Right One In is an examination of brutality, love, and growing up. Unlike many of the others on the list, the film doesn’t evoke a long human history, but takes the dark, hermetic universe of Sweden as its backdrop, which allows it to explore its themes more eloquently. While you can assume vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson), has seen many years, she (or he—Eli claims not to be a girl) appears stuck forever on the boundary between childhood and adolescence, a transition that is full of torment, as the events in this movie confirm. Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a boy obsessed with violence, finds solace in a relationship with Eli, who protects him from a group of boys that tortures him. Even with all her strength, Eli is not able to sustain herself without help from a caregiver. When she is forced to make a kill, she becomes like a frightened animal, her childlike face covered in blood. Eli’s elongated adolescence makes us question the transition from childhood to adulthood, which seems more like a circle than a straight line. (Oskar’s father, as we see, continues to live under the influence of a bully.) The movie captures life at that moment when, as kids on the verge of adulthood, we learn that we will always carry the wounds inflicted on us during our youth. In some ways, we can never move on.
Beautiful, fascinating, and terrifying, vampires will always have a place in the human subconscious—to remind us of our dark history and the ways in which we always carry that history with us.