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Vampire Cinema

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#9, 1991

  • What's your favourite vampire movie? Talk about it at Best Vampire Films (no lj registration required).

Suzy McKee Charnas, when asked what inspired her to write the novel Vampire Tapestry:

"Well... Vampires are such snappy dressers."

The Vampire is one of the most enduring figures in horror cinema. In fact, the very first vampire movie, Frederich Murnaus' Nosferatu (Prana Film Company G.m.b.H) was made in 1922, and with Metropolis (Fritz Lang: UFA:G: 1926) and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiener: Transit Film-Gesellschaft mblt: 1919) make up the great trilogy of German Expressionist film. Starring Max Schreck in the title role, it was also the first of many adaptions of Bram Stoker's novel. Even if you haven't seen Nosferatu, there is one image from it you do know: the hunched shadow of Count Orlok, clawed hand outstretched towards Mina's room. So potent is this image that in the 1990 film Vampire's Kiss (Robert Bierman: Magellan), Nicholas Cage provides a perfect, and hilarious, imitation of it.

What is the nature of the Unnatural? Basically, why do audiences find vampires so attractive? Between Nosferatu and Vampire's Kiss there are many differences, but I propose that every, as it were, resurrection, holds those same key elements.

For many people, 'vampire' means 'Dracula', which is a pity, as some of the most interesting forays into the genre fall outside the precedent of the male Master Vampire with the accent. I am using the term 'Master' to refer to that single creature, in the vampire tale, that carries the Threat to the hero, the heroine, and that other crucial figure, the doctor or priest. We shall come back to this. Dracula, ie the adaption of the novel that keeps the title and the ending; was first made in 1932 by Tod Browning for Universal, with the still, all clichés, all imitations aside, spectacular Bela Lugosi. Dracula was not, however, Nosferatu's successor chronologically. The Danish/German Vampyr (Tobis-Klang film) was made by Karl Dreyer in 1931. It also had a literary source, Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. It actually features the first female Master Vampire, the grisly Marie Chopin played by Henriette Gerard; an Undead so powerful she can trap the hero in a dream of his own funeral, viewed from within a glass-topped coffin.

The 'vampire-tale' is simply the action, of the Master carrying the Threat. The immediate question is, what is the threat and what too, but this we shall find only by making a journey. Several journeys in fact, for Murnaus' Nosferatu, Browning's Dracula and Vampyr all begin with the hero, or protagonist/victim in the case of Browning's 'Mr Renfield', travelling into a remote and desolate area, far out of their usual society. Renfield, and Harker, are on business; in Vampyr David Grey is holidaying at an inn where he receives a strange parcel from an old man, labelled 'not to be opened until after my death'. It contains the Book of Vampires, a marvellous plot device that also appears in Nosferatu. Each traveller then proceeds, against the feverent advice of the local peasantry, to a large, half-ruined Gothic manor or castle.

Thirty four years later in the third of the 'Dracula' films made by Terrence Fisher for Hammer's House of Horror, Dracula, Prince of Darkness with Christopher Lee (though he was denied his favourite adversary, Peter Cushing, this time round) the dialogue of characters caught in a thunderstorm during their Carpathian holiday tends to provoke screams of laughter. "Oh, we'll find shelter in that old castle."

Even Count Yorga, Vampire (Robert Kellian: Enrica/AIP) in 1970 finds himself one in what was then, contemporary America. In more recent films, vampires have started appearing in other settings: the strip club in Vamp (Richard Wenk: New World: 1986) for instance, or the cave of Joel Schumacher's Lost Boys (Warner Brothers: 1987). But even these last two still incorporate all the signifiers of 'Gothic'.

So. what is 'Gothic'?

"The Gothic Castle itself, that formidable place, ruinous yet an effective prison, phantas-magorically shifting its outline as ever new vaults extended from their labyrinths. Scene of solitary wanderings, cut off from light and human contact, of unformulated menace and the terror of the living-dead -- this hold, with all its hundred names now looms to investigators as the symbol of neurosis: they see it as the gigantic symbol of anxiety, the dread of oppression and of the abyss, the response to the ... insecurity of disturbed times." [1]
So, Renfield struggles through the thick webs choking the staircase his mysterious host has effortlessly ascended a moment before, pausing to observe:
"The spider, spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr Renfield."
In the shadows backstage at the strip club, a performer puts on her makeup before an empty mirror frame, opposite another girl performing the same action. There is also the huge kollex bin out the back, into which many people do disappear, admittedly to be rediscovered rather unpleasantly. The Lost Boys are perhaps the most interesting, because their cave and their own appearance utilizes the links of Heavy Metal and Gothic: any selection of T-Shirts and album covers will reveal especially the religious imagery, of crucifix, chalice and pentagram, and even the 'Black Sabbath'.

The appearance of the Master Vampire subscribes to the same code. Consider Lugosi, standing at the head of the stairs in the old-fashioned evening dress, including cape, appropriate to a nobleman of his era. The image is so fixed as to have Robert Quarry, in The Return of Count Yorga (Robert Kelljan: AIP: 1971) attending a fancy-dress ball where the prize is won by a man dressed as Dracula. Both Count Orlok and Marie Chopin wear soberer black outfits, still upper-class, but a little less reminiscent of the Wicked Nobleman of Mills and Boon historical romance. In fact, the Mills and Boon comparison is, for Dracula, totally justifiable -- Vampires are always seducers. "It is a truism of the horror genre that sexual interest lies most often in the monster, and not in the bland, ostensible heroes..." [2]

There is only one costume that even comes close to Dracula's cape, image-wise. The image is, in Browning, Mina in long, white nightgown, wisping with veils. Nightgown, bridegown, they share the connotations of purity and vulnerability: it is genuinely amazing how many heroines in these tales have a mortal fiancé in the offing. The white nightgown is also the robe of the Bride of Dracula. It is as though the heroine's typical situation, on the verge of marriage, alone in a bedroom at night, is a point of especial uncertainty, at which she can go one way or another.

There is usually a female character who goes the other, before the Master attacks the heroine and the duel begins in earnest between him, and her fiancé, father and/or scholarly friend. Here it is worth noting a scene where Lucy and Mina are both in evening dress, and Lucy knocks Mina for dead. To put it bluntly, Lucy is a woman of active sexuality.

Close to the climax of this Dracula, John, Mina's fiancé, finds her sitting in her gown on the balcony of her room. Mina has just drunk from the vampire's veins, and John notices the difference:

"Why Mina! You look marvellous!"
For the first time in the film she demonstrates some affection for John, and actually tries to seduce him to kiss her...

Again a Gothic (or Mills and Boon) convention -- the two types of woman, good and bad, denoted by their sexuality. When Mina is infected, she attempts to use John's love for her to get him to work for her, to remove Van Helsing's crucifix. There is a term for this type of behaviour -- literal vampishness. The is what a woman who succumbs, to Dracula, becomes: there are very few female vampires who are, by this definition, of exploitative sexuality, not vamps, but Marie Chopin does come to mind. In Vampire's Kiss Cage's succubus appears consistently in black lace lingerie, including suspenders, and it is unnecessary to comment on Grace Jones in Vamp in any detail.

That is the female victim. It is worth noting that the Dracula-based vampires very seldom drink the blood of a man. Count Yorga has a particular fancy for slamming his antagonists against walls. Vamps, by the same token, very seldom drink the blood of a woman, excepting exploitative Carmilla rip-offs such as Vampire Lovers (Roy Baker: Hammer: 1970). The exception proving the rule is Renfield. Even more interestingly the German director Werner Hertzog in his 1976 remake of Nosferatu (Munich/ZDF Television) places his nominal hero Jonathan Harker in this position. Hertzog's version stars the magnificent Klaus Kinski as perhaps the most convincing vampire ever filmed.

Renfield explains his own situation, once he has been incarcerated in Doctor Seward's asylum:

"Oh no. No: God will not damn a lunatic's soul, for He knows the powers of evil are too strong for those of us with weak minds."
So, what makes a hero? The vampire film, indeed, makes very little of him. Not only does he lose out as the focus of the audience's interests, dare we say desires, but he surrenders much of his authority of action and knowledge to the other figure, the wise old doctor. His only real function is to provide a 'normal' berth for the rescued heroine to return to.

The crux comes in Lugosi's immortal words:

"Your will is strong, Van Helsing."
A flower-girl on the London docks or Mina herself may melt before Dracula's gaze, but Van Helsing is able to resist. Nowhere else, perhaps because nowhere else appears such a villain, is there such an authority figure, one to which by virtue of the vampire-tale's particular type of action, the hero surrenders the spotlight.

What does the vampire stand for? The peasants believe that at the castle there are vampires, the hero laughs at all such 'silly superstitions' and is proved wrong, often at the cost of his humanity. The vampire is something outside. This is sort of a giveaway, that these narratives subscribe to the idea that men are by 'nature' attuned to law and culture, whereas women's natures are awry, thus at risk or a possible risk (the impact of a woman 'going over' is greatly lessened in the Dracula model by their indisputably masculine domination by the Master and all the rhetoric of 'brides'). It all depends on what is considered to be human and normal. The doctor defines it:

"I am convinced that Dracula is no legend but an Undead creature whose life has been unnaturally prolonged."
The struggle for the heroine is really symbolic of this struggle, and that it takes place so frequently in asylums for the insane is peculiarly appropriate (apart from the added Gothic value). These places exist to force abnormality back into what is considered normal. In stories such as The Hunger (Tony Scott: MGM/UA: 1983), doctors go so far as to attempt to explain the vampire through abnormalities in their blood, and even to propose cures. For the doctor, the vampire must either by explainable or a silly superstition.

It has been remarked that these doctors are the first to praise scientific enlightenment, and also the first to whip out the cross and wolfsbane. In fact, Christian religious beliefs provide a perfectly satisfactory way of explaining away the vampire, and are used particularly often in Hammer stories. Christopher Lee himself is quoted:

"I have always tried to emphasise the solitude of Evil and particularly to make it clear that however terrible the actions of Count Dracula might be, he was possessed by an occult power which was completely beyond his control. It was the Devil, holding him in his power, who drove him to commit those horrible crimes, for he had taken possession of his body from time immemorial." [3]
The incarnation of Van Helsing as Father Sandor in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, in fact, works very well. The priest emphasises the anti- or consensual sexuality of the doctor's 'father figure'.

Prince of Darkness holds, in fact, a certain notoriety for two scenes: the slitting of a characters throat over the pit of Dracula's ashes had contemporary critics screaming. The other is the 'laying', by Father Sandor and his monks, of the movie's vamp. Not to put too fine a point on it, the sight of a group of men holding the screaming, writhing body of an attractive woman down on a table while the senior of their number drives in a stake is open to interpretation.

But that is the doctor's function. One has only to recall the sight of Renfield placed in a strait-jacket.

As stated, Renfield is a special case. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness another such 'defective' appears in the form of a young monk. Defective, for they cannot be considered anything else. As with the heroine, the possibility of someone willingly desiring the vampire and their other realm cannot be admitted.

There are exceptions which prove the rule, notably the inaccurately titled Son of Dracula (Robert Siodmark: Universal: 1943), and the quite appropriate Crypt of the Living Dead (Ray Danto: Coast Industries: 1972). Both happen to have uniquely effective female Master Vampires, as distinct from vamps. Kay in Son of Dracula, beautifully played by Louise Allbritton, looks like the heroine -- white gowns, faithful fiancé called Frank, etc. -- until it is revealed that she has actively sought Dracula's embrace to gain immortality for herself and her love. In Crypt of the Living Dead there is a character, the heroine's brother, who sets the entire movie's sequence of events in motion to release Hannah, a princess sealed five hundred years ago in her marble tomb, whom he prays to as the Angel of Death.

"Come to us, and fill our eyes with the light of such love as they shall never close in death."
Attempts are made to write both cases off as unbalanced, the words used to describe Kay are 'hysterical' and 'morbid'. Kay's Frank burns Dracula's coffin, and hers as well, and Hannah's protégé is staked immediately after attaining his desire. The attempt is made, but it does not change the fact that the desire was there, and the two films are made distinctly disturbing because of it.

The Lost Boys says 'Sleep all day, Party all night, Never grow old, Never die: It's fun to be a vampire.' But Good and Evil are still clearly positioned in one realm or another: the normal world and the vampires. What the forthcoming film adaption of Anne Rice's novel, Interview with a Vampire shall bring can only be conjectured (but Rutger Hauer in any case).

The best model of what the Vampire actually does is probably that of carrying a transforming infection: in his Nosferatu Werner Hertzog uses this in a metaphor of incredible impact. Forget Browning's armadillos, Hertzog's plague rats will have your ankles twitching. But it is the type of infection lunatic asylums, and engagements and marriages, are designed to control. One of the most beautiful representations of what is, in fact, the nature of the Threat, occurs in Dracula. Mina, in her white gown glides just ahead of the protective black wing of Dracula's cape, through a glade of moonlit mist and black trees. Her gaze is wondering. The scene is otherworldly; it is of the transition to the other world.

The Vampire-tale, especially as it is found in films, is a narrative of desire. Desire overreaching. The vampire's threat is the breaking of social limits: it is wrong to desire beyond accepted sexuality, it is wrong to desire to live beyond accepted ends. In a way, it is a matter of etiquette. It is really very appropriate that Nicholas Cage should imitate Count Orlok in his delusions. It having become popular in recent years to have your supernatural purely symbolic, or ignored altogether in favour of psychological monsters. Cage's character was, pathetically, trying to escape the limits of his numbingly boring job and a personal life frighteningly empty.

Even though every vampire film so far has been effectively 'staked' back in place: Son of and Crypt the least successfully that I have found, they still have the tension of possibility. Those memorable scenes from the vampire cinema reverberate with it, and really, what could be more attractive?


[1] The Gothic Flame, Herbert Read, quoted in Wizardry and Wild Romance, Michael Moorcock: VGSF London, 1987, p42.

[2] "When the Woman Looks", Linda Williams in Re-visions, Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, edit. Mary Anne Doane, Patricia Mellercomp and Linda Williams: University Publications of America 1984, p87. [Ed: Is this a good place to mention The Blood of Dracula by Jack Hamilton Teed, 1977, published by Mills and Boon? No, not really.]

[3] "Dracula and I", Christopher Lee in The Dracula Scrap-book, 1976, p98. Quoted in Caligari's Children, the Film as a Tale of Terror, Siegbert Prawer, Oxford University Press, 1980, p266.


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