Ah, the vampire. My favorite supernatural creature.
Vampires are cunning, sensual, and merciless. Vampires are effortlessly cool, fashionable, and glamorous. If I had to be any evil creature, I’d be a vampire, hands down, and I’d want my wardrobe to be stocked exclusively by Saint Laurent, à la Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger.
I’ve always been transfixed by how slick vampires are. They can go unnoticed inhuman society, benefiting from social mores when it serves and then stepping outside the bounds of human decency whenever they want. He (or she) embodies seduction and the willing surrender of control. They are more powerful than human beings, both in strength and intelligence, which is an essential characteristic. A werewolf or zombie is seen as a devolution of humanity, a descent into animal savagery or blank mindlessness. But a vampire is, for the most part, smarter than human beings. Like demons, they are dangerous not because of the threat of physical pain but because they can convince you to be the worst, coolest version of yourself.
In the modern era, vampires represent fears of our own deep, repressed desires gaining the upper hand. These nine quintessential vampire movies depict vampires in all their glory—edgy, beautiful, and deadly. These films show how human beings grapple with the desire to step outside of morality. Sometimes the desire is sexual in nature; sometimes it’s about manipulating those around us; sometimes it’s about living out terrible and violent fantasies.
But it’s always a sexy, wild ride.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
“On a search for his missing friend Jonathan Harker, vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing is led to Count Dracula’s castle. Upon arriving, Van Helsing finds an undead Harker in Dracula’s crypt and discovers that the count’s next target is Harker’s ailing fiancée, Lucy Holmwood. With the help of her brother, Arthur, Van Helsing struggles to protect Lucy and put an end to Count Dracula’s parasitic reign of terror.”
I chose this version of Dracula because I really don’t like the famous 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi. I just don’t. I appreciate it’s place in history and respect it accordingly, but it’s not a good adaptation. In the novel, Dracula is an overwhelmingly ominous presence who can become terrifying at the drop of a hat. Bela Lugosi wasn’t scary at all. Hell, he wasn’t even creepy; that honor goes to Dwight Frye, who played Renfield and stole the movie.
Christopher Lee’s Dracula is superb. Horror of Dracula is a loose adaptation of the original novel, but the film still uses the concept of the vampire as a sexual threat. Dracula in this movie doesn’t set his eyes on corrupting chaste women until after Jonathan Harker stirs up some shit, but he still retaliates by seducing Lucy and Mina. The lesson in Horror of Dracula seems to be very similar to the ancient proverb: don’t start none, won’t be none. If Jonathan Harker had never provoked an inhuman force, Dracula would never have turned his wrath onto Lucy and Mina.
Full disclosure, I never thought Christopher Lee was a handsome man until I watched this movie. At the very least, the man has charisma for days, a fast he must have been very aware of since he was able to portray Dracula as Bram Stoker intended; threatening, brutal, sexually threatening, and utterly suave. Christopher Lee used his tall stature to command the screen. His Dracula has an easy rippling physicality which made him extremely intimidating. And it makes for a suspenseful watching experience as a handsome scary monster overpowers women as revenge against the men who wronged him.
The Hunger (1983)
“John is the lover of the gorgeous immortal vampire Miriam, and he’s been led to believe that he’ll live forever, too. Unfortunately, he quickly deteriorates into a horrible living death, and Miriam seeks a new companion. She soon sets her sights on Sarah, a lovely young scientist, who quickly falls under Miriam’s spell. However, Sarah doesn’t warm up to the concept of vampirism easily, leading to conflict with Miriam.”
Part of the vampire’s sex appeal is how cool they are. Non-sparkly, real vampires don’t give a f*ck what anyone thinks. They wear what they want, they do what they want, they seduce who they want, and the kill who they want. In a lot of ways, vampire embody that not-so secret fantasy we all have to become our chicest, baddest-of-the-bad-bitches unstoppable selves.
So it makes a ton of sense that one of the most iconic vampire movies starred two of the coolest people on earth—Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie. Who else could combine their ethereal styles and make the cheesy 80s music and fashion look so freaking boss? And who else could make murder and drinking blood seems that sensual? If vampires ever needed a recruiting video, they should just show prospective vampires the first ten minutes of The Hunger.
Because of course, in the world of The Hunger, there are real immortal vampires and fake, not-so-immortal ones. Ever the cold, emotionally distant creature, Miriam has tricked John, as she has tricked all her lovers over the course of her years on earth. She’s still a vampire, an inhuman being who no longer feels any kind of empathy with humanity other than her own loneliness. In true vampire fashion, being loved by Miriam is a fate worse than death, one that John doesn’t realize until it’s too late and Miriam has moved on to her next conquest.
The Lost Boys (1987)
“Teenage brothers Michael and Sam move with their mother to a small town in northern California. While the younger Sam meets a pair of kindred spirits in geeky comic-book nerds Edward and Alan, the angst-ridden Michael soon falls for Star — who turns out to be in thrall to David, leader of a local gang of vampires. Sam and his new friends must save Michael and Star from the undead.”
If you’ve seen any vampire movie at all, chances are you’ve probably seen 80s teen classic The Lost Boys. I know I wrote earlier that vampires are usually depicted as refined and aristocratic creatures, but that wasn’t entirely correct. The Lost Boys marked an important shift in the way we tell vampire stories because it changed the portrayal of what vampires are and what they meant. David and his gang of vampire punks aren’t elegant or sophisticated. They are, however, glamorous, sexy, and completely bloodthirsty.
I always thought it was interesting how vampires before Lost Boys were almost always adults. In Lost Boys, the youth of the vampires makes them wild. Vampirism symbolizes a metaphor for adolescence, when everyone feels immortal and indestructible and full of potential. Teen agers seem to occupy their own world with its own rules. Teenagers are making it up as they go, and the adults around them struggle to keep them under control. Adolescence is thrilling for those experiencing it and scary for those witnessing it.
The Lost Boys is a seductive film. It creates a story about a gang of teenage surrogates with the power of monsters, the sexiness of movie stars, and none of the consequences for their lack of impulse control. There is no better fantasy than holding on to the sweet spot between helpless childhood and boring adulthood.
Near Dark (1987)
“Cowboy Caleb Colton meets gorgeous Mae at a bar, and the two have an immediate attraction. But when Mae turns out to be a vampire and bites Caleb on the neck, their relationship gets complicated. Wracked with a craving for human blood, Caleb is forced to leave his family and ride with Mae and her gang of vampires, including the evil Severen. Along the way Caleb must decide between his new love of Mae and the love of his family.”
Near Dark may not be the best vampire movie (wtf is that soundtrack?), but it is one of the most innovative depictions of vampires in film. It proved so innovative that the film’s influence can still be seen in vampire movies decades later.
The vampire gang at the center of Near Dark is, as in The Lost Boys, a major departure from the traditional portrayal of vampires as wealthy, elegant, classy creatures. The vampires in Near Dark are nothing like this, hunt and fight and terrorize people. They are violent outlaws in a ruthless biker gang, tearing ass around the country, oblivious to the destruction they leave behind. Never fear, these vampires are still cunning, and still sexy in a dirty psychopath way (this is maybe the one movie ever where Bill Paxton was hot).
Near Dark uses its vampires to present a world where the very human traits run rampant. In this context, combining vampires with westerns and biker gangs makes a lot of sense. Theirs is a hard life, but a life of potent freedom and no one to answer to, at least for a while. To a young man living a humdrum life in a humdrum town, these vampires are gods. Bloody, impulsive, carnal, gods. These vampires take what they want, whether its money or cars or girls or blood. They’re despicable, but who among us has never wished for such power?
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“Adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel. Gary Oldman plays Dracula whose lonely soul is determined to reunite with his lost love, Mina (Winona Ryder). In Britain, Dracula begins a reign of terror and seduction draining the life from her closest friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost). Together they try and drive Dracula away.”
Much has been said about Dracula and Victorian attitudes towards sex and desire. Dracula, as a character, is near unstoppable, seducing beautiful women and stealing them away to be his vampire brides. With their own new vampire enticement powers, Lucy and the other vampire brides threaten to exploit their men’s weakness—sexual appeal. Dracula can’t tempt Jonathan Harker or Dr. Van Helsing, but he can still destroy them by co-opting female sexuality. The novel Dracula betrayed Victorian fears of female sexuality as a form of power that could be used and abused by foreign enemies (since women can’t do anything on their own and are controlled by men).
By the time Coppola directed this version, Dracula was updated to make him a bit more sympathetic. So the film created a new tragic backstory for Dracula to give him a “relatable” motivation for his evil, because renouncing God and becoming a vampire after your wife commits suicide is…relatable. Dracula is still a threat to female purity and virile masculinity, but he only does that to Lucy, who is portrayed as a flirt and a “loose” woman. But when it comes to pure and sweet Mina, ever faithful to Jonathan Harker, Dracula is a bit more gentlemanly.
See? He’s no longer a total douchebag. Everything he does, Dracula does for love, because attacking Lucy and beefing with Dr. Van Helsing is about love, somehow. Regardless, Dracula still symbolizes the desire to become bigger than life’s obstacles, to cheat death, to spit in the face of God, and pursue love and lust without regret or consequences. He symbolizes unbridled desires, and it’s important to note that he is, ultimately defeated.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
“Born as an 18th-century lord, Louis is now a bicentennial vampire, telling his story to an eager biographer. Suicidal after the death of his family, he meets Lestat, a vampire who persuades him to choose immortality over death and become his companion. Eventually, gentle Louis resolves to leave his violent maker, but Lestat guilts him into staying by turning a young girl — whose addition to the “family” breeds even more conflict.”
While vampires have always been alluring, malicious creatures, it’s only been since the last half of the 20th century that vampires were seen as sympathetic. Anne Rice is one of the major forces behind the shift from vampires as one-dimension baddies to complicated villains to conflicted antiheroes.
In Interview with the Vampire, based on Anne Rice’s 1976 novel, vampires are both vicious and sensitive, irreverent and melancholy. Some vampires, like Lestat, relish their immortality; others, like Louis, mourn for their lost humanity. Louis feels tricked by Lestat since being a vampire isn’t the thrilling life of power and eternal youth he assumed it would be. But it’s not like Lestat lied—Lestat genuinely loves being a vampire. Louis is simply not cut out for being a vampire. He hates the murder. He hates the night. He hates being immortal.
But does he really? Does his evaporating humanity both him? As Lestat and Claudia point out, Louis didn’t have to go along with his sparkling promises. Louis gave up trying to subsist on the blood of animals in lieu of killing humans. And most telling, Louis never tried to end his vampire life by walking into the sunrise. As much as Louis pretends to pine for his humanity, he isn’t human anymore. He has grown accustomed to being young and powerful and alluring. He will not give it up. And that’s the disconcerting point of Interview with the Vampire: you might find that you like being a monster more than being human.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
“On the run from a bank robbery that left several police officers dead, Seth Gecko and his paranoid, loose-cannon brother, Richard, hightail it to the Mexican border. Kidnapping preacher Jacob Fuller and his kids, the criminals sneak across the border in the family’s RV and hole up in a topless bar. Unfortunately, the bar also happens to be home base for a gang of vampires, and the brothers and their hostages have to fight their way out.”
Something magical happened to vampire movies in the 90s. No doubt influenced by The Lost Boys and Near Dark, many vampire movies depicted vampires as edgy, rough, ferocious drifters who had ditched the subtle clamor, flashing clothes, and ennui. The seduction these new vampires offered was still sexual, but with a strong undercurrent of danger often missing from everyday life.
An experiment in genre-bending, From Dusk Till Dawn takes the best parts of exploitation films, action movies, and vampire flicks to transform vampires into nasty, wanton, demonic beings. And these vampires are so ruthless they make the Gecko brothers look decent.
I cannot tell you how much I love that the vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn have figured out that all they need to do to secure a steady supply of victims is to open a sleazy strip club in the Mexican desert. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, especially when they’ve got vampire Salma Hayek working the main stage. Seduction doesn’t need to be moody or prolonged, because sometimes all you need to do is flash some skin. Human beings are weak like that.
Let the Right One In (2008)
“When Oskar, a sensitive, bullied 12-year-old boy living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli, they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved with each other, Oskar and Eli slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.”
I write about this film a lot, but only because it’s so freaking good and I adore vampire movies. Let the Right One In is a love story about two lonely creatures, one a boy, the other a centuries’ old vampire. The bond between Oskar and Eli is undeniable and strong. It appears as though they really do give each other love and sense of belonging. Within the context of the movie, Oskar’s devotion to Eli and her willingness to commit savage child murder for Oskar is…sweet.
But Eli is still a vampire, and vampires are predators who manipulate humans and see them as prey. While she is somewhat dependent on Hakan (and later Oskar) she doesn’t need to be taken care of—she chooses to exploit human weakness and desire for her own personal gain.
By the end of the film, when Oskar and Eli have run away together, the sweetness of their relationship is soured with the realization that Eli, as fond of Oskar as she is, has really just recruited him to be her new servant. What will his devotion make him do for her? Will he descend to the same depths Hakan fell to, killing people in the woods and melting his own face off with acid to avoid implicating Eli in the murders? To Oskar, Eli is power, security, companionship, and love. To Eli, Oskar is a companion, a connection to her lost humanity, and a tool. There cannot be an equal relationship because they are not equals. She needs him, wants him, but doesn’t need to feed on Oskar to destroy him. Eli embodies the fear of rejection and the twisted machinations we engage in to maintain dominance in a relationship.
“Sang-hyun, a respected priest, volunteers for an experimental procedure that may lead to a cure for a deadly virus. He gets infected and dies, but a blood transfusion of unknown origin brings him back to life as a vampire. Now, Sang-hyun is torn between faith and bloodlust, and has a newfound desire for Tae-ju, the wife of his childhood friend.”
Oh man, this movie was so weird and uncomfortable, yet an intriguing interpretation of what it means to be a vampire. From the incredibly talented South Korean director Park Chan-wook, this vampire film examines how vampires symbolize a rebellion against social norms.
Sang-hyun, a Catholic Priest, has thrown himself into his work for finding a cure for a deadly virus. He isn’t being entirely selfless; Sang-hyun is undergoing a crisis of faith and has thrown himself into his work to escape his spiritual turmoil. During his research, he accidentally turns himself into a vampire, becoming stronger than ever, addicted to human blood, unable to control his impulses. The latter proves especially troubling, since he begins lusting after Tae-ju, his childhood friend’s wife, Tae-ju.
Tae-ju sees nothing of Sang-hyun’s inner struggle. Bored with her marriage, she only sees a mysterious, attractive man whose animalistic physicality is irresistible. Without knowing it, Sang-hyun seduces Tae-ju, and she seduces him in turn. Together they explore the full range of their new vampire abilities and moral degradation. Their love is dark and self-destructive, leading Sang-hyun to question if he can live with himself. His desire for her and his unquenchable thirst for blood deepens his crisis of faith, to the point where he decides to give in. It’s only when he realizes how terrible they’ve become that he begins to regret his decision.
Thirst is about indulging his sinful desires without having to acknowledge his guilt. Being a vampire usually means freedom from human morality, as Tae-ju discovers. She loves being a vampire and takes to it enthusiastically. But with Sang-hyun, the vampire trope is subverted, throwing his humanity into his love for Tae-ju and bringing the conflict to a poignant, bleak end.