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Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Lucky 13: Week Six: Vampires

The history of horror is populated with a cornucopia of malicious monsters to chill the blood and excite the imagination. But for roughly the past eight decades, one monster in particular has stood head and shoulders above the rest as the most prominent, and the most readily identifiable with the genre: the vampire.

There's something about the vampire's ability to literally drain away human life that seems to resonate at the very epicenter of what horror is all about. From ancient folklore to Victorian literature, and eventually on the silver screen, they have called to us, both terrifying and irresistible. Vampires have been the subject of countless horror films. As challenging as it may have been, our crew--along with the Brutal as Hell gang--have selected our all-time favorites. Read on, and remember, the dead travel fast...

B-Sol on Nosferatu

Not only the greatest horror film of the 1920s, but I believe an argument could be made that it might be the finest horror film ever. However, I'll just say it's my all-time favorite vampire flick, and leave it at that. Pure joy for any true horror fan, from beginning to end, Max Schreck's exploits as the demonic Count Orlock make up an almost transcendent experience of movie viewing. It might be easy and predictable to choose this one, but I choose it for a reason--it is the most frightening movie of its era, and still the most rewarding to watch. Not to mention the best screen adaptation of Dracula.

But despite Nosferatu technically being a Dracula adaptation, Max Schreck's Orlock is an entity all on his own, with a distinct persona and look that virtually transcends horror cinema, if not cinema as a whole. The rising out of the casket, the unforgettable shadow-walk up those stairs. This, readers, is the stuff of cinematic horror immortality. It gets no better.

Fandomania's Paige MacGregor on Underworld

It’s surprising how few vampire films I’ve watched, given how many vampire books and novels I’ve read over the past several years. Fortunately, I’ve managed to avoid the majority of the Twilight franchise, limiting my experience of vampires on the silver screen to the laughable Gerard Butler film Dracula 2000, Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn, the classic vampire film Nosferatu, and the ever-popular Underworld franchise. For various reasons, I recently reached the conclusion that of this limited selection, Underworld has made its way to the top of my vampire horror movie list to become my favorite movie featuring the blood-sucking undead.

Although Underworld isn’t particularly intellectually stimulating, it is a fast-paced action-adventure horror film with vampires, werewolves (or lycans, as they’re called in the film), and a centuries-old war raging between the two factions. Using the traditional star-crossed lovers theme of Romeo and Juliet, Underworld follows the sexy, self-sufficient vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) as she falls in love with a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Unfortunately, Michael was bitten by a lycan and is undergoing the painful process of becoming one of Selene's mortal enemies.

Many people will be surprised to know that Underworld was my first introduction to both Kate Beckinsale and Bill Nighy, two actors that I really like. In my opinion, Len Wiseman's casting in Underworld is phenomenal; Beckinsale is the essence of the vampire Selene, and her porcelain complexion couldn't be more perfect for the role. In addition, Bill Nighy is unbelievable as one of the first vampires ever created, corrupt and cruel and filled with hatred for the lycans. The special effects used to turn Nighy into the blood-deprived corpse as he first appears in Underworld is very well done, but without Nighy's effective acting and powerful presence, the role would've fallen flat.

I also love the visual style that Len Wisemen and his Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, De-Lovely), use in Underworld. Everything from the rainy urban landscape and the vampires’ massive, hulking mansion, to the skin-tight black leather that Selene wears and the dark, shadowy complexions of the lycans contributes to the stunning contrast of lights and darks that characterize the film’s cinematography. In addition, the camerawork in Underworld is superb. Establishing shots are often grand urban vistas. Even the use of CGI in these shots is flawless, creating images that convey both the dark, secretive nature of the vampires and lycans while also expressing the enormity of the landscape in which they dwell.

The use of slow motion camerawork during the climactic fight scene at the end of Underworld is genius given the speed attributed to both lycans and vampires in the film. This fight sequence is dissimilar from many of the fight scenes in other contemporary films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, which often feature images that move too fast for audiences to follow adequately. Instead, Wiseman and his production team used slow motion not only to keep viewers in the loop with regards to the mechanics of the fight, but also to highlight the beauty of the fight choreography itself.

It is no wonder to me that Underworld spawned both a sequel and a prequel, with yet another sequel rumored to be in production. The leading lady is a sexpot with giant pistols and a hunger for blood, the cinematography is breathtaking, and the story of love and betrayal is interesting, if not compelling. I look forward to a fourth installment of the Underworld franchise, and I hope someone talks Beckinsale back into a skin-tight suit of leather for me.

From Beyond Depraved's Joe Monster on Fright Night

Vampires and I kind of have a quirky romantic comedy-esque relationship. One minute I’m fawning over the genre for its brilliance, suspense, and eroticism, and the next I’m pulling the hair from my scalp over the blasé simplification and mindless exploitation of its powerful themes (hello, Ms. Meyers…). It would be difficult for me to cite a vampire film from the last thirty years that I’ve seen and can call my favorite. Modern flicks concerning the nosferatu tend to just fall flat with me, no more memorable than the last fast-food burger that slithered down one’s throat. Not so, however, with a little film from the '80s called Fright Night.

From the very first time I viewed Fright Night (on a double-bill with Creepshow, no less!), I knew that I had happened upon something magical. If I’m not mistaken, it was the very first modern vampire movie to have been viewed by my young, impressionable eyes. Up until that point I had only been acquainted with the likes of Lugosi, Lee, and the rest of the gang as they creaked their way through cobwebbed castles and crypts. This was an entirely new experience. Vampires in today’s world? My adolescent spine shuddered at the very thought. Not to mention the overt sensuality exhibited by the charming-as-hell Chris Sarandon and his bloodsucking brethren. Seeing the act of vampirism turned into an appealing and sexual act was a giant bombshell that went off in my brain. Like the ravaged wasteland of a real explosion, my perspective on vampires would never be the same again.

Fright Night is a wild ride, a film packed with homages to those Universal and Hammer terrors, but with a decidedly 80’s flavor. For instance, the vampire’s abode is your typical Gothic house squatting in an impenetrable mist and filled with ghostly antiquities. But a few scenes later we’re transported to a bustling nightclub where the synthesizers blare through the speakers and the dancers have more hair than the members of a werewolf convention. The mixture creates a highly electric and downright fun atmosphere that won’t be forgotten for some time. The powerhouse performances from the ensemble cast bring the movie to a whole new level. I could go on for days about how every role is fully realized and the amazing chemistry that sparks between each actor. Magic like this is a rarity, particularly in horror films. But somehow Fright Night makes it seem like a feat that can be accomplished with a passive wave of the hand.

I love watching movies made by filmmakers who actually love horror movies. The passion and hard work put forth shines in every shot, the loving product of a devoted craftsman. Fright Night is a prime example of just that type of genius. Even though some may see it at worst as only a fair parody of the vampire theme, I actually think it’s one of the sub-genre’s highest achievements. This is how the undead were meant to be seen. Sinister, mysterious, terrifying, and oh-so-seductive (no sparkles included). Fright Night is just the film I’d instantly recommend to anyone seeking a good time with some bloodthirsty friends. It’s everything you’ve been waiting for, with just a little more of a… bite.

Cinema Suicide's Bryan White on Dracula (1931)

My taste in horror trends toward the '70s and '80s, but not even I can resist the baroque charms of Bela freakin' Lugosi as the original vampire. Dracula is a movie that needs no introduction. Lugosi's performance was so intense and profound that even in times when the vampire was represented most commonly by Lestat and Edward Cullen, the cape and brow is still iconic. Slick your hair, throw on a tux and vaguely ceremonial medallion and you're instantly recognizable as Count Dracula 80 years later.

Tod Browning's movie throws most of Bram Stoker's novel out the window and it mixes and matches characters, but the major themes remain. It also represents the beginning of a golden age of horror for Universal Studios where every picture was drenched in crashing thunder and crumbling castles and unmatched performances by legends of the genre. Every god damn frame of Tod Browning's movie is deliberately crafted for maximum gothic. Shots of Lugosi frame his imposing presence perfectly and his intense, burning stare is highlighted frequently by a band of light across the eyes to entrance you exactly as his vampiric stare is supposed to be doing to the cast.

Dracula is fundamentally awesome; the text-book by which all horror films follow and a subtle exercise in how to sneak themes of kinky domination and submission into a movie made in a very chaste studio system. It plays a heavy hand at times, rubbing your nose in its intensity but this expertly crafted horror film is so perfect that it just doesn't matter if it feels excessive. The Count, his vampire brides, his accent and his sinister influence are such incredible storytelling elements and played so perfectly by Bela Lugosi that by comparison, the Harkers and Abraham Van Helsing seem like total downers. Not to put too fine a point on it, I love Dracula.

I'll tell you what else: Mexican Dracula is pretty cool, too.

* * * * * * * * * *

Head over to Brutal as Hell to see what Marc Patterson and his crew have come up with. And if you're interested in taking part in the future, just give Marc or myself a holler.

Week 1: Grindhouse & Exploitation
Week 2: Creature Features & Monster Movies
Week 3: Demons, Witches & The Devil
Week 4: Gore!
Week 5: Horror Comedies

Join us next week, when we get all brainy and tackle the sub-genre of psychological horror!


Cinema Suicide said...

1. Max Schreck's surname means 'terror' in German and that is so totally sweet. As much as I love Dracula, Nosferatu is actually extremely scary. The film is so grainy, though. I wish I could see high quality footage of Schreck's makeup.

2. Underworld is one of the three movies I've never been able to finish now matter how hard I try. God, I hate that movie. The others are Freddy Got Fingered and The Pest.

3. Fright Night is contender for my best horror movie of the 80's title. Icons of Fright had a great article and interview with Tom Holland about how it's full of all these unexplored gay themes.

thhjasmine said...

great read

AndyDecker said...

I hate Underworld. There isn´t one original idea in that movie, all concepts are "borrowed" from novels and role-playing games, without acknowledging them.

Fright Night is a classic. Still a lot of fun. Best use of the song "Strangers in the Night" in a horror movie :-)

Nosferatu has become as iconic as Lugosi´s Dracula.

Movies at Midnight said...

Ryan Midnight, from Movies at Midnight here. Favorite vampire flick I'd have to go with is NEAR DARK. Kathryn Bigelow's dark, dirty vision still holds up today and is the perfect antidote to yelping teens swooning over the Twilight universe.

The classics are still the classics though, and both NOSFERATU and DRACULA remain must sees.

B-Sol said...

Thanks Jasmine, glad you enjoyed it!

Ryan, Near Dark is another amazing one. This is why I like to get as many contributors as possible, because so many great choices inevitably get left out.

Missy Y. (formerly A Case of You) said...

What? No love for the lesbian vampire? Pish posh.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I think my own favorite vampire movie is Martin, though I sometimes waver between that and Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

I'm not all that fond of some of the 1980s vampire movies. Near Dark is probably my favorite from that decade (Bill Paxton is a hoot). I hated The Lost Boys and I'm lukewarm to Fright Night.

My favorite lesbian vampire movie is Vadim's Blood and Roses.

B-Sol said...

On the lesbian vampire front, I really was hoping someone would pick The Hunger. Oh well...

Christopher Zenga said...

oh Fright Night, how i love thee!

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