Burned To Light: Four Under-Appreciated Vampire Films

Burned To Light: Four Under-Appreciated Vampire Films

e10f636493fce63233888442ab3467e0Hello again, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! After reading Anno Dracula, it really got me thinking about all the vampire films I haven’t seen…and how many of the ones I have seen and loved don’t seem to get nearly the love they deserve from the rest of the fandom.  So I thought I’d take some time and talk about four of these films and why they deserve more love then they’ve been getting.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) is Werner Herzog’s reimagining of Murnau’s 1922 silent classic, and truth be told, at this point I like Herzog’s vision better then Murnau’s.  Heresy, I know, to like a *gasp* remake more then the original, but I think Herzog tells a more interesting story then just retelling Dracula with the serial numbers filed off.

Kinski’s performance as the weary, inconsolably-lonely Orlock is a thing of absolute beauty, and one of my favorite vampires of all time, showcasing the downside of immortality, while Bruno Ganz (better known for playing Hitler in DOWNFALL) gives a fantastic performance as Jonathan Harker and the delightful Isabelle Adjani instills an incredible degree of strength into the role of Lucy Harker, making her a feminist figure in a story in which, traditionally, the women exist solely to be rescued (either physically or spiritually) by the male protagonists.  Walter Ladengast’s Van Helsing is a far cry from the figure pioneered by Edward van Sloan and Peter Cushing, and the difference there completely reflavors his role in the story. kolchak-the-night-stalker--15

The Night Stalker (1972) is a made-for-TV movie that follows investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) as he pieces together the clues left behind by a string of murders in Las Vegas, eventually coming the inescapable, though seemingly-impossible, conclusion that the killer is a vampire.  When the city officials attempt to stymie Kolchak’s investigations, he takes up stake and mallet to put an end to the vampire’s menace once and for all.

Produced by Dan “Dark Shadows” Curtis from a screenplay by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, THE NIGHT STALKER introduced the world to Carl Kolchak, investigative reporter and reluctant hunter of the supernatural, who would continue his adventures in another made-for-TV movie followed by a short-lived TV series, but whose influence would stretch far afield, playing a role in the creation of such shows as The X-Files, Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  McGavin’s Kolchak is good-natured, fast-talking and sharper-witted then the authorities he butts heads with, chasing after truth like a doberman chasing a toddler slathered in steak sauce, but at the end of the day he’s a profoundly human character, and the film concludes on a down-note for him as it shows him attempting to put back together the pieces of a life shattered by the interference of the supernatural. nosferatu-willem-dafoe

Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is another Nosferatu tale, this one focusing on the filming of the 1922 classic; John Malkovich appears as F.W. Murnau, Cary Elwes and Udo Kier as cinematographers, and Willem Defoe (BOONDOCK SAINT, SPIDER-MAN, STREETS OF FIRE) appears as Count Orlock.  The film is predicated on the idea that Max Shreck was so unnaturally good at playing a vampire, he must have actually been one, and the film follows Murnau as he negotiates with and hires Count Orlock to essentially play himself in an unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, as Murnau is obsessed with realism and must have the most “real” vampire he can.  Things begin to fall apart as Orlock begins to feed on the film crew, and becomes dangerously obsessed with the star, Greta Shroeder (Catherine McCormack).  Finally, it falls to Murnau that he must kill this damned vampire if he’s to have the opportunity to finish the film…

I think this film got a lot of attention when it first came out and then it sort of dropped off everybody’s radar.  Defoe’s Orlock is as world-weary as Kinski’s, but has found something to interest him in the 20th century – the motion picture.  He’s fascinated by the mechanisms of the camera and the process of burning an image to film, even as he’s robbed by the centuries of his memories of human life or how to pass for human.  There’s a fantastic exchange of dialogue in which, upon being asked what he thought of the book, Orlock explains how saddening it was; sympathizing with the unspoken struggle of Dracula to remember how to be a man, how to buy bread and wine and cheese and entertain guests for the first time in centuries.  It’s a beautiful scene and gives a sense of pathos to the monster – one that’s quickly lost when he eats the screenwriter. Jack Palance Best Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974) is another made-for-TV movie from the creative team of Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson, this time a more or less straightforward retelling of Stoker’s novel.  Jack Palance steps into the role of the eternal Count, standing only one inch shorter then the towering Christopher Lee in the role.  With his angular face and imposing presence, Palance plays the count like a tiger; an apex predator comfortable enough with his power to be casual about it, but quick to punish those who would seek to test his boundaries.  Matheson’s script borrows from Jimmy Sangster’s script for Hammer’s 1958 HORROR OF DRACULA in that it gets Jonathan Harker out of the way quickly to allow Arthur Holmwood to step up to the plate and play the hero under Van Helsing’s tutelage (Quincey Morris still gets next to no love from filmmakers), while also pioneering elements that would become popular additions to the story later on – both the identification of Count Dracula with Vlad III Dracula the Impaler and the idea that he became a vampire over a lost love reincarnated in Mina Harker first appear here, before being used in Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation, also entitled BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (subsequent VHS and DVD reissues of the 1974 film bear the title DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA).

I think maybe because this was a made-for-TV movie a lot of people haven’t heard of it? I find it, if not perfectly faithful to Stoker’s original novel, at least one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve seen to date.  The film’s a beautiful one to watch as well – the colors are rich and lavish, the performances are good across the board, and get this – Palance was a method actor, meaning he tried to get into the personality of the character he was playing in order to give a better performance.  By the end of the filmshoot for Dracula, he was eager for it to be done because he was getting scared of what playing Dracula was doing to him as a human being.  He’d be offered the role several more times in his career after this but he always turned them down because he didn’t want to get into that mindset again.  How’s that for a behind-the-scenes story? Let’s see Gary Oldman top that one!

So, there you have it Brothers and Sisters.  By no means an exhaustive list – as I’ve said before, vampire films are actually a major gap in my movie collection – but a good start for when you’ve exhausted the possibilities of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, LOST BOYS, FRIGHT NIGHT, and the endless familiar adaptations of Dracula.

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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

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