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5 Vampire Movies You've Never Heard Of
The Vampire Movies that disappeared.
By Kurt Amacker
September 16, 2010
5 Vampire Movies You've Never Heard Of
© Bob Trate
Somewhere in the Great Book of Geek Law, there's a rule that says that vampires have to rule pop culture about every 10 years or so. It was Anne Rice in the 1980s. In the 1990s, it was Vampire: The Masquerade and an explosion of goth music and fashion. In the aughts, it's been Twilight, True Bood, The Vampire Diaries, and a cottage industry of vampire romance novels. It's an old peasant myth that morphed into a villain in Romantic and Victorian stage and literature, only to become one of the most popular icons in the history of film. Vampires endure, allure, and frighten us. They stand at the nexus between our better selves and our endless fascination with evil, sex, and the freedoms of eternal life. They aren't going away.
But, let's be honest. Most vampire novels are awful, and the movies aren't any better. I like to think that a little part of Bram Stoker's soul is consigned to Hell every time someone buys a Twilight novel. After you get through the Universal and Hammer classics, the selection gets slimmer and you have to wade through a sea of knock-offs, softcore porn, and straight-to-video cash-ins. Often, you can find the best vampire films in the most unexpected places. And, for every Let the Right One In and Thirst, there are other treasures waiting to be unearthed deep in the independent and foreign sections of the video store (or Netflix, if you want). There, in the shadowy corners of cinema lurk the best vampire films you've never seen.
5. Habit (1997)
Larry Fessenden directs himself in this low budget psychological horror film. He plays Sam--a lowlife with a drinking problem who lives in New York's East Village. He helps manage a nightclub part-time, but he's just an average guy with a chipped tooth and nowhere to go but down. When the film begins, he's in the middle of a protracted split with his ex-girlfriend. At a Halloween party, he meets Anna (Meredith Snaider)--a quirky, pretty girl with dark hair who's way out of his league. But, they go out and the ferocious shagging begins. Anna likes it rough and she wants it all the time. Sam thinks he's got it made--except for waking up with cuts and scratches every morning, with Anna nowhere to be found. But when night falls, she's back for more. Sam's ex is furious with him, and his friends are concerned that he's looking a little gaunt. Things get stranger, and Sam's health quickly degenerates. The real question is whether Anna is a vampire or if he's losing his mind. Habit approaches sex pretty frankly, though it probably isn't comparably graphic in the net-porn age. But, it unashamedly addresses the addictive quality that a sexual relationship can take on, and the way that we allow others to destroy our lives in the process.
4. Nadja (1994)
The mid-1990s were the beginning of the mainstreaming of independent film. There was a brief, satisfying backlash against effects-driven cotton candy. Michael Almeyreda's Nadja was only a minor blip on the radar in a year that featured Pulp Fiction, Clerks, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It was also the same year that Neil Jordan's Interview with a Vampire came out, so needless to say, Nadja went largely unnoticed. But, it has that diamond-in-the-rough quality that makes it worth seeing. Produced by none other than David Lynch, the film shows Dracula's daughter, Nadja (Elina Löwensohn), in New York, reflecting on her recently deceased father. But, there's a Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) on her trail. Throw in a lesbian tryst and a jealous husband, an estranged twin brother, and an offbeat sense of humor, and you have one of the forgotten gems of vampire cinema. Lynch's influence is profound, adding a healthy dose of art-house weirdness to the film. The entire film is in black and white, and director Almeyreda even films some sequences with a Fisher-Price PixelVision camera--a toy from the 1980s that records video on to an audio cassette. Nadja takes a couple of viewings to formulate a reaction, but it's well worth it.
3. Daughters of Darkness (1971)
The plot of Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness sounds like softcore vamp porn, but it has a tone more of tasteful European erotica than Buffy the Vampire Layer. Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), a newly married couple, honeymoons at a seaside resort in Belgium. They are on their way to meet Stefan's mother, but he's unusually tightlipped about her. There, the couple meets the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her servant, Ilona (Andrea Rau). Bathory's place in both history and vampire fiction is pretty well-established, but the couple accepts her story about being a descendent or something. It's obvious to anyone who's ever seen a horror movie that the Countess looks great for her age--so much so that a hotel employee recalls seeing her when he was a child. And, she hasn't changed much since then. The Countess quickly moves in on Valerie, and dispatches Ilona on Stefan. Suddenly, feelings--both romantic and sexual--become incredibly confused, and a tragic accident leaves three of the four with a body on their hands in the middle of the night. More secrets are waiting that peel away the psychosexual tension of the film--especially when we finally meet Stefan's mother. Daughters of Darkness is pretty tame by today's standards, but it explores the sometimes confusing nature of sexual impulses--and their occasionally unsavory roots.
2. Martin (1978)
George A. Romero's Martin is a realistic modern vampire story that explores the line between fantasy and reality. Before there was a "vampyre" subculture of aficionados, before there were guys like Don Henry going on Tyra Banks and talking about "real vampires" (per se), and before Twilight fans started cutting themselves, there was Martin--the story of a young man (played by John Amplas) with a razor blade and a hypodermic needle who thinks he's a vampire. Or, could he really be? His grand-uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) that he lives with thinks so. In fact, he frequently tries to cure Martin with garlic and other folk remedies. Martin leads a lonely, alienated life, punctuated by his nocturnal. During his nighttime forays, he imagines himself as vampire in a high Gothic setting, with atmospheric black and white scenes of him running down winding stairwells with a candelabra, wearing a flowing poet's blouse, and seducing young virgins. Or, could Martin be remembering his life hundreds of years ago? Martin has the grit and edge of so many New Hollywood movies produced during the period, emphasizing a growing cultural sense of alienation. Martin's twisted methods notwithstanding, he also cries out to the world by calling into a radio talk show frequently under the name "the Count" to try to explain himself. His first experience with sex and romance proves to be a minor revelation, but ultimately, things end in tragedy. Romero never really lets on whether Martin just thinks he's a vampire or actually is one. Rather, he asks us if we ever could ever really know--and if our existing definition is just wrong to begin with. Romero says that this is his favorite film of his catalogue, and you can see why.
1. Vampyr (1932)
Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr is not an easy film to get into. For years, different cuts of the film floated around that made the plot rather confusing. It's loosely based on the groundbreaking J. Sheridan le Fanu short story Carmilla, which featured a female vampire. Only a shell of the plot remains, though--a young man named Allan Gray (Julien West) stops at an inn, only to learn that a young woman in a nearby manor is being stalked by a vampire. The story is pretty simple in that regard, but it's the mood of the whole thing that makes Vampyr a classic. Gray sees all manner of heady, surreal imagery--shadows of things that aren't there move around him, and an atmosphere of nightmarish intensity grows. Moreover, while Vampyr is shot with sound, there is very little talking. It was Dreyer's first sound film, and he used the dialogue sparingly, alongside a mix of subtitles and suggestive imagery. Vampyr is not a thrill-a-minute horror film. It came out not long after Dracula and Frankenstein, and audiences were looking for the more overt thrills Universal offered. It was critically lambasted for years as Dreyer's worst film--especially compared to his classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, which came out four years before. The film has undergone a critical renaissance of sorts since then, and it recently landed a Criterion DVD. It's one of those movies that, for all intents in purposes, you have to like lest you sound like a luddite. But, it's really, really slow. It's not the kind of movie you want to put on when you need to see the tits and blood fly with some friends and a six-pack. Just be ready and approach the film on its own terms. The results are pretty amazing.
There are a lot of vampire movies. Most of them are terrible. The mainstream ones rarely live up to their promise, and the legions of straight-to-DVD titles are mostly just soft porn cash-ins looking for a distribution deal and a quick profit. But, as always, there are greater treasures to be found if you know where to look.