Drinking in the history of vampires in film

November 20, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He's back. And this time he just doesn't want your blood. He wants your money, too.

And you're giving it to him.

Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's 'Dracula'" sucked in over $30 million in its first weekend of release, making it one of the largest film openings of the year. It's too soon to tell if the movie will continue to generate ticket sales at this pace (my hunch is that it won't), but even if it doesn't, it's sure to make $100 million and therefore nudge past the magic threshold of "hit." The good news is that this will almost certainly resuscitate the sadly disheveled career of its maker. Talk about a transfusion.

The better news is that there will be more vampire films, as if this were ever in doubt. But the movie represents another cultural truth: that the undead, indeed, never do die, at least showbiz-speaking. The vampire is one of the movie's earliest creations; in fact as early as 1896 the French director George Melies, who is famous for "A Trip to the Moon," was cranking out "Le Manoir du Diable," ("The Devil's Castle"), beating Bram Stoker, who didn't publish until 1897, by a year.

The movie was slightly less ambitious than Coppola's "Dracula": it seems to have involved a Cavalier battling a giant man-bat with his only weapon a crucifix. But the beginning was auspicious. For nearly a century, the vampire's stalking ground has not been Transylvanian forests or London alleyways but American bijoux.

In fact, John Flynn, an instructor at Towson State University and long-time horror and sci-fi film buff, has identified over 350

vampire films in a newly published book, "Cinematic Vampires: The Living Dead on Film and Television." (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C.)

Mr. Flynn, 38, takes his vampires seriously, so seriously that he is pictured on the jacket back in full vampire regalia, including cape and teeth, and drives a car with the license plate VAMPYR. Asked what the cops say when they stop him, he responds, "They never stop me."

He has uncovered quite a zany litany of movies that somehow passed without attracting much notice.

There is "El Hombre que Vina de Ummoa," also known as "Dracula vs. Frankenstein," a 1971 Italian production with poor NTC British actor Michael Rennie pretending to care. There's an Italian number called "Full Moon of the Virgins." The French check in with the tastefully titled "Confessions of a Blood Sucker." Those wacky Spaniards have a go with "Young Jonathan Dracula." And the Germans! Boy, do they know how to have fun! "Dracula Blows His Cool!"

In his wandering through the corridors of the undead and the unseen, Mr. Flynn has identified five "subthemes" in the vampire genre.

* The traditional vampire film features a human who through magic or some kind of curse has been forced to seek blood as nourishment. All the "Dracula" films as well as such classics as "Nosferatu" and Carl Dreyer's 1932 "Vampyr" occupy this genre.

* The alternate species film takes off from the idea that at some point in pre-history another variant of homo sapiens evolved, and it has been quietly stalking and living off us ever since. "The Hunger" and "Near Dark" are two recent outstanding examples.

* The deranged, psychotic film is about a twisted human who comes to believe he's a vampire. George Romero's "Martin" is a clear example, and filaments of this idea may be found in something like "Silence of the Lambs."

* The man-made vampire film, in which a mad scientist, trying to unlock the secrets of the universe, accidentally creates a blood drinker. Seems to have fallen from favor as the last recorded one Mr. Flynn can come up with is "The Omega Man," from 1971.

* The alien vampire film, in which the blood suckers heave in from off-world. The classic here is "Demon Planet," from 1965, though again Ridley Scott's original "Alien" seems to play with this theme.

Mr. Flynn first got interested in vampires in graduate school at the University of South Florida, when he was assigned to read Stoker's novel.

"I got so interested in the subject, I began researching the vampire in literature and in real life."

He says the appeal of the vampire is threefold.

"First, he's foreign and exotic. Second, he's somehow escaped death, which makes him inherently fascinating. And third, people seem fascinated with the idea of seeing their loved ones come back from the grave, and that's what the vampire can offer."

In his introduction, he identifies the theme of the classical vampire story: "The modern vampire story deals with the disturbing survival of romantic ideals [represented by the vampire] in an era of industrialism of scientific rationalism [contemporary society]."

He liked the Francis Ford Coppola film "very much. It has returned to Stoker's original novel and its flaws -- the overall lack of structure and a strong storyline -- are the flaws of the novel."

But it's not his favorite.

"The original British 'Horror of Dracula,' which began the horror cycle for the film company Hammer Films in 1958, was really the best. It introduced Christopher Lee as Dracula and generally set the tone for classy vampire movies to come, just like the Coppola film."

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