I felt the hot molten pierce of the stare, the whirlpool of the eyes. The veins in my neck strained to be near those pearly harbingers of death, that hungry tongue, the ruby lips. Trembling in anticipation, bursting with desire, I submitted myself to the warm embrace of oblivion…
Sex and death. These are the most primordial, the most arresting, of themes. The allure of the vampire film lies with its succinct distillation of these elements, wrapped in a fantasy context that allows for an easier discussion of the taboo and forbidden. The multi-faceted undead continue to hypnotise audiences the world over, reinvented and rediscovered by each generation to mirror their fears and desires. As perennial movie monsters vampires are, above all, adaptable, because they reflect and amplify human passions and greed. The zombie repels, its lack of personality leaves little room for exposition so its role is to represent fear of death and the faceless mass. The werewolf, a staple of folklore like the vampire, represents a lack of control over man’s predatory nature – its horror lies in the loss of free will, of uncontrollable urges. The vampire on the other hand, is a far more malleable creature. As ‘supernatural’ beings they offer escape from reality and an opportunity to encounter evil in the safe environment of the cinema. Not, of course, that all vampires are evil – some are cursed, tragic, funny or just different – it is their exaggeration and extension of human feelings and abilities that allows them to be re-interpreted. Although vampire films are often viewed as a guilty pleasure they are also a way of confronting taboo desires in a way that absolves the viewer of personal guilt – the vampire can be an avatar for our darkest wishes.
As long as there has been cinema there has been censorship, and vampire cinema has, for a large part, existed on the borders of acceptability. The vampire provides an ideal forum for exploring taboo subjects in a metaphorical context, allowing situations that would be considered unacceptable if one or more of the participants were not nosferatu. To this end the more successful vampire films have often been made in oppressive or puritanical social environments. The cinematic evolution of the vampire takes on the issues and mores of its time – even if it is a period piece. You will have no difficulty spotting the difference between Brides of Dracula and Countess Dracula despite the fact they are made at the same location by the same company. The contemporary concerns and attitudes of the audience change the perception of both the vampire and its slayer.
The origins of vampires and bloodsuckers stretch far back in time but can be seen as antecedents of the modern vampire film. There are three main sources of precedence – folklore/religion, historical and literary. According to Jewish legend Lilith, Adam’s first wife, is cast out from Eden because of her refusal to be subservient to her husband. Cursed, she preys upon the blood of babies. There are countless versions of the Lilith legend, some see her as a form of succubus or as a demon in the shape of a bird and her role in literature and esoteric culture is constantly being reappraised. In Greek legend, Lamia is similarly a threat to children. Mistress of Zeus, Lamia had her children stolen from her by Hera and, after gouging out her own eyes, was granted the ability to steal other peoples’ babies. Legends of bloodsuckers abound in many cultures; the Penanggalan in Malaysia, Rakshasa and Baital of India as well as species from Romania and Bulgaria can all contend that they are the origins of the vampire. Perhaps they all are. Belief in vampires in their various forms have been used to warn children of the dangers of venturing out alone or provide folk-tale morality for centuries. The vampire’s connection with disease is not just metaphorical. During times of plague and famine the gaunt, anaemic figures of disease victims became associated with the living dead, even down to the methods of disposing of their corpses by incineration.
History and cinema
Of all the myths and stories from which vampire films have drawn, the most influential is undoubtedly that of Dracula. The origin of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is commonly thought to be Vlad Tepes, ruler of Romania in the mid-15th century. Tepes is a controversial figure for, while legends of incredible acts of cruelty are rife – his nom de vampire, The Impaler, derives from his preferred method of torture and execution by impaling tens of thousands of his victims – he is nevertheless seen as something of a hero in his home country as he helped defeat the Ottoman Empire. The legendary Erzsébet Báthory of Hungary bathed in the blood of virgins in order to maintain her youth, allegedly killing some 600 young girls. She has been represented many times on film either directly (Countess Dracula, Immoral Tales) or through association (Daughters of Darkness). More recent examples can be seen in serial killer cases where the murderer is connected with drinking the victims’ blood or devouring them – most infamously Peter Kurten, ‘the Vampire of Dusseldorf’, who was sexually gratified by his victims’ bloodletting and was apparently enthusiastic about hearing the blood gush from his own neck when executed by guillotine.
Much of the inspiration behind vampire films derives directly from literature. Polidori’s The Vampyre was only a short story, but its protagonist Lord Ruthven (allegedly modelled on Lord Byron) was an origin of the dark, compelling and yet strangely attractive aristocrat, upon which so many screen vampires fashioned themselves. Similarly J Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla has had a huge impact on the way female vampires have featured on screen; the beautiful, mysterious but deadly seductress is a direct inspiration on Blood and Roses and The Vampire Lovers. In Victorian England an increase in basic literacy and a general accessibility of printed material resulted in the scandalous ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ – salacious tales of blood and violence, the most famous of which, Varney the Vampire, ran for over two hundred episodes and proved a pulp influence on more famously acknowledged works.
Although the vampire film is often a breaker of taboos its many themes can appear contradictory, but therein lies its strength. The viewer can engage with the filmmaker in any number of metaphysical or social discourses within the relative comfort of a traditional narrative form. This is not to say that the majority of vampire films are worthy philosophical texts but their versatility allows for additional nuances that lie beneath the surface, even in the most basic film. With such a long and rich history it should come as no surprise that these arguments can often work both ways – one filmmaker’s ‘vampire as fear of fascism’ is another’s ‘vampire as fear of communism’. These are just a few of the key themes, there are many, many more.
Vampirism is transmittable through the exchange of blood or bodily fluids. You can become ‘contaminated’ with it. The relationship between the vampire and the plague carrier is a complex one. On one hand you can view the vampire as bestowing the disease or gift of immortality. If the victim is turned through the mutual exchange of fluids, they become complicit in their downfall. The vampire may also contaminate just because of its feeding habits but this is not conducive to the overall survival of the species, due to the exponential rise in its population and inevitable decline in foodstock. The relationship between vampires and disease is prevalent in folklore as well as literature. Dracula is associated with rats in the novel and some film versions, most explicitly in Nosferatu. The town in Vampire Circus is isolated by the plague – its appearance is a precursor for vampiric revenge. A metaphor which relates vampirism with AIDS (Sucker the Vampire, The Forsaken) has become more prevalent in modern films, also because of its connotations with sexuality.
British and American audiences’ continued fascination with vampires has a lot to do with the repression of sexuality within these cultures. In times when even married couples were denied onscreen embraces, it was still possible to see a seductive vampire break into the bedroom of a swooning woman. The act of biting and sucking bodily fluids is extremely sexual, but usually depicted with implication, subtlety and ritual. Once again, taboos can be addressed in a safe environment – the act of penetration and violation rendered metaphorically sexual rather than literally. Films like Dracula’s Daughter were surprisingly frank in their depiction of lesbian seduction for the time and any of Dracula’s nocturnal visits could be considered fantasies about extra-marital sex. Later films toyed with further concepts of more adventurous sexual practices. What sets these apart from pornography is that their perversions are implied or at least restrained. Despite the delirious fetishism and rampant nudity of many European vampire films in the 1960s and 1970s, the genre declined significantly with the brief mainstream acceptance of hardcore pornography. For all their confrontation of taboo sexuality the vampire seemed antiquated and even, heaven forbid, wholesome. The erotic appeal of the vampire lies in the danger and the promise of sex, not the act itself. This explains why the vampire film, even at its most explicit, is often sensual or romantic while traditional pornography is reactionary and unsubtle.
The Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat
Dracula/Vlad and Erzsébet Báthory (Elizabeth Bathory) represent nobility. Powerful and aristocratic they are vampire royalty who command their subjects to do their bidding. No one cared when pretty virgin girls disappeared for Bathory’s vanity or when Vlad dined among the corpses of his enemies – they were either peasants or foreigners. The decadence of vampires is legendary, their appeal lies in wish fulfilment of a lifestyle free from moral constraint or financial insecurity. When these ways are challenged though, they reflect the impetuosity of youth against bourgeois conservatism. In Blade the young vampires seek to overthrow those of pure lineage – they are the mob against the nobility. In this example the new is seen, paradoxically, as bad – the Elders have survived by limiting numbers and remaining withdrawn from general view – preferring to manipulate from afar. In Abel Ferrera’s The Addiction there is a vein of grunge Nazism running through the vampire circle, this left wing approach to filmmaking sees the undead as bourgeois fascists.
The opposite side of the same coin is the fear of the communist take over, although this is less common in the vampire film and more prevalent in the zombie picture. Blade sees both groups represented, the ultimate goal for the new nosferatu is to introduce vampirism to the entire world. In The Omega Man, the last man on earth stakes vampires by day and retreats by night – he is the outsider, the individual facing the horde.
Fear of Death/Ageing
Death is a central theme of the genre: fear of death, longing for death, fear of growing old and immortality make the vampire’s connection with the afterlife complex and many-fold. From a Christian perspective the vampire is damned – not alive but as yet unjudged – whose every move takes them further from Heaven and closer to Hell. For others the promise of eternal youth sees vampirism as an elixir – The Lost Boys embraces this Peter Pan concept. But eternal life has its own problems – a life on the move, watching loved ones grow old and die (The Hunger), until the very thing you avoided becomes your only wish (Requiem for a Vampire). Some vampire films come to terms with death by offering a worse alternative – eternal slavery without love or redemption.
Age is something that troubles most of us at some time. The vampire offers a solution to this by remaining ever young. However, this creates its own problems. In Countess Dracula, Ingrid Pitt’s Elizabeth Bathory needs to kill virgins to stay looking beautiful. The same character in Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness preys on the young to become her companion. She never suffers the inevitable ravages of age. But, not only do vampires cheat death, they also cheat the effects of life. In both Interview With the Vampire and Near Dark vampires turned as children become frustrated, as hundreds of years of wisdom and experience remain trapped in the shell of a fragile youngster.
Where there are vampires there are usually vampire hunters. These can be as amoral (James Woods in Vampires) or sadistic (Peter Cushing in Twins of Evil) as their prey – often hiding behind religious fanaticism as an excuse for their excesses and violations. Often their sadism is a sign of repressed sexuality or fascistic devotion. With few exceptions (Buffy, Captain Kronos) they are far more pompous and dull than their adversaries. Puritanism generally relies on the exorcism of the vampire by the film’s close, it is the resumption of order that provides the audience with the opportunity of having their cake and eating it. They can identify with the free sexuality and ego of the monster, but be safe walking home knowing that they are not going to become the victim of what they want to be. To this end the vampire hunter must necessarily be dull and represent authority if this moral closure is to be accepted.
This text is an edited excerpt from Vampire Films, by Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc, out now on Pocket Essentials. Please follow the links to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.