Desert Island Films: Vampire Horror



        The success of the vampire as portrayed in popular literature and film throughout history has often been contingent upon his ability to remain in the shadows, feeding discreetly in order to remain undiscovered. The most powerful of supernatural abilities the vampire has as weapons is the ability of seduction, causing humans to give their lives willingly. Sexuality has been linked with vampires from their original conception of the vampire’s mythology, and this did not change when the bloodsucker was adapted to celluloid. The story which first ushered the vampire onto film was "Dracula," the 1897 novel written by Irish author, Bram Stoker; first with the unauthorized silent German adaptation, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), and then with the Universal classic, Dracula (1931).


Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula was a monster equipped with a powerful ability to seduce, and though this sexuality was toned down in the production of the original film, Francis Ford Coppola was more explicit in exposing the monster’s utilization of sex in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Other vampire films followed in this tradition,[1] and the blood-sucking monster was often associated with seduction and sexuality.[2] In Once Bitten (1985) the vampire must feed from the blood of a virgin, combining the narrative with the teenage male anxiety of remaining the last to lose his virginity.[3] Even when the antagonist only believes he is a vampire, as is the case in George A. Romero’s Martin (1977), sexuality is still retained in the narrative as he often rapes his victims before drinking their blood. Sex is also used to lure victims in many vampire tales, including the topless bar which doubles as a lucrative vampire lair in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) or the whore house which is occupied by vampire prostitutes in Bordello of Blood (1996).[4]


Even when the vampire is seen as a victim of a disease rather than simply a monstrously undead being, sexuality is still implemented within the narrative. The most significant of these films are the ones adapted from the novel “I Am Legend,” including The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971). In The Last Man on Earth a plague kills nearly all of humanity, leaving vampires dominating the planet with only one human survivor remaining. The Omega Man blames the apocalypse on biological warfare rather than a plague, which can be seen as nobody’s fault. In both adaptations, the human protagonist sets out to destroy the vampires during the day, while they sleep. The Last Man on Earth even implements the stake and cloves of garlic as tools for the destruction of the creatures, but in both sexuality remains the primary tool of the vampires in the destruction of the protagonist.[5] 


With the exception of the adaptations of this apocalyptic story, the vampires primarily attack and feed in secret. This enables them to continue parasitically living off of humans without fear of being destroyed. Even when there is a shift towards the portrayal of vampires as protagonists, with The Hunger (1983), Innocent Blood (1992), Interview with a Vampire (1995), The Addiction (1995), and all of the Twilight (2008-12) films, the vampires must still remain hidden from humanity. As the antagonist, on the other hand, vampires seemed to become more fragile and easily destroyed with the increase in vampire hunter narratives that appeared after the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)[6] and Blade (1998). In these films, even when the protagonist is outnumbered there is still hope due to the ease with which they are killed.


Vampire films never interested me much, but they have been going through a fascinating transitional period in the last decade. Some of that is due to the backlash the horror genre felt from the teen angst fantasy of the Twilight phenomenon, with many directors deliberately setting out to make anti-Twilight vampire films. Personally, I find myself gravitating towards the non-traditional vampire films. Few of the films in my desert island list have sexualized vampires, and fewer still are protagonists of the film.


5. Stake Land (2010)


        Stake Land once again places humanity in the post-apocalyptic world of survival. Like many zombie and vampire movies of the recent past, the most frightening concept is not that there are monsters attacking humanity, but that at any moment we could also become the monster. Humans become selfish and hoard what is left of the resources in an attempt to survive, which has remarkable significance when considering the social and political struggles America was dealing at the time of the film’s release. The fear of the lower majority bloodsucking the remaining survivors seems to be the Republican fear represented in Stake Land, harking back to the classic Universal adaptation of Dracula.  There is also a fanatic religious group determined to rape and pillage the poor human survivors, which also accurately gives us the fear of Democrats. All of this relevance in a vampire film, and it is also pretty damn entertaining.


        Although we are told that the vampire plague has spread all over the world, perhaps even beginning in the Middle East, it is America which is the focus of Stake Land. There are rumors of a safe haven in Canada, called New Haven, and our group of survivors is on a mission to find that safety from their evil fellow man and the bloodthirsty vampires. Martin (Connor Paolo) is saved from a vampire that kills his whole family, and becomes the student of a hardened vampire killer known as Mister (Nick Damici). These two pick up other innocent survivors as they travel, though many are quick to die along the journey.


        There are many dangers on the road, especially in a society gone mad. Even during the daylight hours when the vampires are all in hiding from the sun, there are many threats along the way. The largest is a religious cult known as the Brotherhood, who find it their religious right as Americans to literally rape and pillage what is left. The brutality of this gang may be more frightening than anything the vampires can provide. Part of this may be due to the slightly uninspired presentation of the vampires. Over time they more seem to resemble zombies with sharp teeth than they do vampires, but nothing has been done to the monsters themselves to make them unique to this film.



4. 30 Days of Night (2007)


        30 Days of Night takes an approach that is similar to 28 Days Later in the reinventing of classic monsters, but it also gives a promising premise to the audience. Taken from a graphic novel, 30 Days of Night is more than a little cheesy at times, but it is also marks a promising change in Hollywood Horror. Still nowhere near as original or clever as other horror being made in other countries, 30 Days of Night manages to be a solid premise with good creature effects.


        Gone are the fragile vampires From Dusk Till Dawn, vanished are the wooing abilities from Dracula, and these vampires don’t even speak English. They are creatures, ugly and deformed but with increased strength due to the blood they drink. The only weakness appears to be sun, so it is unfortunate for the small Alaskan town they invade which is about to have its 30 days of night. The sun stays out of sight for that entire month, so the humans must resort to hiding. They are no match for the strengthened vampires, who are also incredibly fast and have ultra-sensitive senses. In the moments when the group, ushered by the town sheriff (Josh Hartnett), must be moved or come out of hiding for some reason, 30 Days of Night is most successful. In one of the most frightening sequences they are attacked in an abandoned store by a small vampire child left behind.


In 30 Days of Night the vampires speak to each other through an ancient guttural language and piercing shrieks, which would make the classic blending with the community an impossible option of attack. While past vampires relied on the ability to blend in, these vampires rely only on the element of surprise in their attacks. The vampires in 30 Days of Night have massive jaws which are built for destruction instead of seduction and the audience reaps the rewards in scares.  


3. I Am Legend (2007)


        The apocalyptic novel by Richard Matheson has been adapted for the screen several times, with Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth, Charlton Heston in The Omega Man and with Will Smith in I Am Legend. There is even a martial arts version called I Am Omega. The story remains basically the same in each, with minor changes that often vary from the book. In I Am Legend, Smith plays the last remaining human in New York City after an outbreak of a virus that was designed to cure cancer. The virus turns people into zombie-like vampires, unable to survive in sunlight and only concerned with devouring humans. The city has become overgrown and turned back to nature somewhat, but Robert Neville (Smith) remains in the city as one of the few people with an immunity to the virus. For three years Neville sends out radio messages, but having heard no response he has accepted the fact that he may be the last remaining person alive on the planet. At night he hides and listens to the terrible horror of them hunting in the night, but during the day he has the entire city to himself as long as he stays out of the shadows.


With the quick and dominant attacks used by the vampires, there is no need for the seduction which had long been though to be essential to the vampire narrative. The infection in I Am Legend causes the skin to become translucent and the hair to fall out, which is inhuman and unattractive. The sexuality is instead replaced with brutal carnage and vampires behaving as primitive beings, with a thirst for flesh which seems driven beyond a simple need for survival. Their portrayal as hardly human, both in appearance and inability to communicate, also decreases any dual identification with the monsters. They are seen as entirely malicious



2. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)


        This film goes on this list simply because it is a desert island list, and there is endless entertainment in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s first cinematic collaboration together. Tarantino wrote the screenplay and co-starred while Rodriguez directed, in what also ranks high in favorite of the Mexican director’s filmography. The premise is simple but effective, and is filled with a great deal of action.


        Though this is seems a predictable piece of horror/action entertainment by today’s standards, it is actually quite a magnificent example of the efforts even the most prestigious and respected independent filmmakers were willing to do in order to see their vision through on their own terms in the mid-1990s. This was a golden era of independent cinema in America, all thanks to advancements in technology paired with a spurt of patronage brought forth with the award-hungry distributors such as the Weinstein brothers and the newfound methods of exhibition in film festivals such as Sundance. It allowed filmmakers the opportunity to take risks, and the documentary Full Tilt Boogie shows the ups and downs of this path for Rodriguez and Tarantino.


        This film also provided career-changing opportunities for the leading actor, George Clooney. Clooney had made a name for himself on the television drama “E.R.,” but From Dusk Till Dawn allowed him to break free of the charming character to play a brutal killer with tattoos from wrist to neck. It was Clooney’s proof that he could be a film actor, and that he also had range. It was good enough to forgive him for his next film, One Fine Day, which was the safest and dullest studio choice he has made in his entire career.

1. Let Me In (2010)


        There was absolutely no need to remake the remarkable Swedish film Let the Right One In. There is also no denying what a spectacular film Let Me In is, unnecessary as it may have been. Both are based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and both are faithful adaptations. There are a few changes between the two films, but both are spectacular achievements in horror cinema. Somehow director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) was the perfect choice for adapting this remake, already proven adept at mixing sentimental and sweet with horrifying and haunting.


        Let Me In takes a stab at reclaiming the vampire tale in horror cinema. Though there is a romantic plot in which the monster is humanized a great deal, the skin doesn’t sparkle and these creatures don’t hunt animals. This is not Twilight, but instead a very real and disturbing look at a similar storyline. Set in a bleak New Mexican town during a snowy winter, Let Me In is about the unlikely friendship between a boy and a vampire. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a small and lonely kid, constantly bullied and friendless until the arrival of Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz).


        Abby is Owen’s new neighbor, arriving at night with the man he assumes is her father (Richard Jenkins). She only appears at night and never wears shoes. She can’t eat candy but is great at puzzles. It takes a long time for Owen to realize what is so different about Abby, all the while their bond grows stronger. She teaches him how to stand up for himself against the bullies, while also promising to protect him.


        So why did I choose this version over the original? I like the visual style of this version more than I do the Swedish version, and I am also partial to both of these talented young actors. Smit-McPhee was the young boy in The Road, and Moretz was the brutal young girl in Kick-Ass, not to mention Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. But the real reason I prefer the American version over the Swedish is the simple removal of the CGI cats.


Runner Up Selections:

Fright Night (1985), Near Dark (1987), Lost Boys (1987), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Interview with a Vampire (1994), Night Watch (2004), Day Watch (2006), Daybreakers (2009), Fright Night (2011),



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[1] Or in the tradition of the other popular vampire novel from the time, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, which implemented lesbian vampires with similar abilities of seduction.
[2] With  Salem’s Lot (1979) being one of the only exceptions.
[3] This narrative is most often seen in the sex comedies of this time period, including Porky’s (1981) and Losin’ It (1983).
[4] 1995 was a significant year for the sexuality of vampires on film. Often even the titles implied sexuality, such as The Girl With the Hungry Eyes (1995), Red Lips (1995), Embrace of the Vampire (1995) and Vampire Vixens from Venus (1995).
[5] In The Last Man on the Earth a vampire woman befriends the last human, only after having led all of the others to his home. In The Omega Man a half-vampire woman falls under the spell and also betrays the last human.
[6] And even more significant was the creation of a television show based on the film, which ran from 1997 to 2003 and also resulted in the spin-off show, “Angel.”


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