add tag

Tags you are adding:

From Nosferatu to Twilight: the Wild and Winding Vision of Vampires in Cinema

Having moved long ago from the pages of dark literature, the popular idea of the vampire endures in many forms.

How do you make a successful monster? If your fiend is going to resonate with paying audiences, you have to ensure that it simultaneously frightens and invites—a convincing mixture of the sinister and the seductive.

It’s likely that this hideous and attractive dichotomy is the reason people can’t seem to get enough of vampires.

A quick view of offerings over the past five years clearly reveals evidence of the public’s demand for cinematic portrayals of bloodsuckers, with the age-old menacing figure repackaged and presented in more unlikely vessels like teenage heartthrobs and pre-pubescent girls. So how did it get to this?

Our modern day conception of the vampire originates with Dracula, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel about the famous count, and since the dawn of film history, the book has been referenced (often loosely) for what is played out on the big screen (as seen in photo 1). In fact, one of the earliest movie versions of the story, 1922’s Nosferatu, changed the character’s name from Dracula to Orlok and presented us with a long-nailed, bug-eyed, bald-headed, hump-backed, fang-faced creature who stands out as one of the more physically repellent incarnations. The skeletal royal famously played by Max Schreck remains an unearthly vision of the demonic character to this day.

First lucratively repackaged by Hollywood in 1931, the debonair interpretation of Dracula’s titular role by Bela Lugosi stands as the world’s best-known and lasting idea of the persona: gracious, well-dressed, affluent and a dark and threateningly powerful presence. For American audiences, Lugosi’s Hungarian accent and slow mannerisms infused the character with a believable chilling quality, as if they were witnessing a member of the undead releasing his desires on the living.

While copied and parodied since the film initially premiered (in notable examples like Frank Langella’s performance in the 1979 remake, or Leslie Nielsen in Mel Brooks’s 1995 comedic Dracula: Dead and Loving It), Lugosi’s served as the starting point for many other films to come after it. Indeed, by the 1960s, many other filmmakers began to toy with the idea of the refined villain and played up the sexual aspects of the vampire, or more clearly defined the violent nature of the character’s attacks, with fangs and victims’ necks exposed, along with all of the accompanying vibrant red blood—a style favored by the English company Hammer Films, who relied heavily on 19th-century period costuming and Christopher Lee’s more ravenous, bloody-mouthed and bleary-eyed than the Lugosi original.

And although Stoker’s book gave rise to our most employed blueprint for the genre, the very one which Francis Ford Coppola attempted to stay faithful to in his 1992 version featuring Gary Oldman, other more recent works have reimagined the vampire in new guises and altogether original stories for the next generation of audiences. The wildly popular Twilight book series has given teenage girls a reason to care about the gory story by taking the story from the crumbling precipices of the Carpathians and resetting it in the American Pacific Northwest with an under-21 age group, altering the finer details (vampires no longer burn in sunlight—their skin merely glimmers) and exploiting the romantic tension between the main bloodthirsty male and the female lead. The wistful and often saccharine movie series, which began in 2008, is a far cry from the eerie Nosferatu.

But perhaps one of the most inventive adaptations remaining true to the vampire’s fearsome roots is another film from 2008, the Swedish-made, Let the Right One In (as seen in pnoto 2). Based on a 2004 novel, this visually stunning work also avoids many of our accepted ideas about what a vampire can and cannot do—and, our ideas about who might be one. In this case, a twelve-year-old and the only friend of a bullied boy in a snow-covered Stockholm suburb. Lina Leandersson’s depiction of the murderous child Eli presents us with a disarming and complex form of the archetype, as a messy, hungry and unexpectedly compassionate girl.  

Photo 1: courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Photo 2: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.