The Lost Vamps: Bloodthirsty Flicks that Actually Don’t Suck

The Lost Boys
Photo: The Lost Boys (1987) / zazenlife.com

Vampire flicks have been all the rage since Twilight flooded the box office with sticky, coppery crimson in ’08, and have proven a solid moneymaking strategy ever since, with each of the saga’s four sequels averaging about three hundred million dollars per film, according to IMDB’s Box Office Mojo.

But for some of us — and I don’t mean to suck a dead horse dry, here — the vampire genre represents so much more than just antiquated notions of traditional marriage and sparkling demon lovers. For the horror junkie, it’s hard to enjoy a vampire film without anything scary going on in it.

So, based on the assumption that I’m not alone in feeling that a vampire movie ought to be frightening, subversive, and a tad allegorical, here are my top ten favorites from the last half-century or so.

In no particular order:

10. Bordello of Blood (1996)
This edgy, less than perfect exploitation flick is at turns scary, hilarious, sexy, and downright absurd — but it’s never boring. Not even for a moment. Some young men looking for love in all the wrong places find themselves at the mercy of prostitutes who turn out to be vampires. Erika Eleniak and Dennis Miller lend their talents to a mostly unremarkable cast. The ending’s a letdown, but don’t let that keep you from enjoying the rest of this campy classic. Oh, yeah — and Corey Feldman’s bad-boy performance is a nice nod to his role in another, far more brilliant vampire film. . . .

9. The Lost Boys (1987)
Saw this one when I was a kid, maybe six or seven years old. Cable television in the ’90s was a gateway to all kinds of terrifying concepts my half-formed imagination wasn’t quite ready for. Seeing it again in my early twenties, far more interested in Jamie Gertz, the film’s true emotional center for reasons that may be too spoilerific to give away, this time around; parsing the film’s homoerotic (and maybe slightly homophobic?) subtext for the first time; and coming to grasp the significance of drinking another man’s blood in an eighties film, at the height of the AIDS epidemic . . . it’s an experience worth treasuring. You’re sure to love it. And I’ll undoubtedly remember the line, “How’re those maggots?” for the rest of my life. (“Maggots, Michael. You’re eating maggots. How do they taste?”)

8. Let Me In (2010)
This chilling treatise on both the problem of bullying and budding adolescent sexuality is a profoundly disturbing piece of filmmaking, and for that I’d call it an achievement. Like all great works of horror, it examines real-world problems through the lens of nightmarish fantasy; specifically, an inhuman monstrosity in the context of an already bleak worldview. For young Owen, a kind young girl appears the best possible sanctuary from the harshness of middle school — even if she subsists on human blood alone.

7. The Night Flier (1997)
While not the best Stephen King adaptation out there — I’d say The Shining (’80), Carrie (’76), and The Mist (’07) have that title under contention — this HBO movie scores high on the scare factor, considering its low budget. Miguel Ferrer is truly mesmerizing as a tabloid reporter on the hunt for an airport serial killer whose reflection can’t be found in the mirror. If you’re looking to have a good, heart-thumping nightmare, this made-for-TV film’ll do the trick.

6. Once Bitten (1985)
This vampire comedy finds a young Jim Carrey showing up at his high school’s Halloween dance looking pale and gaunt, having been seduced and transubstantiated at the hands of a lusty, immortal cougar. A bit campy, as comes with the territory, but as entertaining a film as you’re likely to stumble upon on cable television these days. Included more for its fun factor than its literary brilliance, admittedly.

5. Dark Shadows (2012)
Johnny Depp breaks out his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor in this very Burtonesque flick by Tim Burton. While the film puts much of its energy into a messy romantic subplot or two, not to mention its heavy-handed reliance on nostalgia, its best moments are when it whips out the occasional horror element: the casual slaughter of innocents, the transformation of a young werewolf, the shattered porcelain visage of a spurned, dying witch . . .

4. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
While Brad Pitt’s incomparable voiceover drives the narrative of this modern classic, I think it’s Tom Cruise and a young Kirsten Dunst who give the film its eerie atmosphere and pervasive sense of despair. Even as Louis (Pitt) bemoans the torment that comes with an unending life in a world of mortals, it is Cruise’s performance as Lestat that drives the point home. We see a madman in agony, burned to the ground by Louis and Claudia (Dunst) and then risen from the ashes — a beautiful monster made ugly. An imperfect film, sure, but an epic one worth your time.

3. I Am Legend (2007)
Will Smith delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career in this dismal look at a post-apocalyptic urban America stalked by mindless, nocturnal vampires. It’s the kind of film that gets better with age, probably because of its “downer” ending, but serves as a celebration of human courage and triumph despite its depressing juxtaposition of happy memories from the protagonist’s past with a dark, hopeless present. Like Darabont’s The Mist (’07), I’d argue that its power and resonance comes from its ending, despite common consensus.

2. ‘Salem’s Lot (1979)
While the paperback’s been on my shelf for some time, this is one of the few early King novels I haven’t read yet — but the made-for-TV flick it spawned takes the ingenious premise of its source material and provides some of the most authentic scares I’ve ever experienced from a conventional vampire film. Don’t miss it.

1. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Anybody who enjoyed Robert Rodriguez’s jaw-dropping Planet Terror (’07) or Once Upon a Time in Mexico (’03) will discover that this film is the one they’ve been looking for their whole lives. Boasting an early script by Quentin Tarantino and set in a desert roadhouse called The Titty Twister, the story follows George Clooney and Tarantino as a pair of criminal brothers, who kidnap a family on their journey into Mexico, hoping to escape the law. The ruthless pair soon find themselves in the maw of a vampire stronghold built atop . . . well, I’ll let you see that one for yourself. From the opening credits to its stunning final frame, this is as fine a vampire film as horror aficionados are likely to encounter in this lifetime.

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8 Comments

  1. Not to belabor the point. but

    Here's a clip from Roger Ebert's review:

    "The story is adapted from a 1954 sci-fi novel by Richard Matheson, which has been filmed twice before, as "The Last Man on Earth" (1964) starring Vincent Price, and "The Omega Man" (1971) starring Charlton Heston. In the original novel, which Stephen King says influenced him more than any other, Neville cultivated garlic and used mirrors, crosses and sharpened stakes against his enemies, who were like traditional vampires, not super-strong zombies. I am not sure it is an advance to make him a scientist, arm him and change the nature of the creatures; Matheson developed a kind of low-key realism that was doubly effective."

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/arti

    NY Times called them zombies too.

    "The zombies, like the rabid dogs that are their companions, nonetheless display rudimentary pack behavior and are even able to set traps and make plans. Once they begin swarming, “I Am Legend” inevitably loses some of its haunting originality, since they look a lot like the monsters in “28 Days Later” (and its sequel, “28 Weeks Later”). "

    http://movies.nytimes.com/2007/12/14/movies/14leg

    The problem lies in the film itself. The screenwriters seem to have actually confused vampires with zombies. How about we call them Zompires! My god, I think I've created a new subgenre.

    1. Yeah, probably a case of zombies being the "in" thing at that point — especially because of 28 Days Later, Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, etc. — and then trying to graft that overall aesthetic onto a story that was very much about vampirism to begin with. It sure ends up looking a hell of a lot like a zombie film, at the end of the day. In no small part, perhaps, because we as the audience take Neville's omega-man status to be associated with a zombie apocalypse more so than when vampires are afoot. Generally vampire films are filled with human beings to be used as kill-scene fodder.

  2. Nice article, Alex. But I don't think I am Legend belongs on your list. True, Richard Matheson's novel, on which the movie is based, was about a bacterium that turned everyone except Neville into vampires. But the Will Smith film changed the story. In this version it's a virus that turns people into zombies. There aren't any vampires in it.

    1. Hmm. That's not how I recall it, but then I haven't seen the film since it was in theaters.

      From Wikipedia: "A genetically-engineered variant of the measles virus created by Dr. Alice Krippin (Emma Thompson), meant as a cure for cancer (which was a success), had mutated into a lethal strain. It spread throughout the world, killing 95% of humanity. The remaining 588 million survivors became predatory, vampiric beings called “Darkseekers” that emerge after dusk to prey on those immune to the virus."

      "Vampiric" meaning, in this instance, "craving blood," and presumably dubbed "Darkseekers" because vampires have traditionally been less than fond of ultraviolet light.

      From Popular Mechanics (a more trusted source, perhaps, than Wikipedia): "[Those infected] become hairless, transparent, vampire-like mutants who are allergic to sunlight and crave blood. They spread the disease by biting others. When the virus mutates and goes airborne, it spreads rapidly, killing everyone on Earth except for those who are immune–and slowly, even they are picked off by the vampires, until only one man is left."

      [http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/digital/fact-vs-fiction/4236920?page=1]

      Either way, I appreciate your thoughts on the piece. And I see your point that the creatures in the '07 version of the film — quite clearly the one I'm talking about here — are somewhat zombiesque, given their mindless characterization, constant traveling in hordes, and even appearance. One could take the conservative stance that they're a hybrid of the two archetypes, but I'd say their diet puts them firmly into the vampire camp.

  3. Well, there's Angel (mostly pretty weak), the original Dark Shadows (which I never saw). I've watched all of True Blood and it doesn't just "jump the shark," it jumps a school of whale sharks every new episode. Buffy was consistently good, particularly season six, in my view. The musical episode "Once More With Feeling" is particularly brilliant.

  4. Great article. Nice, tight mini-reviews, cleverly written. Bravo!

    I think the Swedish original of "Let Me In" ("Let the Right One In") was also goo, although I think you're making the right call by citing the Hollywood version, if only because Chloe Grace Moretz was so perfect for the part.

    What I want to know now is: What are your top 10 vampire television programs!

    1. Appreciate the feedback, Geoffrey. I've enjoyed several of your articles as well.

      Can't say I have any favorite vampire television series, at least not off the top of my head. The ten or so episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I've seen were pretty brilliant, but that's about it.

      Oh — and True Blood, I suppose, which is basically blood-soaked pornography with some good local-color atmosphere and a great cast. My fiancee loves it; I'll watch it, but wouldn't necessarily call it a favorite.

      The recent program 'Being Human' looks pretty good, but I have yet to watch it. Maybe I'll check out the first few episodes on Netflix.

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