Thursday, October 8, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Vampire Movies

I somewhat detest the recent romanticism of vampires. Having sex with a vampire to me is akin to having sex with a corpse. They have cold, dead skin, not beating heart and are in no way human. They used to be human, but then again, so did a corpse, so my point still holds. But vampires are the new bad boys for a legion of teenage girls who for some reason think that having Edward Cullen stalk them and stare at them all night long is romantic, and not cause to get a restraining order. So with this list, I hope to dispel the notion that vampires are sexy. Sure, they are sexual creatures – there has always been something akin to rape as they sink their teeth into the skin of the victims – but they ain’t sexy.

10. Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)
Dreyer is one of the best directors in history, and while Vampyr is not one of his best works, it is impossible to deny the stylistic brilliance of the film, which has a deliberately fuzzy appearance, and creates a tremendously creepy atmosphere. The story is typical vampire stuff – a young man comes to a small town, falls in love, and has to save his love from the grip of a heartless vampire. While Dreyer was clearly uncomfortable making his first sound film – which is why he still tells much of the story using title cards – visually the film is a masterwork.

9. Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)
E. Elias Merhige’s brilliant idea with this film was that Max Schrek, who wonderfully played Count Orlock in the FW Murnau masterpiece Nosferatu, and then was never really heard from again, was a real vampire that Murnau hired to play one in his movie. He tells his cast and crew that Schrek is a method actor, and will only appear in full makeup before them, and tells Schrek that if he finishes the movie, he can have lead actress Greta Schroeder as his prize. But Schrek cannot stop himself from killing for the length of the shoot. John Malkovich is quite good as Murnau, but it is Willem Dafoe as Schrek who is truly brilliant. He looks just like the original Schrek in his make-up, and is truly a frightening creation. The film is not quite as good as it could have been, but Dafoe is one of the most memorable vampires in history, and he makes the whole thing worth it.

8. Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)
One of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel is this 1979 miniseries based on King’s second book, the brilliant Salem’s Lot. While characters have been stripped away, and the social commentary of the novel all but abandoned, Hooper’s film succeeds because it is so damned well made, and yes scary. The vampires in this movie are repulsive, disgusting creatures (the lead vampire is modeled after Nosferatu). The film amazingly keeps the tension alive for more than three hours as it gradually makes things more and more intense. Brilliant acting work is done by James Mason, as the vampire’s assistant Straker. Hooper, a master of the horror genre (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist) created one of his very best films with this one.

7. Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)
I know some people vastly prefer this, the Hammer version of the Dracula to the original Universal one, but as you can see I do not agree. I think it’s because this one is in color. Yet there is no denying that Christopher Lee, for some probably only known for his roles in the Star Wars prequel and Lord of the Rings trilogy, was monstrously effective as Dracula, and the great Peter Cushing may just be the best Van Helsing in cinema history. Director Terence Fisher certainly knows how to build suspense, and create atmosphere, and while there is a certain amount of camp to the film, it remains one of the most effective retellings of the Dracula story ever.

6. Thirst (Chan-wook Park, 2009)
Song Kang-ho plays a benevolent priest who volunteers for a experiment, which ends up turning him into a vampire. Unable to control either his new found thirst for blood, or his sexual desires, he ends up falling for a sad woman, Kim Ok-vin, but there relationship is nothing like Edward and Bella’s. The fact that she is doing something terribly wrong heightens the pleasure for Kim, who uses her sexual hold over Song to convince him to turn her into a vampire herself. While Song holds onto to traces of his humanity – he is unable to kill another human, until she urges him to kill her allegedly abusive husband, Kim goes wild and uses her power to stroke her ego. Thirst is a brilliant, bloody little film. It’s Twilight for people who aren’t retarded.

5. The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967)
Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1967 spoof of the vampire genre is proof that the director has a wicked sense of humor. An old vampire killer (Jack MacGowran) and his bumbling assistant (Roman Polanski) happen upon a small town beset by vampire. Polanski falls for the tavern keepers daughter (Sharon Tate), and when she is kidnapped by the vampire Count von Krolok (Ferdy Mayne), they follow him to his ramshackle castle to attempt a rescue mission – only to be off put by the Count’s hunchback assistant, and his gay son. While the film is a quirky comedy, it is also visually impressive, with its snow covered landscapes, and the brilliant ballroom sequence at the end of the film. This is yet another great film by Polanski.

4. Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)
Werner Herzog’s homage to the F.W. Murnau silent masterpiece of the same name (don’t call it a remake, Herzog got mad at the Toronto Film Festival this year when someone suggested it was) is a stylistic masterpiece. Herzog has always been a striking visual director, but I do not think he ever made a film as brilliantly stylized as this one. This is essentially the Dracula story, with some minor changes. Klaus Kinski makes for one of the most interesting Dracula’s in history, repulsive, ugly and rat like, he is hardly the smooth talker he has been portrayed as in other films. I also quite enjoyed the final twist in Herzog’s version of the story, which calls into question who really won. A brilliant film.

3. Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)
Still the most famous “official” version of the Dracula story, and still the best. Bela Legosi stalks around his gothic castle oozing menace and charisma as Dracula with his infamous, often imitated delivery of lines like “I never drink… wine”. The direction by Tod Browning, owing much to the great cinematography by Karl Freund, creates a dark and foreboding atmosphere. Dracula’s castle is one of the most distinctive and memorable sets in movie history. This was the film that set the stage for all of the Universal horror films to come in the 1930s, and while I do think it was surpassed by the two James Whale Frankenstein movies, it is still a masterpiece in its own right.

2. Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
I bet you thought this would be number 1, right? Even if I do rank it at number 2, that doesn’t mean I do not think that Murnau’s film is anything less than a masterpiece. Max Schrek’s Count Orlok is the most chilling vampire in history, a vermin like creature who is vile, ugly and truly frightening. As with all of Murnau’s films, the film is visually stunning, the set pieces elaborate and chilling. The ship sequence, ending with a flood of rats racing into the city, is among the greatest moments in all of silent film. I know that most people these days have never seen a silent film, and would probably think Nosferatu is silly if they watched it. Ingrates. This is a true cinema masterwork.

1. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
I’m sure this will be a controversial choice with some people, and I know that in a way, it flies in the face of what I said at the top of this piece, as the vampire in this movie has certainly been humanized to a certain extent. But, the little girl vampire in the movie is still a monster. She still needs to drink human blood, and is not above killing people. It’s just that she is lonely, and in the equally lonely little boy, she finds someone she can be with. Let the Right One In is a movie that takes its questions seriously, unlike Twilight, and builds its tension to a brilliant, shattering climax in a school pool (still the single most haunting scene of all of 2008). Let the Right One In is a subtle, brilliant masterwork in the vampire genre. It is chilling, haunting and terrifying.

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