With Halloween in the air, our perennial fascination with vampires has reasserted itself with a vengeance. Building on the foundation of the continuing success of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in its network television incarnation, filmmakers are poised to bring bloodsucking tales to both the small and large screens over the next couple of months. From this month's "The Little Vampire" to December's "Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000," it's going to be a fang-filled Fall.
Of course, the true foundation on which these films rest is a fantasy tradition much older than Buffy's exploits. The vampire has proven to be a reliable movie villain since the silent film era. Moviemakers have brought dozens of vampire stories to the screen through the years, but three of these films stand head and shoulders above the rest. If you want to see the images and performances that continue to inspire today's vampire cinema, look for these legendary titles on home video.
"Nosferatu" (1922). German director F.W. Murnau, who later emigrated to America, is credited with the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker's seminal vampire novel, "Dracula." Murnau was a fortuitous choice for the project, owing to his amazing eye for imaginative visual imagery. The producers, however, failed to clear the project with the Stoker estate. As a result, they were successfully sued for copyright infringement. At one point a court order was issued to destroy all prints of the film. Fortunately for us, they missed a few, and the film survives. It can be found on video in many different versions, but the one I recommend is the restoration released by Kino Video (www.kino.com). One word of caution about "Nosferatu": it belongs to a period of German cinema that was influenced by the Expressionist movement in the artistic community. The last thing on the Expressionists' minds was making their work realistic. Murnau expects his viewers to be willing to do the hard work of suspending their disbelief without his help. He has bigger fish to fry. If you're willing to meet him on his terms, however, he will reward you many times over.
"Dracula" (1931). In the Thirties and Forties, Universal Pictures practically owned the horror film genre. They released the Boris Karloff version of "Frankenstein" and this version of "Dracula" starring Bela Lugosi in the same year. Lugosi's Dracula is not based on Stoker's book per se, but rather on a stage adaptation of the book, in which Lugosi also appeared as the Count. Unlike the vampire of "Nosferatu," who had been made up to look like a decaying corpse in the true Expressionist style, Lugosi's Count Dracula is quite presentable, and even charming. Lugosi's thick Hungarian accent remains inseparably associated with the character to this day.
"Horror of Dracula" (1958). Universal's dominance of the horror genre was recapitulated in the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties by a British company called Hammer Films. Like Universal before them, Hammer released versions of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" in quick succession to establish their claim on the genre. Hammer's versions, however, relied less on sheer atmosphere and more on action. "Horror of Dracula," which was originally released in England under the title "Dracula," established Christopher Lee (as Dracula) and Peter Cushing (as Dr. Van Helsing) as the Karloff and Lugosi of their day. Hammer's horror films, however, were not fettered by the content restrictions imposed on Universal by the industry's Production Code of the Thirties and Forties. Consequently, they were free to make their films more graphically violent, and also to hint at the perverse sexuality that underlies the vampire's predatory ways.
Of the current crop of vampire movies, the one I'm most looking forward to is "Shadow of the Vampire," which is a dramatization of the filming of "Nosferatu." John Malkovich plays Murnau, opposite Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, the actor who portrayed the vampire. The distributor is Lion's Gate, the same people who brought us the wonderful "Gods and Monsters" (1998), which cleverly portrayed the brilliant but eccentric James Whale, who directed both "Frankenstein" (1931) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) for Universal. If "Shadow of the Vampire" is cut from the same cloth it should be well worth seeing, especially since the film reportedly toys with the notion that Schreck's creepy performance as the vampire may have been attributable to more than mere acting skills.