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Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Undead (originally published 3/02)

If there are any skeptics left - anyone who doubts that vampires really are immortal - they need look no further than their local box office for proof positive. With Anne Rice's Lestat once again stalking the silver screen in "Queen of the Damned" and doing very nicely, thank you, with audiences, the cinematic staying power of the undead has once again been vindicated.

Throughout the long and richly varied history of vampire movies, it has, of course, been Count Dracula who has occupied center stage. I suppose he's been portrayed in more different ways by more different people than any other horror icon. Still, as "Queen of the Damned" demonstrates, Dracula isn't the only vampire who can attract an audience. Here are some other non-Dracula vampire films to look for on video.

"Mark of the Vampire" (1935). Following the success of Universal's 1931 "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi, MGM executives tried to capitalize by hiring Lugosi to do a vampire film for them. Recalling that director Tod Browning had made a silent vampire film with Lon Chaney Sr. called "London After Midnight," they asked him to remake it in sound with Lugosi. As the creepy Count Mora - the bullet hole still plainly visible where he had ended his life by shooting himself in the temple - Lugosi is magnificent. So is Carroll Borland as his equally creepy and equally dead daughter, Luna. The film's ending is famously controversial, delighting some and infuriating others. See below for a clip from the film, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Brides of Dracula" (1960). Despite the title, Count Dracula doesn't appear in this British horror film. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hammer Films made its bid to become the new brand name in cinematic horror. Its series of Dracula films featured Christopher Lee as the Count and Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing. For a moment, this film made it appear that the series might veer away from Dracula to focus on Van Helsing as he encountered new vampires in each film. The trend didn't last, but "Brides of Dracula" is a fine, atmospheric effort, with David Peel as a vampire who preys on young women at a boarding school.

"Martin" (1978). Inexplicably little-known these days, George Romero's modern-day vampire tale is fascinating. Martin is a young man who feels compelled to attack women and drink their blood. Lacking a vampire's charms and fangs, he has to use drugs to render his victims helpless and razor blades to open their veins. Nevertheless, his elder cousin is convinced that Martin is a real vampire and threatens him with garlic and crosses. So, is he a vampire or isn't he? Romero leaves that up to you.

"The Vampire Lovers" (1971). One of the most famous vampire tales is Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla," in which a female vampire preys on young women. The story has been adapted for film several times, with "The Vampire Lovers" from Hammer being the most traditional and straightforward. For more adventurous interpretations of "Carmilla," you might want to look for Roger Vadim's "Blood and Roses" (1961) or Carl Theodor Dryer's poetic and fascinating "Vampyr" (1932).

"The Night Stalker" (1971). Written by fantasy master Richard Matheson - one of the principle writers from the original "Twilight Zone" television series - this TV movie explores what would happen if a vampire turned up in modern day Las Vegas. Darren McGavin stars as newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak, who pieces together the incredible evidence that points to a vampire as the source of a string of unexplained murders. Matheson's script expertly walks the line between humor and horror as Kolchak tries to sell his incredulous editor on this absurd but true story. McGavin was so good as the fast-talking Kolchak that ABC actually created a TV series in which the luckless reporter would discover a new occult menace each and every week.

"The Hunger" (1983). Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie play an elegant vampire couple living (or at least residing) in contemporary Manhattan in this stylish variation of the undead theme. Indeed, director Tony Scott's approach to the subject was a bit too stylish for some tastes, but if you like inventive visuals and don't mind if all the loose ends aren't quite tied up, it's well worth a look.

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