Centenary and still whimsical: Why we’ll never fall in love with movie vampires
On March 4, 1922, a century ago this year, something happened in the Great Marble Hall of Berlin’s famous Zoological Garden that changed film history – the premiere of Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie Des Grauens. Or, in plain language, a public screening of the world’s first vampire film, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula by German director FW Murnau. Since then, no literary character has appeared on screen more often.
In truth, Murnau wasn’t even the first movie to feature the Count. Had the 1921 Hungarian film Drakula Halála not been lost, it might claim the vampiric crown of cinema. Nor is Stoker’s novel the first vampire story. The myth itself is ancient and crosses cultures, and John Polidori (in 1819’s The Vampyre) and Sheridan Le Fanu (in 1872’s lesbian chiller Carmilla) beat Stoker in print. But if you want to give vampire cinema a birthplace and origin story, Berlin in 1922 is better than most.
Because it was essentially a bootleg made without permission from Stoker’s estate, the contemporary action of Nosferatu was transposed to Germany in 1838 and all names changed. Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, Jonathan and Mina Harker become Thomas and Ellen Hutter, and Van Helsing is renamed Professor Bulwer.
Because it was essentially a pirated version and the author’s widow was not stupid, Murnau was prosecuted almost immediately anyway. After a three-year legal battle, all copies of his film were destroyed. But thanks to the sleight of hand (or duplicity, if you will) of the director, the prints continued to appear in London and New York under different titles. A good thing too: posterity has bequeathed to us one of the great achievements of 20th century cinema, a masterpiece of German expressionism and a film tirelessly quoted to the point of having constituted the basic text of practically all vampiric releases. since.
That story, and the stories behind some of the thousands of other films that followed Nosferatu, are the subject of Vampire Cinema: The First One Hundred Years, a timely new book on the genre by cultural critic Christopher Frayling.
As well as browsing the most notable iterations and tracing the popularity of vampire film through various golden ages – in the US, the Bela Lugosi years of the 1930s; in the UK, Hammer’s decade and a half from the late 1950s; on television, from the 1990s – Frayling unveils an appetizing collection of advertising images. These range from posters and illustrations for mainstream productions to seductions for the more sinister end of the spectrum, where the genre collides with blacksploitation films, kung fu films and, inevitably, pornography.
Vampire fans looking for those dubious cinematic pleasures can head to films such as 1972’s Blacula or its 1973 sequel Scream Blacula Scream!). They can unearth the 1974 martial arts-themed film The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (“Hammer Horror! Dragon Chills!”). Or they can look for Dracula Sucks, from 1978, which came in soft and hardcore versions. Even Andy Warhol tipped his hat (or more likely his platinum wig) to the vampire movie. Blood For Dracula, also known as Andy Warhol’s Dracula, was released in 1974 and starred German arthouse favorite Udo Kier as the Count alongside Factory superstar Joe Dallesandro, the Little Joe from Walk On The Wild Side.
Frayling’s use of the ordinal number in the title suggests he sees a second century of vampire movies looming. Is our appetite for Dracula really that strong?
“Yes, I think it will last another hundred years and maybe even longer,” he says. “He went through so many incarnations. If you had asked someone in the 18th century about a vampire, they would simply have said that it was a supernatural, rather blasphemous creature that had come back from the dead. So they were seen entirely in Christian terms. If you had asked anyone at the end of the 19th century, they would have said that it was all about psychoanalysis, desire and sex. And since the middle of the 20th century, and especially since the publication of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, they have gone from being a kind of soulless creature to a rather soulful creature, with a life interior, and finally a soul mate.
Enter Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as cursed vampire lovers in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, and Stephen Moyer as 174-year-old Bill Compton in True Blood, HBO’s award-winning adaptation. from the Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris. Each of these productions appeared five years apart. Alongside these modern typefaces, there are others. The vampire as a superhero, for example (find it in comic book-style releases such as this year’s Van Helsing, Blade and Morbius), or the vampire as a roommate rather than a soul mate (see What We Do In The Shadows and its spin-off TV sequel).
The clue to why so many readings are possible lies in the flexibility of the vampire mythos. Like all successful viruses, it has the ability to mutate, to adapt, to respond to what Frayling calls “the changing human experience.” And as it adapts, it reshapes itself around both societal and personal fears.
“Horror movies have always had this function of dealing with taboo subjects,” he says. “Desire, lesbianism, incest, drug addiction, etc. You step aside in this world of adult fairy tales and you can tell all kinds of stories that are very difficult to tell otherwise. To this list, add gender, sexual preference, racial stereotypes, and even the ethics of vegetarianism. Dracula, after all, is an apex predator that bites people and then kicks them out. “Identity politics, which is a lot of the way of thinking about both past literature and current culture, fits that myth very well, I think.”
And correcting the blatant sexism of much of the production of the 1960s and 1970s, Frayling sees the recent history of vampire cinema and its literary domains as a dominated distaff.
“Nearly every major literary contribution to vampires over the past 30 years has been written by women,” he says. “I guess post-#MeToo and post-identity politics, there will be a lot of quasi-feminist vampire movies about the fear of predatory men. I think it will go beyond what Hammer did with sexism.
But in addition to changing, there are aspects of the vampire movie that appeal because they continue to resonate for the same reasons they always have. An example, as relevant to Murnau as it is to the 2022 viewer, is the vampire as a carrier of sickness and disease. The German director’s 1838 setting set his story immediately after a notorious plague outbreak in Bremen, but no one watching the film the year it was released would have forgotten the Spanish flu pandemic about a year earlier. After the Covid, it’s the same thing today.
“I just went through another pandemic, I suspect we are [also] about to have a lot more vampire movies that explore the connections between vampirism and the plague,” Frayling says. “This is another example of updating and reconfiguring elements.”
Last month, it was confirmed that Robert Eggers, the director of arthouse horror hits The Witch and The Lighthouse, was planning to write and direct a remake of Nosferatu. If he does, don’t bet against Robert Pattinson donning the fangs again: he appeared in The Lighthouse, and Eggers is a director who likes to cast actors who are familiar to him. So watch this space – at least until the sun goes down and the bats take flight.
“What are the great anxieties? Frayling finally asks. “Think of the ways in which myth can be recast to convey these anxieties, and you see how rich the stitching is.”
Vampire Cinema: The First One Hundred Years by Christopher Frayling is out October 31 (Reel Art Press, £39.95)