Nail In the Coffin: The Best and Worst of Hollywood Vampires

The other day I was operating my steam-powered wheel vessel into the town square to pick up some items from the local vendors market, when I pulled up alongside an older Volvo station wagon that featured two window decals. The first was a Black Flag logo, to which I replied, “F*ck yeah, anti-establishment.” The other decal was a statement – “I drive like a Cullen.” I almost missed my green light as I sat there in disbelief.

I fell in love with vampire movies as a child, with the award-winning film Fright Night popping my immortal cherry. At seven I was hardly Chuck Norris, not exactly toting balls of steel in my Fruit of the Looms, so naturally this movie scared the snot out of me to the point that I needed three nightlights just to get a good night’s sleep. But I watched this movie religiously throughout my childhood, finding myself enamored with the coolness and debonair of Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandrige, perhaps the lamest name for a badass vampire ever.

In retrospect, I get a kick out of knowing that a movie starring two young actors who went on to star in Herman’s Head (William Ragsdale) and Married With Children (Amanda Bearse) could terrify me, and I even watched the classic horror movie again last week and the Fright is indeed still there. It could be that a good vampire movie – much like the fabled vampire – stands the test of time. But I’m leaning more toward the condensation of the vampire establishment in Hollywood over the past 30 years.

Obviously I’m not taking away from one of my Top 3 vampire movies of all-time. If not for my brother forcing me to watch Fright Night with the sole intent of scaring me into soaked yellow sheets for the next two years, I probably wouldn’t have given into a solid chain of 80s and early 90s vampire films that really impacted the way I looked at the legacy of the darkest characters in literature and film. Unfortunately, the 90s wound down and with it went the lore of the vampire as fiction’s badass.

She sure does.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen vampires sparkle, spew corny one-liners in between crappy martial arts sequences, and most of all we’ve seen pioneers like Bram Stoker, John Carpenter and Anne Rice cast away into oblivion by hacks and pretenders. While my life has only spanned three decades, there have obviously been so many other vampire movies paving the way. This is in no way a ranking of vampire films, as I don’t believe in that turdish process. Consider this a timeline of my feigning interest in a once powerful genre of films.

Nosferatu (1922)

Tara Reid has seen better days.

While my vampire movie timeline begins in 1985, cinema experienced its first transformation in 1922 with Nosferatu, a silent German introduction of the character Dracula, just without the licensing permission to call him Dracula. Regardless, the horror element is there, despite the limitations of motion pictures in that era. In fact, the silent film style and the dark shadowing only assisted the suspenseful terror. Bram Stoker’s widow won a plagiarism lawsuit soon after the film’s release, and the verdict ordered that all copies be destroyed. Thankfully, someone didn’t listen, and the 88-year old film has held up well over time. Much like your grandmother.

Dracula (1931)

Nine years later the original Dracula was released, despite efforts during that time to produce the film starring Lon Chaney, the king of horror and suspense in that era. After Chaney’s death, Universal Studios searched long and hard for a suitable Dracula, despite the rave reviews that Bela Lugosi had earned as the title character of the Broadway masterpiece. Universal eventually settled on Lugosi, and director Tod Browning and the writers, knowing full well that Nosferatu was a rip-off of Stoker’s Dracula, just used the German classic as a blueprint. The result was a masterpiece in itself, the foundation for decades of vampire epics and failures.

In fact, the original Dracula spawned a variety of spin-offs and reboots, to use a horrible term from today’s films, including, but hardly limited to: Son of Dracula, Brides of Dracula, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, Andy Warhol’s Dracula (Blood for Dracula), Dracula’s Daughter, House of Dracula, Horror of Dracula, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Again, studs and duds among the list, but without the original we have nothing to applaud and nothing to storm the castle over.

Blacula (1972)

Like I said, my vampire timeline begins in 1985, but when you’re a smartass white kid who grew up idolizing Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, you’re going to stumble across the classics. Blacula is a shining example of the blaxploitation era of film, with its combination of standard horror elements and hot stove racial issues. The plot revolves around an African king who asks Dracula for help in fighting the slave trade. Dracula, while a drinker of human blood, hates black people and declines, but leaves the king with a parting gift – he makes him a vampire and calls him Blacula. Equal parts frightening and funny (mainly because it’s the 70s and everything was funny then), Blacula led to the sequel Scream Blacula Scream the following year and was an inspiration to a new generation of black actors and comedians.

Once Bitten (1985)

Before Jim Carrey was Lloyd Christmas, Andy Kaufman, or even Fire Marshall Bill, he was virgin Mark Kendall to Lauren Hutton’s gap-toothed Countess in Once Bitten, a cornball 80s comedy featuring a bunch of cornball 80s comedy clichés and no-name actors. But this movie made an impact with me for two reasons: 1) I was 8 or 9 the first time I saw this on HBO and it was all about sex and vampires, meaning that being a vampire meant getting laid; 2) Cleavon Little was the man. I haven’t seen this movie in two decades, so I think it says plenty that it came to mind. Much like…

Transylvania 6-5000 (1985)

Enjoy it now...

I only mention Jeff Goldblum’s offbeat 80s comedy about monsters in the fabled country of Transylvania for one reason – Geena Davis was smoking hot. Now she’s a man. She could release Transgendervania next year and I wouldn’t flinch.

The Lost Boys (1987)

As Fright Night was my seminal vampire film, so goes it for The Lost Boys with 99 percent of anyone who grew up in the 80s. Coreys Haim and Feldman at their prime, Keifer Sutherland cementing his badass status early on, Jason Patric before the lack of a K on his last name became pretentious, and smoking hot Jami Gertz, not to mention Alex Winter before he fell off the face of the Earth and GREASY SAX MAN! Twenty-three years later (23!) this movie still kicks ass, both in suspense/horror and acting chops, which is shocking for an 80s movie. I consider this film, despite my shameless love for Fright Night, to be the dawning (or dusking, hurrrrrr) of my modern vampire era of film.

The Monster Squad (1987)

For kids in the 80s, The Monster Squad was the absolute SH*T. And it wasn’t because Dracula controlled the monsters and was an absolute badass, it was because of this:

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Nic Cage was on the verge of stardom and to take the next step he ate a live cockroach for his portrayal of a yuppie 80s businessman who is turned into a vampire by his mysterious lover… OR IS HE and OR IS SHE? Cage’s character, Peter Loew, is pretty much a psycho, losing his mind, as he begins to believe he’s a vampire. As such, he attacks girls with fake plastic fangs and eventually falls into the deep end, killing, raping and ultimately becoming a complete space case. Or as I call it, Tuesday.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

I had many dreams in the 90s that began like this.

Despite being released in 1992, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was like an 80s movie in the vein (pun intended, bitches) of Once Bitten, except that it was refreshingly unique, almost flawlessly executed from a comedic standpoint, and 86 minutes of sweaty Kristy Swanson action. Many critics would leave this on the poop list of vampire films, but many critics can’t appreciate 86 minutes of sweaty Kristy Swanson. The Chase was an absolute disaster of a movie, but the scene with Charlie Sheen somehow driving a BMW at high speed through LA traffic while avoiding the cops with Kristy grinding his gear stick is cinematic glory. People to need to think more in color and not black and white.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

If The Lost Boys was the beginning of the Golden Age, then Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the highest summit before the peak… arguably. Many critics consider this version of Dracula to be the greatest vampire movie ever made. Why not? It carries the brand name, features a spectacular, career-making performance by Gary Oldman as the titular character, solid supporting roles by Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Tom Waits, and even *gasp* Keanu Reeves. I don’t consider this version to be the best, nor do I have it in my Top 3, but it is still a remarkable portrayal of vampire lore, and there won’t be a better Dracula ever produced.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

"But seriously, we don't look gay, right?"

This is my third favorite vampire movie of all-time, and perhaps the most complete from an audience perspective, if not in story then in cosmetics. Basically, the vampires were badass creatures that lived by killing unapologetically (with the exception of Louis’ occasional emo antics) and they looked good doing it, for the ladies, of course. As Louis tells his story to Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) in modern day San Francisco, we’re treated to the rare awesome performance by Tom Cruise, before Scientology taught him that mystical creatures like vampires and Jesus aren’t real but soul-snatching aliens are. Even Kirtsen Dunst was adorable with her snaggle tooth before she grew up to be heinous with her snaggle tooth.

Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)

Is that a... transvestite?

We’ve got turbulence at high altitudes, vampire cinema. Whereas Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream were taken for granted because of poor production value and in-your-face political commentary that was revolutionary for the time period, Vampire in Brooklyn was just flat out terrible. Shockingly, it was directed by Wes Craven, so there’s no reason that it should have been this pitiful. But the jokes were poorly executed, it wasn’t scary, and it was riddled with bad acting and filming mistakes. Some critics lauded Murphy’s diverse performance, but I’d be mistaken not to remind you that it was a terrible piece of doodie flops.

From Dusk Til Dawn (1996)

"I want to suck choo blood, cabron!"

We’ve reached my peak for vampire cinema, friends. From Dusk Til Dawn, reviled by many critics and only truly praised by mid-90s film hipster Quentin Tarantino junkies, is my absolute favorite vampire movie of all-time. Now before you skip down to the comments to call me a butt goblin moron, I know it’s not a great movie and I’m not saying it’s the best. Remember, this isn’t a list. But elementally speaking, Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez created a film that led you down a path believing you were walking into a bank heist and outlaw chase across the border. Then they nut-punched you with a gruesome vampire feeding frenzy that included Salma Hayek morphing into a monster and confusing my poor crotch. Action. Badasses. Trejo. Clooney. Keitel. Even Kelly Preston’s hot crazy ass gets a cameo in there. It’s a perfect vampire movie all-around. The drawback, of course, is a terrible sequel and even more offensive prequel.

Blade (1998)

He's also impervious to taxes.

Welcome to the other side of the vampire mountain, where the only way to go is down. Blade was terrible by no means. The first installment was a solid movie with great action, some rough-but-fun CGI, and a tolerable and affable Stephen Dorff. And really, you can’t go wrong with anything involving Kris Kristofferson, who I’d watch have a staring contest with Sam Elliott if they offered. The second and third installments of the Blade franchise are the real culprits here because they offered nothing new except for Jessica Biel’s sexy ass, Ryan Reynolds’ worn out shtick, and Triple H trying to act menacing. Two out of three turds does not a pleasant smell make. And before you argue that the trilogy was solid throughout – if it was so good, why is it being remade?

John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

The calm before the avalanche, if you will, and you have to because I’ve been working this mountain analogy for a few hundred words now. James Woods plays a complete badass in a movie that has an absurd plot (the Vatican employs a team of vampire hunters), terrible acting (Daniel Baldwin, enough said), and a lame villain (Jan Valek played by Thomas Ian Griffith). Sheryl Lee offers some sex appeal – an incredibly important factor for these films, if I’m not stressing that enough – but her character is so batsh*t as a victim that it’s distracting. Good movie with poor execution. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much better from here.

Dracula 2000 (2000)

"My career will suck harder!"

I first caught Dracula 2000 on USA late night back in college during my bouts of drunken insomnia. It was one of those films that I had to watch a few times just to determine if it really was as bad as it seemed. And it is. This movie is immensely terrible to the point that Jennifer Esposito and Jeri Ryan can’t even shake their asses to distract me from how awful it is. The title is perfect because it marks a new, abysmal era in mainstream vampire filmmaking. It’s also a clear indicator of how Gerard Butler pulled the wool over our eyes with an awesome performance in 300 only to follow it up with a string of rom-com farts. Well played, Butler.

Queen of the Damned (2002)

Hasn't been heard from since.

As far as I’m concerned, Stuart Townsend will always be known for two things and two things only – 1) Queen of the Damned, one of – if not THE – worst vampire films ever made, and 2) Breaking up with Charlize Theron. You know what? I dislike this guy so much, I’ll throw in 3) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This guy is everything I was born to hate. Not to mention that this film, while not a direct sequel to Interview With the Vampire, is an embarrassment to Anne Rice’s literary strength and the star character Lestat. Then again, Anne Rice wrote the book that Exit to Eden was based on and that film featured Rosie O’Donnell in dominatrix gear, so we should have seen this coming.

Underworld (2003)

Room for two?

A dying breath. Kate Beckinsale and her very attractive features play Selene, a hot vampire, who is supposed to be fighting in the eternal war between hot vampires and werewolves, but her hot vampireness falls in love with a werewolf and everything gets all messed up. So she fights a bunch of people and looks really hot doing it. And I found myself thinking, “OK, we’re turning the ship around and vampire movies are making a comeback and all is well.” Wrong.

Van Helsing (2004)

"There has to be a truck stop around here somewhere."

We’re in a free fall now. When Kate Beckinsale can’t make you say, “At least Kate Beckinsale was hot” then the movie is a disaster. For starters, I’ve seen this movie three times and I still can’t quite explain the plot because there are these flying vampire chicks and then a really bad Dracula and Jackman shows up as Van Helsing, but he’s got all these James Bond gadgets and then Frankenstein is there and he has to help Jackman and Beckinsale destroy all these giant boogers that are actually vampire fetuses and they’re going to destroy the world, and Jackman sacrifices his perfect hair to become a werewolf and he fights Dracula and the boogers die. Whatever.

BloodRayne (2005)

Worst movie ever.

If you sat me down five years ago and made me watch Gandhi and then Ben Kingsley accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor and bet me that 23 years later he’d be starring opposite Michael Madsen and the hot chick from Terminator 3 in a medieval vampire video game adaptation directed by Uwe Boll, I would have robbed Fort Knox to take your bet. Sure enough, I would have lost and would be giving HJs for nickels in a Kansas bus terminal. And you know what? That would still come with more dignity than admitting to being in BloodRayne.

Lost Boys: The Tribe (2008)

Corey Feldman needed money and there’s money to be made in crappy sequels to great movies, 21 years after the original. In the case of Lost Boys: The Tribe, the rationalization was that the producers and cast were introducing the original film’s legacy to a new generation. Here’s a helpful alternative – release a new DVD of the original. Instead, a room full of hacks said, “Let’s get Keifer’s younger half-brother and bring back Corey Feldman as Edgar Frog and send it straight to DVD… that’ll do the original justice.” It’s a shame that Corey Haim had to die after this came out.

Twilight (2008)

"Play balls, mmmmmmm..."

The demise. Whereas Anne Rice created a powerful character in Lestat, putting him in creative locales throughout hundreds of years, and surrounding him with colorful and intelligent counterparts, Stephanie Meyer took the Lifetime Original Movie A Cougar Goes Hunting and turned it into a vampire story. Instead of timeless power, raw sex appeal, and graphic violence, the Twilight film franchise features sparkling vampires, a telepathic half-vampire fetus, shirtless werewolves with veiled racism, and enough terrible acting to cast a decade of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg movies. Twilight’s popularity suggests that the films aren’t terrible, and some critics have suggested these films might be a new perspective on an otherwise antiquated genre. To that, I counter with *immortal fart noise, drawn out for centuries, doomed to wander this Earth as the ultimate evil*.

Daybreakers (2009)

"There MUST be a cure for these movies."

A new hope. I liked Daybreakers a lot. It wasn’t anything spectacular and it had its moments of poop, but it was a glimmer of potential for the revival of unnecessary brutal imagery of the vampire medium. Perhaps someday a producer will be driving along Ventura Highway, getting a beej from some hopeful young actress with a bag of coke in her purse, and he’ll spot the next Kristy Swanson and think to himself, “Eureka! Vampire movies are back, baby!” Some day.

Honorable Mentions for Greatness: (These are equally solid-if-not-great vampire films that just couldn’t cut into more than 3,000 words of rambling and verbal meandering) Near Dark (1987; Directed by Katherine Bigelow), Innocent Blood (1992), Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Honorable Mentions for Contributing to the Demise: (These movies additionally stunk, I know because I seen them!) Vamp (1986), 30 Days of Night (2007)

(Feel free to tell me which awesome indie vampire movies I missed or glaring omissions I forgot to include, so long as we can all agree that Dracula: Dead and Loving It was a depressing dog fart.)

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