Flicks with Bite
It’s October, and that means studios are unleashing their latest crop of horror offerings in order to scare up a couple of bucks from movie fans. As it turns out, vampires are the monster of the day, with Cirque du Freak soon to be released and the second Twilight picture scheduled for next month. Unfortunately, many viewers have been disappointed with the recent rabble of ghouls gracing our multiplexes. Vampires just don’t show the bite they used to (save for art house gems like Let the Right One In), but thankfully, that’s what DVDs are for. Thus, I present to you a list of five excellent vampire films from yesteryear that you may have missed.
Cronos. Prior to hitting the big time with Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro first caught viewers’ eyes with this simple and surprisingly touching tale. Federico Luppi portrays an aging antiques dealer who comes upon a device that grants its user eternal life. But if the movies have taught us anything, it’s that immortality has its own problems. In this case, the old man struggles between retaining his restored youth or his mortal soul. While not as visually heavy as del Toro’s later works, Cronos displays his storytelling skills at their finest. Eliciting a strong, sympathetic performance from Luppi and including just the right amount of gruesomeness, del Toro crafts an almost perfectly balanced horror/drama. He may be off to direct the biggest project of his life with the Hobbit movies, but we’ll always have Cronos to remind us where one of modern cinema’s grooviest minds got his start.
Dracula’s Daughter. Almost everyone knows about the 1931 Dracula and Bela Lugosi’s definitive performance as the Count. But less prominent in the public eye is its 1936 sequel, Dracula’s Daughter. Picking up where its predecessor left off, this moody addition to classic horror sees Gloria Holden as Countess Maria Zaleska, a newly-arrived vampire looking to cure her bloodsucking tendencies. Sequels tend to get a bad rap, but I admire Dracula’s Daughter more than the Lugosi film. It’s every bit as atmospheric as the original, plus it throws in a better story, a tighter pace, and some rather daring overtones for its time. The scene in which Maria preys upon a female victim is one of the more gutsy from cinema’s golden age, let alone the horror genre. Holden also holds her own in comparison to Lugosi, her character simultaneously a tragic heroine and wily antagonist. A mature addition to Universal’s horror legacy, Dracula’s Daughter serves as a spooky delight.
Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter. Alright, so this insane indie comedy is less focused on creatures of the night than on positioning the Son of God (played by Phil Caracas) as the lead in a parody of cheesy kung-fu movies. Jesus is called to combat vampires when they descend upon modern-day Canada, eventually teaming up with masked luchador Santos (Jeff Moffet) and “apostle to the apostles” Mary Magnum (Maria Moulton). JCVH is pure, unadulterated silliness, though there's a little more to it than you may expect, including one hilarious fight against a neverending gang of atheists and a spontaneous musical number. But also included is a sound message about finding help and faith in the most unlikely of places.
The Night Stalker. As long as vampires have existed, so has the vampire hunter, though there are few as sarcastic and world-weary as Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin). In this ‘70s TV movie, reporter Kolchak picks up the trail of a mad monster who’s set up shop in Las Vegas. Folks may not be terribly familiar with The Night Stalker these days, but its combination of horror and gallows humor left a mighty big impression. Not only did it spawn a sequel (The Night Strangler, also a solid film), it also spun off a cult TV show that, in turn, served as inspiration for that ‘90s juggernaut The X-Files. The Night Stalker first gave audiences the heebie-jeebies, while simultaneously goading a few chuckles from Kolchak’s antics. Low-key but extremely effective, it managed to be creepy as all get-out despite the limitations of what could be shown on television at the time. Kolchak may be no Van Helsing, but The Night Stalker is the perfect avenue for showing the lighter side of duking it out with the supernatural.
Vampyr. Nosferatu (1922) is credited with establishing the vampire as we know this creature on film. But ten years later, filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer stood at the helm of Vampyr, a picture less known but just as experimental with its visuals. This is the story of Allan Gray (Julian West), a traveling student of the paranormal who comes upon a strange village where reflections are sentient, shadows have lives of their own, and a young woman (Sybille Schmitz) is being preyed upon by a sinister force. Vampyr proudly presents the monster at its purest. When the film was released, Bela Lugosi was just beginning to make his rounds; audiences really only had legend to base their image of the vampire on. This gave Dreyer ample room to tinker around, and the result is a film shrouded in chilling mystery. Everything you see here is done for the benefit of mood, leaving viewers to ponder not only what will come next but how the filmmakers will pull it off. Accompanied by a modest but resonant “good vs. evil” story, Vampyr gives horror hounds a reason to fear the dark.
(Photo: Vampyr DVD cover. © 1998 Image Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.)