Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever
The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s ongoing retrospective of vampire films “Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever” resists defining the immortal amoral creature.
The series offers up funny vampires (The Fearless Vampire Killers, Innocent Blood), ancient vampires (Nosferatu, Vampyr, Dracula), lady vampires (Dracula’s Daughter, Nadja, The Addiction) child vampires (Mr. Vampire II, Let the Right One In), alien vampires (Planet of the Vampire, Lifeforce), and zombies masquerading as vampires (Last Man on Earth). There’s pretty much every flavor of vampire besides overweight. Vogue would have no trouble finding models at a vampire casting call. They are all tremendously attractive, and can wear anything. The long-standing popularity of the vampire film may simply be that vampires present great-looking variations on the themes of human desire and fear.
Though often eroticized, the vampires of the series are rarely romanticized. The dominant trend of vampire films in the ‘90s and ‘00s is resisted. More screens surely don’t need to be bogged down with Interview with a Vampire or Twilight, but the homosocial allure that has become such a part of vampires is lost as well by their omission. In Blacula, the titular vampire enforces heterosexual norms, killing off without fanfare the gay interior designers who disentombed him. Male homosexual desire is distressingly laughable in these films. The fey lordships of Transylvania provide “comic” relief in The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Vincent Gallo’s cannibalistic love is as misogynistic as you’d expect Vincent Gallo’s anything to be. Lesbianism, however, is foregrounded. 1983’s The Hunger, starring David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon, and featuring Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” is oft cited for having the most erotic lesbian sex scene of any film. 1970s Hammer-produced The Vampire Lovers is sometimes said to have the first explicit one. This both reveals the obvious heterocultural bias toward co-opting female homosexuality while rejecting male, and shows vampire films as an unusually open arena for the depiction of female desire, in many of its forms—for not only do characters in vampire films act (men and women/human and inhuman) lust, they also talk lust.
Vampires are, after all, mouthy creatures, biting with their teeth and luring with their words. The series offers vampires opining about their emotions, psychodramas, backstories, and philosophical beliefs. Abel Ferrera’s 1995 The Addiction features Lili Taylor as an N.Y.U. Ph.D. candidate who systematically turns her department into vampires. “Wanna talk more about Feuerbach?” soon-to-be-victim Kathryn Erbe (Law and Order: Criminal Intent) flirtatiously asks Taylor after the gabby vamp chats Erbe up at Bobst library. All possible care should be taken in the future to avoid turning philosophers into vampires, as an eternity of pick-up lines about German pre-Marxists is too much to take.
The Addiction marks a turning point in vampire films. Throughout the film, Taylor is never once concerned about her own death. She has a post-adolescent assumption of her own immortality already. If she weren’t so thirsty for blood all the time, she probably wouldn’t even notice she’d become a vampire. From that film on, the concerns of vampires have turned to youth, and so have the metaphors they embody. The series is weaker for leaving off The Lost Boys, which is a seminal picture about the violence that is part of American male introduction to both adulthood and sex, and the first vampire film to really mine the culture of adolescence for vampirism. But by including Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, the notion that vampirism has become an ongoing threat for shiftless boys of a certain age comes through (as does the nouveau move toward vampire westerns, also seen in John Carpenter’s lumbering shoot-out bore Vampires).
The genre keeps swinging into new territory, because each generation of filmmakers feels the need at least to try its hand at remaking the vampire in its own image. The films have become a formalist proving ground for directors. Much like Leda and the Swan for academic painters, it appears that even those artists we consider most serious and least genre-identified (Bigelow, Coppola, Ferrera) will have a go. And for good reason: a well-executed vampire film demands a level of virtuosity in world-building while referencing the genre’s past. Not coy, winking nods at the audience—though you’d be greatly enriched if you had a dollar for every time a character meaningfuly says “I don’t drink…wine”—but an earnest hearkening back to the fears which have stayed with the filmmakers since they saw a long-nailed celluloid Nosferatu for the first time.
Even groundbreaking, postmodern vampire films, like Nadja and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, employ voiceover, exposition, and backstory to a level generally considered momentum killing. The delicate balance between acknowledging the rich history of the genre and adding to the avant-garde canon enthralls (pun intended) filmmakers. Even Let The Right One In (a highlight of the series to be sure), pays homage, despite the director’s claims that his inventive telling of the dark romance between an eternally prepubescent vampire and a bullied Scandanavian schoolboy gathers its power from a personal lack of familiarity with the genre. With its childlike yet weltschmerz-laden protagonists, blood-drained color palette, and absolute rejection of human redemption, Let the Right One In recalls George Romero’s stagflation-set, psychological thriller vampire story Martin. For example, the opening sequence of Martin, in which an unremarkable looking man, who may or may not be a vampire, carefully carries his murder kit through a busy train, is echoed in Alfredson’s work.
Martin is one of the must-sees of the series, unexpected at every turn. George Romero is best known for his Living Dead zombie empire and has created many of our modern genre conventions. In Martin he unlearns them all, one of many directors who took making a vampire film as the equivalent of an oral exam. He shows the world what he can do. The story is that of a young serial killer, thought by his family to be a vampire, but with none of the supernatural powers associated with them. Is Martin evil because he’s been told he was since birth, or is the curse of the vampire a garden variety psychopathy? “There’s no magic, ever,” Martin pleads to his old-country uncle, shortly before the elderly man attempts an exorcism. In a late scene, the two meet up in a children’s playground, Martin dressed up in a Bela Lugosi-era Halloween costume. Pulling off his plastic teeth and cape, Martin stands in for Romero, revealing the tools of the horror trade and proving that the human qualities metaphorized by our movie monsters are scarier than flying bats could ever be.
The Hammer studio films screened at BAM (Horror of Dracula, Brides of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) excel at developing an interplay between alluding to vampires of screen past and creating taut, tense, stories that look and sound great on minimal budgets. The disembodied, heaving bosoms, and over enunciated voiceovers are ripe for mocking (though they elude Polanski’s attempts in The Fearless Vampire Killers) but any film school would be served well by using them as texts. Brides of Dracula is perhaps most inventive, not in fact featuring any appearance by or mention of Dracula. The film stars cult icon David Peel as the handsome, suggestive vampire Baron Meinster. Though today one of the screen’s most famous vampires, the film never dwells on his powerful ability to get seemingly sensible women to do his bidding, nor does the actor attempt to command the screen in such a way that we’d believe he has such power. The title alone makes believable the scenes where beauty after beauty exposes their throbbing arteries to Peel. Those “don’t go up the stairs” moments which give horror movies such a bad name (and blondes such a bad reputation) are redeemed because we know that Dracula can make anyone do anything, just by his name alone. And while in Brides of Dracula Doctor Van Helsing—as always—trots out his warnings against turning science into a new blind faith (which, as always, sounds prescient), no time is devoted in the narrative to explaining thrall or bloodlust. The unfairly maligned exposition furthers the concerns of the filmmakers and encapsulates the concerns of the moment.
Dracula was born in the Victorian age out of a fear of the anonymity of modernizing Europe and a growing obsession with a science, psychology, and medicine out of control but vampires have moved from embodying a fear of death to a fear of age. While the films continue to express psycho-techno-scientific anxiety, the nature of that too has changed. In the must-see Dracula’s Daughter, a psychologist attempts to cure a vampire by explaining Nietzchean willpower. Nicholas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss provides the most direct picture of sadomasochistic narcissism ever put to film. Even in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, which works exactingly to retell the story given in Tod Browning’s 1931 film of the same name (and the Spanish language version filmed on the same sets, during the night shift which is finally getting the big screen showings it deserves), the echoes of the earlier films come through the formal elements of the film, rather than the emotional thrust of the story. The earlier films were about the hubris of denying death, and the latter is a rapturous meditation on love as the key to eternal youth.
We get the vampire films we need, or deserve. (Though I’m not sure what we did in the ‘00s to deserve Vincent Gallo). In the ‘70s, there was a wave of soft-core porn vampires, the ‘80s saw astronaut and new wave vampires, and in the ‘40s, when audiences couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than humanity, there were no vampires onscreen at all. Vampires, as is well known, cannot be seen in a mirror. Instead, they always reflect us.