It's Halloween, so let's talk about monster movies. The problem with most classic feature creatures is their limited interpretability. Frankenstein's monster, the werewolf, even the zombie—they can bear the burden of only so much metaphorical meaning before they spring back into their (un)natural shapes, resisting further mythic weight. The mummy, in particular, remains so stubbornly itself—it's not designed to stand for anything, it's always and forever a mummy—that the concept resists reinvention; even the Brendan Fraser movies, for all their oodles of CGI, constituted an expensive homage, right down to the 1930s setting.
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The vampire, though, remains nigh-infinitely malleable. This monster can be used to explore anxieties about mortality, infection, deviant sexuality, appetite, parasitism, addiction, class warfare, bad romance…If the metaphor has limits, we have yet to glimpse them.
This protean aspect makes the vampire myth irresistible to filmmakers, all eager to put their stamp on the genre. It has proven equally alluring to academics looking to track and explicate the myriad permutations of the bloodsucker's polymorphous perversity.
Now the grand-daddy of these pop-academic studies has arisen from its unholy slumber to wreak havoc on Netflix queues the nation over. For before there was Vampire Forensics (2010) by Mark Collins Jenkins, before there was Nina Auerbach's Our Vampires, Ourselves (1995), there was The Vampire Film, the pathbreaking critical survey by Alain Silver and James Ursini, first published in 1976 and reissued periodically in revised and expanded editions. The fourth edition—subtitled "From Nosferatu to True Blood"—was unleashed on an unsuspecting world last month.
And it is a delight, even for the casual horror fan. Silver and Ursini approach their subject thematically, rather than chronologically, and from broad topics (the Male Vampire, say) they spin out riffs and digressions on a dizzying array of notions: vampirism as pseudo-science, vampire as tortured romantic, vampire as foreigner. Trash films mingle freely with acknowledged classics. A section on vampire teenagers gives equal space to cult favorites (George Romero's Martin), well-loved mainstream hits like The Lost Boys and Fright Night, straight-to-video cheapies (Teen Vamp), and even a Super 8mm artifact called A Polish Vampire In Burbank.
Silver and Ursini, writing as a team, are engaging guides through all of this. Their tastes are catholic, of necessity: When you watch 700-plus vampire movies, you're going to sit through a lot of ugly, cynical junk. Horror is a favorite genre for exploitation filmmakers, because it's inexpensive to make and easy to market. You don't need skilled actors, or even a script that makes sense. With just some moody lighting, a couple of gallons of stage blood, and a suitably lurid poster, you can count on a theater full of teenagers using the "jump" moments as an excuse to cop a quick feel.
And so for every thoughtful reexamination of the vampire myth, for every film trying for a new angle on the old monster, there are a dozen crass, schlocky slogs, made cheaply and without care to squeeze date-night money out of a presumably undiscriminating audience. But the authors manage to identify stray moments of wit even in these, tiny sparkling diamonds of ideas in the cinematic slag-heap.
One benefit to revisiting an older text is that it allows for the rediscovery of interesting works. These pages teem with films that might be long forgotten, but deserve to be revisited. Perhaps the best example mentioned here is a 1974 adaptation of Dracula, starring Jack Palance and directed by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame. It was a pretty big deal at the time of The Vampire Film's original publication in 1976, but it's a footnote today, having been eclipsed just a few years later by the John Badham/Frank Langella version. It's nice to see it rescued from the memory hole; Palance gives a huge performance, and Richard Matheson's script still stands as the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel yet filmed. Silver and Ursini give similar exposure and analysis to some less-known recent films, too, like 2009's intriguing Daybreakers and the criminally underseen Let Me In.
That thrill of discovery is what makes The Vampire Film such marvelous fun—and it's a pleasure that will last long after the book is put away, as I sit down with a rented DVD of the early Jude Law vehicle The Wisdom of Crocodiles, or Chan-wook Park's Thirst, or the indie obscurity Blood & Donuts—all of which just jumped to the top of my "To Watch" list. The text is both an analytical tool and a catalog of pleasures. It satisfies on its own, but it leaves the reader with a certain insatiable craving for more. Fitting, that.
Jack Feerick can only be destroyed with a stake through the heart, and his head must be buried at the crossroads, the mouth stuffed with garlic. Otherwise he will rise again, to continue writing regularly for Kirkus and Popdose. He never drinks… wine.