Phillip's Horror Lists -- Part Nine: Excuse Me...Your Fangs are in My Neck
"Twilight" really did ruin vampires, didn't it? Before the tweener hit came around, vamps were allowed to be ugly, twisted monsters. Now, they have to have perfectly coiffed bed-head...uggh. I've never been the biggest vampire fan (I prefer zombies, by and large) but some of my favorite films are vampire films. Here, then, are my picks for the best vampire flicks. One thing you won't find: sparkly vampires. Read on for the scoop:
Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) – Ah, Hammer Studios…what a weird, wonderful beast you were! I’ve written extensively about “Captain Kronos” in a previous blog entry, so I’ll try and keep this mercifully short. The titular hero is a sort of vampire-slaying Sherlock Holmes, traveling around the globe and putting the stake to vamps with the aid of his trusty, hunch-backed assistant. After receiving a note from an old friend, Kronos travels to a small hamlet and discovers dastardly deeds afoot. Is this the work of a blood-sucker or something more insidious? Handsomely produced, with a dashing lead hero, “Captain Kronos” is Hammer horror done right. Action highlight: the five-second swordfight in the tavern…motherfucker got skills!
Fright Night (1985) – Another of my childhood faves. A horror-obsessed teen boy discovers that a real-life vampire has moved in next door and is feasting on the town’s nubile young women. When no one will believe him, he turns to the only person that he thinks will: a washed-up horror TV host, played to a tee by Roddy McDowell. What follows is the kind of teen vamp epic that wouldn’t be bettered until “The Lost Boys” spread its leathery wings two years later. Haven’t seen the remake (even though I like Collin Ferrell) and have no desire to: why mess with near perfection?
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – One of the greatest cinematic hat tricks ever. The first part of the flick is the kind of sleazy crime pic that Tarantino writes in his sleep: starring QT (the man, the myth, the chowderhead) and George Clooney (!!!) as the badass Gecko brothers and Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis as hostages, this segment is gritty, explosive and lo-fi. Then, this band on the run gets to the Titty Twister and all, literally, breaks loose. At that point, the film becomes a blood-drenched, full-bore horror film as the group fights off hordes of vampires in the run-down border cantina. Limbs are hacked, heads are severed, the walls are literally painted with blood. Clooney, as always, is a revelation (why the FUCK doesn’t he make more genre pics?!) and the whole film is much more cohesive than it sounds. Blessed with one of the all-time great final cinematic images. Essential viewing.
Near Dark (1987) – A troubled young loner falls in with the wrong crowd: vampires! After being indoctrinated into the “family,” he sets off with them in a van (complete with tinfoil-covered windows) on a deadly road-trip. After falling in love with one of the vampires, however, he has a big decision: break up the family or continue down the road straight to damnation. Deadly serious, “Near Dark” is a near-classic in the annals of vampire cinema. Although there are certain similarities to the same year’s “The Lost Boys,” “Near Dark” is its own fanged little monster.
Suck (2009) – We all knew the music industry was full of blood-suckers but vampires? C’mon! “Suck” is about a struggling rock band that finally begins to hit it big after the members, one by one, are turned into children of the night. Although frequently funny, this one has some serious points to make about the “chew ‘em up, spit ‘em out” nature of the music biz. Toss in a great performance by my man, Malcolm McDowell, and you could do a whole lot worse.
The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler (1973) – I absolutely, positively IDOLIZE the old TV series “Kolchak” and so should you. Waaay ahead of its time, “Kolchak” deals with the travails of Carl Kolchak, brought to vivid life by the always excellent Darren McGavin. Kolchak is a bristly, old-fashioned newspaper beat reporter who just happens to cover cases of the supernatural. In each episode, he investigates bizarre deaths, bumps heads with his volcanic editor (the equally awe-inspiring Simon Oakland) and always brings the offending vampire/killer robot/werewolf/evil Native American spirit to justice. The amazing series only lasted about two seasons (people were stupid in the ‘70s, too) but the whole shebang started with these two made for TV movies. For purposes of our category, “The Night Stalker” is the vampire one, while “The Night Strangler” deals with a Dr. Jeckyll-type villain. They always come together on the same disc, however, so watch both. Once you’re done, watch the entire series. After that, look to the sky, shake your fist and curse the ridiculous stupidity of modern network TV. If you don’t like Kolchak, I feel bad for you.
Vampire Circus (1972) – This has to be, without a doubt, one of Hammer’s weirdest offerings. It’s also so fascinating that you simply won’t be able to look away. A 19th century village bands together and slays a resident vampire. Afterwards, their town is cursed by a plague and quarantined from the rest of the countryside by armed patrols. Somehow, however, a traveling circus troupe makes it through and is determined to entertain the town. It wouldn’t be a horror film, however, if there wasn’t a problem: seems that this circus is made up of shape-shifting relatives of the “dead” vampire. They’re out for revenge and no one in the town is shape. Kinky, ultra-sexual, strange and dreamlike, “Vampire Circus” is one film that definitely deserved a better title. For maximum effect, watch this one while doped out of your gourd on your party favor of choice. By the time you get to the fiery conclusion, the whole thing should look like the pink elephants segment of “Fantasia.” So weird it’s cool.
And now, without further ado...my 5-star vampire masterpieces:
30 Days of Night (2007) – One of my canon of modern horror films, “30 Days of Night” is absolutely flawless and simply breathtaking. Everytime I see this film, it kills another part of me…but it’s a good kind of death, trust me. In Alaska, a small town is about to bunker down for the terrible winter: thirty whole days of endless night and snow. Most of the people are able to get out, save for some stragglers. Enter a vicious, animalistic band of vampires, looking to take advantage of the ideal hunting situation. Trapped, with very few resources, the survivors must make a desperate last stand against the undead. First off, this film is sad. Very, very sad. I’m talking depressed teen goth sad here, folks. These are all people you care about and most of them meet pretty terrible fates. The vampires are not humanized in the slightest: these are real “’Salem’s Lot” and “Nosferatu” bloodsuckers here, giant human bat-rats that exist solely to tear human flesh from bone. The ending is unbelievably beautiful and I always cry like a baby during the last scenes. From the first time I saw it in theatres until the last time I saw it (a few months back), this thing has become a part of my DNA. For my mind, the second single most perfect modern vampire film ever. Period.
Nosferatu (1922) – To really appreciate the genre, you have to go all the way back to the beginning. In this case, vampire cinema starts with a little film called “Nosferatu.” You probably heard of it…you might have even seen it. Give it another good, hard look. Within this humble film, you will find virtually every camera trick and technique and story-telling device found in modern films (slo-mo, time-lapse, prosthetics, montage). The story is, essentially, the same as “Dracula.” Legendary director F.W. Murnau went with Nosferatu after a falling out with Bram Stoker’s estate. Otherwise, this would have been the first film version of Dracula anyone saw. And I can all but guarantee that the Lugosi version would have become the cultural footnote, not the other way around. Easily some of the scariest vampire makeup of all time. For a great companion piece, watch this on a double-bill with “Shadow of the Vampire,” a fictionalized account of the making of “Nosferatu.” The film posits the idea that Max Shreck (Nosferatu himself) was actually a vampire in real life. After you watch “Nosferatu,” you might find yourself agreeing.
Stake Land (2010) – And here it is, boys and girls: the single greatest modern vampire film ever made. Words simply cannot do this amazing movie any justice…you really just need to experience it for yourself. In a nutshell, “Stake Land” is like a film version of “The Walking Dead,” with vampires subbed for zombies. After the U.S. (and, presumably, the world) has been overrun by vampires, the survivors head out to find a safe zone. The protagonist, young Martin, witnesses his whole family torn apart by vampires. He’s rescued, at the last minute, by the enigmatic Mister, the kind of badass motherfucker that I thought only Eastwood could play. They form a surrogate family, of sorts, but the road is a long and dangerous one. As they meet up with other survivors and members of a doomsday religious cult, it becomes readily apparent that the vampires AREN’T the most dangerous creatures in this new world: the people are. Similar to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” “Stake Land” systematically beats the viewer down, offering one tragic situation after another. After watching this film, I always feel sad, alone and isolated. I also (always) thank god that films like this still get made. If there was any justice in this world, this would have nominated for Best Picture in 2010. If you can watch this without feeling completely helpless and devasted, more power to you. The aerial raid on the fortified township will always stand as one of the most impressive, horrific, soul-shattering cinematic moments I’ve ever witnessed. Do yourself a favor and watch this immediately….just don’t expect to be in a great mood afterwards.
The Lost Boys (1987) – Perhaps THE single most important film of my childhood. I saw this in the theater, owned the VHS and bugged the living shit out of my parents by playing this constantly. This film has become such a part of pop culture that I don’t feel I need to say much about it. Single mother and sons move to Santa Carla, California. The older son falls in with punk vampires, the younger son rebels. The Frog brothers are enlisted and a final showdown sends us home happy. Oy vey…there’s so much about this movie that I love unconditionally: the Coreys (Haim and Feldman); the vampire cave; Grandpa’s badass fucking car; the death by stereo; the sexy sax guy on the beach; Echo and Bunnymen on the soundtrack; Grandpa’s last line…geez louise, it’s pretty much perfect from shot one to shot whatever. Even though I swear by “30 Days of Night” and “Stake Land,” “The Lost Boys” will always have a place in my heart. Cry little sister, indeed!