Vampire Redux - Studies of the Vampire Film

by Alain Silver and James Ursini

Having now studied the vampire film for more than two decades-which is coincidentally the span of time between the first and second editions of this book-we no longer feel compelled to justify our efforts by the assertion that all these films are serious business. Obviously we are being a bit waggish with that remark; but from the early days of the silent era, horror has been as much a part of mainstream filmmaking as of independent and schlock production. As for vampire films, as the sub-title of the newer editions of our own study indicates, "from Nosferatu to Bram Stoker's Dracula," major directors have worked in the genre. Unfortunately like much of the ad art that accompanies the release of the films themselves, many of the books on the subject have taken a sensationalistic approach. The dripping red letters on the dust jacket of the first edition of our book, seem merely tacky by comparison to some recent publications, such The Vampire Interview Book, which features a yellow-eyed, fangs-bared (and eyebrows-arched) Ben Cross, or Robert Marrero's Vampire Movies which displays a reticulated and anamorphosized set of fangs on its cover. Images from the 70s, like the bats over a full moon rising behind a castle in The Dracula Scrapbook or the line screen rendering of a sneering Christopher Lee on Donald Glut's The Dracula Book (1975), seem staid by comparison.

The point is that vampires and their bloodsucking activities may be amusing and/or titillating to many movie-goers, but the tradition of vampires in myth and serious literature goes back for centuries. As we have noted when widespread interest in the vampire phenomenon first swept through Western Europe during the Age of Reason, it was not only the aspect of the perverse and risqué that appealed to reasonable men but also the forbidden, preternatural frisson. Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu, Baudelaire or Théophile Gautier may be the first writers who come to mind when one thinks of the vampire; but the wide range of other poets, dramatists, philosophers, and artists who have been linked to the vampire from Byron, Keats, and Rousseau to Goethe, Dumas, and Edvard Munch irrevocably legitimizes the vampire a figure in "serious" fiction. Many others turned the vampire into a Romantic archetype.

Since our earliest writing on the subject, our perspective has been of film critics writing about a sub-genre that happens to feature strange and frightening supernatural beings. The vampire is not always a Romantic protagonist, not necessarily a protagonist of any sort, as that designation often falls to those who oppose him or her. But all of the characters in vampire fiction, supernatural or human, have a dramatic and literary validity that goes back centuries.

The earliest discussions of vampire films, in the 60s, were as chapters or sub-sections of works surveying the horror film in general; and, as such, they were necessarily sketchy. Ron Borst's series of articles for Photon magazine and the first edition of Walt Lee's Reference Guide to Fantastic Films in 1972 helped to established a rough consensus of the what titles constituted the basic vampire filmography. The first book-length study, The Vampire on Screen (1965), was from the president of the Count Dracula society, Donald A. Reed. Even as "fan" book, this hapless volume is amateurish, unenlightening, and, like its subject, best left interred. The first quasi-scholarly book-length studies appeared in the 70s. Whatever the cover illustrations may have connoted, our book and several others took a straight approach in that decade.

Donald Glut's The Dracula Book is a comprehensive and scholarly discourse that opens with a history of Vlad the Impaler and features a picture of his "authentic remains" housed, as luck would have it, in the Weird Museum in Hollywood. We have not personally visited this institution and cannot speak about the legitimacy of these bones; but the first chapter sets the tone for Glut's book. He continues his surveyderived from an earlier book on vampires in historyin the next chapter, discussing legendary traits and actual figures such as Elizabeth Bathory. All non-Dracula vampire films are lumped together in a third chapter, "The Ancestors of Dracula," which concentrates on Polidori's Lord Ruthven and Le Fanu's Carmilla. The remaining chapters are a chronology from Nosferatu onwardwith occasional disgressions such as a few words about Black Sundayof Dracula films. Glut mixes film history with plot summaries and personal opinions in a discursive manner. The biggest problem with his book is that it is now woefully out of date.

Unfortunately, the same problem holds true for both Barrie Pattison's The Seal of Dracula (1975) and David Pirie's The Vampire Cinema (1977). Both are profusely illustrated general surveys, although the designers seem intent on featuring dripping fangs and blood spurting from staked hearts, occasionally in color. Both open with surveys of the silent era then group films geographically and by sub-genres. Both have chapters on the "Sex Vampire[s]"; but Pattison's tongue is a bit more obviously in his cheek with essays on "Cowboys, Spacemen, and Nazi Beasts" or "Lust, Blood, and God." Despite the sometimes garish illustrations with monochrome washes and reticulated effects, both authors treat their subject seriously; and Pirie goes deeper into selected areas, even beyond it in praising directors certain directors such as Mario Bava and Willard Huyck.

While The Celluloid Vampires: A History and Filmography, 1897-1979 by Michael J. Murphy is a notch above some more recent disgraces, it offers very little in the way of serious thought or analysis on the vampire sub-genre. It is mainly notable for its filmography which is fairly complete at over 140 pages, although one could wish for more credits on each film. If Murphy has a failing which is fatal to many researchers it is putting too much stock in publicity releases. This lead him to list two projects-one by Ken Russell entitled Bram Stoker's Original Dracula and one by Roger Vadim, Vadim's Dracula-as bona fide, completed feature films. Unfortunately neither was made; but for the most part Murphy's facts are reliable.

His text however is another matter. He begins the book discussing the early history of photography and film technology but, mysteriously, never relates it to vampire films. Why is it there then? He calls one of his chapters "A Return to Tradition" but never explains how the period under discussion-the 1960s and 70s-were in any way retrograde or traditional. If anything, vampire films from that period were groundbreaking and revisionist with increased emphasis on Freudian psychology, sexual explicitness, and self-reflexive satire. Most of the text consists of lengthy plot summaries of the films that Murphy considers important; and when he does venture into criticism/analysis he depends on others for opinions. Strangely enough the "authorities" he quotes are not critics or film historians but stars like Christopher Lee and Robert Quarry. Most reader would probably prefer Murphy's assessment of Tod Browning's Dracula than Lee's or Quarry's respective put-downs of the film. Murphy's bibliography is very sketchy.

Martin V. Riccardo's 1983 book, Vampires Unearthed: the Complete Multimedia Vampire and Dracula Bibliography, is an obscure little book that we've never encountered outside of a specialty library. Riccardo is a professional hypnotist and vampire amateur; and this modest volume bespeaks the latter status. Still, however scant its filmographic information, it is soundly researched.

One can always hope that a university publication will at least have a critical position and some seriousness of intent; and in that respect Gregory Waller's The Living and the Undead from Stoker's Dracula to Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1986) does not disappoint. What it lacks in filmography (it has none), it makes up for in insightful and thought-provoking discussion. Waller's thesis is that movies and literature about the "undead"he includes vampires within the larger "genre" of films dealing with the undeadare at their core explorations of the issue of survival. He sees these works delineating a battle between the human desire for continuity and immortality and an equally strong desire for death and closure. The ambivalence humans feel towards these opposing issues inform most undead films, some falling on the side of closure and what Waller calls the "butcher work" (for instance, Tod Browning's Dracula) and some on immortality (John Badham's Dracula).

In developing his thesis Waller relies heavily on Freud, particularly Totem and Taboo, as well as structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov and semiologist Christian Metz. All his chapters are meticulously organized, his research annotated, and his analysis carefully delineated. Waller is also remarkable in that he does not confine himself to the traditional canon of "great" vampire films. In one chapter he analyzes Horror of Dracula and attendant Hammer films alongside Jesus Franco's El Conde Dràcula. He is perspicacious enough to discern the "thought" and "control" Franco demonstrates in his film rather than just dismissing him as a quirky minor director working with a minuscule budget. He also discusses the film as an alternate reworking of the Dracula legend.

In another portion of the book Waller devotes an entire chapter to a comparison of Dan Curtis' TV Dracula and the BBC production starring Louis Jourdan. Both films were watershed works in their own way, revising old concepts of the Dracula myth as well as experimenting with new ones. The Curtis Dracula of course created the whole Romantic back story for the main character from which other filmmakers have drawn, most notably Coppola in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Waller's analysis of George Romero's zombie films, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc., near the end of the book further reinforces his critical position. He quotes film critic Robin Wood's observation that most horror films feature "normality threatened by the monster" and then demonstrates how Romero's films express an ambiguity towards the "butcher work" of destroying the "immortal monsters." In these films individual destruction has turned into mass extermination in an attempt to bring closure and stamp out the "threat" of immortality. Waller's book is not easy reading. He is an academic and his analysis sometimes is fairly dense. But in a field filled with sensationalist frou frou and misinformation, this book is an oasis.

John Flynn's Cinematic Vampires: The Living Dead on Film and Television, from The Devil's Castle to Bram Stoker's Dracula (which must certainly be one of the most long-winded titles of 1992)is simply stated a "must-avoid." The book is riddled with errors and misinformation, so many that the entire space of this Appendix could be devoted to its shortcomings. The kind of errors Flynn wallows in are not the honest ones. As we've said, most film historians and critics-and we certainly include ourselves-make mistakes while delving into the morass of contradictory information about motion pictures. Vampire films, in particular, are hard to research. But Flynn's work is purely (or should we say, "impurely") shoddy; and this is particularly unacceptable from a book that retails for over forty dollars.

Early in the text the reader is treated to a discussion of Louis Feuillade's (called by Flynn "Fevillade") serial Les Vampires about which Flynn blithely claims that the thieves are actual vampires, when the only vampiric element in the films are the costumes and the name of the gang. It is obvious that he has never seen the series as he goes off on a tangent ending up with a discussion of August Strindberg. Louis Feuillade is a pioneer of filmmaking who should be known to any self-respecting film scholar. An equally egregious and less obvious blunder is his inclusion and discussion of Luis Buñuel's classic Tristana. Not only does he not know the country of origin for this film but he claims that the Fernando Rey's character in the film is a vampire. Buñuel may be one of the fathers of surrealistic cinema and given to non-linear, dreamlike references, but no one except Flynn has discovered any vampiric allusions. Is this an example of surrealist criticism on the part of Flynn? Glaring errors such as these aside, the book has laughably mangled plot summaries, faulty credits, and marginal analysis.

Almost as bad as Flynn is Scott Nance's Bloodsuckers, Vampires at the Movies (1992). The back cover of Bloodsuckers screams out "caveat emptor" to anyone thinking of purchasing this oversized paperback. From behind a barrier the evil, leering face of Anthony Hopkins from The Silence of the Lambs emerges, only to be identified in the caption as Anthony Perkins portraying Van Helsing in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. How mixed up can one caption be? The reader who still insists on taking this book home is rewarded with pages filled with oversized fonts and plenty of blank space (for taking notes, possibly?). Some pages have has few as fifteen lines. Admittedly the book is only $14.95; but one still can expect a little more meat on the corpse for fifteen dollars. But what is most appalling is the duplication of some pages, so that you get the same superficial analysis of a film twice. Even his bibliography is skimpy, with only eight entries. Yet the book features no less than eleven pages of advertisement for other books by the same publisher (with such promising titles as Rocky and the Films of Stallone and The Gunsmoke Years). The filmography is even more remarkably inept. Foreign titles are alphabetized according to their articles ("Il", "La", etc.) This makes the process of finding films quite a challenge if you don't know the language. In addition Nance has fairly well-known vampire films like Terror in the Crypt (La Cripta e L'Incubo) as "starring Christopher Lee" with no additional credits while he spends almost a page describing the plot of the eminently forgettable Teen Vamp with Clu Gulager (and then reprinting the page for those who didn't get it the first time). Sadly, it is books like this which only give further justification to those who heap opprobrium on the field of horror film research and criticism in general.

Some bibliographies indicate that Robert Marrero published a book entitled Vampires, Hammer Style in 1974. We have never seen this volume; but if Marrero's other books are any indication, aside from the punning possibilities of the title, there is probably no reason to look for it. Marrero's other books of Marrero, Dracula-the Vampire Legend on Film (1992) and Vampire Movies (1994), have scant value. The more recent book, which purports to be "encyclopedic" in scope, is just a list of titles with producer, director, and writer credits only (except for the occasional cinematographer credit thrown in at odd intervals). There are bits of plot summary and opinion and little else. The films are grouped not alphabetically, but by decade (the basic chapters) and then by year; and there is no index or any sort. This seems a rather poor organizational scheme for encyclopedic information. On its face, this would make finding a particular picture rather difficult. To further aggravate the problem the years used for sequencing are variously that of production, original release, and U.S. release. Of course, many of these years, as well as the plots, and other information are inaccurately given. So unless you're amused by Marrero's opinions, why would you want to look up a film in this book anyway? Marrero's entry on the Japanese Chi o Suu Me, which he discusses not under that title or its U.S. title, Lake of Dracula, but as Bloodthirsty Eyes is typical. Three-fourths is plot summary with allusions to Hammer influence and then the lament that "many vampire fans will never get to see" this picture. Marrero ends by asserting that "very little is known about" The Evil of Dracula [Chi o Suu Bara] from the same director. Perhaps Marrero knows very little about it; but what other basis is there for his generalization. It seems to be for the sake of hearing the sound of his own "bon mots" that Marrero includes a couple of hundred words on a picture like She was a Hippy Vampireyou can't seen the picture and it's not about vampires. So why is it here? By comparison the "very obscure, rarely-seen" but available on videotape Pale Blood features 45 words and two plot points, both of which are wrong. Marrero apparently has an extensive still collection, and, although some of the color stills have experienced a chroma shift, the photo reproduction is good quality, which is the only reason to own this book.

A digression: Vampires: An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film (1994). What is the point of this book? Jalal Toufic talks about his brakes being down to 5% and driving to Pittsburgh between free associations on Vincent and Theo as Vietnam allegory and meandering musings on The Passenger. Occasionally his free-form ramblings stumble over a vampire trait or a vampire film. This is not much to show for 79 chapter headings and 248 footnotes. Perhaps Toufic believes that European style quotes indicate <174>artfullness<175> or, at least, an advanced word processor. Perhaps he believes that vampires can only be approached through "a commodious vicus of recirculation"; and what if Joyce had written a portrait of an artist as a young vampire. Perhaps Toufic should have spoken to George Romero when he was in Pittsburgh.

This brings us to The Vampire Encyclopedia (1993) by Matthew Bunson and The Vampire Book (1994) by J. Gordon Melton, which is also a self-proclaimed "encyclopedia of the undead." The approach for both is quite similar but Bunson's survey is a slender 300 pages and Meltons, while essentially the same price,is thick (in terms of pages, that is, weighing in with 851 of them, some double column). Both have a de riguer red and black cover; but Melton's comes with a clove of garlic (not really, but it should). Bunson used a bat graphic as a leitmotif, but Melton has an added bonus: silhouettes of bats appear in every right margin, so that if you riffle the pages, their wings seem to go up and down.

Actually, neither is a bad book; but Melton's could have been so much better. The Vampire Encyclopedia makes no claims to be more than an overview. The entries are all succinct but include all the major and many minor subjects. Still the vampire film is a limited sub-topic; and for a book published in 1993 not to mention Interview with a Vampire is a significant omission. The photographs are few, being confined to two signatures, but high quality. The list of films, as well as the bibliographies is highly selected; and there is no index.

The Vampire Book plumbs exactly the same waters but to much greater depth. It has scores of sources including obscure data culled from Martin Riccardo. Unlike Marrero's pitiful efforts, The Vampire Book is truly encyclopedic, at least for its 707 pages, where it dutifully details legends, real figures, books, play, writers, actors, and even fan clubs. After perfunctory introductions and a vampire chronology cribbed from Christopher Frayling's excellent book, Vampyres, the encyclopedia opens entry on Forrest James Ackerman (!?). There is even a very poor photo of Ackerman holding what is either a crucifix or crossed breadsticks to fend off Nai Bonet in Nocturna. As if one low contrast snapshot was not enough a few pages later Donald A. Reed is captured presiding over his fabled Count Dracula Society while Famous Monsters Furry Ackerman guest lectures. Unfortunately, also unlike Marrero, most of the illustrations in this volume are bizarrely chosen and poorly reproduced. A very common shot of Lugosi posed with claw-like hands in the 1931 Dracula on page 178 is so blown out that his bow tie blends into his collar; and, despite some of the heaviest eye make-up in the history of vampire movies, the white of one eye almost leaks onto his cheek. In contrast (pun intended), the picture of Langella from the 1979 Dracula on page 183 makes him look more like more tan than George Hamilton in Love at First Bite.

The Vampire Book filmography is organized using a variant of the Marrero/Flynn method, by decade. While this organizing principal has some merit and precedent-most notably in Phil Hardy's comprehensive genre studies-we must ask, "What is wrong with a good, old-fashioned A-to-Z filmography?" Alphabetical structure works for Melton's main text, why not here? What is much worse is that the editor seems to have taken every entry from every previous vampire filmography and thrown it in, which means the egregious errors of Murphy, Flynn et al. are repeated: so, of course, poor old Louis Feuillade is spelled "Fevillade." Since his vampire serial is as far removed from bloodsuckers as a Burne-Jones' painting, it may be time either to spell his name correctly or just drop him. Not only filmmakers get short shrift, Burne-Jones is mentioned, with the wrong first name, as the painter who inspired Kipling's poem. Of course, entirely omitted is Edvard Munch, whose better-known (one would have thought) "Vampire" is a painting of a creature that might have inspired Carl Dreyer.

One has to expect certain errors and omissions in any book that tries to be comprehensive, but some of the errors in both text and filmography are just sloppy. The titles are accessible through the Master Index (which is less convenient but workable) but why are their duplicate listings for Dracula (1973) and Dracula (1974). This is the same film, Dan Curtis' version, which some entries date correctly by release year(1974) and others by production year (1973). The entry on "Television Movies" identifies it as a 1973 film "released in 1974" (again !?). The same entry remarks that the BBC/Louis Jourdan Count Dracula is based on Gerald Savory's novel. Of course, it's the other way around: Savory's book is a novelization of his tv-script adaptation of Stoker. Mysteriously, neither of these versions is even in the filmography. The real 1973 Dracula, a Canadian MOW, is in the filmography. It is not in the "Television Movies" essay, and it is in the index. Confused yet? We certainly were.

Of course, included are plenty of non-vampire movies, porno vampires, and even some non-movies. Technically, Black Vampire is a real movie, i.e., it has a physical existence; but wouldn't it make more sense to identify as a re-cut version of Ganja and Hess with altered credits and title. Speaking of Altered States, again we catch a fleeting glimpse of that lost film, Ken Russell's Bram Stoker's Original Dracula, which here is even given the annotation "This was a remake of Dracula," as if the reader could deduce this from the title. Any commentator at this point might feel like Monty Python's John Cleese looking for a refund on his dead parrot. Bram Stoker's Original Dracula is not a remake of anything. This is a non-existent movie. If Lair of the White Worm is any indication, it would probably have been a twisted, off-the-wall Russell romp; but it was never made. How hard is it to figure this out? Russell is not an obscure filmmaker. He's no Louis Fevillade. There are entire books on his work. Speaking of entire books, since most entries have bibliographic information at the end, what is really missing from The Vampire Book, despite page after page of vampire novels, plays, operas, and even ballets, is a Master Bibliography.

At first glance, there does not seem to be much to recommend the 1993 British book, Stephen Jones' The Illustrated Vampire Movie Guide. It is almost all filmography but the credits are scant: year, director, stars (no character names) company, and 25s-word-or-less-style synopsis. Like so many others the organization is by decade, permitting Jones to throw in a few introductory comments are the beginning of each section. In striving for completeness, Jones also throws just about every film imaginable from Wanda Does Transylvania (annotation: "hardcore vampires") to Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man. There are so many non-vampire titles that on some pages of this book, those titles actually outnumber the genuince articles. To complete the sense of superficiality, Jones rates the pictures in mock Cahiers-style from one to five bats. Ironically these admittedly "biased opinions" are given a fine tuningmany one-winged, half-bat incrementsthat the rest of the book could sorely use. Foreign titles are alphabatized in Italian, Tagalog, etc., except for pictures such as Black Sunday or Blood and Roses where the English title is used. Somehow Franco's El Conde Drácula becomes Bram Stoker's Count Dracula (British video title?).

At second glance, there may be a couple of reasons to acquire Jones' book. It is, indeed, an illustrated guide, full of high-quality stills and four-color posted reproductions in the pulp British tradition going back to Pattison's Seal of Dracula. And there his Appendix 1 (Appendix 2 is the Index?), a "selected" but extensive list of the vampire on the small screen. This list is purely alpjabetically. Of course, Jones does muck that up by using the series' titles first, so that, for instance, two television Carmillas are listed under Mystery and Imagination and Nightmare Classics. And, of course, do not look for the Dan Curtis/Richard Matheson Dracula in this section, as it is in with the feature films. The Index is by film titles only and the Bibligraphy (not Appendix 3) is the final insult. Not because neither edition of The Vampire Film is included: we are not British and we understand that someone confined to that tight little island could have rigorously researched the vampire film and not come across a book with that very title. But no mention of David Pirie's Vampire Cinema-how can this be?.

As if two vampire encyclopedias were not enough, David Skal, the author of Hollywood Gothic, weighs in with V is for Vampire (1996). Given his background, it is understandable that Skal allots a greater proportion of words to films than either Bunson or Melton. One wonders why he did not focus entirely on film and not bother going over the same "other" material with less depth than either predecessor. For example all three have a list of vampire novels in their appendices. Bunson cites about 150 novels in standard bilbioraphic format. Melton includes over 500, before and after 1970, with both original and reprint information. Skal's survey is by year with Title and Author only. Aside from serving as pure filler (with large font and plenty of space between entries, Skal fills 18 pages to Melton's 22 with less than half as many titles and no publisher data), there seems little point to Skal's redundant entries and appendices. Where Skal does excel is in the brief analyses of the films. The illustrations are good quality and not confined to signatures.

While Skal knows how to spell Feuillade, his filmography is heavily drawn from Jones' and replicates many of those errors plus a couple of his own (e.g. listing Midnight Kiss by its alternate title In the Midnight Hour as if it were a different film released a year earlier). Again the organization is chronological and begins with a lot of unseen and/or lost silent films, many of which are not about supernatural beings. If this simple criterion were brought to bear, commentators on the vampire film would not have to concern themselves with how to spell Feuillade.

in the end, of course, we are prejudiced: not against competing volumes, but in favor of common sense and pertinent facts. There is hope yet that the 90s will yield a new book on vampire films as well-constructed as Pirie's or as thoughtful as Waller's. For the time being, however, one might be well advised to stick with the classics.

Go to Home Page and Ordering Information


at ""