When it comes to mythical creatures in the world of film, nothing has cemented their place as firmly as vampires have. Spanning an impressive 90+ years of legendary screen appearances, vampires started in horror and have since then covered just about every genre imaginable – and sparked the imagination of screenwriters inspired by the myth and its connection with historical figures like Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Tepes and Elizabeth Bathory.
Surviving periods of saturation, the vampire genre is still very much “un-dead” and kicking, with filmmakers fighting to bring new approaches that have seen a tremendous boost of popularity for the world’s favourite blood-drinkers. Neil Jordan, director of the critically acclaimed and hugely successful Interview With The Vampire, returns to UK cinemas on May 31st with Byzantium, a fresh take on the genre that sees Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan playing a mother and daughter vampire duo.
To celebrate Byzantium’s release, we’ve taken a look back at the birth of the vampire myth and its evolution through the ages to become one of the greatest cinematic icons.
Origins of the Myth
Legends of vampires have existed for millennia, with cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans having told tales of demonic entities and blood-drinking spirits that are precursors to modern vampires. Although vampiric entities have been recorded in many cultures, the term vampire was not popularized until the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe from areas such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe; this lead to mass hysteria, corpses actually being staked, and people being accused of vampirism.
While the appearance of folkloric vampires of the Balkans and Eastern Europe ranged in description from nearly human to bloated rotting corpses (perhaps the equivalent to today’s zombies?), it was the interpretation of the vampire by John Polidori in his 1819 novella The Vampyre that established the archetype of the charismatic and sophisticated vampire. Polidori’s work was arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century, which eventually served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Bram Stoker and the Modern Vampire
Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula quickly became the quintessential vampire novel and provided the basis of modern vampire fiction. Dracula drew on earlier mythologies of werewolves and similar legendary demons and was to “voice the anxieties of an age”, and the “fears of late Victorian patriarchy”. The success of this book spawned a distinct vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century; with books, films, video games, and television shows drawing on the tome. The vampire is such a dominant figure in the horror genre that literary historian Susan Sellers places the current vampire myth in the “comparative safety of nightmare fantasy”.
From The Novel To The Screen: The Early Adaptations
1922’s Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s German Expressionist cult classic, is one of the most famous early adaptations of the Dracula character. However, something that most people don’t know is that, back in the day, it attracted a (successful) lawsuit from Stoker’s estate for copyright infringement, which meant that all existing copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Thankfully, a few copies were saved and escaped the pyre constructed by the copyright lawyers. Today, the film is out of copyright, and can watched legally in its entirety online.
Nosferatu, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t the first attempt at bringing Dracula to the silver screen. Dracula’s Death — sometimes known as The Death of Drakula — was a 1921 Hungarian horror movie (currently believed to be a lost film) that was written and directed by Károly Lajthay. The film is notable because of the fact that it marks the first screen appearance of the vampire Count Dracula, though recent research indicates that the plot does not actually follow the narrative of Bram Stoker’s novel. After originally opening in Vienna in 1921 and enjoying a long and successful European run, the film was later re-edited and re-released in Budapest in 1923. This second theatrical run, coupled with the fact that scholars are only now uncovering reliable information about the film, may explain why the Internet Movie Database erroneously lists the film’s original release date as April 1923.
There are reports of a 1920 Soviet silent film Drakula (???????), based on Stoker’s novel. The film would have predated Dracula’s Death and is thus claimed to be the first film adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Nothing regarding this film is known to survive; there are no known production stills, and there is very little information about the film available.
The Soviet film is said to be about a woman who experiences frightening visions after visiting an insane asylum where one of the inmates claims to be Count Dracula (here following the Hungarian spelling Drakula), and she has trouble determining if the visions were real or if they were merely nightmares.
Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee: The Making of a Cultural Icon
The 1931 film version ‘Dracula’ was based on the 1927 stage play dramatized (this time with the Stoker estate’s endorsement) by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. It starred Bela Lugosi up against Edward Van Sloan, both of whom had originated their respective roles on the stage in the aforementioned play, and was directed by Tod Browning. It is one of the most famous versions of the story and is commonly considered a horror classic. In 2000, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. The audience heard music only during the opening (the famous main theme from Swan Lake, which was also used at the beginning of other Universal horror productions) and closing credits, and during a brief sequence set at an opera. In 1999, Philip Glass was commissioned to compose a musical score to accompany the film. The current DVD release includes this soundtrack
At the same time as the 1931 Lugosi film, a Spanish language version was filmed for release in Mexico. It was filmed at night, using the same sets as the Tod Browning production with a different cast and crew, a common practice in the early days of sound films. George Melford was the director, and it starred Carlos Villarías as the Count, Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing and Lupita Tovar as Eva. Because of America’s movie industry’s censorship policies, Melford’s Dracula contains scenes that could not be included in the final cut of the more familiar English version.
1958, Hammer Films produced Dracula, a newer, more Gothic version of the story, starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. It is widely considered to be one of the best versions of the story on film, and was named the 30th greatest British film of all time in Total Film’s 2004 feature. Although it takes many liberties with the novel’s plot, the creepy atmosphere and charismatic performances of Lee and Cushing make it memorable. It was released in the United States as Horror of Dracula to avoid confusion with the earlier Lugosi version. This was followed by a long series of Dracula films, usually featuring Lee as Dracula.
The 1990s: Bringing The Beast Back to the Mainstream
In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola produced and directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Anthony Hopkins. Coppola’s story includes a backstory telling how Dracula (who is the historical Vlad ?epe? in this version) became a vampire, as well as a subplot not in Stoker’s original novel in which Mina Harker was revealed to be the reincarnation of Dracula’s greatest love. Dracula serves as a tragic hero instead of being a villain.
Interview with the Vampire is a 1994 American drama horror film directed by Neil Jordan (who is bringing us Byzantium at the end of the month). Based on the 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, the film focuses on Lestat and Louis, beginning with Louis’ transformation into a vampire by Lestat in 1791. The film chronicles their time together, and their turning of a twelve-year-old girl, Claudia, into a vampire. The narrative is framed by a present day interview, in which Louis tells his story to a San Francisco reporter.
The film stars Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kirsten Dunst, with Antonio Banderas and Stephen Rea co-starring. The film was released in November 1994 to positive critical acclaim, and received Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Original Score. Kirsten Dunst was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film.
The late ‘90s brought us Wesley Snipes in the ‘Blade’ trilogy. The Marvel take on the vampire myth featured Snipes as the titular Blade – and chronicles his emergance as a vampire hunter, out to destroy the lives of the vampires who killed his mother. As the films progress, the traditonal gothic architecture of vampire films gives way to neon-lit hyper-stylised future underworld, where vampires are having their own battles between pure-bloods and vampires who used to be human. The box office treated the films more kindly than the critics, and they three films have so far made over $415million. Blade paved the way for the juxtoposition of the vampire myth and unfamiliar surroundings.
Turn of the Century: New Takes on the Genre
The 21st century has brought with more diverse and popular vampire films – popular both critically and commercially. Russian production Night Watch kicked off a series of films that portrayed a secret society of protectors who have throughout history guarded humanity from the darkness. It’s vampires hunting vampires in this complex tale – and some of the greatest set-piece stunts ever dreamed up for the big screen.
Possibly as far as you can get from the insanity of Night Watch while remaining firmly in the vampire genre, Let The Right One In was one of the most highly acclaimed films to come out of Scandinavia in 2008. John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel was faithfully adapted for the screen by the author himself, and sensitively directed by Tomas Alfredson. The vampire in this snowy film is the young girl Eli, who struggles to balance her vampiric affliction with a regular life, and her burgeoning relationship with fellow outsider Oskar. The film brought a new and strangely human angle to the vampire story, captivated audiences, and spawned a US remake starring Chloë Grace Moretz.
Perhaps the most popular (although whether this popularity is informed by vampirism or just the lead actors is debatable) vampire film series of all time is Twilight. Based on Stephenie Meyer’s four Edward Cullen novels, the series spans five films that have sent fans crazy since 2008, and has grossed over $2billion. Seen by some as a dumbing-down of many generes from horror and drama to action and romance, Twilight borrows from the mythology of vampires and werewolves to frame a teenage love-triangle (where one is a wolf, and the other is several hundred years old – and dead). These are just three of the more diverse vampire films already released over the last few years – honourable mentions go to Korean vamp-flick Thirst and the clever vampire-friendly premise of 30 Days of Night.
Byzantium: A Fresh Approach
Next up on the vampire slate is Neil Jordan’s Byzantium. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan. The ladies play a mother and daughter pair surviving in a rundown seaside town – Mother Clara (Arterton) poses as a prostitute and feasts on some of the clientele. Clara relishes her vampirism, played down from the often exaggerated supernatural aspects of more traditional and tired vampire films. These vampires lack the fangs and supernatural powers that have become a trademark of the genre – the only giveaway to their true identities is a sharp thumbnail that reacts to arousal – at the sight of blood or otherwise. Jordan is no stranger to vampires, having directed the acclaimed Interview With The Vampire, but his new film places the blood-thirsty beings firmly in our reality. They could be anyone of us.
Byzantium promises to delve into an exploration of not just modern vampires, but the challenges of being a vampire for the two leading ladies. Saorise’s Eleanor struggles with the life as many young women would, all the while keeping her dark secret locked within. This is vampirism rethought for the second decade of the 21st century – It’s dark, sexy, emotionally authentic, and real – Twilight it is not.
Byzantium hits UK cinemas on May 31st.