Re-Vamping: Ten Unique Takes on Vampire Mythology

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In celebration of the release of “Byzantium” this Friday, we’ve come up with a selection of ten films that put wonderfully unique spins on vampire mythology.

It’s impossible to escape vampires these days. The Twilight movies, though officially brought to a close last year, are still insanely popular; the HBO series “True Blood,” which recently began its sixth season, has a large and dedicated fanbase; and Justin Cronin’s best-selling, post-apocalyptic vampire trilogy (the first two installments, The Passage and The Twelve, are currently in bookstores) looks poised to become the next blockbuster vampire franchise (the books have already been optioned for a planned series of film adaptations by Ridley Scott). The latest piece of vampire pop culture to sink its teeth into movie audiences’ necks is Neil Jordan’s Byzantium.

In theaters this weekend, Byzantium stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a mysterious pair of women who seek refuge in a run-down coastal resort. Little do its residents realize that their pale new neighbors share a deadly secret. With director Jordan at the helm (who’s no stranger to the genre, having previously helmed 1994’s Interview with the Vampire), Byzantium will hopefully make for a chilling experience that puts a fresh twist on an age old movie monster, because let’s face it—With so many blood-suckers baring their fangs in movies, books and TV, vampires have started to feel, well, a bit anemic. But never fear, MM is here to save the day. We’ve come up with a selection of 10 films (essentially, movies that are the antithesis of the Twilight franchise) that put wonderfully unique spins on vampire mythology. These are all creative, fascinating movies that definitely do not, er, suck.

 

Byzantium

Federico Luppi in Cronos.

 

  • Black Sabbath (1963) | directed by Mario Bava

This creepy, eclectic anthology is an early work from Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, who has built up a sizable cult following over the years due to his Gothic, gorgeously photographed fright films, which have inspired the likes of Dario Argento and Tim Burton. Black Sabbath contains three atmospheric stories, the second of which remains one of the most chilling vampire tales ever filmed. Entitled “The Wurdalak,” the segment is based on a story by Aleksei Tolstoy and stars Boris Karloff in one of his last, most sinister performances. Unlike typical vampires, who feast on random human beings, those transformed into “wurdalaks” only prey on those they love most—essentially, their own families. With its haunting yet beautiful visuals, “The Wurdalak” is a masterful family tragedy that shouldn’t be missed.

  • Martin (1977) | directed by George A. Romero

One of the most underrated horror films of all time (writer-director Romero has said himself it’s his personal favorite of his work), Martin is a modern vampire tale set in a deteriorating Pennsylvania town. The title character (played by John Amplas) is a troubled, disaffected 17-year-old who believes, based on a family legend, that he’s an 84-year-old vampire. Yet Martin doesn’t behave like a typical vampire: He’s immune to garlic and sunlight, and instead of fangs, uses razor blades to drink his victims’ blood. After going to live with his elderly uncle, who strongly believes in the family vampire myth, Martin attempts to live a normal life, but his craving for blood continues to haunt him. Martin is a disturbing, utterly original take on the vampire mythos. Although there are a few creepy, violent scenes to keep horror fans satisfied, the movie is most compelling when we gain insight into the main character. Romero seems to be saying that the suave, seductive vampires we’ve seen in movies, as played by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, are of a past generation. This modern vampire works on a much more realistic, practical, horrifying level.

  • Near Dark (1987) | directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Before she became the first woman in Oscar history to win the Best Director trophy (for The Hurt Locker), Kathryn Bigelow helmed this unusual film, which fuses together the Western, biker and vampire genres. The film stars Adrian Pasdar as an aimless young man in a rural Midwestern town who becomes involved with a family of dangerous nomadic vampires (among them Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Jenny Wright). These aren’t your typical blood-suckers—they’re a group of dirty, unhinged drifters who roam the highways in stolen vehicles (during the day, incidentally), moving from town to town to satisfy their insatiable bloodlust. In fact, the destructive, amoral vampires of Near Dark seems to share more in common with the modern serial killer than the classic Dracula archetype. This gritty, genre-bending film put Bigelow on the map, and, 25 years later, it still has the power to dazzle and disturb.

  • Cronos (1993) | directed by Guillermo del Toro

This remarkably innovative Mexican film marked the feature debut of writer-director del Toro. The movie revolves around an elderly antique dealer (Federico Luppi) who comes upon the deadly yet enticing object of the title—an ancient mechanism that promises eternal life to its owner. When opened, the device painfully inserts a needle into the owner’s skin, yet the wound also brings about a sudden burst of youthful vitality, as well as a desperate craving for blood. Though the word “vampire” is never spoken in Cronos, del Toro’s bold vision provides a unique spin on the age-old vampire mythology. Especially unnerving is the sequence in which the infected old man discovers a puddle of blood (resulting from another man’s nosebleed) in a public bathroom. In what is surely one of the ickiest moments in vampire movie history, he lies down on the floor and proceeds to lick it up, much like a cat would spilled milk. From its fable-like beginning to its surprisingly tragic end, Cronos is full of disturbing yet unforgettable images.

  • The Addiction (1995) | directed by Abel Ferrara

This intriguing film from provocative indie auteur Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) uses vampirism as a metaphor for drug addiction and AIDS. Shot in grainy black and white, the film stars Lili Taylor as Kathleen, an NYU philosophy grad student, who, one night, is attacked and bitten by a crazed woman (Annabella Sciorra).  Kathleen soon develops the traditional symptoms of vampirism, including an aversion to sunlight. Ferrara especially focuses on Kathleen’s newfound blood addiction, which, in the film, is the price paid for becoming immortal. In the film’s disturbing climax, Kathleen and her victims (now vampires themselves) attack the partygoers at her graduation party, leading to a bloody, sexually charged orgy. With its fresh, philosophical approach to traditional material,The Addiction stakes its claim as a truly original vampire tale.

  • Shadow of the Vampire (2000) | directed by E. Elias Merhige

“Quirky” and “oddball” are just two of the words that come to mind when describing this slyly funny film,  in which fiction and history seamlessly intertwine. The movie recounts the making of the 1922 silent German classic, Nosferatu (an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula)—but with a twist. In screenwriter Steven Katz’s ingenious re-imagining, Max Schrek, who stars in Nosferatu as the sinister Count Orlok (the Dracula character) is, in real life, a genuine vampire. As depicted in the film, director F.W. Murnau  (John Malkovich) cast Shreck in Nosferatu, fully aware he was a vampire, in order to make the story more realistic. Tension builds as cast and crew members begin disappearing, one by one, and those left begin to suspect that life is imitating art, and Shreck might have more in common with his character than they ever imagined. What really makes the film work is the brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance by a barely recognizable Willem Dafoe as Shreck.  Not only does Dafoe physically resemble Shreck as Count Orlok, but he imbues his performance with real menace and a streak of dark humor. Whether you’re a classic movie buff or blood-sucker fan, the smart and witty Shadow of the Vampire comes highly recommended.

  • Let the Right One In & Let Me In (2008/2010) | directed by Tomas Alfredson/Matt Reeves

Quietly poignant and unexpectedly moving, it’s difficult to even label Let the Right One In a horror film, though it certainly contains its share of grisly scenes. Based upon the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the film takes place in a snowy, rural Swedish suburb, where a lonely 12-year-old boy, Oskar, (sensitively played by Kare Hedebrant) befriends his new neighbor, Eli, (Lina Leandersson), an odd, pale girl around his age, who happens to be a vampire. The two quickly become close; Eli encourages Oskar, who is constantly bullied at school, to stick up for himself, and Oskar gradually realizes the true nature of his new friend. What makes this intimate story so unforgettable isn’t the expertly staged scare scenes, but the unique, strangely touching love story that lies at heart of the film. In 2010, Let the Right One In was remade in the US as Let Me In, adapted and directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield). Surprisingly enough, it’s one of the few remakes that is nearly as good as the original—capturing the same solemn yet hopeful tone, and even adding a few new, inspired touches. Whichever version you happen to see, Lindquvist’s tale is guaranteed to stay with you.

  • Thirst (2009) | directed by Chan-wook Park

Loosely based on the classic French novel “Therese Raquin” by Emile Zola, Thirst tells the story of a South Korean Catholic priest (Song Kang-ho) who turns into a vampire through a failed medical experiment. Once a morally centered man, the priest finds himself giving into his repressed desires, and engages in a doomed romance with his friend’s wife. With its offbeat touches (here, the vampire acquires blood from IV drips in a hospital) and inevitable, tragic ending, Thirst is the grim, harrowing journey of one man’s unforgettable transformation.

  • Daybreakers (2009) | directed by Michael & Peter Spierig

In Daybreakers, vampirism takes on a new, terrifying form. The year is 2019, and a plague has transformed nearly the entire human race into vampires. Due to a dwindling blood supply, the vampire population is in danger of evolving into feral, vicious creatures that will stop at nothing to survive. It’s up to a leading vampire hematologist (Ethan Hawke) to find an artificial blood supply, but the situation grows more complex when he meets a mysterious man (Willem Dafoe), who may possess a cure for vampirism. With its ambitious vision of a vampire-ruled planet, Daybreakers is decidedly unconventional, though it also manages to incorporate some of the traditional mythology (e.g. one of the indicators of becoming a vampire is developing pointed ears).

Have a fave quirky vampire movie that didn’t make the cut? Let us know in the comments!

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