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By Pete Vonder Haar | August 30, 2002

Blood on the Tracks

Almost from the dawn of filmmaking, there have been vampires on the big screen. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” gave way to the atmospheric Universal films, which ruled the belfry until Hammer upped the ante with gothic films like “Horror of Dracula” and “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.” In fact, debate continues to this day about whether Lugosi’s Count could take on Christopher Lee’s (it may not be Ford vs. Chevy, but we film geeks do what we can).

This is not to say the major studios were the only ones involved in spreading the disease, as it were. Numerous Mexican companies were busy producing the epic Santo movies, which are truly the pinnacle of Mexican wrestler vs. vampire cinema. Polanski released “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” and AIP gave us both “Blacula” – which presented the titular vampire as a tragic romantic figure twenty years before Coppola’s monstrosity – and “Scream, Blacula, Scream,” the latter of which is almost above reproach simply because Pam Grier is in it.

By the late 1970’s, vampire movies had become like Westerns. Studios would churn a couple out every few years, knowing that hardcore horror fans would go see them whether they were remotely good or, as was more often the case, not. The Hollywood studio machine hummed along, and fans could say things like, “Langella looks like a Sassoon model, he can’t hold a candle to Santo,” or debate whether or not George A. Romero’s “Martin” was an intelligent, subtle exercise in horror or a colossal waste of time.

That Giant Sucking Sound

A few exceptions aside, the vampire in film (up until the late 1970’s) remained a reasonably familiar model of the classic Count whose destruction was necessary for the survival of decent, hard-working people everywhere. In literature, however, a sea change was occurring. All manner of debate has taken place over whether Anne Rice resurrected or ruined the vampire in horror, but it is beyond argument that Interview with the Vampire focused attention on the genre as never before. The book came out way the hell back in 1976, but didn’t really start gaining momentum until a few years later. Soon, scads of authors were grabbing onto Rice’s coattails, offering their own representations of vampires – no longer bloodthirsty, murderous fiends but now a pack of miserable, petulant Gatsbys. Vampires like Louis and Armand are still creatures of great power, to be sure, but now it seemed the primary reason to stake them is to put an end to their incessant whining.

Until the movie version of Interview however, cinematic vampires were largely unaffected by these developments. Movies released during he 1980’s were bankrupt in a number of respects, but several intriguing entries in the vampire genre came out as well: “Fright Night” – featuring Roddy McDowall’s greatest performance since the original “Planet of the Apes” (or maybe 1978’s “Laserblast”), “Lifeforce” (*finally* some naked space vampires), and “Vamp” – the movie that proved Grace Jones playing a vampire doesn’t really surprise us. Vampire movies of this era tended to be highly stylized (of course, I suspect a documentary on Mother Theresa made in the 1980’s would have featured neon green habits and a couple songs by Wang Chung), as witnessed by the sometimes jarring scenic elements in the aforementioned films. Many of these films contained strong comedic themes as well, continuing a tradition in horror started by Abbott and Costello back in the ‘40s.

Perhaps the most successful vampire movie emerging at this time was “The Lost Boys,” which gave us Keifer Sutherland and Alex Winter in mullets, *both* Coreys, and a sense of knowing humor a full decade before “Scream.” Credit goes to director Joel Schumacher who, while obviously already in love with bright colors and brooding protagonists, hadn’t yet sunk to “Batman and Robin” depths of insanity. “The Lost Boys” deserves recognition for being among the first of the 1980’s vampire flicks to combine horror, comedy, and atmosphere effectively, but it pales in comparison to another movie about nocturnal bloodsuckers released that same year to comparatively little acclaim. That movie was “Near Dark.”

Now it’s dark in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: NEAR DARK>>>


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