Medium Rare Stakes: Lesser Known Vampire Classics
It’s Halloween month, and for many of us that means our home viewing diet takes a deep dive into the world of horror cinema. At this point maybe you have seen all of the biggies and are exploring the fringes a bit. As it happens we have also done a bit of nocturnal fringe-exploration, so for those who might like a little advance scouting report in the field of vampire movies we have compiled a Letterboxd list called “Medium Rare Stakes: Lesser Known Vampire Classics”
If you are not a deep Universal Horror nut, you may not have realized that at the same time Tod Browning’s epochal Lugosi DRACULA (1931) was filming, a Spanish language version of the film was also being made. During that era, there was no post-synch dubbing, so an entirely different cast filmed the dialogue scenes on the same sets at night. It’s called DRÁCULA (1931) and a lot of people think it is better than the admittedly-pokey English-language version. Judge for yourself.
Another non-English language oddity is DRACULA IN ISTANBUL (1953), which hits all the usual beats, but has a distinct and unusual Turkish feel. 1967’s THE LIVING CORPSE is a Pakistani take on the novel with sex and musical numbers(!) added in. Such far-flung locales as the Philippines (1972’s wiggy, color-tinted THE BLOOD DRINKERS) and Argentina (Emilio Vieyra’s mod-ish 1967 BLOOD OF THE VIRGINS) also make the list.
Back in the States, the Universal Dracula films hit American TV screens in the ’50s and there was an increased demand for vampire movies to slake the thirst of teenage viewers. BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957) is about a female teenage misfit who is in fact a vampire – there’s a lot of interesting stuff here about parental neglect and the place of education in society. CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is a vampire western with a surprisingly goth tone and a very good performance by Michael Pate as the mysterious black-clad stranger.
Europe got into the horror game in a big way after the Hammer Dracula films began making a lot of money at the box office in the late ’50s. Roger Vadim’s BLOOD & ROSES (1960) is a fake art film in the best Vadim tradition, and it kicked off the long cycle of lesbian vampire movies, many of them based on J. Sheridan LeFanu’s story “Carmilla.” The Italian SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES (1962) is cheap but atmospheric, filmed in high contrast black and white on astonishing old-country locations and featuring the kind of dubbing that sounds like a flat, undifferentiated internal monologue, if you’re into that sort of thing. Another Italian horror film, 1972’s THE NIGHT OF THE DEVILS is made with much more polish, and is one of the few genuinely frightening Italian gothics outside the oeuvre of Mario Bava.
Some interesting Euro-cult auteurs made vampire films as well. Jess Franco’s VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971) is too well known at this point to consider it a rarity, but his DAUGHTER OF DRACULA (1972) is little discussed but very interesting, if you have the Jess Franco gene. Others will surely tune out – or doze off. The Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyck often operates on the fringes between the art film and the horror movie. His IMMORAL TALES (1973) features, in an omnibus of erotic horror tales, what may be the best representation yet of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory story. She is the Hungarian noblewoman who allegedly bathed in the blood of virgin serfs to attain eternal beauty.
The low-budget American indie LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1973) deserves a special mention here as it is truly sui generis, a small-town Depression-era period piece about the teenage daughter of a gangster who becomes the target of a female vampire. It is really unusual and strangely effective. Highly recommended.
If you like to laugh along with your vampires, there are some funny ones on the list. A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT (1987) is, in the best huckster tradition, not a sequel to Tobe Hooper’s 1979 TV movie SALEM’S LOT at all. But it is a Larry Cohen movie, so it has its share of laughs among the scares. Sam Fuller steals the show with a manic performance as a Nazi hunter turned Van Helsing. It’s really something. NOCTURNA (1979) is funny in spite of itself. It’s a mess if we’re being honest about it, but the sub-sub-genre of Disco Vampires is so shamefully underpopulated that we are forced to include it here. John Landis’ INNOCENT BLOOD (1992) is also very amusing, with a parade of top-flight character actors chiming in and giving their all.
There are more on the list, and you probably have obscure favorites of your own. Keep exploring and let us know what some other favorites are in the Letterboxd comments.