Vampire movies have been part of our culture for nearly a century now, and have gone through more permutations and transformations than the cinema of any other monster has. They’ve gone from symbols of plague and diseases (Nosferatu) to symbols of chaste morality (Twilight) and everything else in between. In the spirit of Halloween, we’ve put together a list celebrating the best of the best of modern vampire films.
For the purposes of this list, we’ve stuck to films during and after the 1970s. From the Universal/Bela Lugosi era to the Hammer years of Christopher Lee, nearly every single vampire film was a variation on Dracula (or Dracula’s Daughter, Dracula’s Brides, etc.) from the 1930s to the early 1970s, with only a handful of exceptions… and most of those were based on the 19th century novel Carmilla.
So as not to have a Dracula overload, I’m keeping to vampire films from roughly the past 40 years, when the genre started to broaden beyond the borders of Transylvania. Having said all that, the Count does make one appearance on the list, in our #10 entry…
10. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Directed by Godfather and Apocalypse, Now director Francis Ford Coppola, this film is, in terms of plot anyway, the closest to Bram Stoker’s novel ever put on film, with the major addition of a love story between Dracula and the character of Mina Harker not even implied in Stoker’s original.
Gary Oldman goes all in for his performance as Vlad the Impaler, who we see both as an ancient rotting demon and as a young and handsome prince. Anthony Hopkins also steals the show in a truly off-kilter performance as vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, as does musician Tom Waits as Dracula’s servant, Mr. Renfield.
The art direction and production design on this film are exquisite, and the costumes by Eiko Ishioka and the make-up effects from Greg Cannom both deservedly won Academy Awards. The musical score from Wojciech Kilar is also one of the most memorable film scores of the ’90s, and was often recycled for the trailers to many other films for years after this.
So with all these virtues, why is this movie so so low on this list? Well, I have two words for you: Keanu Reeves. Poor Keanu, still fresh off of the Bill and Ted movies, was trying to affect a British accent in playing the heroic Jonathan Harker, bless his heart, and the results are laughable. And poor Winona Ryder doesn’t fair much better with her attempts at a Brit accent as heroine Mina.
Also, by trying to be a faithful adaptation of the original Stoker novel’s plot structure, which is written as a series of letters and correspondence, it ends up with a sort of crazy structure. But the good performances are so great, and the visuals and the music are so spectacular, you’ll likely forgive this movie for a lot of its sins.
9. Near Dark (1987)
Often overlooked, future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western Near Dark wasn’t a big hit at the box office upon release, but it did find a fervent following on home video, and is now considered a cult classic. Young Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is a good ol’ boy who lives with his dad and younger sister on a Texas farm; he meets a teenage girl named Mae (Jenny Wright) who accidentally turns him into a vampire instead of killing him one night.
Turns out, Mae is part of a vagabond family of vampires who travel the country in a Winnebago wreaking havoc wherever they go (three of the members of the vampire clan are played by Lance Henrickson, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein, who all starred in James Cameron’s Aliens just the year before). They reluctantly accept Caleb into the family, but it’s not exactly a smooth transition.
Caleb tries to become part of the vampire family, but when he sees their true viciousness in action, he realizes the vampire life isn’t for him. But this isn’t the kind of club you say no to joining once invited. The movie has some pretty spectacular (and brutal) action sequences, and you can see where Bigelow would go on to direct some of the better action movies of the next several years.
Near Dark has some annoying plot contrivances, like a vampiric clan that has been around for centuries but apparently has no money and have to live almost like homeless people, and a far too easy cure for vampirism that arises towards the end. But the movie is so entertaining and watchable, and filled with terrific performances (especially from Paxton), that you’ll forgive it for any and all minor quibbles you may have.
8. The Hunger (1983)
The opening 10 minutes of Tony Scott’s debut film The Hunger are among the best opening moments to any horror movie, ever. It features French actress Catherine Deneuve at the peak of her otherworldly beauty and rock god David Bowie as a vampiric couple who stalk a New Wave club for fresh victims, all to the tune of Bauhaus’ goth music anthem “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” This opening sequence is so great that Ryan Murphy lifted it beat for beat in American Horror Story: Hotel. (For a comparison, watch this, then watch this. I mean, you tell me.)
The words “vampire” are never uttered in this movie, but ultimately that’s what these characters are. Actually, that’s what Deneuve’s character of Miriam Blaylock is, an ancient vampire who can pass on her immortality to her human lovers. But after a few hundred years, her human-turned-vampire companions begin to age rapidly… but, most horrifyingly, they don’t die. It’s what happens to Miriam’s lover John (Bowie) in the first half of the film, so when it’s his time, she must find a new companion.
That’s where Susan Sarandon comes in, playing a research scientist who studies aging who Miriam is bent on turning into her next vampiric companion, believing she might find a way to stop the rapid aging when her time comes. This movie Deneuve and Sarandon even share a sex scene in an era where Hollywood movies didn’t touch gay relationships. It’s not a movie for everyone; The Hunger is super artsy-fartsy and ’80s music video pretentious, but if you can get past all that, it’s also haunting and heartbreaking. And again, that opening sequence? Simply to die for.
7. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
When this movie came out in 1996, Quentin Tarantino was THE “it guy” in Hollywood, having just written and directed Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, not to mention the guy you went to if you wanted your movie to be re-written to sound cooler and more hip. His good buddy, director Robert Rodriguez, had also recently launched himself with El Mariachi, and together they teamed up to make a movie that played perfectly into both of their sensibilities, and their mutual love of exploitation horror films, with Tarantino writing and co-starring, and Rodriguez directing.
The first half of From Dusk Till Dawn plays very much like a balls-to-the-walls crime thriller in the classic Tarantino mold. George Clooney stars as that classic QT-style scumbag that you kind of like anyway, with Tarantino himself playing his brother and fellow bank robber. After a robbery, they kidnap a family (which includes Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis) to use their RV to make a run for Mexico to live the good life.
Then, halfway through, the shit hits the proverbial fan, and this becomes another movie entirely, as our protagonists become trapped in a bar run by vampires south of the border called The Titty Twister. As all hell breaks loose, you realize that pretty much anything goes. As much as Grindhouse would be a decade later, From Dusk Till Dawn was Tarantino and Rodriguez’s modern homage to the exploitation horror movies of the ’70s, only with a budget those movies never had (not to mention a sharp script most of those movies never had). And it must be said that despite a very brief screen time, Salma Hayek’s vampire queen Satanico Pandemonium is one of the most memorable lady vamps in cinema history.
6. Blade (1998)
People often cite Spider-Man or the first X-Men as the earliest successful Marvel films. In truth, it was 1998’s Blade that broke the Marvel movie curse, and launched a successful trilogy of action/vampire films. If Dracula and Interview with the Vampire were the gothic epics, and Fright Night and Lost Boys were the comedies, then Blade was the vampire film as no holds barred, R-rated action spectacular.
Wesley Snipes’ Blade is also known as “the Daywalker,” a sort of half human/half vampire hybrid (his pregnant mother was bit and turned into a vampire, resulting in his being born with all of their strengths and none of their weakness) who originated in the pages of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic in the ’70s.
After being adopted by the grumpy old Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), who trains him and teaches him to control his hunger, he then spends his life kicking vampire ass and taking names. Snipes’ version of Blade is a stoic and a stone cold badass in this movie, and yet oozes charisma despite his lack of dialogue, or maybe because of it. And the fight sequences still hold up today, almost 20 years later.
The premise of Blade is standard comic book plotting (some elite vamps, led by ’90s it boy Stephen Dorff, want to resurrect some ancient vampire god or something), but it’s all an excuse to watch Blade kick ass and have fun doing it. This is all to a techno soundtrack too, because it’s the ’90s, and you had to have one of those in your action movie.
Blade was written by David S. Goyer (who would go on to greater success with comic book movies like the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel). The movie is directed by former special effects guy Stephen Norrington, who would go on to direct the mega-flop League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was such a traumatic experience he never directed another movie again. That is a damn shame, because the first Blade succeeds at being both a great action movie and a great vampire movie. It should be noted that unlike almost every movie on this list, this one has a sequel (directed by Guillermo Del Toro) that is also actually pretty damn good. Still, nothing beats the original.
5. Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch has made a lot of oddball movies in his career, like Night on Earth and Ghost Dog. Interestingly enough, maybe his most emotionally accessible film is the one he made about two ancient vampires lovers. Only Lovers Left Alive is very light on plot, but the characters are so charming and compelling, this movie kind of just makes you want to hang out with them forever.
The film finds married vampire couple Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) living across the world from one another despite having been together for hundreds of years. Despondent and bored with life and the growing stupidity of “zombies” (regular humans), Adam lives in an almost totally abandoned neighborhood in Detroit, creating music, but staying away from almost all human contact, and now contemplating suicide.
Hoping to break her hubbie out of his funk, Eve flies from her home in Tangiers to be with him in Detroit. Most of the film is just the two of them hanging out, talking about old times and the state of the world, famous people they once knew, listening to old records, and eating blood popsicles. Things get crazy when Eve’s annoying vampire sister Ava arrives and manages to make a mess of things, forcing Adam and Eve to get out of Detroit. John Hurt and the late Anton Yelchin help round out a terrific cast, and the film’s cinematography and soundtrack are just superb.
I should also note that Tilda Swinton’s Eve gives some of the best life advice I’ve seen in any movie, horror or not, when she tells her broody vampire husband, “Self-obsession is a waste of living. It could be better spent on surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship… and dancing!” That’s advice worthy of a cat poster. Or maybe a bat poster.
4. Fright Night (1985)
“Nobody wants vampire killers anymore, or vampires either. All they want are deranged madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins!”
Those are the words of Roddy McDowell’s washed up TV horror host Peter Vincent in Fright Night, lamenting how, by the mid-’80s, it seemed all horror audiences wanted anymore were slasher flicks. Well, Tom Holland’s Fright Night proved audiences were in fact eager for vampire movies, they were just waiting for the right one to come along.
Fright Night is like a cross between Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the old Hammer horror films, with a healthy does of satire thrown in for good measure. The basic plot of the movie find suburban teenager Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) discovering that his new next door neighbor, the suave Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), is actually a vampire sucking his way through suburbia. Only no one will believe him—not his girlfriend (Amanda Bearse) or even his horror obsessed buddy “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys). With no one to turn to, he goes to a local TV horror movie host Peter Vincent for help in disposing of him once and for all.
Fright Night works as a horror film, a tongue-in-cheek comedy, and a loving tribute to the films of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The film also features some great practical effects from the legendary Richard Edlund. The 2011 remake starring Anton Yelchin wasn’t too shabby either, but I appreciate how this version manages to tell the story in a far faster running time. Plus, only the original version has this nightclub scene, so it wins.
3. The Lost Boys (1987)
“Sleep All Day. Party All Night. Never Grow Old. Never Die. It’s Fun To Be a vampire.”
That was the tag line for The Lost Boys, one of the most successful comedy/horror hybrids ever. Producer Richard Donner and director Joel Schumacher channeled the “of the moment” MTV aesthetic into a movie that remains a blast to watch to this day. Almost 30 years later, and all the elements of the movie which make it dated (the hair, the clothes, the music) are also part of what helps make the movie remain so endearing.
When teenagers Sam (Corey Haim) and Michael (Jason Patric) move with their newly single mom (Dianne Wiest) to the seemingly idyllic small California beach town of Santa Carla (a barely disguised Santa Cruz) they instantly can tell something is amiss beneath the sunny facade. Turns out the cool group of motorcycle riding, MTV video-style bad boys are vampires, and they want Michael to join their club.
Only the geeky Frog Brothers, played by Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander (who, of course, work in a comic book store) are hip to the vampiric plague that’s taken over their town, and they volunteer to help Sam kill the bloodsuckers off. Only, they’ve never actually really killed a vampire before.
The Lost Boys succeeds at actually making the vampires seem cool, like a club of kids you can’t wait to be accepted into. Trust me, if you were a teenager in the ’80s, it wouldn’t have taken much for you to want to join Keifer Sutherland’s gang of eternally young bloodsuckers. This movie successfully works as a teen comedy, a legit horror movie, and would inspire Joss Whedon’s TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Small California town overrun with vampires? Only the local teens know the truth? A sexy vampire dude with bleach blonde hair and rock n’roll attitude?) There might be better vampire films on this list, but none are as fun and rewatchable.
2. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
In 1976, novice writer Anne Rice changed the vampire genre forever by publishing a novel told from the point of view of the vampire, and not the victim. Although the TV soap Dark Shadows had dabbled with this idea, no one had done it in a truly serious and literate way before Rice’s novel.
Interview tells the story of an 18th century Louisiana plantation owner named Louis who gets turned into a vampire by the aristocratic Frenchmen Lestat. Together they eventually turn a dying little girl named Claudia into their vampiric daughter. The book then follows this vampiric family through two centuries, from Antebellum New Orleans until the modern era. It also spawned a series of novels that lasts until this day.
The novel eventually became the biggest selling vampire book since Dracula, and Hollywood was instantly interested in making an adaptation. Only problem being that the book’s not-so-subtle subtext of addiction, bisexuality, and loss of religious faith aren’t exactly the stuff Hollywood blockbusters were made of in the 1980s and ’90s. Scripts were written that had the part of Louis made into a woman pretending to be a man (to be played by Cher!) to avoid suggestions of homosexuality, and also some that had the child vampire Claudia excised altogether, to avoid suggestions of pedophilia.
Finally, producer David Geffen got the rights, and he convinced Rice to write a screenplay that was faithful to her novel. He got Crying Game director Neil Jordan to direct, and the result was a sumptuous adaptation that wasn’t afraid to tackle all the themes that made the novel resonate with so many readers.
Jordan made the extremely controversial choice of casting Tom Cruise as the androgynous Lestat, despite his status at the time as the All-American star and the angry protestations of Anne Rice and the novel’s fans. It was a case of miscasting that ultimately paid off, and even Rice herself had to admit her mistake in saying Cruise wasn’t up for it. Whatever one thinks of Cruise, he sunk his teeth into the role (pun intended) and stole the show from Brad Pitt’s mopey Louis. And a very young Kirsten Dunst also gave a career-making performance as the child vampire Claudia. Interview with the Vampire is the vampire movie as historical epic, and in that regard, no one has been able to touch it since.
1. Let The Right One In (2008)
2008 was a peak year for vampire popularity in our culture, what with the budding Twilight obsession and the debut of True Blood on HBO. But as big as both of those properties were, the greatest vampire property to come out of that year wasn’t from Hollywood…it was from Sweden.
Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvis, tells the story of a young bullied boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), who lives with his single mother in a modest apartment complex in 1980s Stockholm. When a mysterious new pair of neighbors arrives to his building, an older man with a young girl, Osker eventually befriends the girl, despite her telling him they could never be friends. He soon discovers that his new friend Eli (Lina Leandersson) isn’t a little girl at all… or, as she describes it, she’s been a little girl for a long, long time.
Eli’s arrival coincides with a string of murders in town, as her elder caretaker is killing people in order to drain them of blood for her to consume. Oskar is bullied in school badly, and dreams of getting revenge on the bullies. Eli becomes his best friend and his mentor, and shows him how to stand up for himself; the two develop a deep bond. The budding relationship between Oskar and Eli is like a weird version of The Wonder Years, only if Winnie Cooper had a penchant for killing people. It’s incredibly charming and heartfelt, helped by two tremendous performances from the two child actors.
More than any horror film since the original Carrie, Tomas Alfredson’s film captures the horror of being on the bottom of the pecking order in school, and how humiliating and soul destroying it can be to be bullied relentlessly. It also perfectly captures the innocence of first love in a beautiful way. This is one of the few films on this list that truly transcends its genre, and isn’t just a great vampire movie, but a great movie, period. A fairly faithful American remake was made a few years later called Let Me In, but as it usually goes with these things, it’s always best to stick to the original.
Do your favorite vampire movie not make the cut? Mad that I left out Underworld, Daybreakers, or even Twilight? Let us know in the comments below.
Images: Sony Pictures / Warner Brothers / Dimension Films / Magnolia Pictures / Studio Canal