Vampire movies have been part of our culture for nearly a century now. The undead have gone through more permutations and transformations than any other cinematic monster has. Vampires started as symbols of plague and disease (Nosferatu), ultimately working their way 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.
Sony Pictures/New Line Cinema/Dimension Films/Warner Bros.
For the purposes of this ranking, we’ve stuck to films during and after 1979. 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.) with only a handful of exceptions. 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 #12 entry…
12. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola‘s film is the closest to Bram Stoker’s Victorian era novel ever put on screen. The only major addition is a love story between Dracula and Mina Harker. It’s a subplot not even implied in Stoker’s novel. Gary Oldman goes all in for his performance as Vlad the Impaler, whom 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. Still fresh off of the Bill and Ted movies, Keanu attempted a British accent while playing heroic Jonathan Harker. And bless his heart, the results are laughable. And poor Winona Ryder doesn’t fare much better with her attempts at a Brit accent as heroine Mina. But the good performances are so great, and the visuals and the music are spectacular, you’ll likely forgive this movie for a lot of its sins.
11. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Ok, so this one is a bit of a cheat. The adaptation of Stephen King’s second novel was actually a network TV miniseries that aired in the fall of 1979. However it was edited into a theatrical film for the European release. American TV also used a movie-length cut for re-airings and the current Blu-ray edition is presented as a film. So basically, in the 21st century, it exists as a film.
Salem’s Lot—short for the town of Jerusalem’s Lot—is very much the blueprint for several Stephen King’s later works. It’s got all the King tropes—a small town in Maine, a novelist protagonist, and supernatural terror that is a metaphor for American psychological trauma. In Salem’s Lot, the infestation is a vampiric one, which finds its home base in an old house that holds evil within its walls. Longtime TV actor David Soul plays the lead character Ben Mears, managing a good (but not great) performance.
The biggest change from book to screen is master vampire Kurt Barlow’s physical transformation. He goes from resembling an ordinary human to a grotesque Nosferatu-like figure. It’s a huge change for the character and the movie version is legitimately terrifying—and works well on screen. Forty years later, the bloodsucker still looks creepy as hell!
It’s TV production values are evident throughout, but Salem’s Lot film pedigree shines through largely from the fact that it’s directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper. The scene of vampire child rapping at the window is as terrifying as anything in any theatrical horror film of the era. It traumatized a whole generation of kids, and you can see how those skills of knowing what scares kids would later be honed to perfection by Hooper a few years later in Poltergeist.
10. Near Dark (1987)
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
Future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western Near Dark is not a big hit at the box office upon release, but it is now considered a cult classic. Young Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is a good ol’ boy living with his dad and younger sister on a Texas farm. Until, of course, he meets an undead 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. When Caleb sees their true viciousness in action, he realizes the vampire life isn’t for him. And things go very sour.
Near Dark has some annoying plot contrivances. Namely, a vampiric clan that has been around for centuries but apparently has no money and has to live hand to mouth. And there’s 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 the late, great Bill Paxton), that you’ll forgive it for any and all minor quibbles you may have.
9. The Hunger (1983)
The opening 10 minutes of Tony Scott’s debut film The Hunger is among the best horror movie opening scenes ever. It features French actress Catherine Deneuve and rock god David Bowie as a vampiric couple, who stalk a New Wave club for fresh victims. And 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 word “vampire” is never uttered in this movie, but ultimately that’s what Deneuve’s character Miriam Blaylock is. A very 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. Even more horrifyingly, they don’t die. Instead, they become souls trapped in eternal rotting bodies. It happens to Miriam’s lover John (Bowie) in the first half of the film, forcing her to find a new companion.
That’s where Susan Sarandon comes in, playing a research scientist studying 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.
8. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
After writing and directing Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino is Hollywood’s reigning “it boy” when From Dusk Till Dawn hits theaters. His good buddy, director Robert Rodriguez, had also recently launched himself with El Mariachi. They teamed up to make a movie that played perfectly into both of their sensibilities, and their mutual love of exploitation horror films. Tarantino wrote and co-starred, and Rodriguez directed.
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 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.
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 low budget horror movies of the ’70s. Only theirs had a production value those movies never had (and not to mention a sharper script). 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.
7. Blade (1998)
New Line Cinema
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 spectacles. Wesley Snipes’ Blade, a.k.a. “the Daywalker,” is a sort of half human/half vampire hybrid. The character originated in the pages of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic in the early ’70s.
He’s 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. Despite his lack of dialogue, he oozes charisma. Or maybe because of it! And the fight sequences still hold up today, over 20 years later.
The premise of Blade is standard comic book plotting. Several elite vamps, led by Stephen Dorff’s Deacon Frost, want to resurrect some ancient vampire god or something. Really, 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 simply have to have one of those in your action movie. Unlike almost every movie on this list, this one has a sequel (directed by Guillermo Del Toro) that is actually pretty damn good. Still, nothing beats the original.
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch has made a lot of oddball movies in his career, like Night on Earth and Ghost Dog. Oddly enough, maybe his most emotionally accessible film is the one 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. There, he creates music, but stays away from almost all human contact, and now contemplates suicide.
Eve flies to Detroit from her Tangiers home, hoping to break her hubby out of his funk. Most of the film is just the two of them hanging out, talking about old times, famous people they once knew, listening to old records, and eating blood popsicles. Things get crazy when Eve’s annoying vampire sister Ava arrives. She makes a mess of things, forcing Adam and Eve 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.
5. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
These days, we know New Zealand’s Taika Waititi as the award-winning director of JoJo Rabbit and Thor: Ragnarok. But seven years ago, he was mainly known for a few oddball comedies like Eagle Vs. Shark. But then in 2014, along with Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, he co-directed comedy gold. Together, they created and starred in one of the best vampire spoofs ever made, the mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.
The film follows four vampire roommates—Viago, Vladislav, Deacon, and Petyr— who share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. Each of the four bloodsuckers are a send up of a popular vampire archetype. Viago (Waititi) is a dandy in the Lestat mold, while Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is “bad boy” in the Angel/Spike tradition. Vladislav (Clement) is your Dracula type, and Petyr (Ben Fransham) is your thousand year old Nosferatu stand-in. The film hilariously follows them as they hunt victims and have a bloody good time.
The 90 minute runtime is filled with one hilarious scene after another. And the best parts are always the vamps’ interactions with regular human society, especially their mortal familiars. But it’s not just an extremely funny comedy, it’s actually a great vampire movie. Because both Waititi and Clements clearly have a deep love of vampire cinema, and send it up in the way only people who genuinely love the genre could. This is similar to how Galaxy Quest is both a take down and a love letter to Star Trek.
These days, What We Do in the Shadows might just be viewed as just the blueprint for the equally brilliant spin-off TV series currently running on FX. But it’s more than that, it’s an incredible film in its own right. If you only know the television series, you owe it to yourself to watch the film that spawned it all.
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!”
Washed up TV horror host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) says this 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 proves that ’80s audiences are 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 classic horror films, with a healthy dose of satire thrown in for good measure. The basic plot of the movie finds 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. 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 Hammer Studios. 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 extremely ’80s nightclub scene, so it wins.
3. 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 wasn’t exactly the stuff Hollywood blockbusters were made of in the 1980s and ’90s. 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.
Famously, Jordan made the extremely controversial choice of casting Tom Cruise as the androgynous Lestat. Cruise was at his All-American boy peak, and the casting led to angry protestations from Anne Rice and her fans. It was a case of miscasting that ultimately paid off. Rice even admitted her mistake in saying he wasn’t up for it. Whatever one thinks of Cruise, he sunk his teeth into the role (pun intended), stealing the show from Brad Pitt’s mopey Louis. 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.
2. 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 tagline 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 over 30 years later. All the elements of the movie that make it dated (the hair, the clothes, the music) also keep it so endearing.
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.) Once there, they instantly can tell something is amiss beneath the sunny exterior. Turns out the cool group of motorcycle riding, music video-style bad boys are vampires, and they want Michael to join their club. Lucky for the Emerson boys, there are a pair of local vampire hunters. Only they are teenagers who work at a comic book shop. And have never actually killed a bloodsucker 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 and a legit horror movie. One that would later inspire Joss Whedon’s TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There might be better vampire films on this list, but none are as fun and rewatchable.
1. Let The Right One In (2008)
2008 was a peak year for vampire popularity in modern pop culture, what with the budding Twilight obsession and the debut of True Blood on HBO. 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 is based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. It 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 arrive at 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. Bullied in school badly, Osker dreams of getting revenge on his tormentors. Eli becomes his best friend and his mentor, and shows him how to stand up for himself; the two develop a deep bond. Oskar and Eli’s budding relationship plays like a weird version of The Wonder Years, except this Winnie Cooper has a penchant for killing people. It’s incredibly charming and heartfelt, helped by 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. It 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.
Featured Image: Sony Pictures/New Line Cinema/Dimension Films/Warner Bros.
Originally published October 23, 2016.