Countdown to Halloween: Vampires
If there is one real casualty of the boom in paranormal romance, then it has to be the vampire. Over the past couple of decades, the bloodsucker has degenerated from a terrifying creature of the night into little more than a teenage, bad boy love interest. Anne Rice started the vampire’s down-spiral with her infamous vampire chronicles series. Then Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned the undead into a punchbag / boyfriend for it’s teenage protagonist, stripping away much of what made the vampire scary. After that, it was only a matter of time until Twilight drove a stake firmly through the heart of one of our most iconic monsters.
So, has the vampire lost it’s ability to frighten?
Thankfully, no. There are still some fantastic movies and books where the much maligned and abused vampire retains the power to terrify.
Without a doubt, Tobe Hooper’s 1979 adaption of the Stephen King novel is the single most terrifying vampire story ever filmed. Originally a three part television series, it deals with a vampire infestation in the small town of Salem’s Lot. People start to go missing or turn up dead, only to return to prey on their loved ones. Some of the scene’s are absolutely heart stopping. The image of the young, undead, Danny Glick, floating outside of his best friends bedroom window, asking to be let in, remains one of the most powerful and genuinely frightening moments in vampire cinema. It’s vital viewing for those that have not seen it, and you could do a whole lot worse than making Salem’s Lot your Halloween video fest.
The original Swedish film, based on the absurdly successful novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is by far the most intelligent, moving and disturbing vampire movie in recent years. A young boy named Oskar encounters a strange girl outside of his apartment building, who turns out to be a three hundred year old vampire. Her father is actually a guardian, recruited by the undead monster to care for her during the daylight and to provide the blood that she needs for sustenance. The child actors who play Oskar and Eli give astonishing performances, and the setting in 1980’s Sweden, gives the story exactly the right tone. The movie manages an incredible balancing act between the tender relationship of Oskar and Eli, and the horrific consequences of vampirism. The US remake that came out only a year later is OK, but ultimately pointless and inferior to the original in almost every way, existing only to satisfy an audience who can’t be bothered to watch a subtitled film.
A list of my favourite vampire movies would not be complete without an entry for Dracula. There have been numerous retellings of Bram Stoker’s classic horror story, and different people will love different versions – from Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance in the 1931 film, the hypnotic 1922 Nosferatu, through to the more modern Bram Stoker’s Dracula – a decent film that was wrecked by the woeful miscasting of Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. However, for me, the definitive Dracula is the 1958 version, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Lee brought an incredible presence to the role, and Cushing’s take on Van Helsing remains one of his best pieces of work. It seems to be a bit hard to get hold of, with the only copy on Amazon going for £20! Price aside, it’s a genuine milestone in vampire cinema and should be seen – repeatedly – by anyone with even a vague interest in the undead.
Adapted from the gorgeous graphic novel of the same name, 30 Days of Night takes place in the town of Barrow in Alaska. The long arctic winter is due to arrive, and the town is busy making its preparations for the month of total darkness when things start to go wrong around the town. People go missing, and the power station outside of town gets sabotaged. This is only the beginning, however. A band of vicious vampires have arrived in Barrow, with the intention of having it’s townsfolk for lunch. And without any daylight to stop them, there seems to be little the people of Barrow can do to save themselves. 30 Days is a bloody, visceral film that shows the vampire off at their savage best. There are no skinny, emo goth’s here. The vampires look awesome and are absolutely brutal. Many people’s opinions are divided on this movie, but it remains one of my all time favourite vampire films and is well worth a look.
When a young man called Caleb meets Mae, he thinks that he’s found the girl of his dreams. Right until she bites him and flees into the night. The next morning, he awakes to find that sunlight burns his skin and he has a craving for blood. Before he can process this, however, he is grabbed by a gang of killers, and forced to confront what he has become as they murder their way across the state. Near Dark is a great film. It’s a gritty, violent road movie, and at the time was a completely original take on the vampire legend. It’s been ripped off any number of times since, but it still stands up today as one of the best vampire movies ever made.
Stakeland is a brilliant movie – a high octane, post apocalyptic thriller where vampires have taken over the earth, and the survivors are often as dangerous as the undead menace stalking them. The only reason this wasn’t in my top five is that in many respects, it’s closer to a zombie film than a vampire one. The vamps don’t reason or have any proper intelligence – they are just really zombies with superpowers. That aside, it’s a sometimes moving, often terrifying film that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and refuses to let go until the end. Highly recommended.
From Dusk till Dawn is one of those films that became an overnight cult classic, and with good reason. Directed by both Quentin Tarantino (who also stars in it, alongside George Clooney) and Robert Rodriguez, it is a film with a dual identity. The first half is a classic Tarantino crime flick, where two criminals take a family hostage in order to escape over the border to Mexico. Once they escape from the US authorities, they hide out in a strip bar called “The Tittie Twister”, which is, unfortunately, staffed entirely by the undead. At this point things get out of hand. It’s a brilliant, violent film, packed with a ton of dark humour.
For me, the Necroscope series are some of the best horror novels ever written. When I first read them in the early 1990’s they absolutely blew me away, and I still re-read them all every year or so. Set in the cold war, it’s a tale of psychic spys, necromancy and an ancient evil that lies chained in silver beneath the foothills of Romania. The first couple of books are fantastic supernatural espionage thrillers that have a unique and terrifying perspective on the vampire, however when book 3 comes around, Lumley throws dark fantasy and science fiction into the mix with explosive results. These books really are absolute classics in every sense, and if you like horror then you absolutely have to read these novels.
Fuck the Will Smith movie of the same name. Fuck it up it’s stupid arse. The movie adaptation of I Am Legend missed the point entirely and actually went so far as to trash the entire underlying theme of the novel. The theme that actually gave the bloody thing it’s name! It still makes me mad, even after all these years. Anyway, as you may have gathered, the book is a very different beast. Robert Neville is the last man on earth. A plague turned the rest of the planet into vampires, and Neville spends his days hunting the creatures in their homes before hiding away in his own fortified building come sundown, listening to music and attempting to drown out the calls of those who were once his friends and neighbours. What makes this book special is the fundamental question at the heart of it (the question that Hollywood ignored). What makes something a monster? It’s an awesome novel that stays with you for a very long time after you finish reading it. Forget the crap movie (The Omega Man with Charlton Heston is a much more faithful version). If you’ve not read this, then you really should. It was groundbreaking stuff when it came out, and even now it has the power to send chills down your spine.
I know that Salem’s Lot was already mentioned in the movie section, but given that this is one of the best vampire stories of all time, written by one of fictions greatest living writers, it still deserves it’s place here. King was at the top of his game when he wrote this book, and there is probably no scarier version of the vampire than the one described in this book. Essential reading for the vampire fan.
They Thirst is Robert McCammon’s take on the undead, but instead of just having a vampire brooding in his castle (well, OK, he does do that a bit), or destroying a small town like King did in Salem’s Lot, McCammon sets his sights that bit higher with his gripping tale of a vampire plague taking over Los Angeles. As ever, McCammon populates the book with dozens of intriguing characters, and then proceeds to slaughter them and have them return as ravenous undead monsters. The pacing is absolutely spot on in this book, and there are a hell of a lot of genuinely frightening moments. Robert McCammon is one of the best horror writers in the business, and They Thirst is my fourth favourite of his novels (after Boys Life, Swan Song and The Wolf’s Hour). That does not mean that this is inferior, however. It remains one of the best vampire books written in the modern age, it’s just that the books mentioned earlier are just so damn good.
The original novel that Let the Right One In (and Let Me In) were based on is truly gripping. While the relationship between Oskar and Eli remains intact, you get so much deeper into the hearts and minds of all of the characters in the novel. It’s fascinating to see what drives each of them, which is something that the movie adaptations only manage to skim the surface of. However, what sets this book apart from the films are the parts that they cut for the movie. You see, the novel of Let the Right One In is much darker in tone that it’s cinematic counterparts, and it has some genuinely terrifying, hide-behind-the-sofa moments that are sadly missing from both films. One scene in particular, where a young boy is trapped in a dark cellar with a blind, brain damaged vampire is one of the best horror sequences I’ve read in years. If you liked the films, then you should really pick up the novel, because it adds so much more to the mix.
There have been few series in recent years where I have rushed out to buy the latest one the day it came out, but Thomas Emson’s Vampire Trinity novels were one of them. Starting with Skarlet, where descendants of ancient Babylonian rulers create a vampire army by making club drugs with dried vamp blood, the series cracks on at an incredible pace, with the stakes heightening at every turn. Emson really does not shy away from escalating things, and cleverly intersects the fast action set pieces and gut wrenching horror with believable characters and even an element of political intrigue. These are page turners in every sense of the word, and because no one is safe in Emson’s world, the tension is palatable in every word.
Yes, I know that right at the start of this post I put the blame for the decline of the vampire fairly firmly at Anne Rice’s door, but the fact remains that the first two books in this series are actually excellent novels that paint an incredible, lavish picture of a time gone by. The qualify of writing in the first two novels in nothing short of outstanding and the series remains readable up until the point that it vanished up its own arse (which was after book 4). The film with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt did not do the book justice, and despite it becoming the main reason for the romanticised vampire that we see today, Louis and LeStat are, at their core, vicious and remorseless killers.
That’s it for now. Next up will be zombies. In the meantime, while I won’t try to sell you any vampire books (not having written any), I did write a short story about vampires back in 2009, called “When Evening Falls”. It’s only a 1000 word flash fiction piece, and you can check it out by following the link Here. Enjoy!