Christopher Lee was memorable as the hissing monster of several Hammer horrors, Frank Langella made for a great handsome matinee idol variant on both stage and screen, while Coppola portrayed Dracula’s life and times in (arguably) the most lavish style, to date, regarding the Count’s romantic tragedy aspect.
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But vampire movies set in the modern age tend to differ,
often radically, from those of their costume-drama cousins in period settings – nowadays, the ungrateful undead are more than just a pain in the neck. Bloodsuckers of the late 20th century operate like urban stalkers, rural outlaws, alien invaders, inhuman mutants, violent gangsters, cursed addicts, plague carriers, and even fashion victims. Vampirism may be viewed as a metaphor or symbol for a social this or political that – but, whether city fiend or country beast, they rarely lurk in the shadows anymore – preferring to go wild in the streets and houses, or valleys and plains.
So, lock your doors, and bar the windows. In chronological order, here are some children of the night you’d better watch out for…
The Night Stalker (1971) directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
In the early 1970s, Hammer cast Peter Cushing as Van Helsing’s grandson, battling Christopher Lee’s revived vampire in Dracula AD 1972 – but that film’s depiction of London’s hippie culture is embarrassing for all concerned. America handled a similar idea with far greater success in this TV movie that launched a popular series. Darren McGavin stars as dogged newshound Carl Kolchak, on the trail of a vampire terrorising Las Vegas. Action scenes, in which the almost unstoppable killer tackles armed police before escaping into the night, invigorate the drama of finding a genuine vampire at large in a contemporary setting. Dracula meets Dragnet in Richard Matheson’s brilliant script, which hits all the right alarm buttons and, for 90 minutes at least, you are compelled to believe this fantastical serial killer is really possible!
Rabid (1976) directed by David Cronenberg
Science goes mad in this diabolically clever thriller about a woman (Marilyn Chambers) who survives experimental surgery only to find she’s developed an uncontrollable blood lust to feed the penis-shaped needle growing in her armpit. Her victims become carriers of a rabies type plague, and the low-budget film’s ending makes it clear that public health apocalypse is inevitable. Ex-porn star Chambers is watchable for good reasons (aw, well okay, bad ones, too), but it’s Cronenberg’s accomplished building of suspense with some grim yet breathtakingly effective shock payoffs which ensured Rabid won its cult status. As usual with Cronenberg, this movie explores facets of sexuality and aggression found way beyond our comfort zone, making this essential viewing for fans of extreme cinema.
Salem’s Lot (1979) directed by Tobe Hooper
James Mason assures us: “You’ll like Mr Barlow.” Yeah, right, pal… Barlow is a scabby rat-faced creature modelled upon the Germanic horror of the original silent Nosferatu (1922). He will crash in through your windows and rise up from a heap on the floor like a shadow from hell. Tobe Hooper’s remarkable adaptation of Stephen King’s novel tells of the utter destruction of a community by vampirism, which spreads throughout the local population like the Black Death. To get the best from this, track down the three-hour TV miniseries (not the sloppily edited video cut) or you’ll miss out on much of the growing atmosphere of dread, which befalls the doomed town of the title.
A sequel, A Return To Salem’s Lot (1987) by Larry Cohen, all but dispenses with the plot of Hooper’s show, and maintains only a flimsy connection to King’s book.
Fright Night (1985) directed by Tom Holland
My next-door neighbour is a vampire! Admittedly, this is not very convincing in terms of screen terror, but there’s great fun to be had from the set-up of this comedy horror, as the young Charlie (William Ragsdale) suspects babe-magnet Chris Sarandon is responsible for a series of mysterious deaths, yet only veteran horror film star Peter Vincent (played by Roddy McDowell) believes him. As the charming villain seduces the teen hero’s girlfriend, Charlie is forced to accept the challenge of rescuing her from the vampire’s dark home. Not a masterpiece, by any means, but talented screenwriter Tom Holland got his directing debut with this finely balanced mix of laughs and scares, and Fright Night and its formulaic sequel are superior to many other genre spoofs of the 1980s.
Lifeforce (1985) directed by Tobe Hooper
This notable fest of sex and violence features stunning French actress Mathilda May, who parades about starkers for much of the film, as a mute alien with psychic powers and an irresistible sexual allure. Loosely based on Colin Wilson’s novel Space Vampires, the climax of this completely barmy SF-horror hybrid is influenced by Quatermass And The Pit (aka: Five Million Years To Earth, 1967), as rioting mobs – seemingly possessed by an extraterrestrial force beamed to Earth from an orbiting spaceship – rampage through a burning London. Skilled editing of live-action footage, combined with John Dykstra’s top class special effects, makes the doomsday scenes look frighteningly realistic – appearing to be enacted on a scale never before attempted. Despite some dreadfully hammy acting from the likes of Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart, you are likely to find the awesome scenes of crazed vampires overrunning the capital (today, the city… tomorrow, the world!) unnervingly convincing.
Near Dark (1987) directed by Kathryn Bigelow
A five star classic of the genre, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie combines action, romance and horror in one unforgettable package. Reuniting Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein from Aliens (1986), this road movie sees cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) falling head over heels for mystery girl, Mae (Jenny Wright), the haunted chick with a group of vampires led by Jesse (Henriksen). After ferociously slaughtering all the staff and patrons at a roadhouse bar, they are on the run from Sheriff’s men and state troopers. The gang’s daylight escape from a motel is expertly choreographed, and there are showy effects as vampires catch fire in the sun. One thing that makes this wholly different from most other subgenre entries is that it suggests vampirism is an infection, curable by a transfusion of untainted blood. If you have not seen Near Dark, I urge you to do so immediately. It makes otherwise entertaining fare The Lost Boys look like a weak episode of Dawson’s Creek.
Sundown: The Vampire In Retreat (1988) directed by Anthony Hickox
In this shamelessly muddled sci-fi comedy horror, various hapless humans descend on the secret town of Purgatory, last refuge for a tired community of immortal parasites. Led by David Carradine’s benevolent Count, the vampires protect themselves against harmful sunlight and hope their biochemist can produce synthetic blood on the industrial scale required. But, of course, there’s trouble brewing as a religious zealot (John Ireland) recruits an outlaw gang to destroy the “domesticated abominations” and reclaim the traditional predatory heritage of the undead. Bruce Campbell plays the newest generation of Van Helsing’s vampire slayer, M. Emmet Walsh is on hand as an irate old codger with fangs, and what began as a quirky farce eventually becomes the ultimate vampire comedy western, with gunfighters using wooden bullets, and a shootout finale which spoofs every cliché of horse opera and gangster action movies. Much of this is very silly indeed, but the whole cast (including Jim Metzler, Morgan Brittany, Maxwell Caulfield, Deborah Foreman, and John Hancock) are always watchable, and the ‘divine forgiveness’ payoff is a witty touch.
Vampire’s Kiss (1988) directed by Robert Bierman
A personal favourite, this outlandish black comedy stars Nicolas Cage as a New York literary agent in thrall to bewitching femme fatale (a succubus?) Jennifer Beals, after a bat gets into his trendy apartment. As executive Peter Loew, Cage adopts a plumy accent and inexcusably cruel attitude to office politics that makes him both hero and villain, going from cringingly smug to utterly manic in an instant. Cuban singer turned actress Maria Conchita Alonso (of Extreme Prejudice, The Running Man, and Predator 2) is notable as harassed secretary Alva, and Beals provides sex appeal as Rachel, Peter’s hot date in black underwear, but the film is firmly centred on Peter’s regression to childishness with freaky tantrums. He fears that he’s a vampire, then believes he’s become one and finally acts out his psychotic delusion with hilarious consequences. Playing with the psycho theme of George Romero’s Martin (1976), Vampire’s Kiss goes for big laughs and, in doing so, makes the main character’s fall from grace all the more tragic. Cage is extraordinary as he hauls this wacky role way over the top, reaching a wholly different plane of cinematic reality!
Innocent Blood (1992) directed by John Landis
Anne Parillaud from Nikita stars as Marie, a sexy vampire taking advantage of a Mafioso street war to feed on gangsters. She’s a superhuman femme fatale, tackling heavyweight mob boss Sal ‘the Shark’ (Robert Loggia), eluding cops (including Anthony LaPaglia’s suspicious detective) by scaling rooftops, and covering her tracks with a shotgun blast. As the undead body count rises amidst lots of extremely messy gore effects, genre chills turn to urban thrills as contemporary vampire horror becomes ultra-violent action movie. French beauty Parillaud is superbly confident in her first Hollywood picture, conveying a languid sensuality with a melancholy edge befitting a character of… ‘indeterminate’ age. John Landis struggles to do for vampires what An American Werewolf In London did for lycanthropes, but the flaws of Innocent Blood are relatively minor when compared to most of today’s vampire films, and the director almost succeeds in finding the ideal balance of animalistic horror and aggressive comedy, with an element of modern fantasy romance thrown in.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) directed by Robert Rodriguez
George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino play the homicidal Gecko brothers, fleeing Texas after robbing a bank and hijacking their way south of the border with a widower’s family, to a sleazy Mexican bar. Father and daughter hostages Jacob and Kate (Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis), are shocked by the morphing of a stripper (gorgeous Salma Hayek) into a hideous vampire. Then all hell breaks out and we move into a grisly carnival of blood and slime followed by a night siege not unlike one of Romero’s zombie classics. This rabidly funny cult movie pulls no punches as black comedy or brutal crime story and, when its unlikely heroes stagger out into the morning daylight at the end, they seem unsure if they are glad to have survived their horrific battle against the vampire horde.