Friday, April 24, 2009
A couple weeks ago, against my better judgement, I allowed Sweet Baby Jay and my son, Calvyn, to talk me into renting (and sitting through) the new-ish vampire movie Twilight. My expectations were anything but high, and the flick confirmed all of my negative assumptions about it immediately. Twilight's teen-heartthrob vampire protagonist, Edward (I'm not going to waste my time looking up the actor's real name), was the exact opposite of all that a film vampire should be, a preening, pouty-faced wussy who used his powers for stuff like playing baseball instead of kicking mortal ass. His completely neutered portrayal threw established vampire conventions out the window: A) He and his family didn't even bite people. They were "vampire vegetarians" who only sucked the blood of animals. B) When exposed to sunlight, he didn't catch on fire or freak out, he just got all "sparkly". C) He didn't even wear a cape or top hat or anything. Bogus.
But the de-coolifying of the vampire mystique has been happening for years.
Beginning with Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992, whose only highlight was Tom Waits as Renfield and featured a goofy, Victorian Gary Oldman rocking uh, sunglasses (?) to protect himself from sunlight, and continuing with the uber-sissy Interview With A Vampire in 1994 (starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt... Ugh), the vampire movie has been experiencing a slow decline for almost two decades. In fact, the last GOOD vampire movie I saw was 1985's Once Bitten, a comedy starring Jim Carrey and Lauren Hutton, which, to her credit, was also suggested by Sweet Baby Jay and, in fact, RULED. So why NOW? Vampire movies in the past were pretty damn good (for the most part), from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu in 1922 to Dracula in 1931 to Blacula in 1972. But why do modern vampires suck so much (or so little, rather - ZING!)?
I could sit here and pontificate about it all day long, but fuck that (what I will say is that "goth" is an integral factor). Instead, let's check out a couple super-awesome vampire flicks from the past, two of my favorites from a genre that has, sadly, ceased to be relevant.
THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967)
Roman Polanski was on a roll in the late 60's. Sandwiched between 1965's Repulsion and 1968's Rosemary's Baby, The Fearless Vampire Killers was a fresh new take on the vampire movie, a slapstick comedy set in rural Transylvania that managed to be really funny, really creepy, and really beautiful all at the same time. Polanski not only directed but co-starred in the film, playing Alfred, assistant to the vampire-obsessed Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran). Cinematically speaking, Vampire Killers is an amazing movie, featuring authentic costumes and set pieces, long, spooky, silent sleigh rides through a barren, snowy landscape, and candle-lit interior shots that set a perfect mood.
Right: Jack MacGowran with co-star Sharon Tate.
Though the film is technically a comedy (US distributors, in a totally predictable move, slapped on the subtitle Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck to play up the film's "wackiness"), it still strikes a great balance between Horror and unabashed European artsiness. In my opinion, this film is the perfect "romantic-comedy-date-movie" for people who hate to have their intelligence underestimated.
Below: Polanski, as Alfred, with Dr. Abronsius.
The basic plot of The Fearless Vampire Killers (which was originally titled Dance of the Vampires) goes something like this: Abronsius and Alfred, in search of vampire life in the snowy Transylvanian mountains, hole up in an inn for the night, a place run by locals who practice all manner of strange superstitious behavior to ward off evil. Alfred finds himself smitten with a local girl, Sarah (Tate - his real-life wife at the time), who is promptly kidnapped and taken away to the castle of Count Von Krolock (Ferdie Mayne). As a result, Alfred and Abronsius stage a clumsy rescue mission to get her back, encountering fanged bloodsuckers, hunchbacked freaks, and severe frostbite along the way.
Watching this movie so many years after Sharon Tate's murder at the hands of the Manson Family provides a weird undercurrent of real-world dread and impending doom throughout. It's weird to see Polanski so light-hearted and humorous, knowing that soon after he would experience such tragedy and heartbreak. This is one of his finest moments though, a comedic romp vastly different from future mind-fuckers like 1976's The Tenant but still true to his unshakable artistic integrity. Plus, Bad Brains named a song after it. 10/10.
NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979)
Speaking of great directors, let's talk about one of Werner Herzog (right)'s greatest films, Nosferatu The Vampyre. Featuring his trusty old man-muse Klaus Kinski in the titular role, Nosferatu contains NONE of the comedic light-heartedness found in The Fearless Vampire Killers whatsoever. This is just dark, creepy, bloodcurdling HORROR at its best, full of shadows, evil, and things that go bump in the night. It was the second of four successful Herzog/Kinski collaborations, the others being Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), Woyzeck (1979, which started filming only 5 DAYS after the completion of Nosferatu!), Fitzcarraldo (1980), and Cobra Verde (1987). Herzog also filmed a retrospective about his work with Kinski, released in 1999 and titled My Best Friend.
Nosferatu follows the same basic storyline as Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, but in a larger sense it is Herzog's personal homage to the previously-mentioned 1922 Murnau film, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Herzog considered Murnau's film (starring Max Schreck in the vampire role) the greatest to ever come out of Germany, and built many of his sets to be exact replicas of the original.
Oh, and did I mention the amazing soundtrack by krautrock masters Popol Vuh? Another major selling point.
Below: Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker, Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula aka Nosferatu aka Graf Orlock.
The true highlight of Nosferatu, though, is Klaus Kinski's unsettling portrayal of the nervous, rodent-like villain. Kinski (like Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder) is well known to be a "character actor", immersing himself in his roles both on and off the set. Part of me thinks that Kinski was actually bitten by a vampire for this role, all for the sake of Art. He oozes menace and insecurity simultaneously, no small task for an actor with so few lines in the film. If you've never seen Herzog's Nosferatu, you really should. It's the quintessential vampire movie. 11/10. No bullshit, Jack.
You ain't no vampire, "Edward". KINSKI is a vampire.
Posted by Shelby Cobras at 9:29 AM