By Seana Sperling
October 16, 2003

Filmmakers have created many visages for the vampire. They have come in assorted color, class, gender and sexual orientation. Most contemporary vampire films like The Hunger and Interview With the Vampire portray the undead as glamorous figures without mundane chores like toilets to clean or bills to pay.

Earlier incarnations of "wampyr" such as Guy Murnau's, Nosferatu (1922) revealed a less glamorous figure, a monster from ancient lore. Imagine living forever with nothing to wear but a ragged tunic. This is not Bram Stoker's elegant Count Dracula who embodied class, beauty and sexuality, but the gaunt and filthy Graf Orlok: a nocturnal scavenger that fed off innocents who foolishly wandered into his realm. 

In The Addiction, there is a return to the bloodthirsty scavenger that single-mindedly pursues its next victim, however, this urban hunter faces "turn of the century" challenges.

The Addiction

Director: Abel Ferrara

There is a reason why Doctoral Student, Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor) always looks so tired. While working on her dissertation Kathleen is attacked by a vampire, turning the once diligent Philosophy student into a blood-junkie. (I've always thought that there were vampires in higher education.)

Shot in black and white, the mood is set from the opening credits. Slide shows of mass graves from WWII Nazi death camps are interspersed with dissertations on ethics. This is not the average vampire film that veils its brutality with sensuality and lavish dwellings. The camera cuts from a classroom discussion to a shadowy alley where something comparable to rape happens.

While many vampire films such as The Hunger and Interview With the Vampire, explore the idea of vampy love and bi-sexual relationships, The Addiction shows the vampire as a detached creature that is motivated only by survival and the need to control its environment. There is no mercy, therefore, no love from this vampire. She is the practical technician that labels her victim's neck with In/Out slots. I found her comparable to the vampire in the 1970's pilot for the series The Night Stalker whose refrigerator contained jars and jars of blood with the dates and types scrawled on masking tape labels; his victims discarded like cellophane wrappings.

In her naivete, Kathleen mistakenly attacks a powerful vampire, Peina (Christopher Walken) who mentors her in the savage ways of the addict. The parallels to Nazi Germany set up in the first few scenes continue with Peina's quote, "Evil doesn't recognize itself." As he deconstructs the status of the vampire he advises her to read Naked Lunch or other tales of addiction so she can better understand her new role. 

The encounter leaves her confused and she seeks sanctuary on the streets. The sense of self-loathing and despair in these back alley scenes is almost palpable and the shadowed movements of the damned reflect their resignation to their hopeless situation. The song, I Wanna Get High by Cypress Hill, provides a perfect anthem as the camera pans the junkies applying their drug of choice.

When Kathleen finally begins to understand her power, she commands her victims, "Tell me to leave," thus offering them the chance to alter their destiny. The victim's inevitable hesitance exemplifies that not only are we vulnerable to evil, but we sometimes embrace it. The allure of being one of "the few, the proud, the strong," is too much for some. Just as war is a thing that we know is evil, we're somehow dazzled by the spectacle and the power of all that violence.

She becomes more powerful with each victim she takes and begins to amass disciples. As she infects more and more people in higher education, you can see the comparison of a government gone awry. Like Nazi Germany all become united around one single notion of superiority. As a superior being he/she/it must guide or conquer individuals who are not the equivalent. It's what brings the film to its inevitable conclusion and is a metaphor for leaders everywhere. 

The Hunger
Director Tony Scott--1983

This cult favorite has vampires in party clothes. These jetsetters have no financial worry even if they do have to think about where their next meal is coming from. You know you're not in Bram Stoker territory from the opening scene of Bauhaus singing Bela Lugosi's Dead, to the cut to the limo where Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and John Blaylock (David Bowie) dressed in leather club gear, start on their appetizers. There is no long suffering Count who will search the globe for his Mina. These are the sensual night stalkers of the early 1980's and these swingers will share more than just their spouse. They'll infect you with eternal life and the appetite of a million mosquitoes. Talk about STD's.

The morning after reveals Miriam as a Park Avenue vampire. She is the embodiment of glamour and class: the Grace Kelly of the undead. Schubert plays in the background as the camera tracks Miriam roaming from one dimly lit, well appointed room to another.  Fragmented images reveal flashbacks of ancient atrocities as she watches John brooding alone in the dark.

Some have claimed that The Hunger was ahead of its time, but it's more accurate to say that it reflected the time. John is dying. Even though he is a vampire, he has become vulnerable to some unidentifiable disease. AIDS was becoming very prominent at that time and the comparison is obvious. His accelerated aging, dementia, and his dealings with the completely baffled medical community were parallel to the AIDS patient's experience in the '80's. Little was known about the disease and it was referred to as GRIP or the New Plague and commonly thought only to afflict homosexuals. Author Whitley Streiber seemed to imply that everyone, straight, gay and even vampires could be vulnerable. 

While John is desperately searching for a remedy for his malaise, he encounters Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon). She discovers something unusual about his condition, which leads her to Miriam and the inevitable bisexual twist set up in the opening scene. Unlike the very heterosexual Count Dracula, Miriam will take partners of both genders depending on her mood that century. Unfortunately she often has to find a replacement for her partner's life spans are considerably shorter than her own.

This film tapped into the dark wave movement and New York club scene by using the Bauhaus song and is part of the reason for the popularity of the film. There was such a lack of films about Punk/New Wave culture that most of us would watch this again and again. Other films followed this trend, i.e. Near Dark, The Lost Boys. Although they were very entertaining they lacked the grace and beauty of The Hunger and did not contain scenes that reverberate in the gray cells years later. The style and fresh approach to the genre launched the film leagues ahead of any of its' predecessors.

Nosferatu vs. Shadow of the Vampire
Director: Guy Murnau   vs. Director: E. Elias Merhige

For thousands of years throughout Europe the story of the vampire has been told in various ways. The lore was passed down by oral tradition, so it naturally evolved or regressed depending on the narrator. The 1920's film Nosferatu shows us a much different vampire than the robust figures that adorn the sets of modern cinema. Shadow of the Vampire pays tribute to this creature of lore.

When I saw Shadow of the Vampire, I marveled at how much Willem Dafoe resembled the original actor and how accurately the make-up artists had captured his decrepitude. He was perfectly cast as Max Schreck/Graf Orlock. However, aside from appearance, there was a vast difference in the character portrayed. Graf Orlok of Nosferatu is a savage creature with a low IQ that emerges from the ruins every night at sundown. He scavenges for survival. The only time he interacts with a human is too take life. Max Schreck on the other hand interacts with humans and engages in clever repartee. When asked by Director Murnau (John Malkovich) "Why did you kill my photographer? Why not the script girl?" Max Shreck replies, "I'll eat her later."

While levity, especially dark humor is common for a contemporary Hollywood film it detracts from the primal fear that Nosferatu plays on. The vampire is not someone you can speak with, reason with, but a feral creature that only sees you as a midnight snack. Sarcasm and dark humor is present in many contemporary vampire films like the Lost Boys, From Dusk 'Til Dawn and John Carpenter's Vampires, but the typical Hollywood punch line seemed a bit out of place in a tribute to a period piece.

The classic Nosteratu is a bleak, black and white film with the standard low production flaws of the 1920's: bad lighting, not much variation in shots, low quality film stock, etc, however, it is much more scary and real than any contemporary vampire film. The vampire featured in this film characterizes a creature from antiquity. He doesn't transform himself into a bat or wolf. Garlic won't repel him. He does not live in a castle in Transylvania or a brownstone in Manhattan and most likely he was the star subject of many nightmares when Nosferatu was released in 1922. Therefore, the anonymous creature that slept in the ruins was much more a terror than the glib Count who emerged from the shadows.

Liquid Sky
Director Slava Tsukerman-1982

Although Liquid Sky is not really a vampire film, I'm slinging it into this pile simply because it possesses many of the same elements. There is the nocturnal lifestyle, the transformation from human to superhuman, which of course leads to the inevitable feelings of isolation and classic confusion over ethics.  Finally, even though there may be no fangs involved, there is a "killer" orgasm. 

Super-model Margaret (Anne Carlisle) becomes physically and psychically linked to an extraterrestrial of indeterminate size. This alliance enables Margaret to do away with rapists, managers and other irritating humans. Since Margaret's life revolves around the modeling world and the club types she comes in contact with, there are plenty of opportunities for her to practice her new skill.

The parallels in the film between drug highs and orgasm reflect the attitude of the era. People were looking for a high time and designer clothing was paired with drugs that were formerly only associated with the street. Drugs had become another display of wealth and sophistication. Recreational drugs as well as casual sex were calling cards of the 80's. Lovers were taken and discarded as casually as paper cups, which is in high contrast with our new millennium paranoia about safe sex, stalker/axe murderers and health.

When I first saw this at my university, my initial reaction was surprise at the low production values, however, take away the low-tech props (an Ed Wood-styled spaceship) the amateurish cinematography and some painful sound effects and you've got a boring story about a vacuous super-model. It's the warts that make Liquid Sky so engaging and weirdo. One of the largest warts is the dialogue, which has one of the most memorable lines in B-film history, "I kill with my cunt." Most of the remainder consists of adolescent bickering between the twin models, Margaret and Jimmy (a dual role by Anne Carlisle). This signature '80's piece should be viewed at least once.

Dir. Antonia Bird

Since the Donner Party left their bloody prints on the walls of a Sierra Nevada cave, Americans have been preoccupied with the ethics of survival. The 1970's pop song Timothy sews the saga of three men trapped in a mine and the eventual fate of their friend Timothy. Would we resort to broiling our best friend, spouse or neighbor to endure?  Ravenous explores this primal response in the most chilling fashion. Vegetarians-approach with caution.

Late 1800's--Lieutenant John Boyd is exiled to a frontier command post. (Guy Pearce of Memento makes a splendid conscience-haunted protagonist.)  Shortly after his arrival, a lone survivor is brought to the post bearing a gruesome tale of cannibalism. The synopsis describes it as darkly comic, however, Robert Carlyle delivers one of the most chilling performances this side of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. (I can hardly believe this is the same man who dropped his drawers in The Full Monty.)

Ravenous operates on the ancient beliefs of Cannibals, that devouring the enemy endows the conqueror with the power of the victim. Since the consumer evolves into something super human they become more resilient, but the bloodlust is like an addiction and drives the infected to betrayal and murder. There are images from the film that still haunt me and I believe it is the most chilling film about cannibalism to date.

TV Vampires

The UK's vampire serial Ultraviolet beats Buffy the Vampire Slayer by a furlong. It shows influence from The X-Files (when it was at its creative zenith) with all lots of backlighting and subdued performances paired with great dialogue. The premise is that vampires have become oddly philanthropic. They are searching for cures for diseases like AIDS and cancer.  The motivation: Their food supply is being threatened. The Science Fiction approach makes the characters much more accessible. It's definitely worth checking out.

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