Monday, May 2, 2011

The Physical Evolution of the Vampire

For a good portion of the years that movies dominated the entertainment business, vampires were always seen as people wearing fake vampire press-on teeth and maybe some white makeup to show they are dead. This sort of design started off in the early years of film during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. It wouldn’t be until the 60’s and 70’s that the vampire got a drastic face-life. They ditched the white makeup but still kept everything else, so there wasn’t much improvement from the earlier vampire films. Hammer movies and Blaxploitation flicks showed the vampire with human qualities, but the only difference is that these vampires were more brutal and the movies had an opportunity to really accent the romance associated with vampire legends. When the 80’s rolled around, the vampire got a complete facial and physical makeover and for the first time vampires were shown as monsters from Hell.

I’m mainly talking about The Lost Boys and Fright Night and I’m aware there are movies like Vamp that are out there but I haven’t seen it yet. To me, it seems like the 80’s paved the way for how a vampire should ‘really’ look like because afterwards… in movies like From Dusk Till Dawn, Blade: Trinity and The Night Flier, they aren’t the handsome classy men with sharp fangs that we thought they were. Sure, they start off as being ideal visions of what a perfect man should be, but once they transform into a full vampire they loose all their beauty and this goes for women as well. The progression seems almost instant but I’m also aware that older films showed the vampire as being demonic and otherworldly.

Since the very first vampire movie, Nosferatu, vampires were seen as demonic, blood-sucking monsters from hell. They were seen as pale, white human-like creatures with long talons, pointy ears, bulging eyes and razor sharp teeth. Their heads, massively enlarged and somewhat deformed. Honestly, had I seen Nosferatu when I was a kid I’d probably be afraid of vampires but I grew watching Dracula and this is where vampires would be brought down to a more human level. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is what set the groundwork for what a vampire should look like for the next 50 years, with minor trail offs here and there. What Lugosi brought to the table was a monster that was both charming to look at, elegant, composed and nowhere near the demon that was seen in Nosferatu. He still retained the classic trademarks of vampires but physically he was different.

Throughout most of the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and mostly 70’s, vampires were just people with plastic fangs in their teeth. Sure, it was still scary because we’re not use to seeing people with razor sharp teeth, pale skin and luring eyes. Back then, most horror directors tried to scare the audience with gratuitous bloodshed, unexpected jump-scares or just by the mere look of the vampire. If we look at the infamous Hammer vampire films like Taste the Blood of Dracula or the Horror of Dracula, I think what’s scary about them isn’t just Lee’s interpretation of Dracula but also that stretched out smile and those blood-red eyes. Throughout the late 50’s through the mid 70’s, Hammer constantly pushed the boundaries of how the vampire should act and look and I do believe that Lee’s Dracula was the prototype for what the 80’s would soon bring to the table.

Horror of Dracula (1958)

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Blacula (1972)

Martin (1977)

I’m also aware that the TV adaptation of King’s Salem’s Lot features a vampire that is the spitting image of Nosferatu and more than likely contributed to the inevitable physical change that would happen. However, I do believe that Lee’s vampire was the first incarnation of a truly demonic vampire that was different, whereas Salem’s Lot seemed to directly homage Nosferatu.

Fright Night was a truly revolutionary film in many senses. It brought the romanticism of vampires to the MTV Generation and re-popularized the vampire story. It exposed the new generation to classic horror monsters and it set the groundwork for what a true horror comedy should be like. However, it also set the standard for the re-imaging of the classic vampire in which many movies soon after would follow. For the first time, at least in terms of mainstream media, the vampire wasn’t just a man with fangs but rather some type of monstrous cross between bat, creature and human. For the first time, vampires looked like demons from Hell and I think that the reason why it happened in the 80’s is because the special effects were perfected then. Jerry Dandrige became the staple of modern vampires. Sure he wasn’t all pointy ears, wrinkled skin and yellow eyes but he brought back the Nosferatu-like qualities that vampires once held. Also, for the first time, filmmakers didn’t have to rely only on blood and jump-out scares to get the audience. They could rely on grotesque, horrifying look of the vampire.

As 1985 quickly turned into 1987 there were two vampire films that seemed to compete with one another, not in terms of their fanbase or their filmmaking, but rather their interpretations of the vampire. See, Near Dark paid tribute to the classic look of the vampire: all human qualities save for the long, razor sharp canines. Near Dark seemed to be a modern homage/adaptation of the vampire that was once popularized by Lugosi. However, on the other end of the spectrum you have The Lost Boys, which seemed to follow in the same footsteps as Fright Night but they were slightly different looking that Dandrige. The Lost Boys was like a cross between Lugosi’s vampire and Sarandon’s Dandrige vampire. The Lost Boys, and more specifically the head vampire, had the fangs and luring eyes but they also had the elongated jaws, the twisted smiles, the prominent cheekbones and the bend eyebrows. Compared to Near Dark’s bloodsuckers The Lost Boys are probably more frightening to look at and probably more violent. After 1987 there would be a major shift of vampire movies where classic looks meets modern interpretations.

Vamp (1986)

The Night Flier (1997)

From Dusk Till Dawn (1998)

Van Helsing (2004)

30 Days of Night (2007)

The way that I see it, it’s sort of like how zombies progressed in film and I’m not talking about the debate between running zombies and slow-walking zombies. Before the 80’s, zombies were just pale-faced human walking slowly with their arms raised half way into the air. It wasn’t until the 80’s when special effects were perfected did we see zombies that had skin falling off their faces, exposed bone and missing eyes. I mean, you can say that about any classic horror icon like werewolves or Frankenstein monsters but I think there is an ongoing war between modern and classic vampires whereas the special effects for werewolves and zombies seem universally accepted. I know some people prefer the classic Lugosi route and some prefer the Sarandon route. I’m more on the fence about it because both versions are so radically different and each version has its pros and cons. I just thought it was very interesting how there was a massive jump from just fangs to a complete physical makeover within the vampire subgenre and truly paved the way for modern vampire films to come.


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