Vampires have haunted screens since the advent of the film industry. In the early silent era, the term vampire was used metaphorically to describe fiends, criminals, and femmes fatales who plotted and deceived to satisfy their sadistic needs. It wasn’t until the 1920s and ’30s that the idea of a monstrous vampire was popularized on-screen, after filmmakers began to look increasingly to the bogeys of Gothic literature and the tenebrous stylings of German expressionism for inspiration. This shift unleashed a more fantastical kind of vampire, one equipped with fangs, supernatural abilities, and an insatiable appetite for blood.
Filmmakers and spectators alike have remained fascinated with this predatory figure, even as it has evolved, acquired new traits, and abandoned old ones over the years. Vampires hypnotize. They indulge in the most unholy acts, yet we cannot look away. And because they embody both physical and moral extremity, the role has distinguished itself as a particularly meaty undertaking for actors. It offers them an opportunity to experiment with their bodies, to inhabit otherworldly states, and to enact their cruelest instincts—often while looking good doing it. At the same time, some stars have added new layers to the figure’s abundant metaphorical potential, expanding the myth of the vampire to encompass political, racial, and film-historical dimensions that speak to unnervingly real dynamics of power and identity.
Ranging from the most iconic interpretation of the horror archetype to the most offbeat, the series of vampire films now playing on the Criterion Channel inspired us to ask six writers to each choose a favorite performance from the lineup. Find out which actors left a bite-mark on our contributors in this collection of short essays. —Beatrice Loayza
On Bela Lugosi in Dracula
By David Cairns
Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) cemented the movies’ idea of the vampire for decades: the demon lover, seducing maidens into a fate worse than, but not excluding, death. Lon Chaney, as reigning master of the macabre, had been intended for the title role but became mortally ill. Everyone else turned it down, so as a kind of last resort, Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian émigré who starred in the hit play the film was based on, got his big break. In the film, he wears his stage costume, an incongruous opera cape, to suggest bat wings and give the count an enveloping embrace. The cape became standard dress for screen vampires, and was worn by Lugosi in several other roles, until, famously, he was buried in it.
Dracula is the first American horror film with a real supernatural element not scoobydooed away in the last reel. It takes the vampire seriously, as did Lugosi, isolating himself from the rest of the cast, staring into a mirror and intoning “I am Dracula” during breaks. With his hair slicked into a jet carapace, face powdered cadaverous, and lips oil-black, Lugosi rocks the look that was distressingly standard for leading men in early-thirties cinema. Having campaigned desperately for the part, he makes a sanguinary meal of it, suggesting with every courtly move the wickedness that might lead a man into this peculiar unlifestyle. For all the detail of his novel, Bram Stoker is silent about Dracula’s origins, leaving Lugosi to imagine his own backstory, which emerges abstractly from attitudes and line readings. How did he, you know, get into this? Evidently, he likes it. It’s no curse, but a series of bizarre superpowers and a license to indulge perverse appetites.
Watch Dracula on the biggest screen you have, or get dangerously close: Lugosi’s work is, if not exactly subtle, certainly detailed. Look at him flinch from the mirror, batting it away as if it were some disgusting animal, then striking a pose and freezing, recomposing his civilized veneer in extreme slow motion. Lugosi’s uncanny physicality vibes well with Browning’s eerily static visual style and his penchant for charged compositions that linger until the life escapes. Filled with stock-still unreaction shots and populated by a cast rendered into waxworks, Dracula is a spoken-word fumetti with bat squeaks—Lugosi’s Dracula acts as dramaturge-mesmerist, pulling everything around him onto his funereal wavelength.
Christopher Lee’s hearty count in the Hammer Studios feature Horror of Dracula (1958) was a natural reaction to Lugosi, “with whom you knew you were in trouble,” as Martin Scorsese put it. Was Lugosi’s performance also a reaction to Max Schreck’s Nosferatu? That inhuman specter couldn’t walk into a drawing room without provoking panic. Lugosi is alarming enough—his “warm” smile a chilling rictus—to make you want to shout warnings at the weedy romantic leads, but just “normal” enough for his friendly greeting to seem quasi-credible.
Lugosi never moves a muscle unless it’s essential for the story. He never sits down. His hamming is scrupulous: he gets his effects by doing fewer but bigger things. His sneer curls only the left lip; if his eyes narrow or widen, they do so on a face as inert as a cadaver’s. The performance was achieved in close collaboration with cinematographer Karl Freund, who singled out his eyes by giving them their own mini-spotlight; in one shot, the actor’s face is painted a darker shade to accentuate their gleam. Lugosi was given the femme-fatale treatment before noir was invented.
One of the actor’s great advantages is that he is authentically other, which makes him that much more convincing as a libertine with transgressive tastes. Stoker’s novel was inspired by a dream redolent of homosexual panic (“This man is mine!” cries the book’s count, snatching the hero from the jaws of his brides), an anxiety retained in the film’s opening scenes. Traveling to England, the count switches to female prey, but keeps Dwight Frye’s simpering Renfield around as a boy toy. Lugosi’s Dracula is an exotic lounge lizard, a foreign seducer whose musical lilt fills in for the lack of a score. The actor had to learn his lines for the play phonetically, and his English by the time of the film was still rudimentary. His odd line readings draw out each syllable like taffy, tripping into top gear seemingly at random.
We might miss the gory punchline of the stake through the heart, but Browning capitalizes on the new medium by playing Lugosi’s death-cry—agonized, despairing—as an offscreen sound. This apparent squeamishness admits a note of ambiguity: as we never see Dracula die or crumble to dust, might Van Helsing, who earlier proved vulnerable to that mesmeric gaze, have faked the staking? Such a theory may seem far-fetched, but some weight is leant to it by the undoubted fact that Dracula would rise again—and again. Lugosi himself only really returned to the role once, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), but such was his association with the part that he rarely got to play anything very different—a painful career limitation for a man who’d once played Christ onstage. He’d willed himself into becoming Dracula, and couldn’t will himself out.
David Cairns is a critic and filmmaker. He blogs at Shadowplay and teaches in Edinburgh.
On Sybille Schmitz in Vampyr
By Geoffrey O’Brien
A good many years ago, while I was watching a videotape of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), my eight-year-old daughter came into the room and glanced at the screen for a few moments. What she saw unsettled her so much that she quickly walked away. She was disturbed not by any of the film’s more elaborately nightmarish details—the giant head of a murder victim hovering outside a window or the shadow of the one-legged soldier creeping back into his body—but simply a few frames of a face, without a mask or outré makeup, encountered outside of any narrative context.
The face is that of Sybille Schmitz, who had previously made a brief but impressive appearance in G. W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), playing a housemaid driven to self-destruction. Her performance in Vampyr as Léone, a young woman fallen victim to the vampire Marguerite Chopin, would be the most lasting legacy of a troubled life. (Her catastrophic final years, wracked by addiction and ending in suicide, provided the direct model for Fassbinder’s death-haunted Veronika Voss.) In that moment dominated by her face—the tail end of a sequence lasting barely two minutes—Schmitz enacts, in almost mediumistic fashion, the mortal combat between desire and revulsion as Léone tries to resist the vampirism that has already infected her and that finally asserts its full power.
The film that Dreyer described as a “waking dream” remains as labyrinthine as it was in 1932, perpetually forcing questions about what exactly is seen and who, in landscapes filtered through scrims of mist, is seeing it. The film invents its own language for mapping the intermingling of different worlds as the dead prey upon the living and the living behave like sleepwalkers under perpetual siege. Yet, for all the mist and splintered spatial continuity, everything feels uncannily palpable. The supernatural combat plays out not on fantastic sets but among grittily real locations: an abandoned château, an abandoned factory, an abandoned abbey, an abandoned mill.
The vampire who feeds on Léone’s lifeblood is no flamboyant Dracula or ogre-like Nosferatu but a white-haired woman who walks slowly with a stick; she might be a prosperous burgher of another century. We see little of her and hear less—her single line of dialogue being “Silence!” as she interrupts a supernatural dance party—but no spectator is likely to forget her stony, unpitying face. She delivers not a performance but a presence. Under her influence the human world becomes a zone of powerless entrancement.
The crucial moment—the momentary interruption of the trance—comes when Léone, rescued from a vampire attack, is swaddled in a blanket and propped in a chair. For two minutes the visual field is dominated by Schmitz’s face: her eyes open slowly, and she stares wildly up and around; her hands are clamped over her mouth, then slip away to reveal her face in a new light; her neck turns to expose the vampire’s puncture mark; her lips mouth words that do not emerge. Rapidly changing expression, she manages to cry out, “If only I could die!” Convulsive inner changes are conveyed through fleeting tics, tremors, hesitations. At last, as if under pressure, her mouth forces itself into a grin, and with bared teeth her face becomes a mask of predatory lust.
Add fangs and more lurid staging, and the scene is a template for many a vampire film to come. As filmed by Dreyer, it is like a sudden intrusion of fully expressed anguish, breaking through the prevailing somnambulistic lull. Invaded by a dark foreknowledge, Léone is at once possessed and fighting against possession. It is not the first or last time in Dreyer’s work that a woman’s face is the site of a life-and-death struggle, from Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to Birgitte Federspiel as the resurrected Inger in Ordet (1955). In the case of Sybille Schmitz, he found an actor more attuned to that role than he or she was likely to have realized.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include The Phantom Empire; Sonata for Jukebox; The Fall of the House of Walworth; Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film, 2002–2012; and the poetry collection In a Mist.
On Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger
By Phoebe Chen
Like the high-femme vampires who preceded her and packed the ’70s with incarnadine thrills, Miriam Blaylock, the protagonist of Tony Scott’s debut feature, The Hunger (1983), is an expert in history’s material seductions, the lure of objects gilded with time. In the perennial half-light of her Park Avenue townhouse, this grande dame has stashed the loot of two millennia: a Florentine bust from the fifteenth century; a bronze statue from a time before Christ. Money this
No other role has played so vividly with the cliché of Deneuve’s timeless allure while exposing the work of its maintenance. Enduring—as a movie star or as an ageless predator—means sustaining the fiction of your worth. In the lap of accumulation that is 1980s New York, Miriam dons the zeitgeist as costume to shore up her value, sating her animal thirst at a goth-rock club in a black spandex bodysuit and studded leather gloves. At home by her piano, she bewitches the doe-eyed Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) in an inky dress with knife-sharp shoulders, the dominant silhouette of corporate glamour. Without fangs, she lacerates her snacks with a tiny blade sheathed in the ankh pendant always around her neck, a wink at ’80s cocaine kitsch and its shortcut to another kind of eternity: the upper’s promise of unending vigor. The bloodsucker’s consumption-as-life-force finds its double in the Reaganite ethos of consumption-as-lifestyle.
But the decade’s credo of self-improvement was really an admission of fear. The Hunger works its epochal anxieties into its fallible vampires, prone to decay but denied the true release of death. One morning, we see the horrors overtake John Blaylock (David Bowie), Miriam’s latest companion, paused for centuries in the bloom of his youth but seized, suddenly, by the same affliction that doomed all of Miriam’s lovers. John’s body hurtles through decades within hours until he’s nothing but a varicose corpse, destined to join the cache of sentient cadavers in the attic. This is Miriam’s best-kept secret: her home is really a mausoleum, with all the objects of her past longing kept in grotesque reserve like a roomful of taxidermied pets. “My time is my own,” she tells Sarah mid-seduction, which is true enough, but when she takes a new lover and fills their veins with immortal sin, their time becomes hers too.
There are moments when Deneuve’s history seems to cross into Miriam’s; I see in her an icy glint of Belle de jour’s Séverine, her face impassive as she retreats into fantasy, and a trace of Repulsion’s Carol, her manic eyes struck with terror. These spectral flickers draw out the parallel densities of their lives. Deneuve’s deathless vampire teems with as many former selves as she’d collected by then as an actor, nearly three decades into her career. Occasionally, Miriam’s past returns in murky shots of her and a lover in some dusty century, fevered visions that flash and vanish with oracular force. They seem to augur Miriam’s demise: when she returns to the attic for another burial, all her undead exes have broken out of their coffins, roused by centuries of pent-up yearning. In the magnitude of their suffering, she is confronted with the vast scale of her own loneliness and her unending efforts to keep it at bay. She cannot bear to look, so she falls, instead, from the atrium to the ground floor, chased by the horrors of her own heart’s making.
Phoebe Chen is a writer and graduate student living in New York.
On Bill Paxton in Near Dark
By Angelica Jade Bastién
In the neowestern vampire tale Near Dark (1987), Bill Paxton’s Severen is so feral, so bold in his reconstitution of how a vampire moves and what it feels like to be one, he exerts a gravitational pull that sucks the film into his orbit.
Director Kathryn Bigelow finds her way into the vampire genre through the romantic arc of a young couple: with a single bite, Mae (Jenny Wright), an alluring drifter, turns the passive Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) into a vampire and pulls him into her nomadic family of bloodsuckers. Of all of Mae’s relatives, Severen is the most ragged and vulgar. Each of the vampires has a unique approach to killing, but Severen toys with his targets. Like a shark constantly in search of the smell of blood in the water, he’s always in motion. He jumps and cackles and dances with a sharp energy that speaks to his never-ending hunger. For him, pleasure is the principle and the point. This vampire’s effervescent chaos communicates a thrilling indifference toward propriety and the rules of the human world.
The archetypal vampire is a figure of finesse, bristling intimacy, and silken glamour who hides the monstrousness of his horror and the depth of his depravity. Most crucially, he’s a heavily classed and racialized being, one usually bound to whiteness vaguely and wealth specifically, which allows him to march forward through time unabated and move unchallenged through various societal circles and modalities. Yet in Near Dark—as in the teenage riot of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys and other eighties vampire flicks like Fright Night—the vampire moves from grace to grunge. Trading slick seduction and the great wealth necessary to live in style in perpetuity for grimy biker-gang aesthetics, the film reinvents the vampire by connecting it to a scrappy ethos rooted in the margins of American society. These poor white folks steal. They ride in RVs and vans with blacked-out windows. They take what they need as they rampage against the backdrop of a small western town before moving on.
Severen, in particular, exemplifies the invention and force of personality required to survive a world of poverty. Hair all greased-up, his leather jacket deeply lived in, grit and grime marking his skin, he is a vision of the underbelly of society. In turn, his physical bombast gives unfettered expression to the gnawing dissatisfaction that exists within his clan.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned! Shitkicker heaven,” Severen exclaims as the crew enters a sparsely occupied dive, each of them encased in shadows, with murder on their minds. Severen is not subtle with his antagonism: he knocks over a patron’s shot, and gruffly talks to the bartender and anyone else who dares to look him in the eye. The scene starts with a threat before devolving into an outright bloodbath; it’s unnervingly entertaining to watch these vamps slit throats and set the remnants of their destruction ablaze.
Rocking swiped sunglasses with a neon glint on their surface, Severen is a vision of cool, all edges and hunger. He burps after killing and drinking his first victim. He jauntily slithers around the bar’s growing pile of wreckage, his head wildly shaking and his body gyrating with pleasure. “It’s finger-lickin’ good!” he exclaims. After Caleb gets a shotgun to the gut, Severen humbly assuages his fears. He’ll handle this. With mock sweetness, he calls the bartender’s attention to him before jumping on the bar itself. Blood dripping from his maw, he’s shot by Bigelow and cinematographer Adam Greenberg at a low angle that gives him an outsize force. A cover of “Fever” croons in the background as he stalks across the bar and lets out a scream that has the energy of a giggle. With four swift, clean movements, he slits the bartender’s throat using the sharpened spurs of his boots. Severen has lived so many lives that his violent survival methods have become a blissful game for him. There are many kills in Near Dark, but this one demonstrates what Paxton brings to the film that no one else does: he carries with each step a vertiginous thrill that comes with staring death in the face and surviving to tell the tale.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a critic for New York magazine’s site Vulture. She lives in Chicago with her two cats, Paul Newman and Professor Butch Cassidy.
On Zhang Wei-Qiang in Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
By Beatrice Loayza
In a world of compulsory corsets and maidenly modesty, the archetypal Victorian virgin secretly fantasizes about her defilement. Whether she consciously acknowledges it or not, she craves the pleasures of the flesh with a hunger that no missionary-style wedding-night ritual can assuage. This hunger, born of repression, is the driving force of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), Guy Maddin’s frenzied adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel. An oneiric feast that draws from the expressionistic power of ballet and silent cinema, the film begins with images of the slumbering virgin Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) and the vampire who comes to her in dreams. Is Dracula real? Or, as the ghoul’s aversion to the sunny waking hours might suggest, an invention of the damsel’s pent-up libido?
Embodied by Zhang Wei-Qiang, this movie’s version of the count belongs on the cover of a Harlequin novel. Bela Lugosi—cinema’s first official Dracula—isn’t exactly hard on the eyes, but he carries himself with such cartoonishly spooky flair, you can imagine his castmates giggling behind his back on set. Zhang’s Dracula warrants no such snickers. He is a vision of leonine virility, with a tousled mane of black locks and cheekbones so high they could poke an eye out—nothing like Lucy’s dopey suitors, who resemble petticoated sardines next to his primal allure. Watch him levitate across a wintry outdoor set, his feet obscured by pillows of fog. The camera rises to meet Zhang’s glowing visage; his lips are pursed and his jaw is clenched with a stillness that seems always on the verge of eruption. His movements are slow, patient—then quick; they demonstrate the extraordinary control he wields over his own body, his capacity to shift with ease from a tender form of lovemaking to something more enticingly violent and merciless.
It’s precisely Dracula’s otherness that makes him the true object of Lucy’s wayward desires. His marginal status is announced through intertitles as she tosses and turns in bed, envisioning his arrival at sea: “Immigrants! Others! From other lands! From the East!” Black ink (or is it blood?) oozes across a map of Western Europe, suggesting the spread of an unstoppable pestilence. “She’s filled herself with polluted blood,” screams the film’s Van Helsing as Lucy stalks around in lusty abandon, a condition brought on by the vampire’s kiss.
Stoker’s novel exudes a paranoia rooted in xenophobic fears of cultural degeneration; the Irish author famously made his villain-hero Romanian. Played by Zhang, a Chinese Canadian dancer, the figure takes on Hollywood’s history of anti-Asian racism as well. Because the film is steeped in the traditions of early cinema, its Dracula invites comparisons to silent-era sex symbols, most obviously Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese dreamboat who often played savage, Svengali-like characters prone to ensnaring innocent white women. Like Dracula, Hayakawa’s characters were cruel and beguiling, and that, for the star’s adoring fans, was precisely the point.
Zhang’s Dracula may be a corrupting influence, but “a vampire cannot enter a home unbidden,” as Van Helsing notes. “A woman must invite him.” Indeed, Lucy—and later, her best friend, Mina (CindyMarie Small)—seem to summon him when no one is looking. He appears in flashes: in one scene, he’s a pair of starved eyes bursting out of a wooden box like laser beams; in another, he disappears with a thunderclap swish of his cape. When he ravishes Lucy, he approaches from behind, unseen but felt as he pricks her neck and wraps her arms in a silk scarf with bondage-like intent. In that moment, she doesn’t look back to meet his gaze, too frightened to confront the full image of her desires. But as he withdraws into the shadows, birds seem to sing, and the shot assumes an ecstatic-yellow tint. His presence, distinguished by a cherry-red flicker, punctures the film’s monochrome reality, suggesting the possibility of an otherwise—another realm of vivid color and carnal release.
Toward the end of the film, Mina and Dracula dance, their twirling bodies shrouded in fog, their elegant limbs stretched out long and uninhibited. He looks at her passionately. It is frightening and beautiful how deadly serious his passion is. Because of that intensity, he must remain in his distant, spectral form, hidden between the pages of a written confession, or tucked away in the shadowy recesses of women’s minds.
Beatrice Loayza is a regular film critic for the New York Times and a contributor to Artforum, Film Comment, 4Columns, Cinema Scope, the Nation, and other publications.
On Kim Ok-vin in Thirst
By Michael Atkinson
The first vampire film ever to win a prize at Cannes, Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009) places the ethical questions of human parasitism front and center—as you’d expect from a director known for his slow-pig-sticking ordeals of retribution and moral poisoning. The ubiquitous Song Kang-ho provides the film’s moral bedrock as its priest hero, Sang-hyun, who, following a fatal vaccine trial, undergoes a humanitarian crisis after being resurrected with a vexing thirst for blood. For a while, he tries his damnedest to steal his meals without killing, slurping at a comatose patient’s IV and sipping hospital pint bags like pouches of Capri Sun.
Kim Ok-vin’s torrential Tae-ju is his opposite number—his uncorked delirium. We first meet her when the holy-man-with-a-secret gets sucked into an idiot friend’s weird family. “Sister” Tae-ju, we learn, was adopted as a child and kept as her drooling “brother’s” de facto sex toy and wife. As Sang-hyun and Tae-ju bond over their outsider identities and begin a robust but at first non-sanguineous affair, she becomes the film’s unstable radioactive core—its daredevil diva.
Sang-hyun keeps his shit buttoned down, which allows Kim to exult in Tae-ju’s proactive whirlwind, even when, early on, her bitter wildness is suppressed by her twisted family subjugation. With her roving, trouble-hunting eyes, you can tell just by looking at this nowhere girl—suffering an all-too-common destiny for countless women beholden to patriarchal cultural traditions—that Tae-ju is a lidded cauldron of hazard, smarter than anyone thinks and poised for vengeance.
Her quest for retribution takes the shape of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin: a murder plot is hatched, deadly conflicts arise, and Tae-ju’s wrathful femme fatale is killed and revived by a conflicted but lovesick Sang-hyun. This scary, lonesome, trod-upon victim of misogyny blossoms into a buzzed vampiress eager to exact her glorious revenge upon the world. It’s such a sweet piece of circle-back screenwriting—having been treated like trash her whole life, she has no patience for Sang-hyun’s squeamishness about hunting humans—and Kim makes Tae-ju’s liberation a sweaty, hair-raising spectacle. Her heedless excitement is fearsome, to us and to Sang-hyun, but there’s not a genre cliché in sight: Tae-ju isn’t vampire-cool or blindly carnivorous or burdened with existential angst. Instead, Kim plays her as an unchecked id, freed from oppression and looking to indulge in the taboo.
The characters’ contrasting reactions perfectly complement the mythos of vampirism, which toggles between regarding the figure’s condition as either a curse of endless nighttime predation or a blessing of alternative-lifestyle freedom and immortality, both perspectives being hyperbolic takes—nihilism vs. Leibnizian sanguineness—on normal human life. Of course, Park being Park, a proud post-Hitchockian discomfiter, this thematic pas de deux is assaulted by narrative stress: Sang-hyun responds to Tae-ju’s escalating power trip with fierce toxicity. And all the while, beneath her zeal, her woundedness is palpable. She’s still a victim, still a woman stuck in a man’s world, and Kim gives us such a frail and unkempt creature—even as she’s leaping off rooftops. You worry for Tae-ju, as you would for a delighted opioid junkie who just came into cash.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for Sight & Sound, the Progressive, In These Times, and TCM.com, and teaches at Long Island University. His books include Exile Cinema (SUNY Press) and the novel Hemingway Cutthroat (St. Martin’s Press).
“The House Is the Monster”: Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle
In the great American writer’s Gothic tales, Corman found themes that inspired him to riff, invent, and create immersive cinematic environments.
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