Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Kiss that is the Kill: Sex and Death in Three Classic Vampire Movies

The youthful fans of Twilight and True Blood might like to believe that they have cornered the market on the sexy vampire trade, but attractive bloodsuckers have been haunting the silver screen for quite a long time. Long before Edward Cullen and Bill Compton thrilled the hearts of today's Gothic heroines, the undead were making love to and war against humanity in a wide variety of films. Back in the 1980s, we had some great examples of the sexy vampire in The Hunger (1983), The Lost Boys (1987), and Near Dark (1987), but even these movies are relative newcomers to the vampire canon. Here is a sampling of classic movies that highlight that enduring connection between blood and lust.

Nosferatu (1922)

Max Schreck's Count Orlok is definitely not sexy, unless you long to date the fabled Bat Boy of traditional tabloid fodder, but this landmark silent horror film from director F.W. Murnau nonetheless teems with sexual undertones. Ignore nominal hero Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim); the principle struggle takes place between the vampiric count and the ethereally good Ellen (Greta Schroder), who must willingly give herself to the monster in order to save Hutter and, presumably, the world.

The sexuality of Orlok's conflict with Ellen becomes clear in the final attack scene, but watch the way that Ellen, drawn by a psychic connection to her husband, first reacts to Orlok's menace, even from across the far reaches of the ocean. Her goodness is the equal opposite force that stands against Orlok's evil, and thus the two are bound together in a kind of danse macabre, elaborating once more the ages old allure of the figure of Death and the Maiden. Murnau, borrowing liberally from Stoker's novel, is keenly aware of all this deeper imagery, which gives his treatment its unique appeal. From her white gown to her lovely neck and huge, liquid eyes, Ellen is the very embodiment of imperiled femininity, at once the sacrifice and the salvation of men, and toward this flame the Count is drawn as surely as the destructive moth, only to be destroyed in turn.

Nosferatu tops many horror film lists as the greatest horror picture of all time, but don't expect it to be scary by modern standards. Instead, think of it as a prelude for things to come, as an artistic suggestion of that which later films will make explicit, and decide which method possesses the greater aesthetic power. Still, that iconic shadow moving on the wall of Ellen's stairwell strikes its own kind of fear, a delicious thrill that comes when we know that the creatures of the dark are closing in. The girl lies helpless in her nightgown, the bed becomes the grave, and the monster leans close for the kiss that is the kill. What could more sensual than that?

Dracula (1931)

Bela Lugosi's performance as Count Dracula has defined the image of the vampire for generations since, from the widow's peak hairstyle to the infamous cape in which Lugosi insisted on being buried. Is Lugosi's Dracula scary? Not really, and there are certainly places where the film shows its age. However, his hypnotic power over the women who encounter him underscores the essentially sexual appeal of the vampire. That famous stare, and the visible attraction that the women feel toward him, pulse with dangerous seductive energy. Both Lucy and Mina fall prey to that energy and are transformed by it into sexualized monsters of desire. Watch the scene in which the enthralled Mina seduces Harker out on the balcony; her eyes light up, her lips purse, and she leans in close almost quivering with anticipation. One has to wonder if even a restored Mina can be happy with a man like Harker after this interlude of passion.

Even more interesting is the sexualized nature of Dracula's power over Renfield; the attack on Renfield near the beginning of the film plays out very much as a homoerotic rape sequence, in which the female vampires are waved away from the unconscious man so that the Count himself may feed on him. Renfield spends the rest of the film driven mad by desires which cannot be fulfilled; unlike the women, he cannot become wholly united with the Count, and thus he suffers with a terrible and exquisite longing that ought to delight the most ardent sadomasochist. Of all the characters in the film, I think Renfield is the most frightening and the most pitiable; he is the quintessential victim of unrequited desire, with Dracula cruelly stringing him along until his services are no longer required.

Despite the title, the film plays fast and loose with Stoker's novel, using the stage play version instead for much of its material. Director Tod Browning created a more enduringly frightening picture with Freaks (1932), but Dracula still stands as a classic moment in vampire movie history.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Dracula's Daughter plays out as a direct sequel to the 1931 film, with the first several minutes of the movie catching the audience up on what has gone before. Edward Van Sloan returns to the role of vampire killer Van Helsing, which gives the sequel an added sense of continuity from the first picture, although director Tod Browning has been replaced by Lambert Hillyer this time out.

Despite the return of Van Helsing and the appearance of romantic leads Otto Kruger and Marguerite Churchill, the movie really belongs to the title character. Gloria Holden plays Countess Marya Zaleska, a beautiful woman whose eyes are full of death. The gender reversal of the vampire in this film makes for some very interesting sexual subtexts, especially when the gorgeous monster seduces and attacks other women. A victim tally reveals that the Countess actually goes after equal numbers of men and women, but the scenes with her two female victims are by far the more provocative and the more elaborate. Watch her move in for the kill on the helpless and partially undressed Lili (Nan Grey) early in the picture; Lili is so young, so fresh, so delicious with her smooth cheeks and her full, soft lips. We cannot blame the Countess for wanting to devour her.

In contrast to the cheap, sensationalist title, Dracula's Daughter is a surprisingly elegant film, one that suggests real tragedy in the person of its central character. The Countess longs to be human and live a normal life; she yearns for love and companionship. The man she hopes will help her proves singularly useless, and she succumbs to the monstrous urges that have driven her for over a century already. Despite her bloody appetite, she never looks like a monster, nor even like a traditional vampire. She seems more an angel of death, a marble cemetery statue come to life. Her beauty and misery render her a more complex and sympathetic character than her Transylvanian father, and this portrayal of the vampiric character proves a foretaste of things to come in later films. John Landis' Innocent Blood (1992), for example, clearly has a lot in common with Dracula's Daughter.

If you're still thirsty for more blood-soaked seduction, try The Vampire's Ghost (1945), Horror of Dracula (1958), Blood and Roses (1960), and Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972).

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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