Thursday, October 3, 2013

Quintessential Vampire Movies from the 80's

Thanks to the success of Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985), suddenly vampires were hot again in Hollywood and so during the mid 80’s; we suddenly had a barrage of vampire movies in theaters. An interesting bunch of films came out of that sudden burst of vampire cinema, some of these films have gone on to become true cult classics, or better yet, real horror classics, period. An eclectic brew of vampire films was concocted, some were great, some not so great. Some were just downright offbeat like for example, Nicholas Cage’s Vampire’s Kiss (1989) which was sold as a comedy to the masses, but was really the furthest thing from it. Vampire’s Kiss is actually a dark film, a story about a man who thinks he’s a vampire…or maybe he really is one? It’s that kind of a movie that manages an ambiguity with its character, kind of like what George Romero did in Martin (1976), another vampire film in which were not sure if the protagonist is delusional, or if he really is a vampire. I’d recommend watching it if you enjoy Cage’s wacky side. 

Nicholas Cage in Vampires Kiss (1989)

Some vampire movies from the 80’s were weirder still! When talking about Ken Russell films, weird is a relative term and so Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (1988) is without a doubt one of the strangest vampire films you’ll ever see. On this one we meet a vampire vixen who worships a giant white worm who lives inside of a cave! Add to that premise Ken Russell’s trippy visuals and you’ve got yourselves an acid trip of a vampire movie! 

Lair of the White Worm (1988)
The 80’s also brought us lesbian vampires in the form of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), a film in which David Bowie plays a half vampire who doesn’t like the fact that he’s starting to age and about to die. You see, up to this point his vampire life had been made up of going out to night clubs and feeding on the blood of Goth fans! But age is catching up with him, and so, since he is not a full vampire, he starts to decay. It’s a sultry tale that explores sexuality and the minds reluctance to accept the vestiges of age. It asks the question: why must the party end? Why must we get old and die? These three offbeat films are not as renowned as the next couple of films I will be talking about. 

Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie in The Hunger (1983)

Out of the 80’s, four vampire films stand out as the cream of the crop for me. You can’t talk about 80’s vampire films without mentioning these. They stand out as the best vampire films of the decade because not only where they the ones that made the most impact in terms of sheer entertainment, they were also made by great directors, Tobe Hooper, Tom Holland, Joel Schumacher and Kathryn Bigelow. I mean, all great filmmakers, some have disappeared, some have gone on to win Oscars and some are still actively working in the world of horror, but no matter where their respective careers ended up, what matters is they all left these great vampire films behind! The films I speak of are Fright Night (1985), Lifeforce (1985), The Lost Boys (1987) and Near Dark (1987), all great, but for very different reasons.

The first of the bunch to be released was Tom Holland’s Fright Night, a very successful film because it only cost 9.5 million dollars to make, yet went on to make more than 24 million, which is a lot for a small budget horror film like this one. It was the most successful horror film of 1985, with Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) coming in a close second. From looking at Fright Night, you would never guess it cost only 9 million dollars! It just blows my mind how good this movie ended up looking for so little. Tom Holland and his crew made a good job of making the film look more expensive then it is. But many things make Fright Night one of the best vampire films of the 80’s. First and foremost is the cast, which I think had great chemistry on screen. William Ragsdale plays Charlie Brewster, the nerdiest teenager in class, the a-typical goody little two shoes, the quintessential “ guy next door”. He’s also the boy who would cry wolf! I always liked the friendship that Charlie develops with Peter Vincent (Roddy MCDowall) “the great vampire killer”, a fading actor who’s always reminiscing about his younger days, when he used to star in horror films. Now he’s just a horror show host, showcasing movies on local television. This unlikely duo form an alliance, a friendship that will transcend even towards the sequel, Fright Night II (1989), which I might add is not a bad sequel at all, not as great as its predecessor, but also not a bad effort. To seal the deal, we get Chris Sarandon in one of the most memorable vampires to ever grace the silver screen, Jerry Dandrige. Sarandon truly delivers an outstanding performance; he steals the show so to speak. But then again, the whole film is populated with good performances, who can forget Stephen Geoffreys demonic ‘Evil Ed’? Or Amanda Bearse as the virginal and then suddenly extremely sensual Amy? I don’t think the film would have been the same without this fine group of actors. And yet another great asset to this film are the incredible make up effects, they just don’t make them like this anymore, the make-up effects on Fright Night were partially concocted by the great Steve Johnson, and I gotta tell ya, they still look great by today’s standards; in fact, the vampires on Fright Night look better than a lot of the crap that passes for a vampire film these days.

Then we have Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985), which in my book is a fantastic melding of science fiction and horror. This film tells the tale of a group of British astronauts who stumble upon an alien craft that is riding on the tail of Haley’s Comet. Soon, the craft starts hovering above earth! Upon closer inspection they learn that the strange ship has a crew of three naked people, two dudes and one smoking hot lady. The astronauts seem to have made the find of the century, so they take the bodies with them. What they don’t know is that these three seemingly comatose individuals they are bringing with them are really space vampires! It isn’t long before the vamps wake up and start wrecking havoc on earth. I love many things about Lifeforce, but one of the things I love the most is how it mixes vampires with zombies! These space vampires suck your life away and then leave you walking the earth as a zombie! I also like how chaotic the film gets; the last half of the film is pure chaos, with the streets of London overrun by vampire zombies looking to suck your life away! Re-watching Lifeforce last night I realized just how original it is, there’s literally nothing like it anywhere! Maybe the closest thing to it might be Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), but that’s stretching it a little. Thematically, Lifeforce is all about lust and love and the powers of sexual attraction over our lives. It speaks of how sex can drive us to do all sorts of crazy things, like falling in love with an alien vampire from outer space! The reigning theme on Lifeforce is the kind of sexual attraction that gets out of control and what better representation of a females sensual powers than the beyond beautiful bombshell Mathilda May? Gotta give her props, as an actress you gotta have balls of steel to appear naked throughout the whole freaking movie! Not that I’m complaining! Sure there’s cheesy dialog and the plot can be a bit overtly convoluted at times, but we also get giant vampire bats, a sci-fi angle mixed in with the horror, tons of visual effects by John Dykstra and epic levels of zombie mayhem?! What’s not to like on this one?

On the other hand, Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987) isn’t cheesy at all, it concerns itself with simply being cool, in fact, everything about The Lost Boys is pure genius. Here’s what I dig about The Lost Boys, every element on this film was chosen to create the perfect atmosphere, the perfect ambiance for a horror movie to unfold in. First up, filming in Santa Carla, in a community by the beach, next to a beach side carnival? Freaking genius! This whole amusement park next to the beach thing was an awesome choice. I love the opening segments of the film where we get to really absorb the Santa Carla atmosphere and we get to see all these eccentric people walking about to the tune of Echo and the Bunnymen’s cover of The Doors ‘People are Strange’. It’s such a colorful way to open the film, and it really lets us sink into the world that these characters exist in. Then there’s the cast which is composed of a bunch of popular young actors from the 80’s. I mean, the list goes on with this one: Jason Patrick, Kiefer Sutherland, Corey Haim, Jami Gertz, Corey Feldman, hell even Alex Winters (also known as Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is here. Then you take all those cool actors and put them in a story about biker vampires who dress like heavy metal dudes from the 80’s and you put them in the middle of this cool setting and it’s just pure magic. The film is actually kind of subtle with its vampire element, the film leaves a lot to your imagination, which is something I appreciated. For a huge portion of the film, the director doesn’t want you to see the vampires; he wants you to imagine them and this works like magic. But make no mistake, when these blood suckers vamp out, you will get a glimpse of true evil! It’s like Schumacher really wanted to wait as long as possible before blowing your brains out with awesomeness, the beasties do not disappoint! Top that off with an amazing soundtrack…and wowzers, you’ve got yourselves a bonafide horror classic that has lasted through the years. I hear the songs ‘Cry Little Sister’ and ‘Lost in the Shadows’ and I’m immediately transported to the world of The Lost Boys a world filled with sweaty body builders who play the saxophone with a vengeance and a grandpa who grows weed and dates old ladies! Im also magically transported to the 80’s. Pay no mind to the lesser straight to dvd sequels that have followed, this one is the real deal, this is the one to remember.  

Now if you want to take a more “poetic” detour into 80’s vampire films, then you can’t do better than Near Dark (1987), directed by Kathryn Bigelow. This one is a bit more romantic in nature, because it’s about this cowboy who stumbles upon a female hitchhiker who ends up being a vampire. Lucky for him the vampire vixen gets the hots for him, so she ends up turning  him into a vampire instead of killing him. The rest of the film is him having to learn how to be a vampire, and accepting his new fate. But does he have to accept it? Or can he change things? So again, we have a great cast on this one, Bill Paxton is the stand out for me, he plays the wild one in the bunch, the dark side, the crazy one, he really has a few moments to shine on this movie including this amazing sequence in which the vampires invade this bar in the middle of nowhere and start messing around with the customers, kind of like playing with their food? Cool scene. These vamps don’t have fangs, don’t run away from crosses or hate garlic, these are more the kind that will slit their victims’ wrists and suck their blood, but no big fangs or anything like that, just like every other vampire movie, this one also plays with the rules a little. Director James Cameron, who was married to Kathryn Bigelow when this film got made, suggested to Bigelow the use the cast from his film Aliens (1986) and so this is why we get Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenny Wright all of whom appeared on James Cameron’s Aliens, but hey, that was a sweet deal if you ask me, it’s a great cast! Near Dark wasn’t as successful as the other films on this list, but it’s gone on to be discovered by many fans and has become a true cult classic. 

Now those are what I like to call the “Fab Four” of 80’s vampire films; but there's always another film that I like to talk about when talking about 80's vampire movies and that’s Vamp (1986), which is a fun vampire film that has a real 80’s feel to it. It stars Grace Jones as an ancient Egyptian vampire queen who’s decided to take residence in this real shithole of a strip club. Once the doors close, it’s feeding time! And she’s got a hunger for dumb college students! I’ve always said that Vamp was the film that Tarantino saw when he decided to write From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Both films play with extremely similar premises, but Tarantino filled his film with far cooler characters and of course, way better dialog. But all that aside, Vamp manages to muster up a very unnerving atmosphere. Sure it can get silly, and sure it has these ultra dumb college students as its protagonists, but there’s no denying that the film conjures up a really strange, surreal vibe with its town full of albino vampires and its streets bathed in neon colors, it’s no wonder one of the main characters says “we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto” once they reach the spooky town in which the strip club is located. This movie is worth it because of that surreal vibe, but also because Grace Jones makes one hell of a vampire! So there you have it my friends, the cream of the crop of 80’s vampire movies! Hope you find this post useful when the time comes to decide what to watch on Halloween night! So cheers my dear readers and don’t forget to keep your crucifixes handy and your holy water stored in your water guns, because on The Film Connoisseur Halloween 2013 means vampire movies all the time! So don’t miss it! 
A space vampire sucking the life out of one of his victims in Lifeforce (1985)


Roman J. Martel said...

Great list. I have to say, I'm a bit ashamed because I thought I had solid 80s movie street cred... and yet I haven't seen more than half these films! I need to get on that.

"Lost Boys" is and always will be a favorite of mine. You're right on with the soundtrack, it fits the film so well and really creates that ultra-cool world of the film.

Glad you gave a shout out to "The Hunger". That movie is beautifully shot, creepy and hot all at the same time. It's a bit on the slow side, but I think that works to its advantage, pulling you into the world before sinking its teeth in.

"The Lair of the White Worm", wow I haven't thought about that film in years. I always saw the cover at the video store I worked at, and the art looked so crazy and cool - but I just never got around to watching it. But the title itself was something that just made my mind go - what kind of story could fit that title? Kinda kicking myself that I never saw it.

I had a friend who loved "Vamp". I'm not sure what I was expecting when I watched it, but that movie wasn't it. I need to check it out again, because it was not the perfect follow up to "Creepshow", as my friend declared all those years ago. :)

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, The Hunger is a good one, it was Tony Scott's first film, so it's interesting because of that as well. For a first full length feature film, it's got a really polished look and great performances. Agree, it's a slow burner, but as you mentioned, it does slowly creep up on ya.

The Lair of the White Worm, it's a strange vampire film, but it's worth it, Ken Russell just can't help himself with the hallucinogenic imagery!

Yeah, Vamp has it's flaws. It tries to mix silly funny with horror, and well, the product is certainly offbeat and sometimes uneven. Still, I love the whole thing with the vampire weird vibes there. Next time you watch it, try listing all the similarities it has with From Dusk Till Dawn! They are many, right down to having the head vampire vixen doing a showstopping sexy dance!

Thanks for the comments Roman!

robotGEEK said...

Great list. Lifeforce is one of my all-time favorite films. It's just so odd, in a very cool way. Naked space vampires brought back to earth where it then turns into a "end of the world" scenario. Very, very cool and extremely well done by Tobe Hooper. It also helps that Mathilda May is hot as hell.

I'm one of the few people I know that loves Fright Night Part II just as much as the original. Yes, two completely different types of films, but so great on their own. Even though Part II was made in the 80's, it doesn't have the same look or feel to it as the first one. It looks more like it came out of the 90's.

I recently saw Near Dark, and I just did not dig it. I like the concept, and I am a big fan of Bigelow's 80's and 90's stuff, but Near Dark just missed its' mark by a longshot for me. Cool look, vibe, story and cast, but wasn't the badass vampire flick I was hoping it'd be.

Franco Macabro said...

robotGEEK: Just saw Fright Night II last night and I will be posting my review for it in the next couple of days. My only true gripe with it is that it is too similar to the original, still, I enjoyed it.

Yeah, Near Dark is cool, but it certainly is different, I personally dig the strange kind of purposely attempts to be different and plays a lot with vampire lore. You gotta admit though, it does have it's moments! Love those scenes with Bill Paxton on ripping that truck to shreds! Or the scenes in the bar...


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