Having just watched 30 Days of Night again in order to review the DVD, I find myself thinking about vampires. They are, of course, among the most frequent of horror movie monsters (perhaps only zombies, in their various forms, offer stiff competition in this regard). They also take up far more than their fair share of shelf space in the horror section of your bookstore, thanks to the likes of Anne Rice, Laurel K. Hamilton, and their legions of imitators. A brief scan of the literary and celluloid incarnations of the vampire reveal to principle archetypes. The first, and by far the most common, is the vampire as sexy beast. The other, is the vampire as beast, pure and simple. Interestingly, both cinematic versions, it seems to me, find their models in the first adaptations of the same novel: Dracula.
Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931) were both firsts. Nosferatu was the first film version of Bram Stoker’s novel. Tod Browning’s film was the first legal version. The earlier film gave us Max Schreck as creature as much rat as he was human, and the make-up’s suggested link was underlined by the actual rats that accompanied the vampire on his journey and the plague that descended on the town. Browning offered audiences Bela Lugosi in evening wear, and the film was released on Valentine’s Day. So one vampire to make you faint, the other to make you swoon.
The Lugosi version, of course, became the dominant one, and the costume was followed by most other vampires in the years to come. Lugosi would only play the Count himself once more (in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), but John Carradine, Christopher Lee and Frank Langella marched in his sartorial footsteps. But for all the differences between the Schreck and Lugosi incarnations, there are also some similarities. Hideous as Schreck’s Count Orlock is, he is also capable of love, and is destroyed by it. And suave as Lugosi might be, he is also a figure of fear. This is even more the case with Lee’s Dracula, who may look like a matinee idol, but is more likely to snarl like an animal than speak.
But along comes Anne Rice, and suddenly the sexy version of the vampire loses more and more of his menace, until we wind up with boo-hoo-woe-is-me pretty boys with all the fear factor of a plate of sushi. I know that I’m oversimplifying, but this conception of the vampire even affects the likes of the Blade movies, where vampires may be the indisputable bad guys, but they still look too much like mopey Eurotrash to be as menacing as they should be.
This is way I’ve been so pleased to see the return of the unappetizing, Schreck-like vampire in 30 Days of Night. If the vampire is to remain a viable, interesting figure in the horror film, it needs to have its sex-appeal balanced (or outright countered) with its menace. The Rat is back, and I couldn’t be happier.