Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"One thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach... all the damn vampires"

At the Monkeyhouse we're now up to date with the Twilight movies. Pray for us. Anyway, the beast has been stared down and nope, I still can't see the point of all of this. Same goes for Vampire Diaries which seems little more than an attempt to cash in on the Twiglet phenomenon. There's still a lot of vamptastic media about, even on TV with the (superior) likes of Being Human and True Blood easily the grittiest, gnarliest and earthiest versions yet. But these are all New Vampire media, where the undead leads are beautiful, tortured and sympathetic characters (not such a new idea of course) and the women who love them are steadfastly human. I blame Joss Whedon for that one, but then he did it all so much better, even if he didn’t do it first.

The Nineties were a bad decade for vampire movies with a few exceptions from reliable hands (Coppolla, Jordan, er - Rodriguez?) and they really offered nothing new. If you want the great modern vampire movies of not-so-recent memory, you have to go back another ten years.

The Eighties had the best vampire movies of our lifetimes.

I don't say this lightly, but I know I'm right. For me four movies stand out, each promising something new to the previously tired formula and most of them delivering. Like their Nineties counterparts they boast strong directors (including one Oscar winner), good casts and great pitches. Here's how it breaks down for me, but first two words of caution. Firstly, these movies have not aged well and feature some hairstyles the Eighties have not called to ask for them back. Secondly, the trailers are all available on YouTube, but haven't been included because the trailer cutting for these movies is counter-argument and provides more free cheese than an overstocked fromagerie.

Let’s nibble away, shall we?

The Hunger (d. Tony Scott, 1983)
The Pitch: Ageless vampiress brings her dying lover to town, ensnaring an urban gerontologist in their search for true immortality.
The least of the four films is this one for the story itself, adapted from a novel by Whitley "Communion" Strieber. There are problems with it - characterisation is a little off, and it's s-l-o-w for a horror/thriller, but it's nothing if not stylishly shot providing style over substance in bucketloads. Featuring proto-Goths Bauhaus and their seminal anthem Bela Lugosi's Dead it's become something of a cult hit, and the Goths I knew loved it. File under 'significant' for a modern take on the traditional Eurotrash wealthy vampire set, for Bowie's character's appalling death by waiting-room, and an interesting mingling of the traditional vampire motifs (almost none, actually) with what appear to be some Egyptian Mythos symbolism, the ankh being the most potent. Intriguing.

Fright Night (d. Tom Holland, 1986)
The Pitch: Rear Window with a vampire - and your only ally is a burned out TV show host!
Aimed more at the teen market and therefore lots more fun; in fact, the best of Eighties vampire movies are teen movies, possibly showing the way forward even then. This movie has the least memorable director (Holland went on to give the world Child's Play, so stayed in the genre) and some borrowed SPFX (Ghostbusters, apparently), but is both creepy and irreverent, providing some with a homoerotic subtext that’s also intriguing. Key highlights have to be future Jack Skellington Chris Sarandon and once-Cornelius 'Rowdy' Roddy McDowall in a fun portrayal of a very obvious pastiche (how could he not be with a name like Peter Vincent?) The least said about the sequel and comic sidekick’s later movie career the better. Oh, and hello Marcy from Married… With Children in an early role. Only real let-down: the music. But you can’t have them all.

The Lost Boys (d. Joel Schumacher, 1987)
The Pitch: New kids in town mix with the Wrong Locals. Youth in revolt has a taste for blood, and your mom has strange taste in men!
Perhaps the king of them all, and despite two sequels never equalled. Schumacher brought in a great cast – Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz, Dianne Wiest, Fred Hermann PLUS Coreys Feldman and Haim and future Wyld Stallyn Alex Winter. Most of them are pretty good, some of them are fantastic, and the least of them at least has the good sense to stay off-camera most of the time. The LA setting with its sorta Santa Monica helicopter opening shot is gorgeous, and the visual nods to teen culture’s immortals (a Jim Morrison mural in the vamps’ quake-devoured mansion) are also very smart. In fact, the soundtrack also deserves a mention, boasting Echo and the Bunnymen’s cover of the Doors, INXS and Jimmy Barnes (well, okay), and ‘Cry Little Sister’, a much-covered non-single that provides the movie with a hugely evocative overture. Too many highlights – everyone has a couple (maggots, rail bridge, first attack, Frog brothers), so I’ll just say “Grandpa” and leave it there.

Near Dark (d. Katherine Bigelow, 1987)
The Pitch: Redneck vampires in a blacked-out winnebago kidnap new recruits in rural America. The Hills Have Fangs? Not really. Iit’s odd to think of this coming from the same year as Lost Boys, being as removed from the earlier movies’ very urban settings and instead heading out to the badlands for what its creators tried to make, a modern vampire Western. As the pitch might indicate, the result is cast very far from the premise, helped (or not) by a score by Tangerine Dream (it also features a flicknife-sharp cover of Fever by The Cramps, bringing us back to the Goth splatter chic of The Hunger). I saw this myself in the early Nineties, so draw parallels with the likes of Wild at Heart that couldn’t have been there at all. Worth a look, though, even if to see what the once Mrs James Cameron managed to do with her ex’s favourite guest spots Lance Henrikson and Bill Paxton.

I ask you – did we ever have it better?

Bonus video: the past reinvented for the present - here's Gerard McMahon aka G Tom Mac performing a fantastic swamp blues version of his Lost Boys theme, inspired by True Blood.


  1. Nice! I think you're right, we probably never did have it better.
    The Hunger was an absolute style icon back in the day, 'Brat-packer-friendly Lost Boys seemed to be the most popular and Near Dark was the more obscure gem for the aficionado. But for me, Fright Night was the perfect blend of chills and sheer good fun. I love those industrial pre-CGI effects too. We can only hope the remake manages to be "...Fright Night - FOR REAL"

  2. Cheers, Al!

    Fright Night is an easy second or almost first-equal for me too. The sense of humour carries it a long way (I think at my first viewing we had it as a double feature with House, which still sounds great!) and the casting is very cool.

  3. Loved "Near Dark" and "Fright Night". Never saw "The Hunger" and am undecided about "The Lost Boys". That said, the "Fright Night" remake is due out this year...

  4. Check out "The Originals" on CW. It's a spin-off from "The Vampire Diaries", but I think it's far better. awesome effing story and plot. Plus it's all in New Orleans - the real vampire central ;-)