When I was a boy, hungrily devouring Universal and Hammer horror movies after dark on TV, Dracula was old enough to be my dad – or at least a fairly unsavoury uncle. Bela Lugosi was nearly 50 when he took the career-defining role of Bram Stoker’s aristocratic bloodsucker in the classic black-and-white 1931 Dracula.
And Christopher Lee – just under 40 when, in 1958, he redefined the cinematic image of the Count in Technicolor – carried himself throughout the sequels as an adult, if not necessarily an appropriate one. Meanwhile, their predecessor Max Schreck in the original, silent Nosferatu (1922) and Klaus Kinski in the 1970s revival were, frankly, old and bald.
The sexual undercurrent of vampirism was ever-present, with Hammer shamelessly exploiting the fruitier aspects in the 1960s and 70s, when cinema became more permissive; but it wasn’t until the 80s that vampires started to look sexy by default.
Anne Rice’s huge-selling novels The Vampire Chronicles (1976–2003) introduced the immortal French nobleman Lestat, and a film version of the first of these, Interview with the Vampire, belatedly hit the screens in 1994, with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as the dilettante-ish neck-jockeys in 18th-century Louisiana. By this time, Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (both 1987) had recast vampires as leather-jacketed bikers, dragging eastern European folklore into the MTV-blasted present.
The die was cast: garlic, crosses and castles were out; Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), a film that evolved into a darker but just as photogenic contemporary TV series in the late 90s, was in. It became the template for modern sons and daughters of Dracula: with a rock and pop soundtrack, and the lust cranked up, the 21st-century vampire was born. Cue: Twilight.
Author Stephenie Meyer claims that the idea for the Twilight quartet came to her in a dream about a human girl and a vampire boy whose love was forbidden. They became flesh as Washington-state high-schooler Bella Swan (immortalised on screen by a pasty-faced Kristen Stewart) and more-than-a-century-old (but forever trapped in the body of a 17-year-old) hunk Edward Cullen (the even pastier-faced Robert Pattinson). And their mooning, on-off relationship lies at the heart of a saga whose books have sold well over 100 million copies – the majority to “young adults” (as publishers respectfully categorise hormonal teens).
Meyer’s astonishing success led to a gold rush (or blood rush, if you prefer), as countless other teen-aimed vamp-angst franchises were adapted for the screen, most notably HBO’s series True Blood. Based on Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries and first published in 2001, it beat Twilight to publication by four years, and its nocturnal seducers are always the prettiest. Wherever you look these days, underwear models are sprouting fangs and draining the jugulars of hapless humans, the exchange of plasma offering a whole new level of sexual danger.
I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Twilight, which has proved an inevitable smash in its transfer to the screen, is rooted in a far more chaste lifestyle choice than the steamy True Blood. Meyer’s membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is well known, and finds voice in Bella and Edward’s mutual abstention from consummating their pre-matrimonial love (in the fourth instalment, Breaking Dawn, whose first part comes to cinemas in November, they’re wed).
This daringly unfashionable romanticism speaks loudly to certain adolescents perhaps reacting against an aggressively sexualised world. However, Bram Stoker and his 18th-century forebears never set out to preach to schoolchildren; indeed, the first vampire novels challenged Christianity with lurid fantasies about heathen ritual and provided repressed Victorians with vicarious thrills during a time of rampant communicable disease.
Heading up Film4’s FrightFest season this year, Let the Right One In offers a far gloomier blood-letting, and its central “romance” is not between 12th-graders but 12-year-olds. This haunting but also moving Swedish film (2008) was remade in English last year, as Let Me In – aptly co-produced by an exhumed Hammer studios. The remake works well, but the original is superior, exploring the gory tribulations of topping up on mortal blood without getting caught, and the echoes between the human boy’s bullying at school and the vampire girl’s outsider status.
Vampires have always existed outside polite society, and the self-evident social friction has provided writers and film-makers with fresh meat for decades. But it’s clear that demographic imperatives – in publishing and in cinema – have knocked years off Dracula. Which is no mean feat for someone who is technically dead.
Five vampire classics to die for:
1) Dracula (1931) Bela Lugosi gets a cape, changes into a bat and flies in this chilly, gothic, genre-defining black-and-white adaptation
2) Dracula (1958) Buckets of “Kensington Gore” were ordered up for Hammer’s Technicolor upgrade – but don’t mention it to Christopher Lee
3) Martin (1978) The vampire went contemporary with garlic-immune boy-next-door John Amplas
4) Salem’s Lot (1979) The cueball-headed Mr Barlow (Reggie Nalder) terrorises Maine in a Stephen King adaptation
5) The Twilight Saga (2008–12) Edward Cullen’s pale skin and tasty 4×4 launch a thousand chaste adolescent fantasies about R-Patz