“To win a woman, take her with you to see Dracula” – Bela Lugosi
Who is the biggest threat to vampires? Dr. Van Helsing? Blade? Buffy Summers? Nope. It’s not any of these vampire slaying characters. In a current entertainment industry that seems to be obsessed with vampires the biggest threat to vampires is Edward Cullen. That’s right! If anybody has done more harm to the mythos of the vampire it has to be the gloomy, doe eyed, pretentious, glitters in the sun and breaks into underage girls’ bedrooms and watches them sleep at night, Edward Cullen, hero of Stephanie Meyer’s hit Twilight saga. Sure, you can argue that Twilight is the reason that vampires have hit a brand new zenith of popularity, but the truth is that the majority of the vampires in today’s slicked up productions are the kind that wouldn’t even excite the Goth kids from my youth. The truth is, these days vampires kinda suck…and not in the way they are supposed to.
Just as vampire legends continue, the vampire is a perennial favorite in film, television, comic books and literature that goes as far back as the middle ages. There is a long history of beloved vampire characters that could kick Edward Cullen’s ass. So let’s celebrate the legacy of our favorite vampires before they sparkled – the good, the bad, the gloomy and the funny. Reacquainted yourself with vampires that we can really sink our teeth into.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
VAMPIRES DON’T SPARKLE:
TWENTY VAMPIRES THAT DON’T SUCK
Sir Francis Varney, aka Varney the Vampire – Although his story has never been brought to film or television, no look at the history of kick ass vampires would be faithful without the inclusion of Varney the Vampyre. The protagonist of a series of “penny dreadfuls” written between 1845 to 1847 by English author James Malcolm Rymer, Varney the Vampyre has wallowed in obscurity for over a century, but is possibly the most important vampire that most people have never heard of.
As a result to various inconsistencies throughout the text, the true origins of Varney are muddled. It is thought that Varney was once Sir Marmaduke Bannerworth who was cursed by a royalist who he had betrayed to Oliver Cromwell. When he accidentally killed his own son in a fit of rage, Bannerworth hung himself, but his body was retrieved by medical student Dr. Chillingworth who revived him via galvanism. Once revived as a supernatural undead creature, Varney stalks and terrorizes the residents of Bannerworth Hall, including his own ancestors and a host of other characters. Loathing his undead condition, Varney eventually commits suicide by throwing himself of a mountain top, but only after he leaves a written account of his life with a priest.
Varney the Vampire was the first serialized character based on vampire lore, and despite the inconsistencies throughout Rymer’s text, the majority of attributes that the general public associate with vampires first appeared within Varney the Vampire including stalking maidens, its need to drink blood for survival, turning into bats, having fangs that leave two puncture wounds in victims necks, using hypnotic powers and having super human strength and speed. However, once Ryner’s entire story was collected in one volume in 1847, the story was virtually unreadable. With 220 chapters, the book clocked in at nearly 900 double columned pages and was a confusing jumbled mess. Due to the fact that Varney the Vampire didn’t work as a complete novel, the character faded into obscurity, but his legacy is still felt throughout vampire media today.
Count Orlock– When Bram Stoker released his vampire novel Dracula in 1897 his gothic tale became, without any argument, the most important vampire novel of all time and captured the imaginations of people throughout the world. In 1921 German film director F.W. Murnau began preparations to produce a film adaptation of the movie. Yet, unable to get permission from Stoker’s estate, Murnau created the character of Count Orlock as a replacement for Count Dracula. Casting German stage actor Max Schreck in the role of Count Orlock, Murnau kept the same basic storyline of Stoker’s Dracula, even keeping the names of key characters such as Jonathan and Mina Harker, Reinfield and Dr. Van Helsing. However, Schreck’s Count Orlock took on a life all it’s own, making a huge impression on audiences and has maintained a popularity with horror fans. With his tall lean frame, claw like fingers, bald head and piercing eyes, Schreck’s Count Orlock is far more creature like and inhuman then the popular image of the vampire with the fangs and cape. Premiering in 1922, the film was instantly hailed a masterpiece in horror, but once hearing about the movie, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe, who had come upon hard times, issued a copywrite infringement suite against Murnau despite the fact that she had never seen the film. In 1925 Balcombe won the case and the original negatives and the prints of Nosferatu were handed over and destroyed. Thankfully an unknown source wisely rescued some of the prints from destruction, and by 1929 Nosferatu rose again from the grave for its American cinematic debut in New York! The film remains to be one of the greatest vampire movies of all time.
But just as the character he was based upon, Count Orlock would prove to rise from the dead again and again. In 1979 eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog decided to remake Murnau’s Nosferatu and cast pal Klaus Kinski in the role of Count Orlock. Developing makeup that masked that of Max Schreck, Kinski’s Count Orlock was immediately identifiable as the same character. Playing him as a quite and subtle creature of the night, Kinski was able to capture the same dark and inhuman qualities of the original Count Orlock. Although it seemed like an unlikely film to try to remake, Herzog and Kinski’s Nosferatu was a fitting tribute to the original film, and one of the most beautiful vampire films ever made.
Finally, in 2000 director E Elias Merhige and writer Steven A Katz decided to put a new spin on Nosferatu with their film Shadow of the Vampire. A fictional tale of the filming of Nosferatu, the movie starred John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau and Willem DeFoe as Max Schreck. The twist in this version though was that Max Shreck was, in fact, a real vampire! Once again, Willem DeFoe was made up to become a living embodiment of Max Schreck, making him unmistakeably Count Orlock. Shadow of the Vampire was a critical success and was nominated for two Oscars – one for best makeup for the recreation of Count Orlock, and the second for Willem DeFoe in the category of Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Max Schreck.
Although he was based on Dracula, over the decades Count Orlock has found his own unique fan following, separating him from that of the character of Dracula, in which he remains to be one of the creepiest and mysterious vampires in film history.
Count Dracula– Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula will forever be the most popular vampire in history. Based upon the legends of historic Hungarian ruler Vlad the Impaler, and with elements borrowed from Varney the Vampyre, Stoker’s original 1897 novel is the quintessential vampire story. However, after the fiasco with Murmau’s Nosferatu, it took a while before Count Dracula actually found his way to film. Instead, Florence Balcombe approved of a stage production of Dracula which had successful runs on the London and New York stage between 1924 to 1927. Eventually Universal producer Carl Lammele Jr. legally acquired the rights to make a film version of Dracula and enlisted Tod Browning to direct the film. Initially the film was to star horror icon Lon Chaney Sr, the Man of 1000 Faces, in the role of Dracula. Chaney had already played a vampire in London After Midnight. Unfortunately, due to a battle with throat cancer, Chaney died leaving Browning and Lammele without a Dracula. But fate would smile on the production when a touring production of the stage version of Dracula came to Los Angeles with Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the role of the vampire. Although Lemmele was unimpressed by Lugosi, Browning took a liking to his usual version of the character and Lugosi won the part.
Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula would become the image of vampires that have become popular in the minds of the public – his pale face, wide eyes, shiny lips, black cape and, most of all, his strange Hungarian accent. In reality, Lugosi spoke very poor English at the time they were filming Dracula and did most of his lines phonetically, causing for the peculiar speech patterns that would be copied and imitated countless amounts of times over the decades. When Dracula was released in February 1931 it was considered a risk by Universal Studios who were wary of the dark subject matter. Up until then horror films were rare in North America and were a fixture of European cinema. However, the gamble paid off and Dracula was a huge success giving birth to the legendary Universal Horror Series. Later in 1931 Universal’s second horror film, Frankenstein, was released, followed by other monster franchises including the Wolf Man, the Mummy and the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Oddly enough, Bela Lugosi would not be back for the sequels and instead Lon Chaney Jr. and David Carradine put the cape on for Universal’s later films featuring Dracula. Bela Lugosi would only play Dracula officially one more time on screen in 1948’s comedy Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Despite the success of the Universal Horror films, by the 1950’s the films had become considered campy in nature. Thus, in 1958 England’s Hammer Studios sought to make their own Dracula film. Striking a deal with Universal Studios, Hammer agreed to take a different direction with their picture and concentrated on the struggle between Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing. In the role of Dracula they cast actor Christopher Lee. A strikingly tall and handsome man, Christopher Lee played the character as if he was almost schizophrenic. Proper and gentlemanly in one scene, Lee could turn around with a toothy grin and crazy eyes and become a savage beast in the next. Mixing sex and gothic horror together, Hammer’s Dracula found its own unique audience of horror fans during an era that was hungry for horror films. Christopher Lee would go on to play Dracula in an additional eight films making him the actor to have portrayed Dracula the most on screen. His final performance as Dracula would be 1973’s The Satanic Rights of Dracula. Although he remains to be arguably the screen’s best Dracula, in recent years Christopher Lee has rejected the part, refusing to sign Dracula merchandise at autograph shows or talking about the part in interviews.
The role of Dracula would be done over and over again by scores of actors in various different productions. Some of the most notable actors to do the role include Carlos Villarius who played Dracula in an excellent Spanish speaking version made by Universal at the same time as the Bela Lugosi film; Jack Palance in a TV movie version released by Dan Curtis; Zandor Vorkov in the ultra cheesy cult favorite Dracula vs. Frankenstein; David Niven in the 1974 comedy Old Drac; Udo Kier in Andy Warhol’s Dracula; Morgan Freeman in the 1970’s kid show The Electric Company; Frank Langelia in a 1979 TV movie and Gary Oldman in a big budget 1992 retelling of Dracula that tried to “Anne Rice” the character. The public will always have a fascination with Dracula who will continue to rise again and again, rightfully making him the king of the vampires.
Vampira – With her tight black funeral gowns, plunging cleavage and unhealthy three inch waistline, horror hostess Vampira, aka Maila Nurmi, was the godmother of Goth girls everywhere. The world’s first late night horror film hostess, Maila Nurmi would start a unique gothic fashion trend that would be imitated and made popular in the 1990’s as Goth culture came to its height of popularity, and who’s schtick would be copied by countless performers in their own horror programs in different regional markets. However, despite her cult following, Nurmi’s time at the top would be short lived although her influence would prove to be monumental.
Maila Nurmi’s story is filled with as many legends as truths, making the reality of her history hard to pin point. What is known is that she came to Los Angeles in search for fame in the late 1940s where she supported herself as a hat-check girl while working as a pin-up model between occasional bit roles on stage and in films. When she appeared at choreographer Lester Horton’s Halloween party in a costume inspired by Charles Addam’s comic version of Morticia Addams, which was being printed in The New Yorker, she caught the eye of TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr who was looking for a host for a late night Saturday horror program that would be featured on KABC-TV. Signing Nurmi to a one year contract, Nurmi’s then husband came up with the name Vampira for her character. The first broadcast of The Vampira Show was on April 1954 and was an instant hit. Nothing like it had been done before. Nurmi combined sex, death and comedy as she introduced films between dark humor and macabre gags. Vampira was an over night sensation and for the next year she was suddenly everywhere. Keeping the company with icons like James Dean and Orson Welles, Vampira made almost weekly public appearances in places as unusual as cemeteries and as mundane as grocery stores. Vampira was a mistress of self promotion and getting attention. In June 1954 Vampira was the subject of a Life Magazine pictorial and Red Skelton brought her on his show, pairing her up in a sketch with Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr and Peter Lorre. By the year’s end she was nominated for an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding TV Personality, but lost it to Edward R. Murrow.
However, as her fame increased, so did Nurmi’s ego and a battle over money led to Nurmi being fired from KABC when her contract ended a year later. Quickly falling from the top all the way to the bottom, Nurmi became thought of as a novelty act and was unable to get work in Hollywood. Running out of money, and in an act of desperation, Nurmi reluctantly accepted a role in director Edward D. Wood’s film Plan 9 From Outerspace. Dressed in her Vampira costume, Nurmi felt that the script was inane and the role was below her and refused to speak any lines. Ed Wood said that was fine and Nurmi did the role mute. The film was a bomb and went down in history as being called the worst film ever made. As her fortunes fell further, by the beginning of the 1960s Nurmi was working as an linoleum floor installer, but eventually opened an antique shop called Vampira’s Attic.
Nurmi would wallow in obscurity for decades until the 1990s when Goth culture became popular and girls, looking for a role model, unearthed photos of Vampira from the 1950’s. Her sense of morbid style helped perpetuate Goth culture, making her a cult figure in the hearts of fans. Not long after, a reinterest in the films of Ed Wood developed and Plan 9 From Outerspace became an unlikely classic. In 1994 Tim Burton directed an Oscar winning bio-pic of Ed Wood’s life and Lisa Marie Presley portrayed Maila Nurmi in a scene stealing performance. Maila Nurmi died in January 2008 at age 85. However, before she died she was able to see her creation of Vampira rise from the grave to inspire new generations of Goth girls, and to witness the impact that she had on early gothic entertainment.
Grandpa Munster – Due to the popularity of Forrest J. Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, an entire sub-culture of monster crazy kids emerged in the 1960’s. Noticing the new popularity of the Universal horror films amongst American youth, CBS producers Allan Burns and Chris Hayward created The Munsters in 1964. Fusing together the Universal Horror films with traditional family comedies such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, The Munsters was a satirical look at family values and the horror genre. The characters included a Frankenstein monster, a werewolf, the Bride of Frankenstein and of course, a vampire. The vampire in question was Grandpa Munster, played by television comedian Al Lewis. Grandpa Munster was a wildly eccentric vampire who created a mate, Herman Muster, for his beautiful daughter Lily. Sarcastic and energetic, Grandpa Munster is primarily an inventor (obviously a send up on Dr. Frankenstein) who is often seen in his basement laboratory imagining up experiments, inventions and mad-cap schemes to make money which often would become the basis for many of the plots as he and Herman get into trouble, usually resulting in Lily having to bail them out. A comedic character, Al Lewis was not the menacing vampires of gothic entertainment from the past, but was the first popular comedic vampire in entertainment history. Furthermore, he was the first vampire character to appear on television in a weekly series, although he was not a traditional vampire and played for laughs. The Munsters was popular with audiences and lasted two seasons, finishing up in a feature film titled Munster Go Home in 1966 which featured Grandpa in his Drag-U-La car. Al Lewis would reprise the part of Grandpa Munster again in two follow up TV movies, The Munsters Revenge in 1981 and Here Comes the Munsters in 1995. Oddly, Al Lewis donned the Grandpa Munster costume as host of his own afternoon monster movie program on TBS in 1987 called Super Scary Saturday. Only referring to himself as Grandpa, and never using the name “Munster” due to copywrite infringement, Super Scary Saturday lasted until 1989. He may not have been a traditional vampire in the evil, blood sucking sense, but Al Lewis’ Grandpa Munster would remain not only a fan favorite, but establish the vampire as a friendlier comedic character.
Barnabas Collins– In March 1967 a strange visitor arrived at Collinswood Manor. His name was Barnabas Collins, and his presence would save the slagging ratings of the gothic ABC soap opera Dark Shadows from cancellation, and make it one of the greatest cult programs in television history. Furthermore, as televisions first traditional vampire in a television series, Barnabas Collins would go on to become one of the most important vampires in television history, turning the vampire into both a sympathetic and romantic creature.
Dark Shadows premiered in 1966 but by 1967 the show had not found an audience. With cancellation in it’s immediate future, producer Dan Curtis, in a last ditch attempt to save the program, did the unthinkable. He introduced a vampire into the daytime soap opera. Hiring stodgy Canadian Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid for a limited contract as vampire Barnabas Collins, Dan Curtis’ plan worked. Once word got out that a vampire was on Dark Shadows viewers tuned in out of curiosity. Barnabas Collins hit a chord with the audience, and especially teenage girls. Although Jonathan Frid looked like an evil Rowan Atkinson with fangs, girls just dig a vampire and soon, much to his discomfort, middle aged Jonathan Frid began appearing in teen magazines and was suddenly an unlikely sex symbol. Dark Shadows became a phenomena and even had to be changed to a later time slot when schools across North America reported that scores of teenagers were skipping classes to watch the adventures of Barnabas Collins and the strange happenings at Collinwood Manor! Jonathan Frid was given a permanent contracts and soon Dark Shadows was appearing everywhere from comic books to board games to novels, and even spawned a pair of cinematic film, beginning with House of Dark Shadows in 1970. which retold Barnabas’ arrival at Collinwood.
Barnabas Collins’ origins hailed back to 1795 where Barnabas, the son of wealthy land owner, had a vampire curse put on him by his scorned lover Angelique Bouchard, who was a powerful witch. Scorning his condition, and unwilling to walk the night as one of the undead, Barnabas begged his father, Joshua Collins, to kill him, but Joshua, unable to slay his son, had him entombed in a coffin for eternity. However, in 1967, when hoodlum Willie Loomis raided the Collins family crypt in search for treasure, he accidentally released Barnabas from his slumber. Barnabas introduced himself to the current Collins family as a long lost cousin from England and took up residence in “the old house,” which was the original residence that Barnabas lived in centuries before. Restoring the house to its original glory, Barnabas became obsessed with local waitress Maggie Evans who resembled his long lost love Josette du Pres. Kidnapping her, and attempting to brainwash her into believing she was Josette, Barnabas kept the girl until she escaped with the help of the ghost of his younger sister Sarah Collins. Soon afterwards, Barbabas’ secret was discovered by Dr. Julia Hoffman who told Barnabas that she would be able to cure his vampirism through a series of experimental blood transfusions and allow him to live as a human once again. However, Julia herself fell in love with Barnabas. Angelique would make her own return to Collinswood, reaping even more havoc on the life of Barbabas Collins.
In his early episodes Barnabas Collins was neither hero nor villain. A creature of many motives, he could be cruel as well as benevolent. He seemed to have true compassion for the Collins family, often protecting the family from danger, but he was also willing to end them if it suited to his own purposes. However, as his popularity continued, Barnabas Collins became the patriarch of the Collins family, and was deemed loyal, devoted and trustworthy. But most importantly, Barnabas Collins was the first vampire in modern entertainment that was a sympathetic character, hating the curse that made him into a vampire and looking for a way to end it. This would be a theme that would be seen time and time again within the vampire genre.
Dark Shadows wrapped up in 1971, but Barnabas Collins would be reborn in 1991 when Dan Curtis attempted to revive Dark Shadows on television. This time Barnabas Collins was played by actor Ben Cross but the show didn’t find an audience and lasted only twelve episodes. However, Barnabas Collins is slated to rise again from the grave in 2012 in the form of Johnny Depp in a big screen adaptation of Dark Shadows directed by Tim Burton, introducing Barnabas Collins to a new generation of vampire hungry fans.