The Fine Art of Sucking

"Vampires, Young and Old"
Oak Street Cinema,
Tuesdays through December 2

EVER DATED SOMEONE with a "thing" for vampires? You know, the sort of guy who talks a little too excitedly about Ann Rice, or the goth girl who dresses all in black and indulges a thrist for type-O? Who could blame these lost souls? After all, vampires are the eternally erotic myth. If Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has technology backfiring on our arrogant asses, Bram Stoker's Dracula is about nature giving us a hickey. Emerging from its Victorian coffin, the vampire has floated through culture for more than a century, and it endures to this day as a poignant metaphor for the darker side of love and seduction. As TV's vampire-slaying Buffy told her fanged would-be boyfriend just last week: "When I kiss you, I want to die."

What's striking about Oak Street Cinema's six-film vampire retro isn't the variety of gems included, but the vast number that didn't make the final cut--like Abel Ferrara's Carrie-for-grad-students, The Addiction, or those garish Hammer films with Christopher Lee, or Paul Morrissey's dreamy, Warhol-produced camp-fest Blood For Dracula, just to name a few. If vampires have made for some great, timeless cinema, it's for the same reason they've made great literature, comics, and bedtime stories. Think about it: What other fictional figure could be described as an enslaving polygamist, an implicit bisexual, a cannibalistic martyr, an immortal atheist, and the very essence of disinterested sadism? The Cat in the Hat?

From his first incarnation in celluloid, Count Dracula was a weirdo who wanted to sandwich himself in the middle of a "normal" middle-class couple. "Is that your wife?" the Count asks of a young real-estate salesman in F.W. Murnau's silent Nosferatu (screening Tuesday, with live musical accompaniment by John Eric Thiede of the band Strawdogs). "What a lovely throat." In 1921, the German Murnau posited his vampire (Max Schreck) as patient zero in a London plague imported from Transylvania, and the horror proved just as enticing for American audiences. Even today, if you put yourself in a receptive state of mind--ignoring, for instance, the sun-lit "night" scenes of Dracula carrying his own coffin across the lawn--this is still one scary film. The shadow of the vampire's hand crawling up his victim's body and grabbing her heart is enough to send chills up your back. (And Murnau's influence remains as recent as Foo Fighters' "Everlong" video.)

Werner Herzog's 1979 remake--Nosferatu, the Vampyre (November 11), starring the truly creepy Klaus Kinski--may well feature the most horrifying pre-'80s Dracula. Herzog's version dusts off the pop humor that had accumulated on the Count, resurrecting him as a kind of angst-ridden, existential demon who looks and sounds like The Hobbit's Golem. But neither Kinski nor Schreck had the iconic impact of Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Dracula (November 4). By this time, the Count had acquired a playboy's panache--albeit a slow-moving, strangely lock-grinned one. The bald, pointy-eared Nosferatu of old was replaced by the now-familiar black-hair and white make-up. Lugosi was plenty scary, but his ironic smile made him a more convincing seducer of weak minds.

By the time Roman Polanski got around to the genre with his Fearless Vampire Killers in 1967 (November 18), the myth was due for a more swingin' treatment. Fans of Polanski's later classics may be surprised by this unabashed piece of trash cinema, which begins with a Lugosi-style vampire attacking a woman (Sharon Tate) in her bathtub, splashing blood and water everywhere. Between its fairy-tale sets, throwaway ending, and vaguely offensive gay- and Jewish-vampire jokes, this is a true oddity.

Fifteen years later, The Hunger (November 25) took vampires out of the castle and into the dance club--not to mention giving erotic-vampire author Pam Keesey what she has cited as her first glimpse at big-screen lesbian sex. Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie play a sophisticated undead-hipster couple who feast in director Tony Scott's trademark atmosphere of pumped-up music, rapid cross-cuts, and light-streaked dry ice, and a pert Susan Sarandon plays the Deneuve character's extracurricular activity. Dated only by its synth soundtrack, The Hunger still makes steam.

The odd-film-out in Oak Street's series is Guillermo Del Toro's Cronos from 1994 (December 2), which takes the most obtuse angle on the undead idea. Centering on a tender relationship between an old man and a child, and a device called "the Cronos" that bestows everlasting life on its owner in exchange for his soul, this uncommonly warm and humorous vampire film forges a sneaky link to the myth that has to be seen to be believed. In the three years since Cronos, we've seen The Addiction, the Interview with the Vampire film, Mel Brooks's Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and Michael Almereyda's Pixelvision-inflected Nadja--suggesting, appropriately, that the vampire movie won't be dying off anytime soon.

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