Now is the Time for Monsters: Re-inventing Vampires and Hammer Horror

The difficulty I faced in finding a home for my recent vampire story has got me thinking about the wider vampire genre. I think everyone accepts that the creatures have been done to death (for now anyway) – the sleek and melancholy bloodsuckers associated with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), and then subsequently turned into pop-cultural sex symbols, have rather saturated the market. They’ll be back, of course – vampires are such a mainstay of horror (and horror-flavoured) fiction that it is only a matter of time before they resurface, but it’s going to require some reinvention.

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These now-ubiquitous ‘cool’ vampires were, however, themselves a paradigm shift from the older, monstrous flavour (a flavour that, ironically, many readers now want to see a return to). Pre-Rice vampires were, by definition, antagonists. Villains. Representative of a Good vs Evil worldview. They had a sexual component to them, but it’s a sexual component that feeds into the wider terror – the seductiveness of Lugosi’s cinematic Dracula is that of a spider entrapping a fly, while Stoker’s original is imbued with a general spiritual “wrongness”, of which the exchange of bodily-fluids is but one component. Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) is a Victorian depiction of the unspoken sin of lesbianism, while one of the last gasps of the pre-Rice era, ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (1975), mentions the eerie beauty of the ever-multiplying undead hordes. It was also a formula that was blatantly creaking by the end – the film Blood for Dracula (1974) is self-conscious about this, with the premise that Dracula (a relic from an older, more spiritual age) can only drink the blood of virgins – and accordingly finds himself starving to death in a sex-obsessed secular world.

By contrast, Post-Rice vampires tend to play down the monstrosity element – these are creatures that may or may not be antagonists, but they are certainly the products of a more morally relativistic age. Meanwhile, sex appeal in the service of eroticism (to varying degrees) has replaced sex appeal in the service of terror. The vampires of Rice are long-haired pretty-boys with an overlay of ancien régime aristocrat, and the appeal of the Underworld franchise revolves around Kate Beckinsale in a tight-fitting leather catsuit. Buffy’s vampires are demonic entities of the old school… but that does not stop many of them de facto functioning as supernatural bad boys or kinksters (Vampire Willow…). This isn’t completely alien to the Victorian themes of, say, Carmilla, but with the shift in audience attitudes, the implication has changed – sex in the name of social subversion has become glamorously edgy, rather than a sinister metaphor for sin. But it’s a model that has more or less held the genre together for the last four decades, and those modern media portrayals that avoid revelling in the alluring vampire (Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In (2004) is decidedly non-sexy), often still adopt the Rice model of exploring “what it means to be a vampire,” rather than the older notion of “stake first, ask questions later”.

So Rice vampires are old hat – well and good. What now? Well, judging by the last crisis in the genre (the 1970s), the casual horror dabbler will move onto something else, while for the true vampire tragic, there will be ever-weirder and more desperate attempts to inject some freshness into the premise. And this is where I thought a look at Hammer Horror might prove illustrative.

Hammer Horror – that British horror film institution between the 1950s and the 1970s – arguably represents the decline and fall of the old monster model of vampire, and just as interestingly, some of the various pre-Rice attempts to rejuvenate the genre. Back in August 2015 (a pretty nasty winter in this part of the world), I binge-watched Hammer’s old gothic horrors, some forty in the space of a month, and was struck by how often they ended up straying from their famous formula. Terry Pratchett once said “you always know what you’re getting with Hammer” – and yes, you do. Until you don’t (amongst other things, they produced Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960), which is arguably half a century ahead of its time).

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Looking at Hammer’s sixteen different vampire films, the obvious distinction is between their Dracula series, and their non-Dracula films. So let’s separate them out, together with my short review of each:

The Dracula ones:

Dracula (1958) – This is often treated as one of the studio’s all-time peaks, along with its first adaptation of Frankenstein. It’s colourful, lavish, and has everything one expects from a Hammer Horror, complete with the iconic scene of Cushing’s Van Helsing confronting Lee’s Dracula. What is interesting, however, is the extent to which it is already taking plot liberties with Stoker’s source material, and how Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the Count is so much more feral in feel than Bela Lugosi’s from 1931. This is a pure monster film.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) – This is the point at which Hammer is starting to live off its past glories – there’s no real connection to Stoker, just a sort of gothic theme-park with capes and castles. Lee doesn’t speak at all, and the film is mainly notable for the gruesome manner of the vampire’s resurrection (spoiler – Dracula keeps coming back after each death), and the unusual method of Dracula disposal. Apart from that, it’s not awful, but not great either.

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) – This Dracula resurrection is the first that starts to slide into the genuinely silly, and (unusually) it shoe-horns in a Power of Faith theme – it’s not just symbols, but actual Christian faith. On the other hand, the film has one of more the more memorable and unusual Renfield-types. He’s easily the most interesting character – an interesting spin on an increasingly tired formula.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) – This is another attempted twist, this time a Dracula film with theme of Establishment/parental hypocrisy. It works less well, and seeing Clegg from Last of the Summer Wine as a debauched hedonist means you can’t help but snigger (yes, I know this was before Last of the Summer Wine started). Dracula himself is killed off (again!) in nonsensical fashion.

Scars of Dracula (1970) -With the end of the Hays Code era in the United States, Hammer was caught between ‘gruesome’ American horror on one hand and ‘sexy’ European horror on the other. So this adaption has the standard gothic theme-park stuff, plus extra nastiness, and a good deal more sexual content (albeit not involving Dracula himself). Lee’s Dracula actually gets some lines for a change, and Patrick Troughton (aka the Second Doctor) as his assistant is awesome. I personally consider this film one of Hammer’s better Dracula sequels.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) – This is where the model breaks down sufficiently that Hammer tries having a Dracula story set in the modern day (i.e. 1972). It’s very predictable, and turns into a soulless mockery of Hammer’s golden age (they’re reduced to wheeling out a Cushing vs Lee climax). Even the dated “young people’s party” lacks so-bad-it’s-good value.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) – By this time, Lee was being emotionally blackmailed into playing the Count. That said, it is still much better than Dracula A.D. 1972, and is an attempt to update the Dracula story by turning it into a science-fiction-flavoured political thriller – which against all odds, almost works. The film feels rather like Hammer Horror does a Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who (appropriately enough, since 1973 was the Pertwee era), and it benefits from turning the Count from an archaic nobleman (no longer scary) into a sort of mad scientist figure.

The Legends of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) – A Dracula film without Lee, who had had enough by this point. This is one of those films that proves Pratchett false – Hammer throw their traditional Dracula framework out the window, and feature Kung Fu masters against Chinese Vampires (and Dracula). The result is bizarre as hell, and choc-full of cheese, but the sort of creativity on show reveals how desperate the studio was to refresh its take on vampires. It failed, though not through lack of trying.

The non-Dracula ones:

The Brides of Dracula (1960) – Forget the title – there’s no Dracula here. Still a good film, and especially interesting in that I am struggling to recall many non-Dracula vampire movies prior to this one. It might be stretching things to call it an attempt to get the genre out from under Stoker’s shadow – the manipulative and charming antagonist is still Dracula-flavoured (albeit Lugosi, rather than Lee), but for the first and only time in Hammer, we actually encounter a sympathetic vampire. In that sense, The Brides of Dracula was the closest Hammer ever came to picking the direction the genre would eventually go.

The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) – The best bit is the opening scene, but it’s otherwise pretty meh. If Taste the Blood of Dracula is a later attack on Establishment hypocrisy, this one is a socially conservative comment on dangerous youth movements (this is the 1960s), with vampirism portrayed as a cult. Oddly, the bad guys are taken out with the help of bats.

The Vampire Lovers (1970) – First of the Karnstein Trilogy. Recall what I mentioned about Hammer being challenged by gory Americans and sexy Europeans? The Karnstein Trilogy was Hammer’s attempt to compete with the latter – Scars of Dracula may have ratcheted up the sexual content, but it has to resort to a protagonist and side-characters, since Lee’s monstrous Dracula doesn’t lend himself to audience titillation. Carmilla, on the other hand, does lend itself to titillation – it basically invented the Lesbian Vampire trope in 1872, and The Vampire Lovers is Hammer’s attempt to adapt Le Fanu’s novella (‘Karnstein’ is the surname of Carmilla the character). The result is, well, a lesbian vampire film – pretty edgy for 1970.

Lust for a Vampire (1971) – Second of the Karnstein Trilogy. This one is just bad. Adapting Carmilla is one thing, objectifying teenage girls is another. I should mention though that the Karnstein Trilogy, while still playing up vampires as monsters, makes for much more inventive vampires than Dracula retreads – Karnstein vampires can walk around in daylight (as can Stoker’s original, of course, but everyone forgets that because of Nosferatu).

Twins of Evil (1971) – Third of the Karnstein Trilogy. This one really doesn’t have much to do with Carmilla the book, and there’s less focus on the lesbian angle. Instead, we get a bit of Puritanical witch-finding instead. The result works – the film has memorable characters and an engaging plot. Can’t go wrong with an old-school burning at the stake…

Countess Dracula (1971) – This one isn’t strictly a vampire film, but it is close enough thematically – a film adaption of the legends surrounding Elizabeth Bathory, with copious blood sacrifices of virgins in the name of youth and libido. The film feels a bit of a let-down given the potential of the source material, but it’s really just Hammer trying to mine some source of vampire plot that isn’t Dracula.

Vampire Circus (1972) – This one might actually be my favourite vampire film, full stop (its major competition there is George Romero’s Martin (1978)). Gothic horror meets 1970s-style decadence – what an atmosphere – and the plot is engaging and creative. It’s a crying shame the film is so underrated.

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) – Came out at the same time as The Legends of the 7 Golden Vampires, and just as weird. These are non-standard vampires (they suck youth, not blood), up against a swashbuckling action hero in a film that borders on ‘Sword and Sorcery with Vampires’. The result is good, cheesy fun – but we never get to see any more, because by this point, Hammer was short of money, and on the brink of folding.

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What to make of this list of old British horror films? Well, as I have mentioned, we are seeing an extended attempt to reinvent the vampire genre – throwing ideas at the wall, and seeing what sticks. Specifically there’s:

  • Changing the character focus from the ‘Dracula’ to the ‘Renfield.’
  • Adding socially relevant themes.
  • Adding sex and violence.
  • Shifting the setting to the modern era.
  • Shifting the genre from horror to thriller.
  • Getting away from Europe.
  • Having a sympathetic vampire.
  • Lesbian vampires that don’t obey conventional “lore”.
  • Mining non-Dracula sources.
  • Revelling in a decadent atmosphere.
  • Vampires that don’t suck blood.
  • Sword and Sorcery derring-do.

There’s some genuine creativity here, and one can see the kernels of what was to come. The distinction between this list and Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is, however, that Hammer remained stuck in the ‘vampires as monsters’ framework – vampires as protagonists, rather than antagonists, was something they didn’t try, semi-sympathetic character in The Brides of Dracula notwithstanding. Nor was there any attempt to explore the psychology of vampires in how they relate to the world – that would only come after Hammer.

I myself have no idea where the genre will go now that it’s past saturation point, but as we seem to have run into a curious case of history repeating itself, I thought it’d be interesting to look at the last time creators were hunting around for a new spin. Perhaps the next resurrection of the genre will find its source in one of the current efforts to reinvent post-Rice vampires? Who knows? For now, I think we’re stuck in a strange and awkward interregnum. To cite a quote often attributed to Antonio Gramsci:

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Relevant, even when the old and new world are the monsters.

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