A History of Vampires in Film

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1922)

Although vampire-like figures have existed in folklore across the world for centuries, the majority of vampire films take their inspiration from one single source: Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, ‘Dracula’. In fact, the earliest recognised ‘vampire film’, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), is an adaptation of the novel, with only the character names changed due to copyright issues. Many other adaptations of Stoker’s novel have been made over the years, but it’s influence on the world of cinema goes well beyond source material. It was Stoker who introduced the majority of tropes that are nowadays synonymous with the idea of vampires, such as them being repelled by garlic and biting their victims on the neck.

Dracula and its cinematic adaptations also started the trend of vampires being seen as monsters and villains, leading them to become the subject of many horror and thriller films, including a collection from the famous Hammer studios, which are now regarded by many as cult classics. In such films, vampires are presented as mysterious, alluring, and highly deadly, and they always end up being vanquished by a heroic hunter figure. These heroes are usually meant to be relatable characters for the audience to root for, whereas the vampire is always an outcast from society, and lives a more solitary life. This presentation of the vampire draws directly on folklore, as they were traditionally viewed as ‘ungodly’ creatures that did not adhere to the Christian faith, hence the idea that vampires can be repelled by a cross or crucifix. For female vampires in film, this is further emphasised, as they are generally portrayed as seductive femme fatales, going against all traditional and stereotypical views of what a ‘good woman’ should be like. This is seen to an even greater extent in films such as Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), in which a female vampire seduces and kills young women, showing how vampires have frequently been used as metaphors for things that are misunderstood or feared by society, such as homosexuality.

However, in more recent years, vampires have begun to be presented in more positive ways, whilst still conforming to many of the tropes used by older vampire films. A popular example of this is Neil Jordan’s 1994 film Interview with the Vampire, based on a novel by Anne Rice. The film stars Brad Pitt as Louis, a vampire who recounts his life story to a biographer in the hopes that he will sympathise with him and offer to become his companion. Unlike many earlier films, ‘Interview with the Vampire’ shows things from the perspective of the “monster”, showing that vampires don’t always have to be the shadowy villains of films; they can just as easily be shown as relatable and sympathetic characters. Perhaps the modern age’s most spoken-about vampire film franchise also attempts to make the “monster” a relatable figure, though perhaps not quite as successfully as in Jordan’s film: Catherine Hardwicke’s 2008 adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Edward Cullen, a mysterious and sparkly (!) vampire, acts as a romantic interest for the series’ protagonist, though the majority of viewers tend to agree that he is far more of a creepy stalker figure than the desirable hero he was intended to be. Despite this negative reception, Meyer’s portrayal of vampires has had a clear influence on popular culture today, as many films have followed in her footsteps of romanticising vampires and other such creatures.

Overall, then, it is clear that public perception of vampires in film has changed since the creatures made their cinematic debut in the 1920s. Though many stereotypes surrounding vampires are still crucial to their portrayal, each film adds its own twists to the legend, meaning that they will continue to evolve as long as they remain popular, and that popularity doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.