Twilight and History's Coolest Vampires - An RT Guide

Kim Newman explores a century of Vampire Chic.

by | December 18, 2008 | Comments

Vampire Chic

You have to be really twisted (keyword: furry) to fancy a werewolf, and no one really thinks the Frankenstein Monster would make a suitable boyfriend — even the Bride of Frankenstein took one look at his flat head, scars and neck-electrodes and screamed the house down.

But vampires are sexy.

As monsters go, vampires tick all the desirable boxes: own castle with apparently unlimited funds (ever heard of a poor vampire?), wardrobe full of natty threads (black cloaks lined with red silk never go out of fashion), slimline near-anorexic look that comes from an all-liquid diet, eternally youthful appearance to belie that all-night-long party animal lifestyle (watch out for sunrise, though), superior conversational skills (compared with, say, the Mummy or a zombie), glamorously romantic brooding over long-lost love (and you could be the reincarnation), and the ever-popular sado-erotic necking fetish…

With the teenage nice guy vampire of Twilight catching the hearts of 12-16-year-old girls all over the world, it’s time to cast a backward glance at style-leading vampire characters over the decades…

Vampire Chic - 1910s

There was a craze for the ‘vampire’ look in the early 20th Century, thanks to glamorous star Theda Bara, who starred in A Fool There Was — based on Rudyard Kipling‘s poem ‘The Vampire’. These vampires weren’t strictly supernatural, but dark-eyed, dark-haired seductresses in clingy, revealing dresses who set out to ruin upstanding young heroes and rich old men, sucking their bank accounts dry and leaving victims exhausted. This was supposed to be a bad thing and the women tended to get punished in the end, but filmgoers at the time felt it’d be more fun to be ‘vamped’ by Theda than, say, simpered at by Mary Pickford.

Vampire Chic - 1920s

The first screen vampires were the least sexy, but among the most striking — ninety years on, and make-up men still copy the rat-faced, long-fingered look of Max Schreck as Graf von Orlock in Nosferatu (check out Mackenzie Crook in the upcoming Demons — Crook looks like Nosferatu even without the fake fangs). Also influential was Lon Chaney as ‘the Man in the Beaver Hat’, the impressively-toothy, headgear-sporting fake vampire of the now-lost London After Midnight.

Vampire Chic - 1930s

Bela Lugosi first played Dracula on stage in the 1920s — he spoke little English and had to learn his lines phonetically (‘I … am … Drah … coo … la’) — and recreated the role in the 1931 film which started off the horror movie as a genre. Few actors have set such a lasting stamp on the part: Lugosi, for instance, was the first vampire to wear a cloak, and his evening clothes became the default Dracula costume forever (in Love at First Bite, George Hamilton complains ‘how would you like to spend five hundred years dressed like a headwaiter?’). His reading of the role was a Latin lover who drank blood, sort of a vampire Valentino, and all his fan mail came from women.

Vampire Chic - 1940s

Vampires were staid in the ’40s, with Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine dressing up in Lugosi’s old gear when they played Dracula. However, Chaney starred in Son of Dracula with a new type of vamp/vampire, a death-obsessed goth girl played by Louise Albritton in a shroudlike white dress — much like the silent brides of Dracula seen in the 1931 film — who sets out to ensnare the Count and invites his kiss so that she can live forever. For the first time, a female vampire sought equal time — and her example would be followed.

Vampire Chic - 1950s

In 1958, Hammer Films remade Dracula, and cast Christopher Lee as a taller, leaner, more dynamic Count, dribbling a little red blood from his mouth, swishing a mean cape and with enough velvet nap on his collar and bouffant in his ‘do to qualify as a teddy boy. Lee’s Dracula is to Lugosi’s what Sean Connery‘s Bond is to the gentleman spies of pre-war movies — a sexual predator with a sideline in determined sadism. Throughout several sequels, Lee barged into bedrooms and treated nightie-clad starlets roughly — and Hammer made a point of hinting that the women liked being treated this way, especially when they transformed into deep-cleavage bloodsucking acolytes.

Vampire Chic - 1960s

Vampires got sexier in the ’60s, and into the ’70s, as more and more women got into the act — yielding such memorable fanged sex kittens as Barbara Steele in The Mask of Satan (Black Sunday), Barbara Shelley in Dracula — Prince of Darkness, Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers and Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness. All these ladies made great play of big eyes and bigger teeth. Various Eurotrash types started turning out vampire skinflicks, like La Vampire Nue or Vampyros Lesbos, in which blood trickling into cleavage is a recurrent image.

Vampire Chic - 1970s

Dracula was back in the ’70s, and became smoother over the decade. In 1974, Jack Palance played the Count as a lovelorn swain searching for the reincarnation of his lost love (in a version that prefigured Francis Coppola‘s even to the extent of calling itself Bram Stoker’s Dracula); in 1977, Louis Jourdan added a lizardy continental charm to the old roue in the BBC’s classy Count Dracula; and, in 1979, current Oscar hot tip Frank Langella sported a disco bouffant and a flared cloak as a disco-look Dracula. Even Klaus Kinski, in Werner Herzog‘s Nosferatu remake, set off his ratty skull with a shimmery kaftan which would have got him into Studio 54.

Vampire Chic - 1980s

The heavy party decade threw up several vampire styles — the grungy, crusty, western-influenced, biker/traveller gang of Near Dark (as played by the supporting cast of Aliens) and the skunk-haired, glad-ragged, white-eyed, step-off-a-bridge cool of The Lost Boys. Like a lot of ’80s things, you had to be there at the time to groove fully. If you were potentially going to live forever, would you stick with a hairdo like Kiefer Sutherland‘s in The Lost Boys? And, frankly, if you could kill whoever you want and get away with it, why would you leave Corey Haim and Corey Feldman alive?

Vampire Chic - 1990s

The watchword for ’90s vampires was ‘tormented’, but they also made a fuss about courtly romance — Gary Oldman‘s Dracula mooned around after Winona Ryder, while Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise bickered and swooned like the world’s most jaded gay couple in Interview With the Vampire. Stuart Townsend took over as Anne Rice‘s soppy Lestat in Queen of the Damned, and the whining continued via Angel (David Boreanaz) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his own spin-off. Meanwhile, the decade’s coolest night creature was little Kirsten Dunst as the homicidal gothic lolita adopted in Interview.

Vampire Chic - 2000s

So, we come to the vampires of Twilight — a happy, anemic family of glam, superior types who enjoy baseball during thunderstorms but wouldn’t consider getting to first base with a real live girl. A bizarre product of the craze for teenage abstinence, Stephanie Meyer’s Cullen clan — and Edward, as played by Brit pin-up Robert Pattinson — are the boy band of the undead, the vampires you wouldn’t mind dating your teenage daughter. Just as audiences in the ’10s secretly preferred the vamps over the good girls, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the equally good-looking, but totally amoral bad vampires of Twilight figure more heavily in the fans’ troubling dreams.

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