Vampires, immortal figures of the small and big screen

The vampire is a figure as complex as it is plural. This Carpathian monster was first at the heart of literature: the first traces are found in the 18e century, then it was introduced into the collective imagination by the fantastic novel carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanuin 1872. But all that was before Bram Stoker arrived, 25 years later, with his famous Dracula.

The latter is considered the major work that made the blood drinker famous. Through the complexity of his character, his psychology, as well as the themes he tackles, the book has really contributed to making the Count of Transylvania, and more broadly the vampire, a modern myth that cinema and series have subsequently democratized.

Gary Oldman is unrecognizable in the costume of Draculain the eponymous film directed by Francis Ford Coppola.©Columbia Pictures

By FW Murnau with Nosferatu to Francis Ford Coppola with DraculaPassing by Interview with a Vampire by Neil Jordan or Buffy the Vampire Slayerthe world of entertainment has been able to give these creatures a place of choice in pop culture.

Today, the figure of the vampire seems to be invited in all genres. Horror and horror film, comedy or even the world of superheroes, it has invaded our screens, several projects having shaken up the initial codes and reinvented its image over the decades.

From Nosferatu to contemporary vampires

19th century literaturee century inspired early film adaptations, such as Nosferatu the Vampire, released in 1922 and taken from the novel by Bram Stoker. The film follows the basic codes attributed to vampires which have now become clichés, such as the cape, the sharp teeth, the terrifying look of a character who fears holy water, cloves of garlic, light and wooden piles. We also find similar mechanisms in the various adaptations carried by Christopher Lee in the role of Dracula, between 1958 and 1976, although the appearance of these characters is different.

Meanwhile, Roman Polanski deconstructs these codes to make fun of them in his horror comedy The Vampire Ball. The feature film made in 1967 represents the first deconstruction of the classic myth of the vampire. However, it was not until the 1990s that the image of this creature evolved considerably and adapted to contemporary society.

The Vampire Ball deconstructs the classic vampire myth.©Filmways Pictures

Indeed, in 1987 came out At the Frontiers of Dawn and lost generation, two works that rekindled interest in vampire films. But it is Francis Ford Coppola who offers one of the most faithful adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1992 novel with his Dracula, and revives the vampire-mania. The work of the director shows an astonishing singularity for his time, the adaptations on vampires being more intended, towards the end of the XXe century, to be part of the real and the present. This is particularly the case ofInterview with a Vampire (1994) based on the novel by Anne Rice, from the franchise Blade worn by Wesley Snipes, or from the cult series buffy the vampire slayer.

The vampire as a symbol of humanity

In addition to feature films, the modernization and internationalization of the myth also go through series. Vampires are no longer seen only as subjects of cinema, they also invest the small screen. The phenomenon will generate a real pop culture around blood drinkers from 1997, which will go through a humanization of the vampire.

We already saw a part of humanity in 1994 with Interview with a Vampire, in which the character of Brad Pitt appeared as a tortured creature. This apprehension is further highlighted with Blade, in which Eric Brooks is a hybrid monster, half-vampire, half-human. It is also evident through the characters of Angel and Spike who assist Buffy in her struggle, before the former got its own spin-off series between 1999 and 2004.

Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire (1994).©DR

This humanity also passes through the integration of vampires into human life. True Blood and Vampire Diaries are the leading examples. In the first, a synthetic blood drink allows vampires to pretend to a normal life and, in the second, the Salvatore brothers live among the inhabitants of Mystic Falls, a small town in the United States. Same observation in the phenomenon Twilight where the Cullens, a band of teenagers, try to blend into the foggy landscape of Forks.

The themes covered are also a symbol of humanity in the fantastic universe of vampires. For example, buffy represents a metaphor for the fears and anxieties that adolescents must face to become adults, and that young adults must overcome to lead their lives. In True Bloodvampires are treated as a minority trying to achieve equal rights with humans.

More than stakes and supernatural adventures, adaptations on vampires therefore reflect metaphors linked to existential anxieties and contemporary issues of youth. Sexuality as well as amorous desire are often associated with the vampire and his universe. Countless romances turn this monster into an object of fantasy and a romantic hero.

Between object of fantasy and romantic hero

Because, let’s not forget, originally, the vampire was a monster. However, the cinema and the series have modeled its image to finally make it the incarnation of sexual transgression. From the 1930s, he was presented as a refined and dark being, taking over women’s bodies. We see it with Bela Lugosi in Dracula by Tod Browning (1931). Later, Christopher Lee offers an interpretation as captivating as it is virile to the Count of Transylvania. The bite of the vampire is an allegory of the loss of virginity, the purpose of which is to criticize Puritan standards.

It is in particular because of this image that the vampire becomes, from the 1970s, the muse of sexual liberation. Its codes are even taken up in erotic films and will upset the heterosexual norm. They will then be taken up by various feminist and queer movements, inspired by the lesbian romance of carmilla. A decade later, the considerations of AIDS or those of puberty and sexual awakening, will be approached in films like Lost Generation (1987) or The Addiction (1995).

From the 1990s, the prey became more and more sexualized, like Salma Hayek in one night in hell.©A Band Apart/Miramax

The vampire helps break taboos, but also the classic family model, as evidenced by the adoption of Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) by the duo Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire.

From the 1990s, the prey were increasingly sexualized. We think of Grace Jones in Vampor to Salma Hayek in A Night in Hell. Moreover, the role of women is not confined to that of mere victim. The vampire also exists in the franchise underworld inaugurated in 2003, in the role of Catherine in the series Vampire Diaries or, more recently, in the French series Vampiresreleased on Netflix in 2020.

The 1990s were also marked by a change in style. The cape is quickly replaced by a leather outfit, which evokes both gothic culture and sadomasochistic aesthetics.

The 1990s were marked by a change in style. The cape is replaced by a leather outfit.©Lakeshore Entertainment

Nevertheless, this sexual charge and the erotic fascination that the public has for the vampire are to be combined with his romantic evolution. In some adaptations, romantic feelings take precedence over sensuality. Here, the vampire departs from his monstrous aspect to reconnect with his emotions and arouse empathy. In Draculawe see Prince Vlad Dracul fall in love with Mina Murray.

Interview with a Vampire also addresses these concerns. And the literary and cinematographic phenomenon Twilight remains the perfect example. While offering a chaste and puritanical vision of the vampire who curbs his impulses, Edward Cullen ends up becoming a romantic hero through his love for Bella, but also through the difficulties and the melancholy imposed on him by his condition.

The Vampire Today: From Comedies to Blockbusters

From literature to the seventh art, through the series, difficult not to be bitten by a vampire. The attraction around this character is undeniable. Better still, his figure on the big and small screen seems to be reinventing himself in recent years. Although several adaptations continue to play on the classic codes of the genre, such as FrightNight with Colin Farrell or the Netflix miniseries Draculavampires also take the side of humor.

Whether The Vampire Ball first desacralized the myth of Dracula in the 1960s, the 2010s saw the birth of real comic creations. We can mention in particular the Belgian film Vampiresthe cinematographic and serial mockumentary What We Do in The Shadows or Dark Shadows. Even French cinema declines the myth in horrific comedy with The Teeth of the Nightin 2015, as did animated films for children with Hotel Transylvaniain 2012.

Hotel Transylvania treats the subject with humour.©Sony Pictures Animation

Today, the vampire is depicted as a powerful figure. This creature could be assimilated to a divinity, in particular in the miniseries of Mike Flanagan, midnight sermons. However, this strength can also be synonymous with superpowers. We see it in particular with the return he is about to make in the world of superheroes. First in the guise of Jared Leto who will interpret Morbiusthen in the MCU reboot of Blade, in which Mahershala Ali will take over the role formerly played by Wesley Snipes. Although several comics have already introduced Dracula in their pages, this could once again make it possible to decline the image of the vampire in an unprecedented way.

Jared Leto as Morbiusexpected on March 30, 2022 at the cinema.©CTMG/Sony Pictures.

From his beginnings in literature to the evolution of his physique on the big screen, passing by his apprehension, this creature of the Carpathians knew how to reinvent himself. Through a variety of genres and formats, it has also been able to adapt to the various social and historical realities of each era. Its resistance to time owes a lot to its constant reinvention but also to its still intact ambivalence. Both monstrous and human, erotic and romantic, between life and death, the vampire is ultimately the symbol of an immortal complexity that continues to fascinate us.

Vampires, immortal figures of the small and big screen