Horror cinema can be a fickle genre. Monsters come and go, striking a devilish chord, playing on the strings of our fears before drifting out of our imaginations with the inevitable sea change of the culture. Frankenstein’s Monster had a good run, but it’s hard to envision a convincing remake in 2022. A cinematic AI threatening the world would evoke our fear of scientific hubris run amok better than Mary Shelley’s creation, now more the object of Halloween party favours than any genuine fear.
Zombies are in at the moment, and while there is something genuinely disturbing about the mindless walking dead, they are ultimately so lifeless they venture into their own parody. This explains why there are now probably more zombie comedies than genuine horror films. It’s the genre settling into what is perhaps its natural trajectory.
However, there is something different about vampires. For well over a century these plastic creatures have followed us from the silver screen, always evolving in the slipstream of our anxieties and desires, updating themselves through the decades to mirror us in each successive incarnation. So too has our interpretation of them. From Nosferatu to The Lost Boys to Twilight, vampires have changed along with us, going from “soulless fiend to lost soul to soul mate”, as the critic Kim Newman puts it.
Christopher Frayling’s Vampire Cinema: The First One Hundred Years offers the finest brief visual guide to this enigmatic phenomenon that I have ever come across. In this charming volume, the writer artfully compresses several hundred years of cultural history into 10 chapters. These are brisk, insightful and, most importantly, accessible. They recount not so much the origins of the vampire legend (which can be traced to the ancient world) but the history of their presence in the European imagination and eventual — inevitable, rather — migration to the film and television.
It may be a condensed history, but it is one with a remarkable amount of depth. Rarely does one come across so much of interest in such a tight narrative sequence. In only a few pages Frayling is able to deliver high-level but fractal histories balanced with true-fan trivia. For instance, we learn Stoker populated Dracula with the names of his colleagues at the Lyceum Theatre as an inside joke. Such an amusing tidbit would be a distraction for a historian of any lesser talent, but Frayling sits at Penelope’s Loom, weaving details and historiography into a remarkably coherent account.
Of course, his analysis provides tremendous insight. Our fascination with the undead, and with all manner of paranormal malevolence, may seem antiquated, a quaint holdover from the superstitions of the past; but as Frayling points out, vampires only gain their foothold in the European imagination during the Enlightenment. Both aristocrat and beast, these uncanny creatures are gory repositories of the animal lurking just below the surface of the cultured mind. Frayling suggests that this is perhaps the secret to their uncanny sticking power. In an age where human beings can upload themselves as avatars of the metaverse, vampires remain a fixture on our screens, a stubborn reminder that however far we may traverse into realms of technology, we will always be haunted by our natural origins.
But Frayling’s true object is a visual history of the undead — or rather a history of the visual undead. Fittingly, the remainder of this generous volume is packed with filmic images — movie posters, stills, covers, advertisements — drawn from the grand history of vampire cinema. These images are pulpy relics of the past; sensational, yes, but also sensuous. The victim is on centre stage: male and (especially) female bodies bloody and abject, semi-undressed and struggling, vulnerable, simultaneously terrified and aroused. Many of the entries include a helpful paragraph by Frayling contextualising the film in question’s role in the development of the genre.
As these images progress through the decades, noticeable changes start to occur. The titanic tectonic cultural shifts of the 20th century register like some Richter scale of cultural memory. Sexual liberation, same-sex desire, race, youthful disaffection; Frayling’s collage tell a parallel history, as though the progression of vampire movies were a microcosm of 20th century itself. Nor does he limit himself to Europe and America; his curation refreshingly includes the rise of vampire movies in Japan, Hong Kong, and post-Soviet Russia.
Vampire Cinema: The First One Hundred Years is more than an indispensable guide for vampire movie lovers: it’s a subtle statement on the role horror plays in world culture. Through this book, Frayling offers a convincing case that something as seemingly trivial as the vampire genre tells us more about who we are than we may think.
Images © mptvimages.com
Reel Art Press
31 October 2022