The Ever-Changing Nature of Vampires Onscreen
Dir: Karl Freund, Tod Browning | Cast: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler | Writers: Bram Stoker (by), Garrett Fort (play), Hamilton Deane (from the play adapted by), John L. Balderston (from the play adapted by)
In the decades following the release of Bram Stoker’s legendary novel Dracula alongside other similar literature in the late 19th century, the figure of the vampire was established in popular culture as an icon of horror. As the years went on, so did the nature of these depictions, and so the vampire went from a horrific figure, to a romantic one, and most recently to a benign and comic character. Today, I'd like to examine how this change in genre over the course of the 20th century and beyond reflects the concept that vampires are ever-changing, mirroring the fears and attitudes of their generational audience. More specifically, how the use of vampires as a symbol of the ‘other' – in contrast to a dominant group or ideology - has come to reflect Western attitudes to marginalised groups with every iteration of the character.
A Horrific Foundation: Dracula and Nosferatu
In the early stages of cinema, literary adaptation was undertaken to put forward film as a respectable narrative medium, rather than just a novel fad. A notable example of this tradition is the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu, which stands as one of the earliest depictions of the vampire onscreen. Here, the design of the creature is distinctly bestial, matching the description in Stoker’s novel of Dracula as ‘profusely’ hairy, with ‘pointed’ ears and ‘peculiarly sharp white teeth’, and therefore maintaining a level of fidelity to the book. However, there are still deviations - notably, in the addition of several more rodent-like features. These include long, claw like fingers, enhanced and distorted in shots of shadows in the film, along with the long teeth noted in the book being incisors rather than canines. The association with rats is also emphasised; the film includes several scenes of Nosferatu sleeping amongst them. Notably, this version of Dracula is also largely mute, owing both to the silent format as well as the very few dialogue cards assigned to him, indicating a lack of intelligence as well as making the monster more distant and incomprehensible.
Similarly, the classical Hollywood horror adaptation Dracula that came several years later in 1931 centres around a menacing, Eastern European iteration of the vampire. Though more refined in appearance, with groomed hair and smart clothing, the thick Hungarian accent of Bela Lugosi was enhanced by instructions to read his lines phonetically as he could not understand English, once again reinforcing his foreignness. Additionally, whilst polite, the film gives little sense of Dracula’s interiority when compared to characters like Mina and Van Helsing, who receive more screen time and who are performed with a greater level of emotional intensity. Each of these early depictions of the character is ultimately unsympathetic and animalistic beings that exist as evil, horrific monsters, who at the end of their respective films are vanquished by good with no chance at redemption.
As a tumultuous period in modern history, it is likely that early vampires in film may have been influenced by pre-war anxieties and stereotypes, especially racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic fears of immigrants. As the concept of eugenics gained traction in the 1920s, leading to the racial pseudoscience enforced by the Nazis in the 1930s, many films from this early period reflected racist ideas, in Dracula and Nosferatu’s case quite literally representing the concept of the parasitic immigrant. For the latter, the creation of a sinister immigrant character mirrors Germany's uncertainty and fear of foreign invasion post World War I. Similarly, the Hungarian born Bela Lugosi, despite appearing white, would not have necessarily been viewed as such at a time when Eastern European immigrants to the US weren't considered as racially pure as the descendants of Western Europeans.. These early depictions of ambiguously foreign vampires on film serve to reinforce xenophobic ideas that were prolific in the early 20th century, 'othering' these groups further by making them monstrous.
Romancing the Vampire: Bram Stoker's Dracula
In the latter half of the 20th century, film adaptations depicting a more sympathetic and sensitive vampire began to emerge with movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Here, while the character of Dracula is still portrayed as a foreign ‘other’ with the ability to present himself as gruesome, he is ultimately the hero of the story, serving as the love interest of Mina rather than an abuser or captor. The introduction of Dracula functions in the film to redefine the character as a traditional romantic hero, reminiscent of depictions of knights in chivalric romance with barely concealed sexual undertones. While the set design retains a Gothic aesthetic, including fog, crosses, and castles, Dracula is not positioned as a Gothic monster, and instead is first shown wearing armour and wielding a sword opposite his lover. His eventual transformation into a vampire is onscreen and justified as a response to his grief - the supernatural, incomprehensible element of the myth is suddenly relatable. Providing this backstory at the beginning of the film also inclines the audience to sympathise with Dracula later on, as the protagonist and character we have seen the most. However, Dracula is still removed from a relatable or realistic context for the viewers, existing on a fantastical plane that ‘others’ the character to an extent, despite the sympathy generated for him.
Significant social developments in American society between the classical and postclassical eras of Hollywood mostly surround movements that strived for the emancipation of minorities, such as the civil rights movement. So rather than the vampire reflecting how minority groups were ‘othered’ and dehumanised as in earlier adaptations, it now stands as a sympathetic symbol for these demographics - distanced from normalcy, but no longer vilified. The forbidden nature of Dracula and Mina’s relationship in the film could even be likened to America’s prior attitudes towards miscegenation, which was similarly forbidden onscreen by the Motion Picture Production Code until the 1960s. Ultimately, while the othering still occurs, the other now holds a greater appeal, exemplified by the romantic and sexual allure of characters like Gary Oldman’s Dracula.
A Sillier Sensibility: What We Do in the Shadows
Though the trend towards a romantic vampire is relatively recent, beginning in the 1970s and arguably ending with the last Twilight film in 2012, parodies of this and of other tropes have become the dominant mode in the past few years. While a direct spoof of the Twilight series - the critically panned Vampires Suck - was released in 2010, one more beloved film that parodies almost every iteration of vampires over the course of the previous century is Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows. Using the structure of a mockumentary, the film follows four vampires in a house share as they go about normal tasks. When any classically vampiric elements are introduced, such as feeding on human victims or their ability to fly, it is depicted in a mundane, comedic fashion that removes any sense of mystery or desirability.
The tone of the film is best summarised in the introduction of the lead characters, which is done via a montage during the opening credits. Images of the lead characters crudely photoshopped into historical photographs humorously suggest the artifice of the vampire myth, removing any sense of realism via Brechtian distancing. Brief clips of the main characters depict them using supernatural talents for everyday purposes such as vacuuming and brushing their fangs, domesticating them and therefore taking away their otherworldly threat or otherness. Their scripted dialogue also assists in removing this foreign quality, with modern phrases like ‘this is bullshit’ making them more relatable to the audience than the cryptic, archaic language often associated with the filmic vampire myth. Though they retain the accents of their original Eastern European countries and they are shown through the aforementioned photographs to have lived in castles, their residence in a house in suburban Wellington removes them from this grandiose context, disempowering them further. For a cine-literate audience, they may also pick up that several characters are pastiches of prior iterations of the vampire onscreen: Petyr closely resembles Nosferatu, while Viago is styled like Gary Oldman's Dracula. These direct references reinforce the relative normality of these iterations by juxtaposition, using comedic comparison to make these vampires seem even banaler.
With over a century of vampire media established, most influentially via visual media like films and TV shows, the idea of the vampire film has become increasingly intertextual and self-reflexive, mirroring the familiarity that audiences now have with the concept. What We Do in the Shadows spends little time establishing the powers of the vampires; this is knowledge that Waititi expects the audience to possess. By utilising this intertextuality in a humorous light and making the vampire a comic figure, Waititi removes the concept of ‘otherness’ from the creatures, possibly reflecting a change in societal attitudes towards marginalised groups. In the internet age, there has been an increasingly strong trend towards social justice, and these groups have found a voice they were previously not permitted to have. As he has discussed many times, Waititi is Maōri, and therefore not part of the dominant white voice in popular filmmaking. This lack of othering could therefore potentially be seen biographically as the director presenting a traditionally othered perspective in a familiar way.
Emerging from literature but developing in film, the evolution of the figure of the vampire is best exemplified by the shifting of the dominant genre in which it appears. Although each type of vampire may have existed at any point since the release of Dracula, the differing generational popularity of ideal versions of the creature reflects to an extent the culture from which they each emerged. As a pervading symbol of the ‘other’, the shifting signification of the vampire within these genres consistently represents the dominant cultural attitude towards oppressed groups, from feared, to positively acknowledged, and now on the path to wider acceptance.