It’s pretty rare for remakes to come close to their originals, much less surpass them. (OK, maybe not as rare as you might think, but bear with me.) But to hear the critics tell it, this weekend’s Let Me In belongs in that rare category of films based on classics that stand up on their own. Granted, in this case, the “classic” only came out a few years back (Let the Right One In, a 2008 Swedish cult favorite), and the remake is an unusually sensitive and tasteful Americanized version.
Taken in tandem, the two movies unquestionably join the pantheon of cinema’s foremost bloodsuckers. And that’s a pretty long list. Almost as long as there have been movie pictures, there have been the walking undead, stealing through the shadows and seeking their next AB-negative fix. Here are my picks for ten of the best vampire movies ever. In chronological order:
The era of German expressionism always seemed uniquely touched with the twinge of death; look no further than the goth waking nightmare of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The movement reached its terrifying height with F.W. Murnau’s classic, unauthorized rip on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To watch this movie now is to see generations of suave, sensual vampirism undone in repugnant fashion.
The other silent movie in this rundown is silken and disquieting in the shadow of Murnau’s vampire, and more overtly dream-bound. But no less unnerving. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s reputation was built on The Passion of Joan of Arc and its relentless close-ups. Nothing could prepare you for the moment when one character gazes upon his own face inside a coffin.
Black Sunday (1960)
Italian horror maestro Mario Bava’s most beloved movie is this luxurious, Halloween-ready shocker in which Barbara Steele stands accused of witchcraft, is put to juicy death thanks to a spike-laden mask, and later comes back to wreak vengeance on her accusers’ descendents. Crypts, spider webs, blood, curses, flecked flesh … all the bases are covered in this one.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
Between directing two of the most paranoid movies ever made — Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby — Roman Polanski took a refreshing breather with this jokey, Euro-toity vampire farce. (Surtitle: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck.) Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games, as it stars Polanski’s then-wife Sharon Tate, who was soon to die at the hands of the Manson family.
Fans of Night of the Living Dead director George Romero’s films say this is by far his best outside of the zombie epics. I think there’s a case to be made for Creepshow and Season of the Witch, but there’s no denying this is one of the most thought-provoking examinations of the vampire ethos, one which calls into question what exactly counts as vampirism.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Werner Herzog’s remake deviates enough to justify the material’s inclusion in this list a second time. (And, really, aren’t most vampire movies some iteration or another of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel?) Whereas Murnau’s film was arid, almost bone-dry, Herzog’s portrait of the Schreck-ian vampire is brackish with plague, and resonant with the music of Popol Vuh.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
Part vampire epic, part Peyton Place. This TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s sophomore novel is marred by too many soap opera subplots and commercial break-friendly pacing, but it also boasts some of the most seriously scary moments to have ever been transmitted into the homes of millions of television set owners. (The cliffhanger from the first part gave me nightmares for weeks.) Tobe Hooper’s direction of Lot‘s money sequences is brutal.
Fright Night (1985)
In the derby of 1980s vampire revivalism, this one edges both Near Dark and The Hunger. (Not even close: The Lost Boys, which without hairspray would deflate with one stiff Transylvanian breeze.) It’s campy heart is just in the right place, and awaiting its wooden stake. “You’re so cool, Brewster!”
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003)
I’ve managed to avoid citing any “official” adaptations of Stoker’s novel until now. No offense, but the Universal Studios Bela Lugosi version just seems creaky today. Francis Ford Coppola’s bloody 1992 update is great pageantry, but so is this far-lesser-seen balletic interpretation from Canadian nostalgist Guy Maddin. If you don’t find its faked silent movie flourishes merely decorative, you’re probably apt to be swept away by its grace.
Let the Right One In (2008) / Let Me In (2010)
As I mentioned at the beginning, both versions of author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s preteen vampire tale are, in their own similar but divergent ways, new vampire classics. Both will endure long after the Twilight series has faded from memory on the strength of Lindqvist’s highly perceptive understanding of preteen loneliness.
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger at WCCO.COM.