Cinema with bite

Nathaniel Thompson discusses The Frightfest Guide To Vampire Movies

by Jennie Kermode

The Frightfest Guide To Vampires
The Frightfest Guide To Vampires Photo: FAB Press

The sixth book in a successful series, The Frightfest Guide To Vampire Movies explores one of the most enduringly popular subjects in the horror genre, looking at films from all over the world, from the silent era to the present day. It’s scheduled to launch at this year’s festival and was written by author and film historian Nathaniel Thompson. He and I met up ahead to the launch to chat about the book and the story behind it.

“I used to work with Harvey at FAB Press on another book series that I did called DVD Delirium, which we did four volumes of several years back,” he explains. “I love the Frightfest books. I’ve got every single one of them. And I love Alan Jones and Gavin Baddeley, they're just fantastic writers. And then Harvey said, you know, ‘Would you like to do the one for the next Frightfest?’ This was actually just before Covid. We were talking about topics and I was like, ‘I'm really surprised that there wasn't a vampire book done yet. It’s such a big topic.” He said ‘Yeah, let's go ahead and do it.’ That was something that really interested me as well, because we haven't had a really thorough vampire movie book in a long time. And I thought there was a lot of ground to cover.”

They’re stalwarts of the horror genre, I agree, but at the same time, there are people who like vampire movies who wouldn't touch horror films generally. What does he think the appeal is to the wider public?

“I think it's because vampires, and maybe to some extent ghosts, can be used in other genres more easily. It's almost like a Rorschach test where people can make a vampire for whatever they want it to be like. If you look at the vampire films of the Sixties, it's nothing like the Nineties, whereas now you've got something like What We Do In The Shadows, the movie and the TV show where suddenly it's all about creating your own family units and pansexuality and personal identity and that kind of thing. So I think people respond to that, even if they don't like horror films, and then they watch it and they can really put themselves into those shoes, even if they don't actually want to drink the blood of other people. That's almost secondary.”

Nosferatu
Nosferatu

His own love of vampire films developed when he was very young.

“I grew up in Georgia, in Atlanta,” he explains, “and there's a really big channel that's nationally shown in the US, but they would run horror films on the weekends. And so when I was seven, eight, or whatever, I would look forward, on the weekends, to watching The Kiss Of The Vampire and Dracula Prince Of Darkness. There were these movies coming out that were just amazing. I just fell in love with Christopher Lee. It took a while to watch the Universal ones because this was the beginning of home video, so you couldn't see the original Dracula for a little while. I read about the Universal monsters. I just really loved them. And of course, once I got older, I started reading Ann Rice and Poppy Z Brite, people like that, so it's just something that's always kind of been in my life. I've always just really loved vampire stories. Not necessarily like every vampire movie out there...”

We both laugh. It goes without saying that there are some terrible ones. I too am of an age where Christopher Lees was the face of Dracula for me, I say, but that won’t be true for everyone at Frightfest these days. Who are the equivalent modern horror icons?

“There's one generation that grew up with Twilight, so Robert Pattinson will be the face for some of them,” he observes. “Then there’s Underworld, things like that. I hope that a lot of people saw Let The Right One In, because I think that's one of the best horror films for a couple of decades.”

The Kiss Of The Vampire
The Kiss Of The Vampire

So was part of the aim of the book to give people who have recently discovered the subgenre access to the past and to this treasury of vampire films?

“Yeah,” he says. “I think it's interesting to see the continuum because basically we now have a century of vampire films. I haven't really seen a book that dealt with that whole arc that we've had. So it's not just the best vampire cinema, but also the interesting ones, even the ones that misfire are kind of fascinating because of when they came out So if you start with German expressionism and go to Universal and then to Hammer, I think people might enjoy seeing where their vampires came from. It's like the vampire family tree. It's just kind of fascinating to see everything evolve over the years.

“If you read vampire literature, there's almost a conversation going back and forth, because you find references to, say, Carmilla, popping up even to this day in vampire films, and of course Dracula. But then vampire books often refer back to the films. A lot of books about Dracula seem to draw way more on the Christopher Lee and Lugosi films than they do on the original novel, which is kind of strange, so it is curious, and you know, there are things like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Coppola film, where it's supposedly based on the novel but it's actually very different, and they wound up writing another novel, based on that movie, that had nothing to do with Stoker.

Bram Stoker's Dracula
Bram Stoker's Dracula

“So you know, it's kind of a strange back and forth. It's still going on to this day. But I hope people enjoy reading the books and seeing the movies. I was so thrilled that Kim Newman wrote the foreword to the book, because he's a good example of someone who's a novelist who writes, you know, Anno Dracula, he's a legend in his field, and he's also a huge movie hound. You can find him placing some criticism in his books, you know, back and forth. It's like you can enjoy them in tandem.”

With so much material out there, how was it possible to narrow down a suitable selection of films for the book?

“It was tricky,” he admits. “Because the format of the book, you have a very long – they call it an introduction, but it's an overview, it's almost half the book – actually explaining how it originated, and some of the highlights, so a lot of films went in there that didn't quite fit into the mould. But I wanted to mention things like Black Sunday, for example, where they mentioned the word ‘vampire’ at the beginning. It’s not quite a vampire film. So I wanted to address that. And then there are the Amicus anthologies, which have a little vampire story stuck in there, but you don't really call it a vampire film, you know. So those went into the first part.

Black Sunday
Black Sunday

“As for the big 200 films that I chose to write about, that got dedicated coverage as individual title, again, it's not necessarily the greatest, but it's the 200 that I think if you want to see just the full breadth of what a vampire film can be, those are the ones to look for. So it's kind of a mixture. We've got the classics but I wanted to have some surprises in there as well. I think there are a few titles that people are going to be like, ‘Oh, what? I didn't know that existed.’”

I mention his inclusion of The Last Man On Earth which, oddly, I had never thought of as a vampire film, although it has vampires in it. Is there perhaps a distinction between films that have vampires in and films that fit a certain classic type?

“I chose that one because the novel is explicitly a vampire novel, and they don't say it in the film,” he notes. “It's a post apocalyptic film with these night-dwelling creatures. But it still keeps enough of it, I think, where it still qualifies. Again, I chose that one because it does play around with the vampire lore in a fascinating way, even though they don't call them that. It's obvious what they're referencing.

“There were a couple of cases where I stretched it. Hercules In The Haunted World, for example, in some countries it’s a vampire film and in some it's not, which I thought was interesting as well, how much they chose to call it a vampire film. In the UK in the US they didn't call it that at all and you wouldn't even know there were vampires in it. So yeah, if there's a couple of films like that, it just walked over the line to merit inclusion, because I think those are kind of interesting test cases. Is it a vampire film? If so, what does it do with it? Why does it cross that line? For me, it did.”

Hercules In The Haunted World
Hercules In The Haunted World

It’s also difficult to know where to stop chronologically with this kind of book. One of the last entries is Jakob’s Wife, which I really liked. Does he see it as a good example of where the subgenre stands in the present day?

“That's a film that touches on a lot of issues we have now,” he says. “It's the whole issue of religion outside the church, you know, and your relationship with your spouse or your family, and the female voice. What does that mean? What does empowerment mean now? It's like love. I hope people have seen that last shot. I think it's so fascinating, because it doesn't give you an answer, and it's a perfect moment where it ends. So yeah, I think that's an interesting test case. Like I said, a vampire can fit any sort of metaphor and your social anxiety that you're feeling at the time. And that's a good example of that.

“Like I said, originally it was going to be done pre-Covid, and so it's actually been in the works for a long time. As time went on I kept adding things because the goalposts got moved. So it stopped around the time of Night Teeth, which is the Netflix film, which has some interesting things in it, but of course as soon as I turned it in there was more.”

He’d love to be invited to write an updated edition at some point, he says.

Jakob's Wife
Jakob's Wife Photo: Shudder

We talk about the female voice and the fact that, whilst a fair number of vampire films have objectified women, there have been some really strong female characters in the genre over the years, and some of them have been able to express their sexuality to a degree which it’s hard to imagine the censors of the time having let them get away with in other genres. He has a theory about that.

“I think vampirism is almost like a safety valve where it's like, it's sex, but not sex. You're biting people, which is it's a very sexual image, but I guess it’s why they have more leeway. Something like Dracula’s Daughter, for example, that's one of the very first times you see something overtly lesbian, where they got away with it because oh, she's biting her. Okay, if you say so. But yeah, I think horror movies tend to get a bad reputation for objectifying women, but with vampire films it's there's both ways, objectifying people both ways.

“It is very much a female centric work of art, and I think that people are more comfortable with that. It's like a slasher film as well, you know: almost all of them have women at the centre, and that's your identification figure. So when it's a female vampire, maybe people feel safer that oh, well, it's, you know, she's asserting her sexuality or identity, or changing the rules about what she's allowed to do in public, but, you know, she's not human, so you can say it's okay.”

The book also includes a review of The Fearless Vampire Killers, which was censored quite severely because of its gay vampire. I thank Nathaniel for reminding me about the wonderful moment in it when a vampire confronted with a cross explains that he’s Jewish.

The Fearless Vampire Killers
The Fearless Vampire Killers

“Yeah, I love seeing how religion around the world works,” he says. “Because you have Turkish vampire films and Jewish vampires and Muslim vampires, or something like V where it’s a Russian vampire. I just I love seeing how theology and the supernatural mix together. it’s good to see how different countries have their own take on that.”

The genre is a good place for outsider characters generally, he says.

“There are all kinds of social barriers that we have set up where people will be categorised, and vampirism is a good way to just jump over and put yourself in the shoes of somebody else. Twilight is a good example of that because it uses high school as a jumping off point. Everyone feels like an outsider in high school. Kids, deep down, probably feel a little bit like they’re always having to prove themselves. So you know, that's a real mainstream example. But you know, in the Interview With A Vampire films, Lestat and Louis are outsider characters because they're standing on the sidelines, they can't really interact with the world around them. It's kind of a sad story in a way. Even if you become a rock god, you're not a human, so you can't really get the full joy out of interacting people like everybody else does. I think a lot of people can identify with that.

Interview With The Vampire
Interview With The Vampire

“Obviously, goth culture has been around since the Eighties at least. That's really embraced vampirism as well. When I went to school I had a lot of goth friends and they just loved it. And that's exactly why, because vampirism is a great metaphor for just someone who's just different.”

And then there's another major theme in vampire films, which must have felt more pertinent when writing it during Covid, which is disease and contagion generally...

“I'm so curious to see what kind of vampire films we get in the next five to 10 years,” he says. “I think Covid is going to have a big impact because the contagion aspect has been around for a long time. And then, like, David Cronenberg's Rabid – which isn't really a vampire film, per se, but it definitely sort of plays with the idea of it – it's also a contagion film, it's a disease that spreads through the act of penetrating someone's body and infecting them. So yeah, I do think especially with Covid, vampires are taking on an interesting new angle.”

He’s taken on a lot of different kinds of films in the book, but he does have his favourites.

“Kiss Of The Vampire is one of my very favourites because it's the first one that I remember seeing. I just think it's a beautiful gothic masterpiece, visually and thematically just fascinating. Let The Right One In is fantastic. I love Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow's film. I think it’s extremely underrated. I hope another audience gets to experience that film because it's not mentioned that much lately. I don't really know why. I think it's really wonderful, mixing the vampire and the western together, just a great idea – plus the fact she has a great action sensibility that she brings to the film. And What We Do In The Shadows, of course, because mixing the pseudo-documentary approach and vampires, I think is brilliant. And there are so many great European vampire films. Daughters Of Darkness, I think, is an absolutely perfect film as well.”

Daughters Of Darkness
Daughters Of Darkness

I ask him if he has any final words about the book.

“No. I just I hope you discover some films that maybe you haven't gotten around to seeing or that you had never heard of. I just want people to feel like it's a discovery, reading through the book and saying ‘Oh, I forgot about that film,’ or ‘You know, that was on my watch list at some point,’ or ‘That sounds really, really crazy and interesting.’ I love broadening people's horizons and you know, if anyone out there sees a great vampire film that wasn't in there, feel free to suggest it, because I'm sure there's some that I missed as well.”

Read our review of The Frightfest Guide To Vampire Movies.

The Frightfest Guide To Vampire Movies can be ordered from FAB Press.

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