Christopher Frayling has always been one of the more interesting and entertaining film historians out there – his book on Sergio Leone, Once Upon A Time In Italy has occupied a coveted place on my bookshelf for years. Vampire Cinema: The First One Hundred Years is a similarly epic tome on the evolution on the ever-changing representations of Vampires, with some beautiful artwork and a detailed look at the origins of the myth of vampirism, even examining the etymology of the word “Vampire.” Frayling’s writing is incisive and engaging, and the history of vampire lore is examined in painstaking detail, beginning with the monster’s first appearance in literature with Lord Byron’s The Vampyre and Sheridan LaFanu‘s Carmilla.
Of all the classic horror monsters, Vampires are perhaps the one that lends itself most naturally to cinema. FW Murnau’s Nosferatu is one of the most iconic silent films of all time for a reason, and it has cast a long, sinister shadow on all the subsequent depictions of the vampiric. It serves as the introduction to silent cinema for countless film fans, and ever since then, the vampire has been a mainstay of cinema and television. As with the various adaptations of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, the portrayals of vampires have evolved with the times, with each change in appearance and modus operandi informed by the cultural influences of the era in which the films were made.
Frayling’s book is an intriguing walk through the genesis of the image of Dracula we all have in our minds – the flowing cloak, the widow’s peak, the urbane mannerisms, none of which can be found in the original novel, and most of which have originated from the various cinematic adaptations. What I found especially interesting is that some of the most enduring aspects of Vampire lore were actually introduced in Murnau’s film, adding weight to Frayling’s playful claim that “Nosferatu was the most productive act of piracy in the whole history of the mass media.”
The early days of vampire cinema are covered extensively, and the way the vampire mythos evolved in the words of Kim Newman “From soulless fiend to lost soul to soul-mate.” From the positively feral Count Orlok in Nosferatu to the wonderfully arch Bela Lugosi, the more red-blooded Christopher Lee in the Hammer years to the more romantic vampires of The Twilight Saga.
Frayling takes a comprehensive look at the various depictions of the vampiric – starting in the silent era and ending with Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat‘s polarizing BBC adaptation of Dracula from 2020. There are many eclectic picks for inclusion (not least of which are The Addiction, Daughters Of Darkness, Near Dark and Werner Herzog‘s haunting remake of Nosferatu – a personal favourite of mine) all of which are accompanied by some gorgeous images; poster art and beautifully produced film stills. Of particular note is the Spanish version of the 1931 Dracula, which sounds infinitely more subversive and modern than the Lugosi version.
Despite this though, it’s not as exhaustive as you might think – there are several films notable by their absence, such as George A Romero’s Martin, Park Chan Wook’s Thirst and Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos. It’s curious that these and others have been omitted when Frayling chooses to include several unconventional choices for horror aficionados, such as Morbius and the Twilight saga.
Nor does Frayling hold back on the films he doesn’t like – his assessment of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is dripping with disdain every time it crops up, and the entire book is unabashedly biased towards his own personal preferences. Not that this is a pejorative, if anything, his wry observations make this book stand out from the more staid, formal accounts of film history.
Aside from anything else, purely as an objet d’art this is a lovely thing to own – it’s filled with beautiful stills and posters of the respective films, although some of the summaries are unfortunately a little truncated, simply due to the sheer amount of films included. A wonderfully gothic, lavishly produced coffee table book, this is a wonderfully macabre accompaniment for any Halloween viewing.
Pingback: Book Review: Film Noir Portraits by Paul Duncan and Tony Nourmand | critical popcorn