For centuries, the bloodsuckers have fascinated and frightened us, occupying the most macabre corners of our collective imagination. There’s a reason we’re so drawn to them, says one expert of supernatural lore: Of all our other monsters, vampires are the most human.
“Modern vampires are sympathetic characters,” said Phil Stevens, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at the University of Buffalo. “They are stuck in a terrible cosmic infinity, doomed to a life of deception necessitated by their need for human blood.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that they’re traditionally “sophisticated, elite, good-looking, sexy,” Stevens said.
“Vampires are romantic and sexy beings,” he told CNN in an email. “They don’t go through an ugly, terrifying transition, as were-animals must.”
By turns tragic and terrible, intriguing and repulsive, vampire stories have long endured. From Bela Lugosi’s definitive Dracula to the Staten Island-dwelling nitwits of the FX series “What We Do in the Shadows,” these are the most influential, deeply entertaining and, yes, sparkliest vampires we’ve seen onscreen.
Bela Lugosi, “Dracula”
Bela is the blueprint.
The Hungarian actor’s Dracula is the great-grandvampire from which all other film vamps (and vampire Halloween costumes) are descended. His version of Bram Stoker’s villain speaks stiltedly, slinks across the screen with a hypnotic menace and then performs actual hypnotism on unwitting victims. From that Transylvanian accent that switches “w” with “v” — or, should I say, svitches — to the regal cape he wears around his own castle home (Dracula doesn’t do casual), Lugosi’s Count is the original king of exsanguination.
The Count, “Sesame Street”
Your first favorite vampire.
AH AH AH! If you grew up watching PBS, the Count von Count might have been the very first vampire you ever loved. He’s got two pointy canines for blood-sucking, and yet he seems to subsist solely on the joy of counting numbers. The Count is a family-friendly monster, though more macabre than his Cookie counterpart, and he’s still at it today on “Sesame Street,” outliving even the most infamous onscreen vamps. It seems math is more sustaining than the blood of Muppet neighbors.
Lestat, Claudia and co., “Interview with a Vampire”
Hollywood embraces vampire camp.
The greatest works of vampire fiction infuse a healthy dose of camp into the proceedings, and this 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice’s debut novel is teeming with it. For one thing, it stars Tom Cruise in a blond ponytail. You’ve got to commend Cruise’s commitment to his role as the infamous Lestat, a vicious antihero who takes immense pleasure in dispatching victims. And young Kirsten Dunst makes for a chilling child vamp, years before “Let the Right One In” and its American remake cast bloodthirsty kids at the center of their stories. “Interview with a Vampire” takes itself seriously — too seriously, perhaps, for a film that starred Brad Pitt in colored contacts — when, at its heart, it’s really a frivolous romp.
David and his gang, “The Lost Boys”
Teen flicks are better with bloodsuckers.
“You’re eating MAGGOTS, Michael!” – Kiefer Sutherland, original vampire jerk. Turns out being stuck in a teen’s body for an eternity keeps your soul grounded in adolescence, too. “The Lost Boys” is a quintessential ’80s film — it’s got lovestruck teens, bullies with bad hair, cheesy violence, the two Coreys. Somehow, it seamlessly blends teen comedy and horror tropes into a hybrid film that’s vital and enduring. A critical triumph, this is not, but vampires weren’t taken seriously for decades anyway. “The Lost Boys” understands that the best vampire films are fun above all else.
“Only Lovers Left Alive”
Vamps explore existential dread.
Leave it to director Jim Jarmusch to somehow make vampirism even more brooding. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a painfully stylish pair grappling with the loneliness of immortality. This film is a lot of things — a condemnation of human excess, an environmental allegory, a quiet celebration of life, a meditation on death. It’s the film on this list that will likely prompt the most introspection and maybe the only indie mumblecore film about vampires. Of course, vampires aren’t real (or are they?) — but we imagine they might sound and feel something like this.
A sparkling blockbuster.
Try as we might, we cannot, must not forget the hugely successful film series that taught us that vampires sparkle. For years, your position on Team Edward or Team Jacob was about as important as your blood type. “Twilight” changed the rules — not only were the members of the Cullen clan “daywalkers,” their skin glittered in the sun like porcelain dolls. Horror wasn’t the focus here, though there were a few violent vampire clashes. No, “Twilight” was really about the enduring love between an awkward high school student and an undead man almost 100 years her senior. The films made billions, divided critics while delighting teen girls and inspired producers to mine YA book series in an attempt to create their own successful supernatural film and TV sagas. But only “Twilight” gifted cinema what may be the most epic baseball game ever seen onscreen.
The housemates, “What We Do in the Shadows” (TV series)
Vampires as clowns.
Where to begin with these buffoons? They’re cravenly, sloppy and doltish, the antithesis of the archetypal vampire, and yet they might be the most entertaining bunch of bloodsuckers in years. Think about it: Nandor singing Barenaked Ladies while jazzercising. Nadja chasing her ghost-dolly after it inhabits an inflatable union rat. Colin Robinson beefing with a literal troll. Laszlo taking over a Pennsylvania township as regular human bartender Jackie Daytona. You’ve never seen vampires act quite this stupid — but that’s what makes this crew so delightful. BAT!
Bayou vampires get their episodic due.
Three words: Soapy Southern vampires. OK, two more: Alexander Skarsgård. And that’s about all you need to know about “True Blood,” HBO’s Southern Gothic that set humans, bloodsuckers, fairies and other supernatural species in rural Louisiana to duke it out for supremacy. It was an escapist fantasy with plenty of nudity and gore (this was HBO, after all) that understood that, at their core, vampires are hedonistic monsters — and that makes for great TV. (HBO and CNN are part of WarnerMedia.)
“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”
Finally, vampires are sexy.
In his take on the world’s best-loved Count, director Francis Ford Coppola embraced artifice. From the actors’ waxen performances to sound stages straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the film was pure, Victorian steampunk fantasy. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” also highlighted the novel’s through line — sex. Gary Oldman’s Dracula can’t hold a flame to Lugosi’s Count, but Oldman’s was much more sensual. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is a bizarre blend of theatrics and erotica, though poor Keanu Reeves’ Jonathan Harker seems beamed in from another universe in which neither exist.
Spike, Angel and the rest of the vamps, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
The superior girl-meets-vamp romance.
“Buffy” may have been about a kickass teenage vampire slayer, but it wasn’t without its melodrama — featuring not one but two forbidden romances between the slayer and the monsters she was destined to destroy. First there was vampire-with-a-soul Angel (whose evil alter-ego Angelus occasionally returned). Then there was enemy-turned-ally Spike, a fan favorite. (Both bloodsuckers were also part of the “Angel” spin-off series.) Buffy didn’t end up with either of them at the series’ end, but that hasn’t stopped fans from choosing sides nearly 20 years after the series ended.
The “daywalker” stalks the night.
Poor Blade. He detests vampires but he’s one of them, too. He slays bloodsuckers for a living but thirsts for blood himself. He also wears a black leather trench coat that probably weighs him down on his hunts. But he’s a blast to watch, a stylish slayer reconciling the two conflicting worlds from which he comes with comic-book panache. Mahershala Ali will take up Blade’s mantle next, hopefully clad in Wesley Snipes’ iconic, if sweaty, coat.
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