Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 26, 2010
Back when TV Guide was as important a publication to me as The Cub Scout Handbook or Famous Monsters of Filmland, I often ran across the phrase “Good fang work” in the one-sentence reviews that accompanied listings for vampire movies. I don’t know whose wording that was (the neologism was ported into Leonard Maltin’s movie guides in the 1980s) and its provenance is immaterial to this discussion. “Good fang work” always struck me as a touch condescending even back before I really understood the meaning of the word. I didn’t need some faceless adult patronizing me. I knew good fang work when I saw it… and I still do.
Something terrible has happened to vampires over the course of the last 30 years. They’ve gotten awfully dull and most of them look as though they’d be more at home in a Bikram class or in the bathroom queue at The Wiltern than inside a cemetery or scuttling bat-like down the stone facade of a Carpathian tower. I was never on board with the whole Anne Rice vampire-as-rockstar thing, in which the undead were depicted as mascaraed crybabies gassing on about their eternal curse and pre-Facebook “It’s complicated” relationships. THE LOST BOYS (1987) was lost on me entirely and I really can’t thrill to the New Millennium variety of bloodsucker either, the sparkling emos of TWLIGHT (2008) and NEW MOON (2009) or the TRUE BLOOD crew, who wield their CGI fangs like flip phones – “In or out,” as my Mom used to say. Part of my problem is related to age. I grew up during the blood and thunder days of Great Britain’s Hammer Studios, which revived the subgenre during its postwar/Cold War lull and gave it teeth. Bela Lugosi had never worn fangs as DRACULA (1931) or the sundry revenants he played throughout his troubled Hollywood career; the edentulous custom was carried forward in the 30s and 40s by Gloria Holden (in DRACULA’S DAUGHTER), John Carradine (in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (in SON OF DRACULA) and in the 1950s by John Beal (in THE VAMPIRE), Francis Lederer (in THE RETURN OF DRACULA) and Michael Pate (in CURSE OF THE UNDEAD). In all honesty, I didn’t really miss fangs in those movies and I still don’t when I rewatch them as an adult. The spooky play of light and shadow, those classic compositions and that slightly stagy presentation still distract me with their dreamlike ambiance. Bela Lugosi would have been all wrong with incisors but oh how I love it when the Hammer vampires grin and bare it.
I suppose Barnabas Collins is responsible for my fang issues. I was a regular DARK SHADOWS watcher before I ever saw a Hammer horror. Played by 40-something Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, Barnabas was a somewhat unprepossessing 175 year-old vampire. He looked like an antiques dealer or a senior partner… until he opened his mouth. When angry or thirsty, Barnabas Collins was hella scary; not only was he formidable to look at but he had a temper on him, which really came to the fore in the daytime drama’s first cinematic adaptation HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970), whose final body count is up there with Gettysburg. DARK SHADOWS so successfully schooled me in the way of the fang that when Christopher Lee’s Undying Count wrapped his satin-lined cloak around Zena the Barmaid in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1967), I clapped my hands over my 7 year-old eyes. By 1968, all bets were off, the fangs were out, and I knew what I was missing! Turns out, of course, that I didn’t. The scene cuts away without showing any neck penetration. I haven’t covered my eyes in a horror movie since.
I got aboard the Hammer train about ten years too late, which means I had to play catch-up with their Dracula and unrelated vampire films in a piecemeal fashion, seeing the older ones (such as THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, above) on TV and the newer ones (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, SCARS OF DRACULA) when they finally arrived at my local cinema. Chronology wasn’t that important, anyway, as the storylines didn’t really link one film to the next. What was constant was a palpable feeling of true danger, of transgression and dread. The Hammer vampires, men and women, were attractive but terrible. Part of you wanted to be like them, to be seductive and hypnotic and strange, and the rest of you feared them – what a potent psychological cocktail. Nowadays, vampires are too ready-made to be role models and at their worst they’re still pretty safe. Good god, TRUE BLOOD‘s Vampire Bill is as dull as a scrapbooker. Watching the first season of the popular HBO series, I wanted to wash away the tinny aftertaste with a full-bodied Mexican vampire movie.
Mexico threw down its first vampiro flick a year before Hammer’s trend-setting DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958). These South of the Border symphonies of terror were an interesting compromise between the bloodless frissons of the monochrome Universal monster rallies and Hammer’s Technicolor grotesqueries. Superficially, EL VAMPIRO (THE VAMPIRE, 1957), its sequel EL ATAÚD DEL VAMPIRO (THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN, 1958) — both of which starred German Robles (above), who played a different vampire in LA MALDICIÓN DE NOSTRADAMUS (THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS, 1960) and its sequels — honored the old school chiaroscuro and attention to classic details but the victims were bustier than the fillies in the Universal stable and the fangs were enormous. Seriously, Count Luvad’s eyeteeth were so damned big that it was a wonder he could swallow all the blood he was drinking. I may be wrong about this but Robles (who still lives, bless him) seems to have been the first movie vampire with proper fangs. Once that taboo was shattered, all hell broke loose. If EL VAMPIRO broke new ground with good fang work, HORROR OF DRACULA put it on the map. Fangs were so integral to the experience of Hammer horror that Christopher Lee normally didn’t have to do much more than show up and show his teeth.
Big fangs belonged to the era of big cars and big hair. The custom was carried over to Italian, Spanish and French films as well and reached its apotheosis in the early to mid 1970s. The secondary, minion vampires in COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and BLACULA (1972, above) and their sequels have bigger fangs than the main man. Star vanity might have had something to do with that, or a fear on the part of the filmmakers that big-ass fangs would make the lead seem kind of ridiculous… but I always thought that choice added an interesting layer of pedigree to the equation, as if vampires devolve back to atavism and animalism the farther they get from the primary bloodline.
These pictures give my heart a nostalgic tug. And maybe that’s all it is, nostalgia. Maybe I’m just an old grindhouse fart who can’t handle change. Generally speaking (and with some notable exceptions), fangs got smaller in the 80s – the chompers on THE LOST BOYS are as teeny as cat teeth and the undead’uns of John Badham’s DRACULA (1979), THE HUNGER (1983) and NEAR DARK (1987) are, for all their respective excesses, fang-less. Now, I’m not saying fangs make the vampire. Most of the horror films derived from Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal vampire novella Carmilla (Roger Vadim’s ET MOURIR DE PLAISIR/BLOOD AND ROSES, Vicente Aranda’s LA NOVIA ENSANGRENTADA/THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE, Harry Kumel’s LES LÈVRES ROUGES/DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS) do without fangs entirely and LÅT DEN RÄTTE KOMMA IN (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) is a better movie for its discretion than the toothily up-front THE BRIDES WORE BLOOD (1972) or SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973). In the main, though, I miss fangs when they’re not there, as I miss the tail fins on Chevys and bonnets on prostitutes. Sometimes nothing quite scratches the itch like a big fang vampire movie, no matter how dumb it is. I even enjoy movies about sociopaths who just think they’re vampires — Daniel Moosman in LE SADIQUE AUX DENTS ROUGES (THE SADIST WITH RED TEETH, 1970), John Amplas in MARTIN (1976, above), Nicholas Cage in VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988) — as long as their delusion involves a set of plastic novelty teeth. I guess I’m just weird that way. Weird but harmless, I promise you. My bark is definitely worse than my bite.
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