Feel the burn

Here I am talking about vampires again.  In the course of our discussion last Friday about the size of fangs in vampire movies, my fellow Morlock Moirafinnie asked “What do you think of the changing effect of sunlight on various vampires over time in movie history? I always think it’s a gyp when a Dracula figure doesn’t start to sizzle when the sun’s rays hit him or her. Where do you stand, RHS?”  Of course, I could have given Moira a simple answer but why do that when I can squeeze a whole ‘nuther blog post out of the topic?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1YmD9Pcb0w]

F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1921), a silent German language adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was the first vampire movie to hardwire the rising of the sun to a full body disintegration.  In the Stoker novel, the Undying Count is taken down by the protagonists at sunset – they plunge knives and daggers into the vampire’s prostrate figure while he lies within a shipping crate with this result:

It was like a miracle, but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.

If you’re into vampire lore you might find yourself wondering – was it the knives or the dying rays of sunlight that reduced the Count to powder?  Although Dracula is a nightowl in the novel, he does pad about the streets of London during the daytime under overcast skies and remains safe so long as the sun is obscured.  This is a variation on the mythos of which few vampire movies have taken full advantage, preferring to show the revenant roasted on his own petard (if you will.)  However fast and loose the conceit may play with folklore and/or Stokerlore, a good sun scalding is just cinematic as all Hell.  Neither DRACULA (1931) nor DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) felt the burn — both were dispatched with a shaft of some sort through the bread basket — leaving it to Lon Chaney, Jr.’s SON OF DRACULA (1943) to be the first vampire during the classic epoch to be taken down by dint of daylight.

As the Count’s face is warmed by the rising sun for the first time in centuries, he seems transfixed, mesmerized, unable to turn away.  Rendered helpless, he falls face first into a black and lurid tarn and is reduced to bones.  All we see of the process is the vampire’s outstretched hand as it skeletonizes via a series of lap dissolves.  In HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), Dracula (John Carradine) goes out the same way.

Unlike Chaney fils, Carradine does not go gently into that good light but lets out a banshee’s wail and tries to shield himself with his cape… to no avail.  He drops and dissolves, tuxedo and all, leaving only bones.  That same year, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE‘s Armand Tesla found the opposite of peace and serenity in the light, delivering to star Bela Lugosi the karmic comeuppance he had dodged as Dracula 13 years earlier.  During these less permissive times the vampire’s destruction was kept (at least to contemporary eyes) tasteful, with the subject dropping discretely out of view while a hand or other body part communicated the process synechdochally.  All that changed in 1958.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gBRe2XMljg]

When Great Britain’s Hammer Studios decided to retool the monochrome Universal monsters for Technicolor times, they made explicit what had long been coyly implicit in the horror genre.  Nobody bore the fuller brunt of this new policy of full disclosure than the vampire – and usually Count Dracula.  In the above clip, a proud, cunning and athletic Count (Christopher Lee, in the role of a lifetime) is reduced to a fragile and pathetic wretch by rays of the morning sun that sear his flesh and snap his bones like breadsticks.  You almost feel sorry for the poor bastard.  Vampire, yes; evil, no doubt… and yet it’s hard to watch him suffer, and suffer he does.  DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958) became the gold standard for all subsequent vampire movies and remains to my mind the ne plus ultra of all disintegration scenes.  Of course, it’s been over fifty years since then and the movies have certainly done their best to better the instruction.  Lee’s Count D would suffer many humiliating fates over the years: dipped into an icy river, impaled on an upended cross, struck by lightning, wrapped up in Hawthorne nettles and pinned with a piece of picket fence… but nothing quite compared.

A decade or so later, William Crain’s BLACULA (1972) flipped the script by being one of the first, if not the first, movie vampires to walk willingly into the sun.  Cornered by the cops, who have staked the reincarnation of his long-dead princess, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) hoofs it up to the top of an oil tank and lets it be.

Mamuwalde doesn’t return to dust – he sort of half dissolves and gets all wormy.  But that’s what’s to love about vampire movies… they’re all about variation.  In Jean Rollin’s hypnotic, sardonic LE FRESSON DES VAMPIRES (THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES, 1971), blushing bride Sandra Julien is vampirized on the beach by a pair of Boho bloodsuckers but, c’est la unvie, the rising sun catches the trio unawares and they all vanish tooth de suite.

The effect is crude, like something out of a silent film.  That comes as no surprise given that Rollin was greatly influenced by the silent French serials of Louis Feuillade – LES VAMPIRES (1915) and JUDEX (1916).  But some vampire flicks want to keep you guessing about the provenance of their protagonists and fudge the details, piggybacking some other trauma atop that brought by the rising sun so you can’t really tell what destroys the revenant in question.  In Harry Kümel’s Belgian LES LÈVRES ROUGES (DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, (1971), the seemingly ageless Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) is racing the rising sun when the glare blinds her driver.  Her roadster crashes and she is ejected from the wreckage to be impaled on a tree branch.

Even by this point in the film, we don’t know if Seyrig is really Countess Dracula (as Bathory has long been called for her insatiable bloodlust and immortality fetish) or merely an elegant whack job.  The jagged branch does for her as well as a stake through the heart and the fire from the crash reduces her body to ashes (we presume, after the cutaway) as a sort of sunshine surrogate.  The movie is like that all over… seductive, poetic, cruel yet elusive and by the end you’re not sure if it was a tale of the supernatural or of lost souls leaching onto folklore for some semblance of meaning.  The year before, Christopher Lee had returned to the role of Dracula in Spanish filmmaker Jesus “Jess” Franco’s EL CONDE DRACULA (COUNT DRACULA, 1970), a more faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, kinda-sorta-like.  In the end, the good guys get to Castle Dracula ahead of the Count, drop a big Wile E. Coyote rock on his gypsy henchman, and set fire to Dracula in his coffin.

As he smolders, Dracula ages visibly before being reduced to a calcified husk.  To add insult to injury, the protagonists then dump his charred remains over the parapet and let him burn out behind a bush, which is probably the most ignoble death Dracula has ever suffered onscreen.  At the end of the decade, John Badham’s DRACULA (1979) met a similarly unsexy fate, with Frank Langella being hoisted on a ship’s gaffe up the mainmast and flayed alive by the sun o’er the yardarm before blowing away like a kite.  But Kate Nelligan still found him sexy, so go figure.

After the thoughtful, risk-taking and relatively low key/low tech Seventies, vampire filmmakers working in the Eighties ramped up the subgenre to new levels.  The improvements to the folklore made for an invigorating, uptempo decade that nonetheless left me, well before 1989, with the equivalent of a sugar high crash.  I quickly grew tired of teenage vampires in leather dusters who could fly and who not only disintegrated when dispatched but who blew up.  A tonic to the hyperbole of FRIGHT NIGHT (1985), THE LOST BOYS (1987) et al was NEAR DARK (1987), whose fangless nightwalkers bubble up by dawn’s early light and flame out like sparklers. Vampires are still exploding… check out the Russian NOCHNOY DOZOR (NIGHT WATCH, 2004) and DNEVNOY DOZOR (DAY WATCH, 2006) or the recent DAYBREAKERS (2009) if you don’t believe me – although there are so many other things blowing up in these movies that you’ll scarcely notice the vampires are gone.  They’re like disaster movies with incidental vampirism.

In a very small subset of vampire movies, the species deals with unruly members of its tribe — or in some cases, an unruly minority usurps power — by subjecting the apostates (or the old guard) to rays of sunlight from which they wisely stand clear.  I first saw something like this in Jean Rollin’s LE VIOL DU VAMPIRE (RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE, 1968) but the device has s been used more recently in films such as INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994, above) and BLADE (1998), in which Udo Kier (a former screen Dracula in BLOOD FOR DRACULA) is first de-fanged and then left on the beach to his bubbly fate.  By Stephen Dorff, no less.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cccSBQXnsBs]

Lately we seem to be into a vogue of flaking and fluttering vampires who nobly accept their fates at cockcrow and stare wistfully out to the vanishing point as they break up into Xerox toner.  I’ve seen this gag in BLADE II (2002) and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007) and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of it.

In the Swedish LÅT DEN RÄTTE KOMMA IN (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, 2008), special effects are used sparingly for the things that really matter – cat attacks and vampires flaming from the sun like Yule Logs.  Some critics have said that these big moments are stylistically out of place in an otherwise quiet and naturalistic supernatural drama… while others (me included) feel they pop deliciously in their incongruity, like chestnuts roasting on the hearth. While watching this remarkable sleeper last year, I couldn’t help but wonder if writer-director Tomas Alfredson (or novelist/scenarist John Ajvide Lindqvist) were at all inspired by a somewhat similar scene in John Landis’ INNOCENT BLOOD (1992)…

… in which vampirized Mafia consigliere Don Rickles (it’s a long story, don’t make me tell it) revives in a Pittsburgh hospital and is able to enjoy just seconds of un-life before the Venetians are opened and he falls apart like wet bread.  It’s a great scene in an otherwise forgettable film whose only real innovation seems to be in kickstarting the whole vampires-with-guns sub-subgenre.  [Bristles visibly.]  Anyway… all this to say we’ve gotten a long way from that simple dissolve that took Max Schreck’s NOSFERATU out of the frame nearly 90 years ago.  (Hell, when Werner Herzog remade NOSFERATU in 1979, Klaus Kinski’s rat-faced revenant just dropped to the floor dead without a lick of FX jiggery-pokery.)  What we’ve gained in forensic ferocity over the past decades has been at the expense of elegance, of poetry, of otherworldliness.   The appeal of vampires is seated in its inversion of human life, which kills us slowly over time and makes our youth seem, from the far end, like the work of a minute.  Neil Young be damned – you’d have to be an idiot to prefer burning out to fading away, like Nosferatu did, “in a puff of smoke like the Agony of the West” (as Jack Kerouac put it).  I’m hoping, as genre filmmakers continue to explore new and exciting ways to burn up a vampire, that the old ways aren’t forgotten but that they might rise again in their infernal simplicity to tickle our fancies and haunt our dreams.

18 Responses Feel the burn
Posted By moirafinnie : March 5, 2010 9:28 am

Gee, you really did weave another entire blog out of Drac’s aversion to Vitamin D. I’m impressed, and quite grateful for two things:

1.) That I haven’t seen the more gruesome-sounding immolation of movie vampires.
2.) That you reminded me of Innocent Blood (1992), which may be one of the few vampire flicks set in wintry Pittsburgh and featuring the Undead vs the Mafia. Wish that La Femme Nikita star Anne Parillaud had made more trash, er, entertainments like this–even if I did have to look away alot!

Hey, you really loathe The Lost Boys (1987), don’t you? You’ve inveighed against its deviations from vampire orthodoxy more than once now.

Maybe the Morlocks should take turns giving each other ideas for blogs? Thanks for this enjoyable analysis, RHS.

Moira

Posted By moirafinnie : March 5, 2010 9:28 am

Gee, you really did weave another entire blog out of Drac’s aversion to Vitamin D. I’m impressed, and quite grateful for two things:

1.) That I haven’t seen the more gruesome-sounding immolation of movie vampires.
2.) That you reminded me of Innocent Blood (1992), which may be one of the few vampire flicks set in wintry Pittsburgh and featuring the Undead vs the Mafia. Wish that La Femme Nikita star Anne Parillaud had made more trash, er, entertainments like this–even if I did have to look away alot!

Hey, you really loathe The Lost Boys (1987), don’t you? You’ve inveighed against its deviations from vampire orthodoxy more than once now.

Maybe the Morlocks should take turns giving each other ideas for blogs? Thanks for this enjoyable analysis, RHS.

Moira

Posted By rhsmith : March 5, 2010 10:18 am

I actually don’t loathe The Lost Boys – it’s just not my kind of vampire movie. It really does mark the sea change in the subgenre, though, between content and spectacle and for that it annoys me and I kind of resent it… but hatred would be putting it too strongly.

You’ve got me thinking about another blog post devoted to staking the vampire… and you’ve only yourself to blame!

Posted By rhsmith : March 5, 2010 10:18 am

I actually don’t loathe The Lost Boys – it’s just not my kind of vampire movie. It really does mark the sea change in the subgenre, though, between content and spectacle and for that it annoys me and I kind of resent it… but hatred would be putting it too strongly.

You’ve got me thinking about another blog post devoted to staking the vampire… and you’ve only yourself to blame!

Posted By BobG : March 5, 2010 3:08 pm

Don’t forget that Armand Tesla’s face does melt, somewhat alarmingly, for this rather stately black and white Universal wanna-be. I a

Posted By BobG : March 5, 2010 3:08 pm

Don’t forget that Armand Tesla’s face does melt, somewhat alarmingly, for this rather stately black and white Universal wanna-be. I a

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 5, 2010 3:32 pm

Armand (Lugosi) Tesla’s fate is rather jolting; a quick cut to his melted, tallow-like face seems to me more out of character in that odd not-a-Universal-film-but-wanna-be than any of the more calculatedly disturbing moments in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. In addition (and as I’ve written elsewhere) heroine Freida Inescourt’s late middle-age make-up, dark, dark smudges under her eyes and cheekbones, makes her look instead like she’s come down with a bad case of German Expressionism.

I also seem to recall that Nosfer-Kinski’s eyes go blank-white when he dies, leaving him eerily and charmingly resembling a Gahan Wilson cartoon.

Late “fang” note – in the original SALEM’S LOT mini-series, how is that Barlow, a Schreck look-alike with his rat-like two front teeth, can produce vampires with the traditional enlarged canines? Hmm?

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 5, 2010 3:32 pm

Armand (Lugosi) Tesla’s fate is rather jolting; a quick cut to his melted, tallow-like face seems to me more out of character in that odd not-a-Universal-film-but-wanna-be than any of the more calculatedly disturbing moments in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. In addition (and as I’ve written elsewhere) heroine Freida Inescourt’s late middle-age make-up, dark, dark smudges under her eyes and cheekbones, makes her look instead like she’s come down with a bad case of German Expressionism.

I also seem to recall that Nosfer-Kinski’s eyes go blank-white when he dies, leaving him eerily and charmingly resembling a Gahan Wilson cartoon.

Late “fang” note – in the original SALEM’S LOT mini-series, how is that Barlow, a Schreck look-alike with his rat-like two front teeth, can produce vampires with the traditional enlarged canines? Hmm?

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : March 5, 2010 9:09 pm

Interesting dynamic here at TCM blogland…seems to be driven by the Asylum instead of the lunatics! Whatever…Keep on Truckin’. I enjoyed Tom Waits as the buggy guy in FFC’s BSD. Renfrew rules!

Posted By wilbur twinhorse : March 5, 2010 9:09 pm

Interesting dynamic here at TCM blogland…seems to be driven by the Asylum instead of the lunatics! Whatever…Keep on Truckin’. I enjoyed Tom Waits as the buggy guy in FFC’s BSD. Renfrew rules!

Posted By Appoggiatura : March 5, 2010 9:18 pm

This is a nice exploration of flaming vampires, and I think a discussion on staking is needed. However, the question that has piqued my mind is this: how many different treatments are out of there of vampires tolerating the sun? Clearly, there’s the Twilight sparkle effect, which might be the worst aspect of those movies – even beyond the brooding teenagers and angst-ridden dialogue. I’d love to explore what the sun-tolerance is.

Posted By Appoggiatura : March 5, 2010 9:18 pm

This is a nice exploration of flaming vampires, and I think a discussion on staking is needed. However, the question that has piqued my mind is this: how many different treatments are out of there of vampires tolerating the sun? Clearly, there’s the Twilight sparkle effect, which might be the worst aspect of those movies – even beyond the brooding teenagers and angst-ridden dialogue. I’d love to explore what the sun-tolerance is.

Posted By Suzi : March 6, 2010 4:10 pm

I prefer my vampires to burn in sunlight, too. Even in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they toasted in the rays. And, I kind of liked the smoking effect in NEAR DARK before they burned.

Posted By Suzi : March 6, 2010 4:10 pm

I prefer my vampires to burn in sunlight, too. Even in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they toasted in the rays. And, I kind of liked the smoking effect in NEAR DARK before they burned.

Posted By Dave M. : March 7, 2010 5:22 am

Chan-wook Park’s “Thirst” has a darkly funny, toasty finale.

Posted By Dave M. : March 7, 2010 5:22 am

Chan-wook Park’s “Thirst” has a darkly funny, toasty finale.

Posted By medusamorlock : March 7, 2010 4:55 pm

You’d also enjoy the quite dramatic and beautiful immolation of Godric in HBO’s “True Blood” Season Two. Really hated to see him go!

Posted By medusamorlock : March 7, 2010 4:55 pm

You’d also enjoy the quite dramatic and beautiful immolation of Godric in HBO’s “True Blood” Season Two. Really hated to see him go!

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