The stark, expressionist beauty of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu has haunted audiences since Max Schreck’s creature first appeared on screen in 1922, creeping along a staircase. The masterful lighting and atmospheric artistry of the filmmaker’s compositions draws audiences into the deep recesses of the creature’s shadowy world, forcing us to contend with our own worst fears. In short: Murnau does more with a single shadow than many filmmakers can accomplish with two hours of footage.
Nosferatu the Vampyre
It’s rare to come across a film that breathes new life into the oft-revised Dracula, but Werner Herzog did just that in his 1979 retelling of the 1922 silent Bram Stoker adaptation, Nosferatu. Rather than recreate F. W. Murnau’s expressionist classic frame by frame, Herzog composed a stylistic homage that honored the eeriness of the original, but imbued the familiar tale with a striking color palette and the harrowing loneliness and pathos of Klaus Kinski’s tortured Count. A soundtrack from Popol Vuh adds another dreamy layer to the atmospheric textures.
Kiss of the Damned director Xan Cassavetes recently told critic Marshall Fine why she loves the film:
“The movie that influenced me the most — or the two movies — are the two Nosferatus. I love Werner Herzog’s because it has Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani; it’s in color, which is so beautiful, with the most amazing sound design and score. It underscores the incredible loneliness of Nosferatu. The vampire movies I embraced as a kid used vampirism as a metaphor that expressed deep sadness and a lot of human qualities.”
Michael Almereyda’s Nadja has been compared to the moody, surreal stories of David Lynch — and not just because the director appears in the 1994 film as a morgue attendant. The movie is set in contemporary New York City, shot entirely in black and white, and features a soundtrack with My Bloody Valentine, Portishead, and The Verve. Nadja is a philosophical, compellingly cool twist on the vampire myth, beautifully shot like an art house film.
It’s impossible to make a visually bland movie with fashion icons (aka beautiful human beings from another world) David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. The actors played a sophisticated, undead couple that lust after club kids by night and play piano in their swanky New York City townhouse by day. Right from the opening scene, Tony Scott’s set pieces capture the elegance we associate with vampires and the sleek neon style of the 1980s to tell the story of one couple’s struggle with loneliness and life everlasting.
Although he is known for his lurid Italian thrillers, Mario Bava’s seminal, black-and-white 1960 gothic horror film is a genre masterpiece. The film marked his directorial debut, but the maestro had worked in the film industry as a cinematographer for decades before that. The experience paid off. The vampire-witch chiller made Barbara Steele a horror icon and matched her striking looks with remarkable and effective arrangements of light and shadow, still haunting 50 years later.
Daughters of Darkness
A world-weary Hungarian countess amuses herself while locked away in a grand hotel with a newlywed couple on their honeymoon. It would be easy to dismiss an erotic, lesbian vampire movie as cult nonsense, but director Harry Kümel created an elegant, beautifully framed film, boldly colored, and featuring glamorous vamps dressed to the nines. Of all places to be trapped for eternity, we’d be satisfied lounging and looking for prey in Kümel’s Belgian palace.
We could describe any of the films on our list as dreamlike, but Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 French-German horror film, Vampyr, is a truly heady blend of uncanny imagery and black-and-white beauty. Dreyer’s first sound film submerges audiences into a labyrinthine world of dark magic following a mysterious wanderer and student of the occult during his supernatural expedition.
The erotic vampire films of Jean Rollin
“A vampire is like an animal, a predator — wild, emotional, naive, primitive, sensual, not too concerned with logic, driven by emotions, but also very aesthetic and beautiful, and these are terms also often used when my films are being described,” erotic horror director Jean Rollin said of his movies. There are a handful of works in Rollin’s filmography that don’t focus on bloodsuckers, but the French director is known for his enigmatic, sapphic stories about sexy immortals, fantastically shot. We can’t promise Rollin’s movies always make sense (people have hated them with a passion), or that you’ll be able to work past the divisive depiction of women, but Rollin’s work is a feast for the eyes, daring, and wonderfully bizarre. A few recommended picks: The Rape of the Vampire (pictured), Fascination, The Nude Vampire, and Requiem for a Vampire.
The Brides of Dracula
Director Terence Fisher encapsulated the allure of Hammer Films when he created the follow-up to the British company’s first Dracula-inspired movie, 1958’s Horror of Dracula (Christopher Lee’s first appearance in the legendary role). With Brides of Dracula, the studio wanted to top their original and looked to cinematographer Jack Asher and production designer Bernard Robinson to up the ante. The high gothic style of Fisher’s film is everything audiences love about Hammer horror: vivid color, gorgeous and clever set design, stunning photography, sensual costuming, and rich atmosphere.
Blood and Roses
One of the earliest films based on Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, Roger Vadim’s 1960 tragic, hypnotic love story recalls the surreal movies of Jean Cocteau. It entrances with gothic, pastoral atmosphere and contemporary eroticism. The blood-spattered dream sequence is unforgettable.