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Interview with a vampire expert

#DUNDEAD

14 April 2022

Dundead 2022 starts in two week's time - have you got your tickets yet? This year's festival features a retrospective of some of the best vampire films of the past 100 years, from Nosferatu right up to modern classic BladeOur Dundead festival programmer Michael Coull caught up with Professor and writer Stacey Abbott to find out more about the horror sub-genre and get her thoughts on our fang-tastic line-up...

MC: Hi Stacey, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do? 
SA: I am a Professor of Film and Television at the University of Roehampton. I am lucky enough to teach a wide variety of subjects in film studies, including German Expressionism, animation, documentary, Nollywood Cinema and global developments in digital filmmaking and special effects. But my favourite subject to teach is a module called Screening the Undead and Other Monsters. Here I get to unpack the legacy of monsters like the vampire and zombie, among others, from folklore and literature through to film, television and screen media. My students and I get to explore how these mythologies evolve, why so many people are drawn to them, and what they say about the world we live in. It is one of the richest topics I have ever taught and is constantly changing and evolving.

"...my favourite subject to teach is a module called Screening the Undead and Other Monsters."

I also have the great pleasure of writing about film and television and my main area of expertise is the horror genre. I’ve written two books on vampire films, Celluloid Vampires and Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century, and the BFI Film Classic on Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. As a researcher, one of questions that I am constantly asking is how horror changes as it transitions from one media to another, from literature to film to television. At the moment, I am researching the intersections between horror and animation

 

MC: You’re an expert on all things vampires - what first drew you to vampires?
SA: I grew up in the 1970s and so my familiarity with vampires started with the Count on Sesame Street, who was creepy, comical, and comforting. He was always my favourite character, long before I had ever seen Bela Lugosi as Dracula, who clearly inspired the show’s conception of the Count. The Count also represented someone who was clearly different but who was accepted by everyone. He was Gothic without being too scary for kids.

"...my familiarity with vampires started with the Count on Sesame Street..."

But the text that first captured my fascination and fear of vampires was Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Salem’s Lot (1979) which was made for television and was terrifying. I remember sitting in my bedroom, watching it by myself and being so scared. The master vampire was modelled on Count Orlok in Nosferatu, with burning yellow eyes, pointed ears, elongated fingers and rat-like fangs, all of which was pretty terrifying. But it was the image of the vampire child, scratching at the window asking to be invited in, that haunted me. It has stuck with me ever since, in part because it was a child who was the monster, feeding off his family and friends; seemingly innocent but merciless. But also because the scratching at the window seemed to suggest he was scratching at the TV screen itself. It was really unsettling. This scene also captured the duality that I think is so fascinating about the vampire. They are often familiar (friends/loved ones/family) but also dangerous (attractive/monstrous). It is this duality that gets us as we must invite them in after all. And let’s not forget that they are also living and dead. They cross so many lines to make us uncomfortable.  


Nosferatu

MC: This year marks the centenary of Nosferatu - how important is this film in terms of the history of onscreen vampires?
SA: I would say that Nosferatu is hugely important and not just for the screen vampire but for the horror genre more broadly. It provided a visual language for the genre, through its iconic use of shadows, gothic mise-en-scene, and unsettling composition, but also spectral optical effects such as dissolves, superimpositions, and stop motion. It presented cinema itself as uncanny. It wasn’t the only film of the period to develop this visual language but it is an important part of the development of the aesthetics of horror.

"...Count Orlok provided an image of the vampire as a visual monster."

It is also the earliest surviving adaptation of Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897), which is the uber-text for the vampire on film. It provided a model for a visual conception of monstrosity in association with the vampire. While Lugosi’s Dracula from 1931 was very influential in providing a template for the more romantic or alluring conception of the vampire, Nosferatu and Count Orlok provided an image of the vampire as a visual monster. While its influence may not have been felt right away, in part because the film was removed from distribution following a lawsuit, it has had a lasting impact. In the adaptation of Salem’s Lot I mentioned above, the master vampire, Barlow, was based on Orlok.

This image continues to haunt contemporary cinema, particularly in films or television series that more overtly depict the vampire as a form of plague or pandemic – Blade 2 (2002), Stake Land (2010), Priest (2011), The Strain (2014-2017), Blood Red Sky (2021). He is the progenitor of vampirism as disease. The film came out just a few years after the Spanish Flu pandemic and the notion of plague underpins the story, with people trapped in their houses as funeral processions move through the city. The community is overwhelmed by an anxiety about an unseen force that is decimating its population. The vampire, therefore, works as perfect embodiment of plague. As a result, Nosferatu has never felt more timely.

"...Nosferatu has never felt more timely."

There is also a sadness to Orlok that seems to go hand in hand with his malevolence. He is trapped by his condition, best represented by the image of him framed by the bars of his window as he stares across at the house of Ellen, the woman he desires. He embodies a melancholy, which has since been explored in Herzog’s remake Nosferatu The Vampire (1979) and E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of a Vampire (2000) both of which took this melancholy and transformed it into a more world weary exhaustion with immortality. Melancholy is a significant aspect of the vampire, which both celebrates the potential for immortality but also often asks what we would it feel like to live forever.  


Ganja & Hess

MC: Both Ganja & Hess and The Vampire Doll offer quite unusual takes on the vampire- why do you think the figure of the vampire lends itself to adaptation in this way? 
SA: The vampire text has, at its core, a very simple premise – it is about a creature that feeds off human blood. It may be surrounded by a range of religious and generic iconography, but blood is central and blood is very potent in terms of symbolism. It can be symbolic of life, death, birth, rebirth, race, family, disease, religion. With all these potential meanings, the genre can be adapted quite easily to suit different social and cultural contexts. Importantly, it is a genre that we have all become indelibly familiar with. Most people have an understanding or perception of what a vampire is as it has become so culturally ubiquitous.

"...blood is central and blood is very potent in terms of symbolism."

As such, if you want to make a film with a deliberate social or cultural commentary as in Ganja & Hess, which uses the vampire to explore issues of race and gender, the vampire is a great starting point because the audience can recognise how you are adapting the genre. The vampire is also often about outsiders challenging the status quo, whether in terms of national identity, race, sexuality, gender. As such many filmmakers enjoy using it to explore changing attitudes to identity by celebrating the outsider and embracing notions of ‘otherness’. The vampire is disruptive presence after all. That familiarity also allows for formal experimentation. The vampire grounds the audience in a familiar genre and then the filmmaker is free to experiment with style and narrative structure. Ganja & Hess is quite experimental in its aesthetics.

 

MC: Vampire’s Kiss gives us a chance to see the inimitable Nicolas Cage cut loose as a potential vampire, do you think there’s something about the vampire which specifically appeals to performers?
SA: The vampire is a transgressive figure that often undermines simplistic dichotomies between good/evil, living/dead, alluring/repulsive, inviting/threatening, human/inhuman, young/old. I think it must be very alluring as a performer to find your own way to embody these transgressions, whether spiritual, psychological or physical. So many of the best vampire films have been marked by outstanding performances from actors, starting with Max Schreck in Nosferatu, who have managed to construct their own original personification of this mythological creature. Cage’s performance in Vampire’s Kiss is one of the most wonderfully outlandish examples, as one would expect from Cage, and the excess of his performance makes the character sad, comical and terrifying because of his unpredictability.

"...many of the best vampire films have been marked by outstanding performances from actors..."

The vampire often incites attraction and repulsion, which must be very challenging for an actor. The best vampire performances have managed this tightrope. If you think of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), he played so many facets of the vampire all in one character – ancient monster, grief-stricken husband, alluring young lover, bestial desire, and plague. There was a lot of controversy when Tom Cruise was cast in Interview with the Vampire, and it is not a typical Tom Cruise role, but he clearly relished playing Lestat – the vampire brat who is dangerous, androgynous, childish, and fun. In each of the films that you are screening at Dundead, the vampire invites us to love and hate them in equal measure, providing an actor a great deal with which to work.


Interview with the Vampire

MC: Interview with the Vampire feasts on the more sensual overtones that we often associate with vampires, is there something about film as a medium which lends itself to exploring this side of the vampire?
SA: Film is an immersive medium and its aesthetic language is ideal for generating an affective response in its audience. Films make us laugh or cry, jump out of our seats, or exhilarate us. This language is ideal for exploring the sensuality of the vampire, tapping into their duality between allure and repulsion. In Hammer’s Dracula (1958), the arrival of Dracula in Mina’s bedroom is designed to be terrifying and transgressive, by breaking social and cultural rules and boundaries. She is scared but more importantly excited by his presence and the film incites the audience to feel a similar mixture of feelings.

"The vampire is a space that allows filmmakers, actors, and audiences to explore what is traditionally forbidden..."

The vampire often taps into traditionally unexpressed desire or longing and film offers an expression of these desires. When you look at early vampire films, the vampire bite is used to stand in for sex when there were restrictions on what you were allowed to show on screen. That is what Interview with the Vampire does so well, which is to evoke a form of sensual homoeroticism that was not prevalent in American cinema in the mid-1990s; particular films with big mainstream stars. The vampire is a space that allows filmmakers, actors, and audiences to explore what is traditionally forbidden and as a result confront taboo subjects, emotions or desires. We see that in many of the films you are screening in this season.


Blade

MC: We’re closing the festival with a late night screening of 1998’s Blade - what kind of impact has this film had on onscreen vampires over the last 24 years?
SA: Blade is an amazing film and a great way to end the festival. It holds an important place in the genre as does Wesley Snipes in the title role. Blade decentred the vampire narrative away from white masculinity by featuring an African American vampire hunter – and one who is not just a vampire hunter but half-vampire himself. It is a very important moment for representation. While films like Blacula and Ganja & Hess predate Blade by a couple of decades, and are fantastically important to the genre, Blade’s hybridity allows him to embody a richly complicated vampire hero. He is the hero rather than a tragic monster. Being half-vampire gives Blade superpowers so he is, in fact, a superhero but a morally complicated one; he still has that vampire thirst. He is a rich composite of Van Helsing and Dracula, re-imagined through the lens of Blaxploitation, Kung-fu and anime.

This film is very knowing in its origins and influences. By integrating the vampire with the comic-book action film, Blade brings a kinetic energy to the genre that is highly stylised, mixing techno music, martial arts, crisp black leather costumes, and an ultra-modern set design in keeping with, and pre-dating, The Matrix (1999). Blade is as much a cyborg (with all his cool weapons) as he is a vampire. Blade’s success as a franchise has led to many more action-oriented vampire films that feature similar aesthetic elements, such as the Underworld franchise (2003-2016), Van Helsing (2004), Ultraviolet (2006), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) and Dracula Untold (2014). These films feature big budgets, special effects, spectacle and hybrid heroes who challenge old school understandings of the vampire, monsters and heroes. 


A huge thanks to Stacey for sharing her vampire knowledge with us! She'll be making the trip up for Dundead so look out for her if you fancy chatting all things vampires. 

Join us for our vampire retrospective, which includes Ganja & Hess, Interview with the Vampire, Nosferatu, Vampire's Kiss, The Vampire Doll and Blade, or get yourself a full festival pass and enjoy the whole weekend of horror. Our full pass includes tickets to all 12 films, the Dundead Film Quiz, a t-shirt and a limited edition print. Six-film passes are also available, which also includes a t-shirt. Contact our Box Office in person or on 01382 432 444 to book.

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