Fangs a Lot: Vampires on Film, Part III – The 1980's

When I began compiling my list for the 80’s and 90’s, I realized I had far more material I wanted to talk about than could be confined to a single post. So I made the decision to split the decades, and look at each film separately. That being said, welcome… to Fright Ni… oh…. I mean, welcome to Vampires on Film: The 1980’s Edition!

Once again, please keep in mind that this is not a complete list of every vampire film produced in the 1980’s. I’m selecting the few that I feel best represent this particular era in vampire cinema, and are worthy of a mention. You may disagree, and, if you do, I’d love to hear your picks, so feel free to leave a comment. Without much further ado, here we go.
The 1970’s had been more or less defined by Hammer Horror and an exhaustive parade of Dracula remakes, re-imaginings, prequels, and sequels. The titular Count and an army of his clones had stalked their way across countless movie screens, and those that he had not visited were often haunted instead by his female counterpart, Carmilla. They were often period pieces, and featured the same revolving cast of veteran actors. With the dawn of the new decade, vampire films started focusing on what would seem a new concept entirely: the modern vampire, in present-day settings.

The Hunger (1983)

The Hunger (1983)

What better way to begin a discussion of 1980’s vampire films than with this adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s novel, starring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, and featuring an appearance by Bauhaus, a classic gothic rock band. Highly stylized, highly sexual, and broaching into an early medical discussion of the causes of vampirism, this film seems to encapsulate everything about the early 80’s.
Central to the story is the idea that vampires may live forever, but not necessarily remain young and beautiful. The mixed metaphors of youth and addiction play well into the culture of the decade which, even a mere three years in, had become a self-absorbed era of avarice and indulgence.

Fright Night (1985)
It has been nearly 27 years since the release of this film and it still remains a much-lauded favorite, not only of vampire fans, but of horror fans of any genre. Fright Night was – and still is – the perfect recipe for a modern vampire film. Old world meets new in the guise of a horror television host (an occupation sadly lacking in 2013) who is tapped for help by a teenager in battling the vampire that has moved in next door.

Chris Sarandon a perfect as the evil yet debonair Jerry Dandridge and Roddy McDowall gives an iconic performance as the self-proclaimed vampire hunter, Peter Vincent. There is nothing about this movie that doesn’t work. The aging McDowall shines as a man confronted with a career slowly ebbing away, facing the future as a relic of a bygone era suddenly made relevant again. And, of course, no one can forget Stephen Geoffreys as the iconic Evil Ed.
With a poorly retooled remake released in 2011, the original 1985 film shines even brighter in comparison. Shockingly, even the terribly 1988 Fright Night sequel turned out better than the remake.

Once Bitten (1985)
Though I generally shy away from horror-comedy, Once Bitten remains a classic of the genre, due greatly in part to its stellar casting. Jim Carrey stars in an early role as a virginal teenager targeted by a vampire vixen (Lauren Hutton) in her plot to remain ever-youthful. Rife with low-brow humor and the occasional gay joke, the film still comes off light-hearted and funny.

One of the best scenes is an impromptu dance-off at a high school event where Jim Carrey shines, pulling some of the funniest faces and hinting at his successful future career in comedy. On its own, the film would fall entirely flat, but Carrey’s awkward teenager plays off Hutton’s aging sexpot well enough to surpass the somewhat mediocre script.

Near Dark (1987)
1987 was a good year for vampire films. At the top of the list is Near Dark, a film co-written and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Director in 2010 (much to the chagrin of her ex-husband James Cameron). The film did not fair well financially, but has become a cult classic over the years, owing a good deal to Bill Paxton’s performance as the vaguely sociopathic Severen.

Lance Henriksen, a scifi film fan favorite, and a young Adrian Pasdar round out a stellar ensemble cast that brings to life the tale of vampires traveling through a rural town. A notable feature of Near Dark is the inclusion of a reluctant vampire storyline which, in later years, has gone on to become something of a trope in vampire films.

The Monster Squad (1987)

Two years following the release of The Goonies came The Monster Squad, which followed much the same theme: a ragtag group of children up against the odds, battling an evil far beyond their imagination. While the Goonies searched for treasure and dodged a crime family, the Monster Squad found themselves facing off against the monsters of lore and film: Dracula, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster.

True to form, Dracula is the leader of this pack of villains and the most dangerous as the group descends on a small American town in search of a powerful amulet. The Monster Squad holds the diary of Van Helsing and, with it, the key to finding the amulet and saving the world from Dracula’s evil. A fun film for adults and children alike, The Monster Squad was sadly out of print for a number of years but has experienced a resurgence of popularity with an anniversary DVD release. In closing, I would just like to add: Wolfman has nards?!

The Lost Boys (1987)

I had said previously that 1987 was a good year for vampire films, and this is probably the best to come out of that year – if not out of the latter half of the 80’s entirely. Few vampire films have inspired not only such a cult following, but such an unmistakable look and feel. The cast of this film reads like a Who’s Who of 1980’s pop culture staples: Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz, and, of course, the Coreys – Feldman and Haim.

The storyline is simple enough; two brothers and their single mother are forced to move from their Arizona home to a rural California town to live with their grandfather following their parents’ divorce, and soon find out their new town is plagued creatures of the night. A perfect blend of comedy and gore make this film a fan favorite; even the soundtrack is well known and well-loved.


My Best Friend is a Vampire (1988)

1980’s vampire films ran the gamut from the very dark to the lighthearted. For every Near Dark, there was a Once Bitten, or, in this case, My Best Friend is a Vampire. Taking the fish out of water concept to a new level, this 1988 film stars Robert Sean Leonard just prior to his career defining turn in Dead Poet’s Society, as the hapless Jeremy Capello, a high schooler whose run-in with a vampire leaves him a “living vampire”: not undead, but still forced to shun sunlight and drink blood.

On the run from slapstick vampire hunters, Jeremy finds himself coping not only with the trauma of high school, but also his parents’ suspicion that his change in demeanor is indicative not of vampirism but of latent homosexuality. A goofy and almost cheerful laugh of a film, My Best Friend is a Vampire seems to be the vampire film’s answer to the Brat Pack comedies of the 80’s.

Some honorable mentions for the 1980’s:
Fright Night II – it may have sucked, but it did have that fun severed-head bowling scene.
Vampire’s Kiss – many people enjoy this comedy, but it’s just a bit TOO goofy.
Lifeforce – Space vampires? Ok. At least Tobe Hooper is involved.
The 1980’s seemed to be an era where the vampire film was searching for a way to remain relevant in a society that was becoming increasingly obsessed with sex, money, and the future. The epic costume dramas of previous years gave way to vampires placed in modern settings with an eye towards anything new. Science was beginning to seep into the vampire’s world, and the human conscience – vampires who didn’t want to be vampires, vampires who refused to kill – was beginning to play an important role. Debonair counts in tuxedos were played only as throwbacks to a bygone era; the new vampire could be anybody at all, from the raucous teenagers at a late night carnival to your new next door neighbor. Evil, it would seem, had found its way into modern society, and had come out to play.
Next up: the stylish, the ultra-gory, the lavish and the strange – Vampires on Film in the 1990’s.
What would you add to this list? What are some of your favorite vamp flicks of the 80’s?
Check out the earlier parts this series:
Vampires on Film 1900-1950’s
Vampires on Film in the 60’s and 70’s

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