It’s fitting that vampires have had such a long cinematic life, and this is largely due to the various rich themes and gothic story elements that have sustained these creatures of the night, embedding them in our imaginations and our nightmares. The inherent corruption of the upper class, warring against Christianity, xenophobia, and the cold darkness of superstition are such prevalent themes in vampire films, as are the ever-shifting/evolving social mores, sexual underpinnings and blood-flecked violence that keep audiences on the hook.
The vampire populates the films listed here, which are arguably lesser known pictures, and with them the tragic overtones that have some of the most appeal for these folkloric antiheroes. Enjoy these films, but move quickly through this list, for the dead travel fast!
10. Sundown: the Vampire in Retreat (1989)
Perhaps the only thing you need to know about this incredibly entertaining late-80s horror-western from Anthony Hickox (Waxwork) is that it features Bruce Campbell as bumbling vampire hunter Peter Van Helsing. And while peak-era Campbell is brilliantly cast and utilized, Ash Williams himself isn’t even the best thing going on in this campy cult classic about the vampiric residents of an isolated desert town, aptly named Purgatory.
The undead residents of Purgatory, who apply copious amounts of sunscreen when necessary, rely on synthetic blood as a means of peacefully co-existing with humans, even though this does have the rival vampiric schools often at each other’s throats (pun intended, sadly). In one corner is the more peace-oriented flock led by Count Mardulak (David Carradine), and the more old-school cruel Ethan Jefferson (John Irleand), and before you can say “I don’t need your civil war” the two factions, along with the hayseed humans caught in the middle, are all about to get red in tooth and claw.
This cheeky, semi-parody from Hickox (who would later reunite several cast members in the cult classic horror-comedy Waxwork II: Lost in Time) will amuse western fans but is more customized for horror buffs and also features additionally awesome cast members like a pre-Twin Peaks Dana Ashbrook, Coen Brothers’ staple M. Emmet Walsh, Valley Girl star Deborah Foreman and 1982’s Miss America, Elizabeth Gracen. So why aren’t you downloading this awesome movie right now?
9. Afflicted (2013)
Implementing operatic visuals, choreographed camera movements of the roughshod yet ready variety, and judicious references to recent horror standards, Afflicted is an expert genre exercise. Written and directed by its two Canadian co-stars, Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, this attentive and inventive horror film reshapes and emends recognizable chiller conventions in vicious and visionary ways.
Afflicted finds our two likable leads, Clif and Derek (Prowse and Lee, both excellent) at the dawn of a yearlong expedition around the world to document their web series, “Ends of the Earth.” Before leaving Vancouver for the European inauguration of their trip it’s revealed that Derek has been diagnosed with cerebral arteriovenous malformation or AVM, and the first baleful hues of bleak foreshadowing ebb upon us. Some solace finds our duo in Spain but by the time they make it to France things run afoul. At a nightclub in Paris Derek is seduced by the vampish Audrey (Baya Rehaz). It’s here that our road trip/buddy movie paradigm makes its dip into conventional horror as Derek begins to acclimatize to the nocturnal lifestyle.
“What? I’m just harnessing the power of the Internet to help you with your vampire problem,” teases Clif, in one of the film’s many well-balanced moments. As a self-aware horror film, Afflicted is shrewder than most, particularly in it’s taking of classically simple situations that it gleefully dissects and reworks for rattling results. This is a modern vampire movie, a tragedy, with teeth.
8. The Devil Bat (1940)
Perhaps the most recognizable face of Hollywood’s vampire fixation belongs to the legendary Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi. In B-movie director Jean Yarbrough’s ambitious 1940 “poverty row” production of The Devil Bat, Lugosi chews the scenery as mad scientist Dr. Paul Carruthers. You see, in the tiny town of Heathville, Dr. Carruthers has amassed an army of bats that he’s enlarged to an enormous size and skillfully trained to attack people wearing a specific and very pungent cologne.
Thank goodness that leading lady Mary Heath (Suzanne Karen) has figured it out, more or less, and along with hot shot Chicago Registrar reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and his bungling yet proficient photographer “One Shot” Maguire (Donald Kerr) have got the details to blow the story wide open and the wherewithal to resist Dr. Carruthers and his nocturnal creatures.
A first-rate fromage-athon, The Devil Bat owes its charms almost exclusively to Lugosi and was a surprise box-office hit for the then newly formed PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation).
7. Daybreakers (2009)
The Spierig brothers have carved quite a name for themselves amongst genre fans with high-concept fare like the time-travel headtrip Predestination (2014), their better than it needed to be Saw sequel Jigsaw (2017), and their excellent yet utterly oddball and wholly original dystopian vampire film from 2009, Daybreakers.
Set in a futuristic world with a big vampire population problem, Daybreakers centers around a massive vampire-owned pharmaceutical company called Bromley Marks, who farm what remains of the human race while also divesting resources into a substitute for human blood via Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), head hematologist, human sympathizer and himself a blood-sucker. Also part of the fray is Willem Dafoe as Lionel “Elvis” Cormac, a human survivor and former vampire who might be able to cure the vampire plague.
Wonderfully imagined and richly detailed, Daybreakers offers up dark dreams of apocalypse and post-Matrix visuals. It also benefits from Hawke’s personable protagonist and Sam Neill’s considerably cruel adversary and Bromley Marks CEO, Charles Bromley. Fast-paced, fang-addled and a lot of vicious fun, Daybreakers is a satisfying and expedient escape.
6. Planet of the Vampires (1965)
A classic and chilling “we are not alone” tale, “Master of Italian Horror” Mario Bava (Black Sunday, A Bay of Blood]) may not have been the first filmmaker to use sci-fi trappings to modernize and update both the vampire myth and the haunted house story. An obvious antecedent to Ridley Scott’s 1979 genre classic Alien, Planet of the Vampires takes audiences into the void as colonialist astronauts of two giant spaceships, the Galliott and the Argos, led by Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) and his leggy partner Sanya (Norma Bengell) flee from hypnotic, murderous, vamped-out astronauts on Aura, a volcanic planet.
Based off of Renato Pestriniero’s chilling novella “One Night of 21 Hours”, Bava has a blast artfully constructing narrative details and visual design that would go on to influence scores of filmmakers, H.R. Giger cited it along with Scott as a major influence on the Alien franchise, and later works such as Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars and David Twohy’s three Riddick pictures with Vin Diesel.
A playful mélange of pulpy sci-fi, Gothic horror, space fantasy, and Bava’s signature superb use of color, Planet of the Vampires is gorgeously atmospheric and visually inventive strangeness that’s like no other film you’ve ever come across.