The bloody visual history of vampires in film

From Nosferatu to Twilight.

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Of all the ghouls and monsters that have haunted cinemas over the years, the vampire may be the most common, and the most interesting.


But the history of vampires in film is hard to pin down and cloaked in shadows (just like vampires prefer it).

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Early contenders for the first vampire film, like Dracula’s Death (1921), have been completely lost to time, so not much is known about them.

Nosferatu (1922) is often cited as the first vampire film, and it’s easy to see why.
United Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

United Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nosferatu is about as iconic as films get. Look at any early history of the medium, and you’re all but guaranteed to see Max Schreck’s befanged face staring back at you.

It went on to be incredibly influential. For example, the villainous Count Orlok is killed by sunlight in Nosferatu. That’s the first time this trait was depicted in vampire legend, but far from the last.

But according to researcher Gary Rhodes, the first time a vampire was shown on film was in Loïe Fuller (1905), in a brief scene where a bat flies onto a roof and transforms into a woman.

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So the first vampire on film may be a little underwhelming and not quite how we picture vampires today. But starting in 1931, the blueprint for vampires gets much clearer.

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Universal’s Dracula turned Bela Lugosi into a horror icon and established the canonical film vampire. Jet-black hair, piercing eyes, and a snazzy cape became essential parts of the vampire playbook.

Dracula is so iconic that movie vampires looked mostly identical for decades.

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By the ‘70s, filmmakers start to break the mold. In 1973, arthouse horror film Ganja & Hess saw Night of the Living Dead star Duane Jones transformed into a vampire by way of a cursed dagger.

George A. Romero’s Martin (1976) riffs on the pop culture obsession with vampires. Its title character claims to be a vampire while attacking women with razor blades to feed on their blood.

Until this point, film vampires are overwhelmingly male. That changes in the ‘70s with a subgenre of sexualized lesbian vampire movies, the most famous of which were made by Hammer Films.

The kinky, queer potential of vampires was explored again in 1983’s The Hunger (starring Davie Bowie and Catherine Deneuve), which is either a stylish cult masterpiece or unwatchably boring, depending on who you ask.

Other ultra-stylish ‘80s vampire movies like Lost Boys and Fright Night draw on both the seductive and monstrous vampire archetypes for their bloodsucking villains.

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Following a Dracula remake and the somber Interview with the Vampire, ‘90s and 2000s vampire movies took a fun, campy turn.

Movies from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Blade used action to move vampires out of horror and into the mainstream.

The Twilight series brought vampires even further out of the shadows (but it’s okay — they only sparkle in the sun now) and made them figures of romance instead of fear.

These days, vampires can fit in seemingly any genre. Only Lovers Left Alive and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night bend genre to explore the inner lives of the undead...

... while What We Do in the Shadows, one of the best vampire movies (and shows) of the last decade, turns them into lovable goofs.

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Film vampires have been villains and heroes, metaphors for addiction and disease, and iconic figures since the early days of film.

Not bad for a centuries-old myth with a garlic allergy.

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