From 'Nosferatu' To 'Blood Wars': The Evolution Of Vampires In Cinema

In our fifth Underworld movie, Kate Beckinsale's Selene fights in the blood wars to "protect the bloodline" — but where did that bloodline begin? I'm not just talking the towering half-a-billion-at-the-box-office #Underworld franchise, but the entire illustrious history of blood-guzzling, sharp-toothed sun-haters in cinema.

Where to begin with the history of vampires on screen? If we want to be pedantic about it, we could go back as far as 1896, when cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès released three-minute silent movie The Haunted Castle, although the sum total of the vampiric action is a sequence in which a person turns into a bat.

Fast forward to 1915 and Theda Bara plays The Vampire in A Fool There Was, but this lady is more vamp than vampire, with her bloodsucking tendencies limited to metaphorically slurping the life (and cash) out of the men she seduces. In the same year, Louis Feuillade's seven-hour opus about a vicious, nocturnal criminal gang stretched its wings, but despite its impressive length, Les Vampires never penetrated the public consciousness the way later vampire movies would.

Blood was purportedly spilled in Károly Lajthay's Dracula's Death (1921), but as the complete film is lost, we may never know. No, the vampire on screen begins proper with what is still the visual touch point for every offering of movie gothic since: Nosferatu.

Black And White In The Dead Of Night: Nosferatu And The Universal Years

In 1922, Max Schreck set the template for the classic vampire as his Count Orlok stalked through the shadows, spindly fingers outstretched and teeth sharp. F.W. Murnau's German expressionist masterpiece brought the movie vampire to us from the Carpathian Mountains, although it took seven years from Nosferatu's Berlin premiere for the film to reach America.

Shortly after the Count's arrival, in 1931 the Land of the Free broadcast its own iconic vampire to the world: Universal Pictures' Dracula. Starring Bela Lugosi at his hypno-staring best, this early horror classic was truly scary, free from the censorship that was to shortly be enforced with the Motion Picture Production Code and that would eventually destroy the career of its visionary director Tod Browning (but that's another freaky story).

Universal followed up, though never quite achieving the heights of Dracula, with Dracula’s Daughter in 1936, and the Lon Chaney Jr.-led Son of Dracula (1943) and House of Dracula (1945). Unbelievably, the massive success of the original Dracula was not enough to launch Lugosi into a stream of monetized Dracula sequels, a phenomenon that we now expect to accompany any big hit.

The vampire genre subsisted on the blood of artistically exquisite but financially woeful films such as Vampyr (1932) and Mario Bava's fascinating I Vampiri (1957), until it rose from the crypt and assumed corporeal form thanks to a little-known film studio in England.

See also: 
Who Is The Vampire Queen, Semira, In Underworld: Blood Wars?
7 Things You Might Not Know About The Original Underworld Movie
Why Is Selene's Blood So Damn Important In Underworld: Blood Wars?

The Sexy '70s: Hammer Horror And Hotties

Hammer Productions had been dutifully churning out minor thrillers until it hit on its lavish niche: Luxurious, opulently colored period pieces that brought Count Dracula back to the mainstream. With Terence Fisher at the helm and Christopher Lee at the jugular, Hammer released nine Dracula movies, ranging from the relatively straight-faced Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), to the demented chopsocky horror The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), the latter made in collaboration with legendary Hong Kong moviemakers the Shaw Brothers.

Hammer may have started the party, but many other interesting vampire lovers were in attendance. Fellow British movie house Amicus turned out some decent vampire pictures, including the excellent The House that Dripped Blood (1971), and the vamp craze eventually spread to the artsier corners of cinema.

Auteur Roman Polanski had a crack at the vampire genre in 1967 with The Fearless Vampire Killers, then 1971 saw the release of Les Lèvres Rouges, possibly the most arresting film ever made and almost solely responsible for the aesthetic of American Horror Story: Hotel. Vampires went experimental in Bill Gunn's Ganja & Hess (1973), Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey turned out the bizarre sex-fest Blood for Dracula (1974), George A. Romero moved from zombies to vampires in Martin (1978) and everyone's favorite grumpy German Werner Herzog revisited Nosferatu in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), showcasing Klaus Kinski at his (on-screen) creepiest.

The '70s turned up the heat on the vampire sleaze that is still going strong more than 40 years later, with such titillating pictures as Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Requiem for a Vampire (1971) and Vampyres (1974).

Perhaps the weirdest vampire movie of the decade? The 1975 oddity Deafula, a horror movie filmed entirely in American Sign Language!

'80s Fangs: The Bloodsucking Brady Bunch

While it's a cliché to call the '80s a time of excess, this was certainly true of the decade's vampire cinema. The sensuality of the '70s lost its dreamlike haze and sharpened at the edges; the vampires of the '80s moved from countryside to cities, from period settings to the present day.

The bad guys in the '80s became a more tangible threat, less effete, more urban — more realistic. Far from robed aristocrats, the vampires of the decade were your creepy neighbor in 1985's Fright Night, your ill-advised stripper in the following year's Vamp, sexual predators in 1983's The Hunger, the street gangsters of '87's The Lost Boys, and sadistic drifters in Near Dark.

Still, the '80s wasn't all gritty urban terror. Plenty of flop-haired comedy was available in the shape of likable teen rom-com Once Bitten, weirdo Nicolas Cage rampage Vampire’s Kiss, horror spoof Transylvania 6-5000, Hong Kong hopping-corpse lunacy Mr. Vampire, and roadside attraction Waxwork.

The weirdest vampire movie of the decade? Texas Chainsaw Massacre maestro Tobe Hooper brings frozen space vampires to Earth from the trail of a dead comet in 1985's critically panned Lifeforce.

'90s Meta: I May Be Dead, But I’m Still Pretty

Despite a localized, sumptuous revival of puffy sleeves, frock coats and neckerchiefs courtesy of 1992's Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview with the Vampire in 1994, the '90s kept largely to the recognizable modern-day settings of the '80s. Vampires became kinky art freaks, as in Larry Fessenden's Habit, Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, and the David Lynch-produced Nadja, echoes of which are still being felt in modern arthouse vamp films as 2014's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

This is not to say that the maudlin highbrow dominated the decade. Deranged stop-motion creature feature Subspecies (1991), John Landis's mafia romp Innocent Blood (1992), and ludicrous Airplane!-with-fangs flick The Night Flier (1997) — "Evil has a flight plan" — ensured that much.

Whether causing or cresting a wave, meta made its presence felt in a series of self-reflective vampire movies like 2000's Shadow of the Vampire and Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep (1996), a strange reinvention of 1915's Les Vampires. Where the genre took its longest and most exacting look at itself, however, was on the small screen, with seminal show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003; the less said about the 1992 film, the better). Buffy and her cohorts saved us from the vampires, the demons, the forces of darkness, yet never lost their sense of humor.

The weirdest vampire movie of the decade? Dark comedy and surrealism merge The Reflecting Skin (1990), an achingly wistful tale from underrated Brit dreamer Philip Ridley, in which an Idaho boy learns about vampires in the wheat fields.

Dracula 2000: A Violent New Millennium

The turn of the millennium saw a more permissive attitude to sex and violence on screen, allowing vampire movies to spill more blood and suck more arteries. The gore began proper a little earlier, with vicious action-thrillers From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and John Carpenter's Vampires (1998), and the assault on cinema never let up. Starkly stylish leather 'n' swords trilogy Blade unleashed a torrent of hellfire on cinemagoers, paving the way for subsequent fanged action flicks including 2007's I Am Legend and 30 Days of NightDaybreakers in 2009, Stake Land in 2010, and the excellent Bloodsucking Bastards in 2015.

Alongside vampire violence, vampire sexiness reared its head again, however much the sparkly tween heartthrobs of Twilight tried to sanitize it. Staying sexy (and occasionally getting murdered) were a series of sensual bloodsuckers in Park Chan-Wook's erotic Thirst, Neil Jordan's Byzantium, and Jim Jarmusch's oddly Doctor Who-esque Only Lovers Left Alive. Topping the nocturnal nudity stakes, of course, was the long-running True Blood (2008–2014), a series so endlessly carnal that it's debatable which bodily fluid the vampires truly lusted after.

Tying together the two strongest modern vampire trends — sex and action, and who doesn't love both? — is the Underworld series, running and gunning vampire cinema into the future. Underworld: Blood Wars is the fifth movie in a series that's still going as strong since its 2003 beginnings. Looking back on the great history of vampires on screen, maybe Selene really is the best fanged protector of the bloodline after all.

The weirdest vampire movie of the new millennium? The fact that it's a Takashi Miike movie tells you it's going to be weird, but 2015's Yakuza Apocalypse has a few flying heads and karate frogs up its sleeve for good measure.

Underworld: Blood Wars is out NOW on Blu-Ray and Digital!

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