Left: F. W. Murnau, Nosferatu, 1922, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 85 minutes. Graf Orlok (Max Schreck). Right: Werner Herzog, Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979, color film in 35 mm, 107 minutes. Production still. Count Dracula and Lucy Harker (Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani).

AS EVIDENCED BY BAMcinématek’s thirty-three-film program “Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever,” blood-sucking fiends have long been ideal subjects for filmmakers experimenting in uncharted stylistic territory. F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) inaugurates Bram Stoker’s famous character on-screen by marrying a Romantic, somnambulant atmosphere with the eerie, startling camera techniques of German Expressionism, while Carl Theodor Dreyer’s sui generis Vampyr (1933) plumbs vampire mythology to find disorienting spatial configurations and oddly unstable perspectives (including, unforgettably, the point of view from a corpse being carried inside a coffin).

Indeed, the vampire was avant-garde from the get-go, and in comparison with, say, the zombie or the slasher, this creature has been relatively immune to the long-term stultifying effects of mainstream formula. Horror master Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) delineated the classic tropes of movie vampires by way of Bela Lugosi’s exaggerated, eastern European–accented line readings and Universal’s haunted-house sets of cobwebs and bats, but since then even the genre’s derivatives and redos have yielded unconventional rewards. The campy schlock of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), for instance, is a bizarre kaleidoscope of Pop art set and costume design, while Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) rivals its source for unsettling otherwordliness. (Along with original Nosferatu Max Schreck, Klaus Kinski’s grotesque lead performance is among the most convincingly embodied undead performances ever committed to the screen.) Hollywood efforts both unintentionally overwrought (Tony Scott’s The Hunger [1983[) and startlingly hallucinatory (Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992]) feature jarring montage sequences and sensual superimpositions, and though the vampire film seems to inevitably breed voluptuous, delirious aesthetic experiences (see also Michael Almereyda’s beautifully shot but structurally sloppy bohemian take in Nadja [1994]), sometimes the strangest and most exotic entries are those that have chosen a quietly brooding tact, as with Claire Denis’s gruesome but intimate Trouble Every Day (2001).

Left: George Romero, Martin, 1977, black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 95 minutes. Production still. Martin (John Amplas). Right: Michael Almereyda, Nadja, 1994, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 93 minutes. Production still. Renfield and Nadja (Karl Geary and Elina Löwensohn).

The vampire’s dual nature—life-draining parasite or blood-bonding lover—has lent the myth to multivalent meditations on race (William Crain’s blaxploitation riff Blacula [1972]); power (Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark [1987]); infectious or contagious disease (Ubaldo Ragona’s economical The Last Man on Earth [1964], based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend); the Other (Guy Maddin’s typically breakneck-speed Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary [2002]); dependency (Abel Ferrera’s The Addiction [1995]); and homosexuality (no fewer than three films in the series feature lesbianism, including no-budget soft porn The Velvet Vampire [1971]; sadly, Neil Jordan’s flawed but fascinatingly homoerotic and AIDS-haunted Interview with the Vampire is not accounted for). Vampires have also been subject to some surprisingly witty and irreverent spoofs. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), an affectionate send-up of Hammer Film Productions’s Dracula series (three of which are also included here), throws into relief the underappreciated goofy side of “serious” Roman Polanski horror efforts like Rosemary’s Baby. James Woods’s grouchy, sneering turn as a Vatican-sanctioned stake driver makes John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) great unpretentious, Showtime-level stuff, while Robert Bierman’s Koch-era yuppie satire Vampire’s Kiss (1988) succeeds almost entirely by virtue of Nicolas Cage, in one of his first truly hysterical performances, as a lunatic, love-deprived boss from hell.

The timing of BAMcinématek’s program—less than a month and a half after the release of the latest Twilight film and right in the middle of the third season of True Blood—begs the question: Is there a future for big-screen vampires beyond glossy soap operas? With its arty, languorous pace and Scandinavian gloom, many will point to Swedish import Let the Right One In (2009) as a corrective, but that film’s vampire-as-best-buddy fable of adolescent angst isn’t much more challenging in its approach to vampire lore than its more soft-focus American counterparts. Now that vampires have become unmistakably teen-targeted, perhaps it makes sense to revisit Martin (1977), George Romero’s masterpiece about a “high-school age”—but actually much older—vampire whose saturnine loneliness stems from the knowledge that “there’s no real magic, ever.” No aversions to crosses, garlic, or sunlight; no transformative powers; no mysterious seductiveness; not even fangs—just a curse to crave blood and the longing to be normal. Suffused with Rust Belt economic hardship and Catholic guilt, concerned with the achingly brutal truths of sex and death, Martin provides solid evidence that vampires can be sensitive without being bloodless.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever” runs at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn August 4–September 30, 2010. For more details, click here.