The Best (Mostly Lesbian) Vampire Films of Each Decade
Yes, it’s a list. I’m doing a listicle… thing. In actuality, an expansion on a bunch of twitter threads. (I should really learn that if it’s more than a handful of tweets, it’s a blog, not a twitter thing.)
It all began when someone asked me what my favourite vampire film of the ’70s was. It feels like a very specific question, but the reason is that the ’70s was a weird decade filled with a surprising glut of lesbian vampire exploitation films. Which got me thinking about other decades… and here we are.
So the idea is that for each decade from the ’20s through to now, I will select a single vampire film (if I can) which I consider to either be incredibly important to the vampire genre, or at least one that resonated most with me out of all the other flicks that decade.
It’s worth noting as well that my choices here reflect my own tastes, and my own interests.
The reason I passionately love vampire stories is that they can be used so well to discuss gender and sexuality, oppression, power and even toxic relationships.
This is where my interest in vampire films lies, and for that reason I will probably often deviate from the really ‘important’ and popular vampire films of a decade, to discuss one that touches more on these subjects.
Without further ado, let’s begin…
The Roaring ’20s
There’s no choice here. I mean… almost literally no choice. A handful of Russian and other European vampire films were made in this decade, but only one has truly stood the test of time to influence vampire lore (and cinematography) and it’s, of course, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
The “why” of this should be obvious. It does what every great vampire film does, and it essentially did it first. The vampire is truly monstrous-looking, yet we still find ourselves empathising with him. The imagery is gothic & beautiful, almost romantic in composition – and yet there are still some genuinely terrifying bits.
The use of editing to move Count Orlock down the corridor without seeing him move must have frightened audiences out of their seats in the ’20s, and to this day remains a deeply unsettling sequence.
When someone asked me, “What really old films do you re-watch often?” my first impulse is to think of Citizen Kane and maybe Casablanca or The Big Sleep.
Then I remember this one, and it’s definitely the answer.
The Bloody ’30s
My winner here is Dracula’s Daughter, from 1936.
To me, this is actually more important than the original Lugosi Dracula film from 5 years before, though that is likely as I’m coming at it from an interest in queer stories. Being a ’30s film, it still obeys conservative morality, so she’s a villain who must get her comeuppance at the end.
Despite this, I love the film. In it the metaphor of vampires as queer people dealing with (or giving in to) sinister urges is as close to text as we’ll get in film for some years. In one particularly memorable scene where Countess Marya Zaleska, the titular “daughter” of Dracula, finds a young woman out at night alone and has her manservant invite her home for food and warmth.
“My mistress is an artist. She will pay you if you will pose for her tonight.”
And pose she does. The scene where she disrobes as the vampire looks on with pure hunger (or, lust) in her eyes is one of the queerest in cinema since Marlena Dietrich’s kiss with a woman in 1930’s Morocco.
It’s also worth noting an interesting irony with this film – that the first mainstream image of a lesbian vampire came in this cash-in sequel to a popular Dracula adaptation, rather than as a direct adaptation of Carmilla, the original lesbian vampire novella, pre-dating the original Dracula novel itself by 25 years.
The Fighting ’40s
Now to the ’40s and here’s the twist: I haven’t seen any ’40s vampire films. I thought that seemed odd, so I looked it up. But, legit? Almost no vampire films were made in the ’40s. Weird, right? But then, horror was in a slump then… guess people weren’t up for much horror in a decade when so much real horror was happening around the world.
Fear not, though, the ’50s has our back!
The Fangtastic ’50s
The 1950s, my choice has to be Horror of Dracula, Hammer Horror’s first Dracula outing. Christopher Lee’s grand entrance into vampiric canon is, to me, a work of art. It’s gaudy and colourful, but despite that Lee brought something to Dracula which built on what Lugosi did and made it… scarier. Much scarier.
He has Lugosi’s elegance and sexuality, but with a menace that for me always felt sort of missing in what Lugosi did. I’d be absolutely terrified if Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula appeared atop my stairwell at night; if Lugosi’s Dracula did I’d probably sit him down and have a polite chat about the etiquette of breaking into women’s houses in fancy capes.
And it’s quite a gorgeous film. More gothic shadows and the obligatory suite of pretty Hammer sets. (You’ll need to forgive the garishly bright blood, though.)
Beyond this, too, Horror of Dracula really kind of set the standard for future Dracula film in that the casting of Van Helsing was equally iconic. Who can even remember who played Van Helsing in the Lugosi Dracula?
Everyone remembers Peter Cushing.
The Sordid ’60s
Now for the ’60s. This is a tough one, as honestly… while there are piles of vampire flicks this decade, not many appealed to me. So the winner has to be Blood and Roses, the 1960 French/Italian arthouse lesbian flick.
It’s… not great. But to its credit its imagery sticks with me.
This film is allegedly actually based off Le Fanu’s Carmilla, though to call the adaptation ‘loose’ would be an insult to badly-tied shoes. A few name remain the same – Karnstein and Carmilla herself – but that’s essentially where the similarities end.
This sort of set the tone for Carmilla adaptations, intentionally or not. Despite being adapted into film at least 15 times from the ’30s on, few have more than superficial connections to the source material.
The end result is a hard to follow story – a bizarre thing involving parties, a fireworks display involving undetonated WW2 bombs, catacombs, and one of the leads being seemingly possessed by a vampire.
This and the surprising glut of lesbian vampire films to follow (I’ll talk more about that in the next decade’s section) seem to have one thing in common – style over substance.
But despite the story being a mess losing all the texture of the original novella, the imagery is pretty consistently beautiful – enough for me to excuse the story being bland and, wait for it… [drum fill] lifeless.
The Sapphic ’70s
The 1970s saw an absolute torrent of lesbian vampire exploitation and arthouse films, from the loosely connected “Karnstein Trilogy” Hammer did to several loosely based off the legend of the Countess Elizabeth Báthory, and a collection of surreal ones turned out by the French director Jean Rollin.
(Rollin directed something like 5 female-centred vampire films within a decade, though the one most people remember is Fascination, if only because of its iconic image of a woman in a cloak brandishing a scythe.)
My choice here though was actually quite easy, despite the number of vampire films to choose from – it’s the 1974 British-made, Spanish-directed lesbian vampire “erotic thriller”, Vampyres.
In the film, men (mostly awful men) die horribly at the hands (literally) of a pair of lesbian vampires. They live in a castle, luring men in for threesomes before killing them brutally. Fran and Miriam, the titular vampires, don’t simply live together but seem to genuinely love each other, too – at least a partial contrast to the predatory-lesbian tropes which abound in many similar films of the era.
The threesome scenes are certainly explicit for the era, with lots of nudity and (slightly awkward) kissing, and it’s pretty clear that the ‘erotic’ part was more important to the film’s bottom line than the ‘thriller’ part, and there is a surprising amount of fairly realistic-looking blood as the men are used as some combination of food and sport by our women.
In most vampire films, someone being bitten or assaulted by a vampire is usually drawn to them – is compelled and perhaps even enjoys their own demise. That’s not the case here, at least once the hunted realise their threesome is about to get nasty.
The murder and assault scenes are quite graphic – one where the leads finally attack a young woman instead of a man is particularly unpleasant. Screaming, torn clothes… it’s hard to read as anything but actual rape.
The film isn’t quite as pretty as some of the European exploitation films, but there’s a very specific reason chose this film over the many other choices – and why I have copies of almost all the trashy posters for it (shown above) on my wall:
The women get away with it.
In the typical early-20th-century vampire movie, the film ends when the vampire is destroyed by a worthy adversary (or even a Final Girl if it’s from the Slasher period). In a lesbian vampire film, it’s usually a man who waltzes in looking all Van Helsing. If they’re going by conventional tropes, they probably also end the film with a hint that maybe the vampire isn’t entirely dead – or perhaps someone else got bit.
There are only a few exceptions to this, and when they do exist they tend to be “victory for the vampires; but at a cost”. In the problematic but memorable Belgian lesbian vampire flick Daughters of Darkness (try and say that three times fast), one of the handful based off the Countess Báthory legend, the original vampires are defeated, leaving only the newly created one (and even her in mortal danger) – the horror trope of the cycle beginning again.
Vampyres, meanwhile, almost treats its leads as the protagonists. The first few men we see them murder are nasty pieces of work, and it’s truly hard to feel sorry for the victims. It’s only when they attack a woman later on that the movie seems to truly turn on them – they lose their home, but not their lives.
They escape, while one of their victims survives. This film’s version of “Maybe the villain isn’t truly dead?” seems to be “They kept their lives, but perhaps their surviving victim will exact revenge later?”
The Excessive ’80s
Now, given my real passion is lesbian vampire films, those of you who know vampire film history probably think you know what I’m going to pick -Tony Scott’s 1983 film The Hunger.
I mean, fuck, it’s sapphic as hell AND has David Bowie in it, right?
But no. It… never worked for me. Which isn’t to say I think it’s bad. It’s a worthwhile entry into the non-schlock vampire canon – I just didn’t really enjoy it.
My choice for an ’80s vampire film kinda fits in this vein (see what I did there?) but also does something else interesting – it merges genres. It’s not a lesbian film, but it is directed by a woman. My pick is Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 neo-western vampire film, Near Dark.
It’s vampires not as elegant, charismatic creatures of the night but as a crude biker gang – a band of violent, motley Western-style outlaws.
Bigelow and her producer-husband James Cameron basically wholesale poached a lot of the cast of his earlier film Aliens, and brought their on-screen chemistry with them. So while the story isn’t exactly deep, the visuals and the amazing cast help make this unique take continue to have residence in my brain.
I feel like vampires are best when they’re used as subtext, or when genres blend to juxtapose with them other imagery, as Bigelow does here with Western and gang-movie tropes.
The Introspective ’90s
Now onto the ’90s and, sorry but… I have to go with the obvious one here. Interview with the Vampire, the film and its source material, have probably had a greater impact on vampire lore than anything since Carmilla and Dracula.
It’s here, it’s queer, it’s set in New Orleans.
It is, of course, Interview with the Vampire.
Interview, the book and the movie, set the stage for the Sad Vampire Protagonist trope that’d continue on in various forms for decades after. From Twilight to the angsty, angry, sexual vampires in True Blood, it’s hard not to trace it all back here.
Previous films may have lightly implied we should maybe empathise a bit with the vampires, but with Interview we finally got a film truly about the vampires. Unlike Near Dark, here even the villainous vampire who ushers our point of view character into unlife is, if anything, famously more compelling to viewers than the actual lead.
The film knows it, too – it’s why my favourite part of this film is the ending, when we finally get a glimpse of Lestat’s point of view.
“Always WHINING, Louis! [pause] Are you done? [turns off the tape of Louis’ life story] I’ve had to listen to that for centuries!”
In that one moment the film pivots to show us not only the sad, lonely, self-loathing monster, but the one who takes joy in his monstrosity – something most films rarely do.
I have to say, though, picking this one out of the decent number of good vampire films from the ’90s is tough. The ’90s also saw yet another iconic re-imagining of Dracula, done with incredible style and a high budget by Francis Ford Coppola.
But one other ’90s vampire film is so important to me that I think I need to break my ‘one film’ rule and talk a bit about it.
It’s 1995’s The Addiction, a strange black & white arthouse film about a philosophy major in New York who’s bitten by a vampire and has to suffer her newfound addiction to blood while she philosophises and drifts aimlessly about the streets, feeding off people as she is able.
It’s vampirism as drug addiction, and is a film I’ve gone back to again and again, especially the uniquely unsettling scene where our lead is first stalked by (and bitten by) her vampire maker.
It’s also notable for giving us not only Lili Taylor as a truly unique vampire, but also Christopher Walken as a thoughtful but intimidating fellow blood-sucker she lucks upon during her travels – almost to her doom.
The Naughty ’00s
From the late ’90s towards 2000 and beyond we got a truly staggering number of vampire films, and some of them were genuinely very good. We had vampires turn into action heroes with the Blade and Underworld franchises, we had problematic YA vampire romance making it into every second teen girl’s bedroom with Twilight, the creepy child vampire of Let The Right One In, and the interesting meta-textual story of Shadow of the Vampire.
My choice, though, my absolute favourite from the years 2000-2009, has to be 2001’s low-budget Canadian horror/action/comedy/musical masterpiece, Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter.
In it Jesus (pictured here beating up a clown-car full of atheists) is tasked by a mohawk-sporting Catholic priest to hunt down vampires who’re killing the city’s lesbians.
It’s indie. It’s budget. It’s fun. It’s a musical. But most importantly? It has a surprisingly great, progressive message taking it from good to amazing.
When he’s beaten and left for dead in a laneway, the priest won’t help Jesus. Nor the passing cop. But the drag queen? Fuck yeah she will!
Jesus says “LOVE IS LOVE!” (Literally, that’s a line in the movie when he’s asked why he’s saving these horrible sinning gays.)
Despite its kitsch, I do actually also find the take on vampirism it has quite interesting. In it mad scientists are grafting skin onto vampires so they can walk in the daylight, and the reason they choose lesbians as the involuntary skin-donors is, uh… well it’s very ’90s, but still funny.
The film revels in its absurdity and its love for all the weird, queer, alternative things in the world.
When the evil vampire henchwoman is all but defeated, rather than destroy her Jesus lays hands on her, heals her and lets her become human again so she can be with her lesbian lover.
In this film Jesus truly saves (and performs a few great musical numbers too).
The Terrifying 2010s
The trashy vampires moved to the silver screen in 2010, giving us True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals. This move left room for the big screen to be dominated by indie films – especially a surprisingly large number of vampire films about or directed by women.
We had the arthouse American-made, Persian-language vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. We had The Moth Diaries, a meta-textual take on Carmilla by Mary Harron, the director of American Psycho. We had The Unwanted, a micro-budget modernised take on Carmilla which went interesting places until its fuck-awful ending ruined it. And, of course, we had What We Do In The Shadows, the fantastic vampire parody which takes every trope for a hundred years and plays them with love, spinning off into two TV series and counting.
We even had the brilliant Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s take on vampires, taking the Sad Vampire Protagonist trope and playing it on a knife’s edge between drama and farce.
But my choice is a 2010 German film.
In We Are The Night a young woman and petty criminal who falls in with a group of female-only vampires, working off an almost SCUM-Manifesto-like principle that men only bring trouble.
It’s almost a female-centered counterpoint to Near Dark, but this time out gang feed, drink, fuck, play and go shopping at hugely expensive fashion stores and with a few exceptions (including an unfortunate and literal use of the predatory lesbian trope) they do all care for each other.
Even the ending, despite coming very close to either a ‘downer ending’ like earlier lesbian vampire films, manages to do okay – far better than other female-only-vampire-coven films like Bit some years later.
It’s also absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous – and suitably queer.
Even its use of vampire tropes is visually unique. In the scene where Lena, our protagonist is bitten by Louise, the head vampire, Lena is staring into a mirror. She turns around to look at Louise, then back in the mirror and watches in horror as she sees the bite on her neck appear, the blood drip down… but not a single hint that the woman is there behind her.
Some of the subtext is good, too – being turned into a vampire causes Lena’s hair to shed its black dye, to grow thicker and longer, her piercings heal and tattoos fade away – by being taken in by this female vampire group, her body is forcibly turned into a manifestation of conventionally-attractive, conservative feminine style rather than one she chose for herself.
Flaws aside… it’s a favourite of mine. Probably actually my favourite vampire film of all time. Gorgeous, sexy, unique, monstrous, emotional and straight-up fun. It manages to do all the things other vampires do, but in one film.
…but I’m not done yet. One other film in the 2010s was so good I have to talk about it here as a runner-up.
Two years after We Are The Night the director of the original Interview With The Vampire came back to vampires with Byzantium, a unique female-perspective vampire film.
In We Are The Night, male vampires don’t exist (by design of the female vampires). But in 2012’s Byzantium, vampirism is a gift rich men give to each other to control the world…
…until women take it from them.
A sex worker steals the gift meant for her abusive partner, leaving him to die while she and her daughter eek out an existence on the fringes of society while male vampires hunt them down.
It’s vampires to discuss the patriarchy, which is great.
The tension is between the mother and daughter, about the ethics of feeding, and about their right to exist with the gift of immortality which men feel is their domain alone.
It’s also another bloody gorgeous film, rich with imagery and sumptuous deaths.
Choosing between We Are The Night and this, the former won – but only just.
And that’s the end – for now. The 2020s have just begun so here’s hoping that we see more vampire stories using the tropes to discuss gender, sexuality and oppression.
(And hopefully more written and directed by women.)