Editor's Note: Award-winning author and film critic Kim Newman is a horror movie expert with a particular fondness for vampire movies, having penned countless reviews of them for such magazines as Sight and Sound, Video Watchdog, and Empire. His acclaimed vampire novels Anno Dracula and Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron have just been republished by Titan. In the following article -- exclusive to FEARnet -- Newman provides a definitive list of the Top 10 vampire death scenes in movies.
The familiar business about vampires shriveling to dust at sun-up doesn't come from folklore or Bram Stoker (in the novel, Dracula breezes about in the daytime with no ill-effects though it's suggested he's stronger at night) but seems to have been invented by F.W. Murnau for the first great vampire movie. Max Schreck's rat-faced, spindle-fingered Graf von Orlok isn't just killed by the dawn – the heroine (Greta Schroeder) beguiles him to linger past cock-crow in her bedroom, sacrificing herself to save the city (and her husband). Orlok disappears by a simple optical fade rather than the dissolving goo effects favoured by later dead-at-dawn vampires, but it's still a striking, poetic, almost sad moment. This vampire was just a phantom, dispelled by the night's end.
Christopher Lee's Dracula always had a spectacular exit in Hammer films – though, as the series progressed, things got more contrived as the Count was sucked under the icy waters of his own moat (Dracula Prince of Darkness), impaled on a giant crucifix (Dracula Has Risen From the Grave), overwhelmed by the Power of God (Taste the Blood of Dracula), struck by lightning (Scars of Dracula), impaled on a broken carriage wheel and tossed into a pit of stakes (Dracula AD 1972) and trapped in a hawthorne bush (The Satanic Rites of Dracula). Still, his first death – excitingly staged by director Terence Fisher -- was the best, at the climax of a swashbuckling duel between Lee's cape-swinging Count and Peter Cushing's resolute Van Helsing. After running along a table and making a leap to rip down the curtains, Van Helsing uses two candlesticks to make a crucifix and drives Dracula into the sunlight. The vampire crumbles agonisingly to dust – which blows away in the winds, leaving only his ring (a bit copied in the 1980 Flash Gordon and a recent Doctor Who episode). The newly-restored version has an extra shot of Lee in rotting-face make-up which makes a great scene even more effective.
The Kiss of the Vampire (1964)
Hammer Films came up with a particularly ingenious method of vampire disposal for The Brides of Dracula (1960) which was eventually dropped – some have suggested censorship complaints, others that using black magic would be beneath Peter Cushing's morally upright Van Helsing. At any rate, the planned climax was used four years later by a less unimpeachably noble vampire killer (Clifford Evans), who summons up a horde of demonic bats – both real ones, and flapping models – and sics them on an entire cult of vampires, who are ironically nipped to death by their rodent relations.
Vampire Circus (1971)
In the litany of contrived vampire deaths, this offers one of the most elaborate – the main villain, Count Mitterhouse (Robert Tayman), is decapitated by the drawstring of a crossbow. Head-severing is usually an adjunct to the hammer-and-stake business, but Mitterhouse has already been staked once in the film and got better – so it takes a definitive head-lopping to put him out of action.
Daughters of Darkness (1971)
Vampires are allergic to running water – in Dracula AD 1972, Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) dies falling into a bath, and it seems silly. Harry Kumel's gorgeous, decadent vampire picture has one of the most perverse, weirdly sexy death scenes as the would-be victim (John Karlin) tries to get naked sex kitten vampire Illona (Andrea Rau) to join him in the shower, only for her to struggle and fall onto his straight razor, impaling herself. It's the most human of vampire deaths.
A joke-sounding title from the blaxploitation boom of the ‘70s, Blacula is a surprisingly smart little picture and William Marshall's African prince Mamuwalde, cursed by Dracula for daring to ask him to sign a petition against the slave trade, is one of the first semi-sympathetic, conflicted, self-hating vampires (arguably, Francis Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is a remake of Blacula). In the climax, Blacula decides to end it all and walks out into the sunlight – precipitating a particularly repulsive vampire meltdown, with writhing maggots spontaneously erupting from the vampire's decaying flesh.
Blood for Dracula (1974)
Everybody knows that the best way (indeed, in some folklore, the only way) to destroy a vampire is to track it down to the coffin where it sleeps away the day and drive a wooden stake through its heart. But it's a somewhat undramatic way of getting rid of your main villain – the 1931 Dracula has a fairly feeble finish as Bela Lugosi is impaled offscreen while he lies helpless. So, most versions of Dracula follow Bram Stoker by having lesser creatures (Lucy, the vampire brides) staked in the approved fashion, but having Dracula himself defeated in a fight scene with the heroes taking knives and stakes to a monster who can defend himself. In Paul Morrissey's wonderfully gruesome Dracula variant, the Marxist hero (Joe Dallesandro) chases the Count (Udo Kier) with an axe and chops off his arms and legs before shoving a stake through his wriggling torso. That's showing him.
Few films climax with the traditional method of vampire-slaying, but George Romero's grim, upsetting modernist twist on the legend does pay off with the vampire (here, perhaps a psychopath with delusions) surprised in his lair (here, just an ordinary bed) by an upright expert (here, his stern uncle) who sticks a wooden stake into his chest and hammers it home. Few films show what a gruesome business this is, as Martin (John Amplas) struggles and the uncle (Lincoln Maazel) repeatedly strikes with a mallet. It's an irony that Martin is being punished for the one death (a suicide) he isn't responsible for, and it's – as usual with Romero – a tragedy rather than a reassurance.
The Breed (2001)
How do you get rid of a monster who can instantly heal from any wound? You cut a hole in its stomach, then shoving in a hand grenade – knowing that the wound will heal over and it won't be able to get its claws on the grenade to throw it away before it goes off. Christos N. Gage – who currently writes Avengers Academy, one of Marvel Comics' best titles – came up with this gimmick for The Breed (an underrated vampire cop movie), and liked it so much he used it again in the TV movie Teenage Caveman. The recent Underworld Awakening shamelessly stole this bit, and bungled it.
Let Me In (2010)
Fair dos. The remake of Let the Right One In is on the whole less affecting and unsettling than the Swedish original, but – partly because it pruned some of the character business – it is marginally scarier. And it has one show-stopper of a vampire death, staged differently from the Swedish film (and perhaps influenced by the spontaneous combustions of Near Dark). Newly-turned-vampire Virginia (Sasha Barrese) is recuperating in hospital, when a nurse opens the curtains to let in sunlight and she spectacularly explodes into flames, not only burning up herself but setting fire to the unwary nurse as well.
Kim Newman is the author of the Anno Dracula series, published by Titan. Anno Dracula and Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron are already out; Anno Dracula: Dracula Cha Cha Cha and Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard are forthcoming.