the lost boys

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: the best vampire movies you’ve probably never seen!)

Vampires are one of the horror genre’s more bland and uninspired character types, but even as I believe that to be true, I also find myself to be a big fan of dozens of vampire films. I promise this is less about me being a hypocrite than it is a response to the abundance of lazy filmmakers out there, as the movies that stand apart from the pack for one reason or another entertain by being different (or simply better) than the norm. Some deliver the goods with a smart script and loads of personality while others simply find fresh ways to tell a vampire story… even if that means chucking the fangs, bats, and magic eyes right out the window.

This month sees the anniversary of two such standouts – it’s the 25th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 30th for The Lost Boys – so I wanted to take a look at some other good to great vampire movies that deserve a bit more attention. Great titles like The Lair of the White Worm, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Lifeforce, Vampire’s Kiss, Near Dark, and Cronos have been covered enough by this point, all well-deserved, but here are seven more that you probably haven’t seen that are still worth the effort of seeking out.

the vampire doll

Vampire Doll (1970)

A young woman arrives at a remote estate in search of her missing brother, but the mystery of his disappearance is far more horrific and haunting than she imagined.

There aren’t a lot of Asian vampire movies, and most of the ones that do exist are Chinese films featuring hopping bloodsuckers. Seriously, they hop. Check out the Mr. Vampire franchise or even Hammer’s crossover, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, to see what I mean. They’re still good, but their very nature lends them more of an action/comedy feel. The Japanese film Vampire Doll, by contrast, goes the unexpected route to become a gothic chiller the likes of which would make Hammer themselves proud.

Alternately known as The Legacy of Dracula or the unwieldy Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll, the film is the first of a loose trilogy  (along with Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula) and perfectly captures the atmosphere of a creepy old house, secretive servants, and an unsettling feeling in the air. It’s an eerie mystery that slowly unfolds, and while the “vampire” aspect is minimal the film delivers on its thirst for blood and the pained anguish of those trapped between life and death. Director Michio Yamamoto captures his spooky setting with an eye for shadows, color, and one or two genuinely creepy scenes making for an unconventional but highly watchable film.

Vampire Doll is currently unavailable.

vampire circus

Vampire Circus (1972)

A cursed and essentially quarantined village is relieved by the arrival of a traveling circus, but they’re dismayed to find the carnival’s entertainment almost as short-lived as the villagers themselves.

While Vampire Doll channels some old school Hammer sensibilities, this UK chiller is the real deal. It’s not an oft-discussed Hammer entry though, perhaps in part because it lacks the known quantity of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee to spice things up, but it no less terrific for their absence. There’s an engrossing oppression to the village as they’ve seen their population plummet after being cursed by a vampire, and the circus’ arrival offers a cruel tease of entertaining distraction from their plight which quickly turns to carnage as the performers revel their true bloodthirsty selves.

As a side note, IMDB lists the film as being rated PG, which is absolutely boggling to my innocent eyes. The first few minutes see a child murdered and a topless woman entranced by a vampire’s mesmerizing gaze, and there’s far more bloodletting and breasts to come. Toss in some potentially incestuous insinuations on the side of the evildoers, and you have a movie that today would be an easy R. I guess what I’m saying is the ’70s were awesome.

Buy Vampire Circus on Blu-ray from Amazon.

pale blood

Pale Blood (1990)

A serial killer stages his kills to resemble the work of a vampire, but while the police search in vain for him, a real vampire arrives to shut down the imposter.

This is easily the least “best” of the films on this list, but it’s still a solidly entertaining watch thanks in large part to its fun premise. George Chakiris (Bernardo from West Side Story) plays the vampire who arrives in L.A. determined to put an end to whomever’s causing all this bad press for his kind, and the film takes on more of a detective-like narrative with the occasional left turns into the supernatural. It’s a good flick, certainly far better than most direct to DVD thrillers that have passed you by, and it’s a worthwhile watch for vampire fans who’ve seen everything else.

The other big reason to give this one a go? The eternally great Wings Hauser plays the serial killer! I know what you’re thinking. Wings Hauser? The guy who never said no to a movie offer and had films playing in constant late-night rotation on pay cable? Yes him. The guy is as charismatic an actor as you’ll find, whether he’s playing the hero or villain, and that energy offers a smart balance to Chakiris’ calm and cool vampire. They make for an entertaining pair, and the film’s ending, while low key in some ways, takes good advantage of their opposing personalities.

Pale Blood is currently unavailable (unless you have a VCR).

thirst

Thirst (2009)

A priest dies while doing charitable work, but after he’s “saved” by a blood transfusion from a vampiric donor, he finds his life becoming ruled by desires and abilities he’s never known before.

If you’ve seen only one of the movies on this list the odds are it’s this one thanks to the name recognition of director Park Chan-wook. I’m including it here anyway because I find it severely underappreciated in his filmography – it’s my second favorite of his films behind only Lady Vengeance – and if I can get even one more person to watch it, then I’ll count it as a win. Song Kang-ho is terrifically good as a man whose faith is tested while previously muted aspects of his humanity are awakened, but even better is Kim Ok-bin (star of the fantastic new action pic The Villainess) as a woman who appeals to both his heart and genitals in equal measure. Park crafts an achingly beautiful love story between them, one with… complications, and it’s a part of an equally gorgeous-looking film.

Korean filmmakers are masters of tonal balance, and Park showcases that skill throughout Thirst as the film moves deftly from horror to sexual thriller to the blackest of comedies. It doesn’t shy away from the gory/sexy bits, but still manages to mine the couple’s situation for absurd laughs. It all builds to an ending that pairs physical comedy of all things with a powerful feeling of tragedy. It’s a film that rewards all of your senses and emotions, and you should give it a watch immediately. (Or a second watch if you’ve previously dismissed it for being too unlike Park’s “vengeance” films.)

Buy Thirst on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon Video.

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