Nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, Jordan Peele’s Get Out! (2017) might not have won, but it did open discussion about how everyday life can feel like a horror movie for African Americans and other US citizens.
My recent book, Vampires, Race, and Transnational Hollywoods (Edinburgh University Press, 2017), examines a history of horror films for what they say about life in the United States over multiple generations.
Vampires are supernatural. Some can fly, and others can transform their bodies into the shapes of rats or bats. Since they are supernatural creatures, their stories allow Hollywood filmmakers inventive ways to address controversial topics to open discussions on topics such as racism, sexism, police violence, and anti-immigrant sentiments.
These five films will reward fans of vampire films with the blood and fangs that they expect, but the films also offer insights into the shifting perceptions of what it means to be American — that is, who can claim to be American without being questioned about it — from the 1930s to today.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
USA 2014; dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
There have been countless female vampires in Hollywood, but very few women have directed Hollywood vampire films. Ana Lily Amirpour’s black-and-white film evokes the style of some of earliest vampire films, but its story is hardly nostalgic for the 1920s and 1930s when women were largely sexualized objects for male vampires to bite. This film is most recognizable for its female vampire, who rides a skateboard and wears a chador, the black cloak that women in Iran must wear in state buildings since the 1979 revolution. For Amirpour, the chador is transformed from a garment, forced upon women’s bodies by men, into an empowering garment — a feminist version of Count Dracula’s cape. The film merges elements of Iran and California in an imaginary oil town, where men are mostly junkies and pimps and where woman are mostly princesses or prostitutes. The vampire, known only as The Girl, is not afraid to walk home alone at night, ushering in a feminist rejection of the woman-as-victim character in slasher film series like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street of the 1970s.
USA 1998; dir. John Carpenter
During the 1980s and 1990s, US citizens were asked to believe that the War on Drugs protected them from “illegal immigrants,” hopping over the southern border to wreak havoc. Most people might not have feared that Mexicans would sell drugs to their children, but fears over drugs and immigrants were confused. Depending on how one understands the film, John Carpenter’s Vampires both reinforces such fears and parodies them. Its story concerns a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officer, who works for a kind of privatized border control. He hunts vampires, who “nest” in abandoned buildings, then displays their skulls as trophies. The film both reinforces and subverts the dehumanization of immigrants in mass media. James Wood’s self-consciously macho performance of the ex-DEA officer points to the questionable morality of cowboy vigilantes, performed by John Wayne and others, in classical Hollywood Westerns.
USA 1976; dir. George A. Romero
Beloved for his flesh-eating zombie films, George Romero’s vampire film reveals the plight of white men in the 1970s Rust Belt, whose children have recently raised their voices about being excluded from the American Dream. Like his Living Dead films, this one is unexpectedly shocking — even 40 years after its release. The central character Martin is either a shy teenager akin to an “incel” (involuntary celibate) today — or he is a serial murderer, who often drugs and rapes his female victims. Within the struggles for Civil Rights and Equal Rights in the 1960s and 1970s, Martin might actually question whether white masculinity is a real monstrosity. Romero does as much with an unsettling combination of silly humor, including a stunt with plastic vampire fangs, and horrifying violence, including racial profiling by police.
Ganja and Hess
USA 1973; dir. Bill Gunn
This film prefigures the recent hit Get Out! (USA 2017; dir. Jordan Peele) in conveying how everyday life in the United States can be a horror story for African Americans. The film is an art film, so it does as much in less obvious ways. So confusing for Hollywood producers at the time, Ganja and Hess was re-edited and renamed “Black Vampire” to conform with mainstream (white) expectations for images of African America on screen, which were largely limited to stylized ghettos in blaxploitation films, such as Super Fly (USA 1972; dir. Gordon Parks Jr.) and Foxy Brown (USA 1974; dir. Jack Hill). Bill Gunn’s film is a radical reinvention, not only of vampire stories, but also of Hollywood filmmaking. Its story and style are complex. Its lead character is an African American professor, living in Westchester Country north of New York City. It is also one of the first vampire films from Hollywood that can be described as an intellectual film.
Dracula and Drácula
USA 1931; dir. Tod Browning and USA 1931; dir. George Melford
Collectively, the English- and Spanish-language versions are Hollywood’s “first vampire film.” They were shot at the same time: one during the daytime, and one during the nighttime. They had different casts and directors, but the stories were much the same. Although the story is set in Transylvania and London, the films reveal mixed feelings about the 1924 immigration law, which based “national quotas” on the 1890 census. In other words, it attempted to restore the ethnic and religious diversity of the United States to what it had been a quarter century earlier. In contemporary terms, it was an equivalent to the dog-whistle racism of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) slogan by the Republican Party. The 1924 act targeted Catholics from Ireland and Italy, and Jews from eastern Europe and Russia. It reinstated the ban on Asian immigrants, and it was ratified in the same year the founding of the US Border Patrol to regulate immigration from Canada and Mexico. Actors speak a mix of accents — US, Scottish, and British English; Mexican, Argentinian, and Peninsular Spanish — thus evoking the “melting pot” of the United States more than London.