It may be nigh impossible to rehabilitate the image of zombies (although the likable 2007 Canadian comedy Fido came close, imagining the gruesome creatures as robotic servants), but vampires are a different breed. Much like George Hamilton and Clint Eastwood, they have transformed from punch lines and parasites into paragons of taste and figures of respect. Elegant, well mannered, needy and romantic, nowadays vampires are portrayed in movies as victims of their "condition" as much as (reluctant) predators. But scary? Not so much.
Yerba Buena Center For the Arts film curator Joel Shepherd, one of the most adventurous programmers in the Bay Area, has unearthed a trio of wildly diverse and generally rewarding flicks for a bite-and-run series he calls Dark In August: Rare Vampire Films. It would be foolish to extrapolate grand revisionist themes from these random points on the vampire-film continuum, which range from the sublime to the ridiculous, so let's just deal with them individually.
The weekend chowdown begins at 7:30pm tonight with Near Dark (1987), the second feature directed by future Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow. This halfway good movie (the patient, subtle first half) alternates a soft-centered love story with a superficial saga of familial loyalty, augmented by a couple of showy set pieces (a taunting, strutting massacre in a redneck bar, a high-noon motel shootout with the cops).
Adrian Pasdar is taken in by a Southwest-marauding "family" of vampires after his late-late-late-night pass at one of them (Jenny Wright) is met with a fang to the neck. (It's not completely her fault, mind you.) Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton supply most of the fun, as charming bloodsucking villains, along with Adam Greenberg's sun-sensitive lensing. Original and thoughtful for a good chunk of its running time, the movie turns pulpy and sentimental in the final reels. You will not be surprised to learn, though, that Bigelow had a penchant for fiery explosions long before The Hurt Locker.
The colorfully titled Vampire Hookers (1978), Cirio H. Santiago's no-budget slice of exploitation chum, follows a pair of horny U.S. sailors on shore leave in San Francisco who get more than they bargained for. You won't recognize any of the local fauna, however, as the movie was shot in the Philippines. You will recognize a lanky, 70-something John Carradine as an undead literature buff who quotes aphorisms and lines of poetry to the, ahem, vampire hookers under his control.
Vampire Hookers (Friday, August 7 at 7:30pm) is good, dirty fun, with an oddball intelligence and welcome understanding of basic storytelling. (One never takes those two things for granted in movies with bargain-basement production values.) Low expectations are obviously encouraged, but if you bring the proper attitude, a good time is assured.
Shepard has wisely included one flat-out masterpiece in his weekend binge, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932). As you should expect from the director of the silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr (Saturday, August 28 at 7:30pm and Sunday, August 29 at 4:30pm) instantly and stunningly achieves a blend of foreboding and spirituality. The story centers on another interloper, a student of the supernatural whose stay at a minimalist yet creepy inn is, shall we say, eventful.
Dreyer does brilliant things with sound, but especially light and shadow, to erase the seemingly concrete distinction between the deceased and the living. The effect is to make the dead live once again, and the living to seem on the cusp of joining the afterlife. The great thing about film, of course, is that everyone within the borders of the frame lives forever. Perhaps that explains why screen actors, in all genres, seem eternally romantic, and needy.
Dark In August: Rare Vampire Films plays August 26â??29, 2010 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For more information visit ybca.org.