'Bloodsucking Cinema,' premiering Friday on Starz

Glenn Garvin
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

8 p.m. EDT Friday

"Children of the night," murmured Bela Lugosi, raising those bushy Hungarian eyebrows, "what music they make!" Was he talking about the jingle of a cash register?

More than three-quarters of a century after "Dracula" introduced the genre, vampire movies are as popular as ever - America's top box-office attraction last week was "30 Days of Night," about a pack of fanged Alaskans on an all-liquid diet. So the entertaining new Starz documentary "Bloodsucking Cinema" couldn't come at a better time.

Using interviews with such auteurs of the undead as John Landis and John Carpenter to augment clips from perhaps a score of films, "Bloodsucking Cinema" gives us a peek inside the tomb of every vampire from the bald-headed grotesquerie of F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" to Salma Hayek's snake-dancing-stripper in "From Dusk Till Dawn." Vampire as superhero ("Blade"), vampire as rock star ("Queen of the Damned"), even vampire as a Capulet involved with a Montague werewolf ("Underworld") - "Bloodsucking Cinema's" got `em all. In fact, more than all: Am I the only one who hasn't seen "Vampire Vixens from Venus"?

The documentary is actually at its most interesting when it's off on an odd tangent - for instance, the little-known 1931 Spanish-language "Dracula," startlingly erotic for its day, was shot by night with a Mexican cast on the same sets where Lugosi and crew were working by day.

"The Mexicans always thought theirs was a little sexier, which it was," says actor Cheech Marin, a fan of Mexican vampire flicks, who played a south-of-the-border bloodsucker in "From Dusk Till Dawn." "Mexican vampires are really lurid. There's a lot of violence and flesh-eating and sex. They always have female vampires and they're very low-cut ... Catholics had to mix their eroticism with guilt at all times. So that really played into the vampire myth - it's alluring, but it's forbidden."

Not that Mexicans have a monopoly on vampire sex. Hints of eroticism were present even in Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu," in which a maiden destroys the vampire by luring him to linger past sunrise. By the late 1950s, when Great Britain's Hammer Studios started making vampire films with Christopher Lee sinking his teeth into flesh well below throat level, the sexual subtext had become a giant flashing neon light.

"Christopher Lee made a great Dracula," notes director Carpenter approvingly. "He was almost all sexual impulse, and truly vicious."

Lee, however, was Disney material compared to Anne Parillaud in Landis' 1992 "Innocent Blood," in which she starred as a kinky and murderous vampire who enticed human lovers by allowing them to handcuff her before sex. Landis says he was simply trying to answer the timeless male conundrum: "This is this breathtakingly beautiful woman, but what if she eats me?"

The answer, as we all suspected, is she probably will.

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