Vampires on the Tube

By Tenacious F


Vampires have been a notable presence in motion pictures from the beginning of cinema but it took longer for those fabulous creatures of the night to find their way to the small screen.  Early television was simply a pleasant diversion, dominated by comedians with the exception of a few dramatic high water marks like Omnibus and Playhouse 9.  As families across America gathered around black and white sets to watch Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, blood, gore and fangs didn’t become part of the evening’s entertainment until the early 1950’s. 


It started as a Saturday night novelty - a spectacularly endowed woman with a wasp waist and long raven tresses slinked onto television screens in 1954 and the first undead television star was born. Vampira was the creation of Maila Nurmia, a busty starlet who stole her look from the cartoons of Charles Addams in the
New Yorker.   As Vampira, Ms. Nurmia hosted a late night horror fest filled with campy panache as she slithered about the set with her pet spider, Rollo, joking about the films that she screened.  Vampira became the first horror movie host and soon television stations throughout the country created their own personalities to introduce late night horror fest; the most successful of all was a Vampira clone, Elvira.  While it is easy to dismiss these performers as pop-culture oddities, it does them a grave disservice. It was these fright night presenters who lead new generations to the classics of horror.  Whether it was Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Frankenstein, King Kong (the list is endless), Vampira and her successors, both male and female, were the first to introduce the horror classics to generations of aficionados and helped propel the on-screen personas of actors like Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye into the cultural zeitgeist.


While Vampira cruised Hollywood Boulevard in her chauffeur-driven 1932 Packard, acclaimed character actor John Carradine donned the Dracula’s cape once more  (he had originally played the Count in 1944’s House of Frankenstein) when NBC’s Matinee Theater presented the first television adaptation of the novel in 1956.  His performance is long lost to us but since Carradine had great respect for the Bram Stoker novel one wonders how he used his powerful gifts to bring life to the character; luckily, we have his words.


I have the distinction of being the only actor who looked the part as visualized by Bram Stoker in 1897. Dracula was a Magyar. When he first appears to Jonathan Harker he is an old man with long white hair and a moustache. It would have been impossible to speak lines with a mouth full of sharp teeth, so I settled on the long hair and white moustache. The studio refused to allow me to keep the long hair, but the moustache remained…I played the character as evil as possible for I learned long ago that if I wanted to continue to eat, villains find steadier work than artists. The public will remember a villain. Always”


The vampire presence was absent from television screens until 1964 when two macabre comedies, The Munsters and The Addams Family took the airwaves by storm.  Though critics dismissed them at the time, over the years, both shows inspired feature film versions and revivals. Yvonne de Carlo, a once glamorous B-movies siren played the ghoulish Lily Munster with a great deal of panache and veteran actor Al Lewis seemed to be having the time of his life as Grandpa, a comic vampire without an ounce of menace. Carolyn Jones was exquisitely Gothic as Morticia Addams
and while Morticia may not have been explicitly vampire, there was a distinct air of the undead about her. 


In 1966, producer Dan Curtis conceived of a Gothic soap opera set in the home of the American vampire tradition, New England.  The series, Dark Shadows, floundered until Curtis introduced the character of Barnabas Collins.  Jonathan Frid, an elegant Canadian actor, was cast as Barnabas, a reluctant vampire obsessed with a long lost amour.  Suddenly, the presence of the undead protagonist turned Dark Shadows into
a genuine pop-culture sensation. The series went on to inspire two feature films, novels, comic books, board games, blogs, Gothic conventions replete with personal appearances and ghoulish swag.  Though modern audiences associate American vampires with the Deep South, the true American vampire tradition springs from New England. Over the length of the series, various other vampire characters were introduced, along with ghosts, werewolves, witches and other Supernatural entities. Dark Shadows had a brief revived in 1991 with English film actor Ben Cross in the role of Barnabas. In spite of elaborate production values, it failed to find an audience and was canceled.  Director P. J. Hogan helmed the pilot for a third incarnation in 2004 and shot it at the stately Greystone Mansion; unfortunately, the network rejected the finished product and the pilot has only been screened at Dark Shadows conventions. 


In an interesting sidebar, in 2007 actor Johnny Depp, a fan of the vampire Barnabas since childhood, announced plans to bring Dark Shadows to the big screen. The wait appeared to have ended when producer Richard Zanuck announced that Depp is teaming up with his creative partner, Tim Burton to film the Dark Shadows movie in London this summer; however, other sources suggest that the Dark Shadows won’t hit the big screen until 2011.


Besides a boatload of feature length movies made for the tube, there were also small screen literary adaptations of vampire classics.  In 1973, Dan Curtis, the creative genius behind Dark Shadows, brought Dracula to the small screen with Jack Palance in the title role.  The Palance version is notable because it was the first adaptation of the novel that featured a romantic vampire pining for his lost love and following her spirit through time.  This storyline echoes that of Barnabas Collins’s and became a sub plot of other versions of Dracula most notably Francis Ford Coppola’s stylish adaptation.  The screenwriter, Richard Matheson, went on to pen the classic, Somewhere in Time years later and borrowed the same story arc, a lover searching through time to find his lost amour.


Four years later the BBC produced the version that is considered the definitive adaptation of the novel by many aficionados.  Count Dracula aired on PBS as a three-part installment of Great Performances.  The star was the elegant French actor, Louis Jourdan, in the title role, an unusual but highly effective choice.  Since Count Dracula was shot in 16mm film and video, the special effects seem primitive in this time of computer generated images; yet, those lucky enough to have seen this version considered it the most authentic depiction of the Stoker novel. 


Stephen King’s chilling vampire novel, Salem’s Lot received the small screen treatment twice, first in 1979 with a version helmed by horror meister, Tobe Hopper and again in 2004.  Even Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire, the novel that set the modern vampire novel genre in motion, almost made it to the small screen.  After Interview languished with Paramount Pictures for ten years, Lorimar Productions optioned it for a television movie that never got beyond the starting gate; however, another
project, J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic 1872 novella, Carmilla did make it to the small screen, a sumptuous but rarely seen version from 1989 with Meg Tilley in the title role. 


Every few years or so, a version of Dracula shows up on television, some more successful than others. In 2006 the BBC produced a tepid Dracula with most of the horror exorcised by the screenwriter’s pen.  It is possible that writer Steward Harcourt was told to “rethink” the classic tale but the result was a forgettable mess. While it is regrettable that producers blew an opportunity to create the definitive Dracula movie, another version will surely appear on the horizon.


Vampires continued to invade the small screen in both in movies-made-for-television and literary adaptations of classic vampire tales. 1972 saw the broadcast of The Night Stalker still the most acclaimed television movie about an encounter with the undead. The Night Stalker was adapted from a yet-to-be published novel by Jeff Rice and starred veteran character actor Darren McGavin as a hard-as-nails newspaper reporter, Carl Kolchak who finds himself on the trail of the horrific Janos Skorzeny, a vampire who is stalking his victims in modern-day Las Vegas. When it was shown,
The Night Stalker was the highest-rated TV movie ever and was the subject of water-cooler discussions for weeks after.  The Kolchak character went on to star in a sequel and two short-lived television series; unfortunately, as popular as the original Night Stalker movie was, Kolchak only dealt with vampires once more.


Other vampire movies made directly for the tube include Vampire, a 1979 production notable for Richard Lynch’s chilling depiction of the vampire, Prince Anton Voytek.  In 1982, David Naughton followed the seminal vampire film, An American Werewolf in London, with the forgettable, Desire, the Vampire, a film briefly found new life as a theatrical release years later as I Desire.  1990’s Nightlife was a weak attempt at a vampire romantic comedy, notable only because Ben Cross, who would take over the role of Barnabas Collins in the primetime version of Dark Shadows, played the vampire lead.  1990 was also the year that Daughter of the Darkness allowed the late Anthony Perkins and Mia Sara to bare their fangs.  1996’s Dead of Night was another failed effort, a dreary vampire-guy-looking-for-his-long-lost-love melodrama replete with half-naked actresses and lousy production values.  The House of Frankenstein premiered on NBC as a four-hour miniseries.  Like the original 1945 film of the same name and the lamentable Van Helsing, 1997’s The House of Frankenstein pitted Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man against each other.  Instead of a Gothic castle in Transylvania, the location was modern-day Los Angeles but the effect was the same for all three – forgettable. In 1998 Casper Van Dien starred in Modern Vampires, a cheesy retelling of the Dracula legend that wasted the talents of Rod Steiger, Kim Cattrall and Craig Ferguson. 


While many of the depictions of vampire were in badly produced movies-made-for-television, vampires on the small screen had their most sustained successes as weekly series though the start was quite rocky.  1979, NBC presented Cliffhanger, a series with the provocative premise of three separate continuing narratives. Cliffhanger was axed in the first season but one of the storylines, The Curse of Dracula, with the one featuring a debonair, pre-Flashdance Michael Nouri as the Count who has gone underground and has a new persona as a college professor in modern-day California. The episodes were eventually patched together as a feature film that still retains a cult following. 


Ten years later, 1990 became the year of the vampire.  Besides television movies, Nightlight and Daughter of Darkness, the first dramatic vampire series, Dracula: The Series, premiered in syndication. Canadian actor Geordie Johnson played the mysterious Alexander Lucard, a billionaire munitions mogul living in Europe who in reality is the count. Two American teens take on Lucard and his fanged minions and fight him across Europe. Never heard of it?  Not surprising since Dracula: The Series lasted only one season.


Diehard fans still mourn the demise of Forever Knight originally a project starring Rick Springfield as Detective Nick Knight, the flawed vampire hero who uses the powers of the undead for good.  The first season aired on CBS but eventually went into syndication with Geraint Wyn Davies taking the role of Knight.  Forever Knight eventually went into cult status and episodes eventually find themselves on the Sci Fi (now Syfy) Network. Kindred: The Embraced which debuted on Fox in 1996, was not an adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s acclaimed novel, Kindred, but based on the White Wolf Game System, Vampire the Masquerade. Kindred: The Embraced.  It too lasted one season.


In 1997, the now defunct WB network produced the most acclaimed and successful vampire-themed television series ever.  It lasted seven seasons and eventually became a television phenomenon. Though the Television Academy largely ignored it, critics in the know considered it a cultural watershed and for each year that it was televised, Entertainment Weekly declared it the best show on the tube.  Buffy The Vampire Slayer spawned a teen-subculture, dictionaries, electronic games, conventions, action figures, a literary series, countless academic papers and Angel, a successful spin-off. 


Buffy’s beginnings however, were less than stellar. When writer/producer/director Josh Whedon adapted Buffy The Vampire Slayer from a failed movie of the same name, the naysayers lined up to announce its premature demise.  They were soon proved wrong.  Whedon recruited talented writers who inserted social commentary along with satire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer blossomed on the tube, from mediocre film to classic series.  Sarah Michelle Gellar was ideally cast as Buffy Summers, a vapid teen chosen by the fates to battle vampires and other supernatural threats. As Buffy fought the good fight, a cast of intriguing villains and heroes supported her and over seven seasons, Buffy The Vampire Slayer turned its insightful gaze at adolescence angst, new age feminism and sexuality replete with wit and intellectual adroitness.  


Angel was a direct spin-off from Buffy and starred David Boreanaz as the title character, a conflicted, Barry Manilow-loving vampire who was cursed with a conscience.  Like Buffy, Angel benefited from intelligent writing and direction along with a superlative supporting cast.  While Angel didn’t quite achieve the cult following of Buffy, it had a five-year run and still retains a loyal fan base.


Buffy was the major influence for Vampire High, a Canadian production that lasted one season.  Spike TV attempted to attract young male viewers with Blade: The Series, the popular African-American vampire slayer that was a successful comic book and film franchise. It only lasted through the 2006 season.  2006 was also the year that Blood Ties, a stylish vamp drama premiered on Lifetime Television. Blood Ties lasted one season, as did another show with a devoted fan base, the CBS vampire drama, Moonlight, an urban drama featuring Mick St. John, a vamp hero who works as a private investigator.


Thankfully, the HBO hit True Blood found their audience in the first season, possibly because producer Alan Ball was intelligent enough to base his series on a successful literary franchise. 
True Blood reached two audiences – the fans of writer Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books and those who liked their vampire drama on the raunchy side.  The books are a heady gumbo of sex, violence with vampires, witches, werewolves and every imaginable mythic creature and Ball went beyond the limitations of the novel’s first personal narrative.  He opened up the stories and infused them with thoughtful commentaries on racism, homophobia and sexuality by using the talents of great writers, directors and actors to make this Louisiana tale of things that go bump in night the third highest rated series in HBO history.


Will we see more vampire shows?  Emphatically yes. Chiller TV and the newly named Syfy Network continue to broadcast many of the programs mentioned in this article and there are two series on tap with the CW Network.  They are currently filming an intriguing  premise, Bram Stoker Vampire Diaries Renfield, a crazed and now vampiric Renfield  prowling the streets of a modern American city. The pilot of The Vampire Diaries that is based on the work of L. J. Smith’s popular young adult literary series is also being planned.  The BBC is getting in to the act with their new drama, Being Human and those are simply the shows we know about. Vampire filmmakers are also getting into their products on the net – actor Doug Hutchison has created waves with six episodes of his series, Vampire Killers, proof positive that the undead are alive, well and coming to a small screen near you.


Thanks to the http://scifipedia.scifi.com/index.php/Vampires_on_TV




 
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