I have always loved vampire movies, but not all vampire movies. To me, vampires are pure monsters. They might be charismatic or even seductive, but only to a point. At the end of the day, I see them as monstrous predators who are best dealt with the old-fashioned way: a stake through the heart, a sword across the neck, silver applied liberally, and garlic to taste. Of course, not everybody sees it that way, and even my own feelings on this are not absolute. I have movies on this list that rank well higher than where we are now that deal with the topic of vampires in much more nuanced, even sympathetic terms.
Having said that, I can tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like vampires I am supposed to feel sorry for. Vampires I am supposed to find attractive. Vampires that are just a little misunderstood. In short, the seemingly endless parade of bloodsucking whiners and dilettantes that we have seen on screen ever since Anne Rice single-handedly transformed the vampire from the fearsome Nosferatu of days gone by and turned them into a sex symbol stuck with shouldering the awful burden of being a sex symbol forrrrreverrrrrrr. Yes, I know, vampirism has always had a sexual undertone to it. But to me, there is a difference between seeing the seductive nature of the vampire’s evil and actually buying into the seduction.
That is why Rice’s angsty take on vampires (and the Tom Cruise adaptation of Interview with the Vampire) never interested me too much. And it is also why I place on my personal no-fly list tripe like Twilight and frankly, every series that is riffing off of it, from The Mortal Instruments to the host of titles that now make up the “Supernatural Teen Romance” section of my local bookstore. It has gotten to the point where I just stay away from any franchise I see that is populated by a bunch of moody-looking, superpowered teenagers. It’s like some kind of communicable disease or something. But thankfully, there is a cure. It is called Blade.
Blade was the answer to this problem before it ever reached epidemic proportions. The year was 1998. Four years before, we hat hit peak Lestat, with the film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire, written by Rice and featuring Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Antonio Banderas as sexy vampires, all directed by Neil Jordan on an overwrought binge on colonial ponytails, lacy collars, and undead gigolos throwing hissy fits. But by 1998, tribal tattoos were becoming a thing, Wesley Snipes was making the kind of money he preferred not to give to the IRS, and kicking ass was the order of the day. From the get-go, Blade was not about delving deeply in what it meant to be a vampire, except to ponder the idea that if a human could kill a single vampire, then a vampire could probably kill a whole room of vampires. Blade sets out to prove this thesis again and again and again, and by the powers, it is a marvelous thing.
The first 10 minutes of this movie are some of my favorite action scenes ever. The thumping techno from New Order, Traci Lords bringing some unwitting kid to the slaughter, a vicious vampire nightclub…it’s the kind of thing every single Vampire: the Gathering gaming session ever hoped to be. That is, until Wesley Snipes shows up with a machine pistol that fires silver bullets, a shotgun with a double-barreled stake launcher, and a silver-edged sword. It’s pure mayhem from there, and what we see is Snipes at his finest as a guy working hard to bring his particular blend of martial arts action hero to the screen. I always liked Snipes as an action hero. His turn in Blade is him dialed up to 11, and it just works.
Storywise, Blade is no big shakes. It is a unique vampire hunter and his very few human allies against a cabal of bloodsuckers who are running the shadows of Los Angeles. It is put together in such a way that sets high stakes without making it seem like this is the utmost that this story could ever be. Far from it. What Blade is, is an opening shot in what is obviously meant to be an ongoing franchise. And by the end, you are just sitting there, nodding, ready to wait the two years or so for the sequel to come out.
I watched the original Blade at least 20 times on disc. I just loved it. It was the perfect movie to pop in and either watch for fun, or to have on as background noise. Whenever I saw it, I loved the idea of this comic book vampire-killer taking the war to the bad guys. When Snipes utters, “It’s open war on all suckheads,” I wanted to cheer every time. Yes! Open war on all suckheads! In your face, Lestat! But ultimately, Blade was a fairly one-dimensional movie carried out very, very well. The extras on the disc hint at a larger world of vampires behind this story, but it was so obviously cribbed from a Vampire: The Gathering rulebook that I’m surprised White Wolf didn’t get a royalty off it.
This was not a problem with Blade II. That movie immediately goes to work establishing a much, much larger setting than Blade ever did, hinting not just at the global scope of Blade’s endless war, but at the community within it. While Blade pits Snipes and his sidekicks against a legion of mostly anonymous vampires, Blade II introduces bad guys with character and mixed motivations. It employs the time-honored trope of the hero forced to work alongside his enemies so they can jointly face an ever bigger enemy that threatens them all. This doesn’t always work as a storytelling device, but it does in Blade II, in part because the other vampire characters introduced are just such incredible fun to watch (Ron Perlman and martial arts legend Donnie Yen, just for starters), and because this movie was directed by the now-famous Guillermo del Toro, who deftly took the makings for a merely good action franchise and turned it into a master class of action-horror storytelling.
Just about everything in Blade II is an improvement on the original. And while Blade II never gets even gets close to being a great piece of cinema, for what it is and means to be, it’s pretty freaking enjoyable. It looks fantastic. The vampire design is solid throughout. The clan of new vampire characters are all compelling in their way (even if many of them are removed from the story before we ever really get to know them all that well), and we are even given an avenue through which to see the character of Blade himself in a new light. It all works quite well, and while watching it, one can see how this whole thing was a huge warm-up exercise for what was to come when he did Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and others. Going back to this movie is fun on its own, but if you’re a fan of del Toro, it is especially enjoyable. Watch for a pre-Walking Dead Norman Reedus wearing a B.P.R.D. t-shirt, and you’ll get what I mean.
I can’t get this deep into Blade and Blade II without discussing Blade: Trinity, which did not make My Favorite Movies. Something went horribly wrong with that movie, starting with a lame storyline and questionable casting (especially among the villains). David Goyer, who wrote all three Blade movies was actually directing this one, and it became clear that writing and directing are two separate skill sets. But the real problem here was an infamously troubled production in which Snipes himself became uncommunicative with the director and co-stars, and things just went downhill from there. It’s a shame, really. Blade: Trinity had the potential to be every bit as great as Blade II, but it just crashed and burned. So sad.
As a writer, these movies mean a lot to me for a couple of reasons. The first is that these are an artifact from an era of film-making where comic books were licensed to make movies, but the movies that were made felt like movies first, and maybe comic book properties a distant second. There is a particular energy to comics that until Marvel Studios began ruling the world with its Phase One movies (Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man 2, The Avengers), nobody making a comic book movie ever really harnessed. For the most part, this always bugged me. With Blade, though, the movies end up working so well on their own terms that I could get over it, and it was interesting to see these as exercises in adapting one narrative to suit another. It was also an interesting example of how much fun you can have with a second-string property. (I read Marvel comics my whole life, and before I saw Blade, I never even knew he was a long-time Marvel character. No wonder why Marv Wolfman lost that $50 million lawsuit over the movie’s use of a character he helped to invent.)
But what I love most about these movies, and Blade II in particular, is how it so fully embraces its action-hero roots, revels in fantastic fight scenes, and – to me, anyway – never quite exhausts the audience or takes the story into territory where it really doesn’t belong. These movies don’t try to make a statement, but they don’t become seduced by their own violence, either. They remain firmly fixed on telling a cool, if limited story, and making sure that the points it needs to hit get hit dead center. Nothing about Blade or Blade II feels phoned in, and when you’re making movies about a kung-fu vampire who – let’s face it, sounds like a guy invented for 13-year-olds by 13-year-olds – it would be easy to not actually care about how the whole thing turns out. But somehow, you feel that the vast army of people employed to make these two movies really do care about them. They care about their craft, and they took pride in a movie that was perhaps most accurately summed up by one internet commenter Goyer himself quotes as saying, “Blade is about kicking ass.” Vampire ass, to be sure, but kicking ass, all the same.
As a writer, I really appreciated that level of investment in this set of stories. It quite inspired me at a time when I was doing a lot of writing myself, mostly of role-playing games for Palladium Books. And that inspiration has stuck with me ever since. If you’re just writing a kung-fu story or a car chase story, then write that. it doesn’t matter that it is simple or silly or superficial. It does matter if it is good. I am not the guy who is going to write the next War and Peace. But I might be the guy who writes the next Blade. And for me, that is certainly good enough. I’d be proud to be that guy. And that is why I love Blade and Blade II.
But what about…Underworld?
Kate Beckinsale’s movie series about a vampire assassin who fights in an endless battle against werewolves are actually pretty good. They tell a cool tale, they look terrific, and they never seemed to go wildly off the rails. They also feel very much like an example of that annoying Hollywood phenomenon whereby one studio puts out a movie about widgets, so another studio decided widgets sell, and they put out their own widget movie to out-widget the first one. It’s all incredibly derivative, and ultimately, that’s what does in the Underworld movies for me. That said, the first Underworld came out a year before Blade: Trinity did, and the Underworld run pretty much exists on its own. It never came out simultaneously with Blade, really, so they do have a certain identity of their own. As viewing experiences, they’re close to Blade in terms of how much I enjoy them. I am sure there are plenty of folks who prefer these to Blade, actually, and I can see why. As sources of inspiration, though, they are hollow to me, and thus miss the list. Check them out, though. They’re a lot of fun.