ReelThoughts: October 08, 2008

"Defanged"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

Note: Someone sent me an e-mail last week encouraging me to write more frequent ReelThoughts. His rationale was that it would be "good for business," which is hard to deny. More Reelthoughts = more pageviews = more opportunities for readers to click on ads. However, while I'd love to churn out a ReelThought per day, I like to spend a little more time with each one. I'd rather write fewer, better columns than flood the site with shorter, less interesting ones. Yes, there will probably be fewer ad dollars (and, with the economy in the tank, I - like everyone reading this - can use every cent I can accrue), but I'll have to live with that. Life has a way of curtailing the frequency of ReelThoughts. This month, "life" equates to "Phillies unexpectedly winning a few playoff games." Rest assured, once the playoffs are over or the Phillies are eliminated (whichever comes first), I will return to my rhythm of three ReelThoughts per week.

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One of the first novels I can recall reading was Bram Stoker's Dracula. I can't be sure of my exact age, but I was probably around 8. That would have coincided with the beginning of my "monster movie" phase. The thing I most vividly remember about Dracula was how monstrous the title character was. There was nothing redeeming about him. He was a beast who posed as a sophisticated gentleman. And, while there are clear sexual overtones in the book (which I was not aware of during that first reading), it's hard to envision the Dracula that Stoker wrote about being considered "sexy." The connection between vampires and sex in this book lies in the subtext, and is entirely dark and primal.

No image of Dracula is more iconic than Bela Lugosi's. The movie in which he starred wasn't that good, but his performance became the one to which all other actors playing vampires aspired. Lugosi was the perfect Dracula: outwardly suave but cold and evil. Courtly manners and a hypnotic gaze camouflaging a hollow soul and dead heart. I have never met a woman who finds Lugosi's Dracula to be sexy in either a conventional or unconventional way. He's creepy, although not as creepy as Max Schreck's bald-headed, pointy-eared interpretation in Nosferatu.

For me, this is a vampire: intelligent, evil, monstrous. Yet when was the last time we saw one like this? There's a new breed of vampire out there, and I find it uninteresting. At some point during the last 25 (or so) years, the old-school fiend has been replaced. Blame it on Ann Rice, who decided to humanize one of her night stalkers. Or maybe blame it on Dark Shadows. Whatever the case, there's no heir to Lugosi's cape. The last "real" vampire I can recall is Chris Sarandon in Fright Night. Sure, he could be seductive, but get him in a bad mood…

Today, there are actually two kinds of vampires. The first are the mindless, hideous hoards that inhabit movies like Blade and Underworld. Those are unimaginative creatures that give the special effects guys something to do. Then there's the "sympathetic" breed (emphasis on pathetic): a group of undead wusses who want to give up their blood-sucking ways and turn back to the light. Give me a break. My fundamental problem with a TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the upcoming movie Twilight is how irritating it is to have a morally conflicted vampire. Whoever is writing this stuff needs to spend a weekend reading Dracula. That will provide an impression of what a real vampire is like.

Then there's the question of sex. Yes, all the neck biting and blood drinking is a metaphor for sex. But, when you think about it, it's more of a violation than it is consensual, at least in traditional vampire stories. Of course, now there are women thrusting out their necks just so their vampire consort can penetrate the skin with one deep, quick thrust (of his fangs). Worse still, some vampire stories actually feature human/vampire intercourse (and I don't mean of the verbal kind). There's actually a word in the dictionary for this: necrophilia.

Even Dracula has gotten into the act. Not with Lugosi or Schreck. Not when Louis Jordan or Klaus Kinski took on the role. It started with Frank Langella. Admittedly, today Langella is pretty scary looking, but in the late-1970s, he was a sex symbol. Then Gary Oldman played the venerable vampire as a poor puppy dog longing for his lost love. Someone should have shown Winona Ryder what he looks like when he's gone a little too long without a transfusion. Francis Ford Coppola forgot that Dracula is not supposed to be the hero of his own story. Then again, when the living men are played by a waxy, wooden Keanu Reeves and a scenery-chewing Anthony Hopkins, it's hard not to get fixated on Oldman, who maintains his dignity.

At one time, I loved vampires. They were mysterious, dangerous, and capable of scaring the living daylights out of anyone. Now, I hate them. I hate movies about them, because they all get it wrong. Vampires are no longer interesting. They have become clichés. They have become horror laughingstocks, less fearsome even than a Michael Myers or a Jason Voorhees. This Halloween, how many people will be dressing up as a vampire? How many will don the cape, powder their faces, and put in the plastic fangs? Then again, maybe that's a way to get laid. Women will take pity on those poor, tortured souls and do whatever they can to offer comfort. Has it gone that far? Is "I vant to suck your blood" now a come-on?


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