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Updated: December 17, 2011 16:25 IST

Talking Movies: Vampire sagas

Parvathi Nayar
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Evoking criticism: The twilight series. Photo: Special Arrangement
Evoking criticism: The twilight series. Photo: Special Arrangement

They drink blood but have undergone change just as we humans have. Vampires are a transformed race now.

When precisely our fascination for the undead began is undated, though filmmakers have sunk their teeth into vampire tales right from the time of silent films — and the iconic Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau, starring Max Schreck.

It was an unauthorised retelling of the exploits of the vampire we love to hate most, the never-say-die Count Dracula. Since then over 170 iterations of the legend — variously serious, spoofy, scary, sexy — have been proffered for our enjoyment with some memorable interpretations of the Count by Bela Lugosi in the 1930s, Christopher Lee in the 1950s and by Gary Oldham in Bram Stoker's Dracula in the 1990s.

While vampires never flew away, they have been enjoying quite the renaissance on the silver screen for a while. In Hollywood, new blood was injected into the concept with the homoeroticism of “Interview with the Vampire” (1994), the stylised gore of “Underworld” and “Blade”, and the romanticism of “Twilight”. Impressive vampirism elsewhere round the globe has included the Russian film “Nochnoy Dozor” (Night Watch, 2004), the Korean film “Thirst” (2009) as well as the endless versions of Japanese anime hit “Blood: The Last Vampire”.

Most of the really big vampire movies have evolved from literary origins — whether Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles or Stephenie Meyer's best-selling quartet, or even Marvel Comics, which gave birth to Blade. But if you think that's quite a bloodcurdling tally on celluloid, it's only a fraction of what's out there in print and TV (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries).

Fan segments

Why the feeding frenzy, I asked a group of movie-savvy teenagers — considered, after all, to be a large part of the target audience. First of all, said they, fans of the undead aren't a uniform demographic. Ignoring such subgenres as vampire porn — who knew? — one vampire fan segment dovetails with horror movie aficionados, given the possibilities vampires offer for visual blood and gore as well as shivery scares and thrills.

Another group of vampire fans, continued my in-the-know advisors, overlap with high-octane action-adventure seekers — and vampires bring that extra dimension of supernatural powers to the fighting ring. And finally there's the hot teen/tween vampire craze that's based on — eye roll — fantasy and true love.

The love-fantasy appeal is simple: Here are immortal beings endowed with eternal good looks — no need for quick Botox fixes — and the knowingness that comes from having lived for so long, as personified by Twilight's Edward. He is the perfect boyfriend that young girls dream about — faithful, loyal, and unabashedly adoring, no strings of postmodern irony attached. What's more, he is a vegetarian vampire who has learnt to satisfy his hunger with animal blood.

It's all-too-easy to sneer at the “Twilight Saga”, but the provocative debate is why we are so much harder on love/tween girls' fantasies than we are on lust/tween boys' fantasies. Not to be perverse, but just to level out the playing field, I think a case could be built against the tirade of vitriolic criticism Bella and Edward have provoked. For example, “Transformers” was a far, far sillier series than the Twilight films but was “criticised” rather than “rubbished”. It's the equivalent of how porn-inflected art/cinema is seen as edgy and out-there, while romance and love are dismissed as puerile and sentimental.

A sophist could build the argument either way — Bella is a terrible role model who doesn't pursue a career or education but gets married as a teenager to a vampire. Or Bella is an excellent role model who knows what she wants and goes after it, is a loyal lover, friend, daughter and mother.

I notice there's very little fuss over Star Wars' Luke Skywalker not going to college, or Transformers' Sam Witwicky having an erratic employment record and unrealistic girlfriends. Female self-esteem problems would go right off the charts, if every ordinary young man out there expected his girlfriend to look like Megan Fox or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

The vampire tales are fantasy; the pragmatic details of their existence don't really stand up to scrutiny. Vampires don't die, for instance, and need to feed on a regular basis, which results in the death of their victims or the creation of more vampires. If this went on, they would either run out of fresh kill or create undead hordes — thereby sorting out the world's human population crisis one way or the other.

What's far more appealing than taking vampires literally is their imaginative use as metaphor for issues relevant to the times whether a disease such as AIDS, or abstinence or alienation. This last idea is explored disturbingly well in the Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In”, which is set in the killing fields of adolescent bullying.

Equally telling is how vampires have changed over time as we humans have changed. Originally vampires were pure evil with Satanic undertones — and could be fended off with various combinations of the cross, holy water and garlic. In contemporary vampirism, the one unchanging feature is the fanged ones' liquid diet, but all other rules are up for grabs.

Vampires have now shed their religious overtones and magical abilities — but while they can't transform into bats, have retained their ability to fly. It's not just in “Twilight”, the undead have evolved into folks who are on our side in many contemporary tales. Blade, half-man and half-vampire, is a protector of the human race, who bumps off the bad bloodsuckers.

Future vampire treats in 2012 include toothsome Johnny Depp playing vampire Barnabas Collins in Tim Burton's adaptation of “Dark Shadows” — the enormously popular gothic tales of the 1960s. Love them, hate them, fear them, ridicule them, whatever your blood type, there's probably a vampire just right for you.

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