Sunday, April 5, 2009

Re-animating the Genre Film, Part Two: Giving Vampires Back Their Bite

Two wildly successful "vampire" movies appeared in theaters last fall, both of them poseurs of a sort. TWILIGHT -- an abstinence tract with faux fangs (or, more to the point, no fangs) and instead a twitty, teenage version of sequined skin (what happens when these vampire show themselves in sunlight) -- was an international hit, grossing nearly $200,000 million domestically and approaching $400,000 worldwide. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a small Swedish coming-of-age-

and-surviving-bullying movie, happens to have, in one of its lead characters, a vampire. And if her fangs are on the subtle side, they are quite definitely there. And in use. Right One grossed all of $2 million. Yet, for a foreign language film in a genre seldom noted for its arthouse draw, it is a small miracle of artistic -- and monetary -- success. Critically acclaimed and made a popular must-see by the film buff crowd, the movie built (and built) on word-of-mouth. Only the latter of these two films managed to re-animate the vampire genre.

The former may have moistened many teenagers' panties and briefs, while convincing a few of them to "hold off, for goodness sake!" As for adding something worthwhile to the vampire flick? Forget it. Really: Can you assign a creation as enthralling, powerful and perverse as a vampire the job of making certain that teens don't copulate prior to holy matrimony and expect this to resonate? Twilight is certainly glossy and pretty, as was Neil Jordan's take on Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. Both were hits but neither did much more than keep the fanged flyers in front of the mainstream audience as a kind of sop for its sexed-up psyche.

Might the first major re-animation of the vampire genre have been Carl Dreyer's VAMPYR (1932)? I am guessing so, and that he was giving his more subtle and arty take on this film genre, after the decade-earlier and scarier NOSFERATU (1922) by F. W. Murnau. Though based on the character created a century previous by Bram Stroker, Murnau's film had its own more mainstream re-animation a year earlier than Dreyer's (which was based upon a novel by Sheridan Le Fanu) via Tod Browning's DRACULA (1931).
Any vampire buff ought to have seen all three, which are classic and have their own special merits. Nosferatu has the amazing Max Schreck in the lead and he is truly frightening and strange; Dracula has Bela Lugosi, who, while flirting with camp, adds a little sex appeal to his count; and Vampyr, though the least frightening, is the most haunting of the three: it's images tread the line between ordinary and bizarre in a most unusual manner. Now that an excellent transfer of the Dreyer Vampyr is available on DVD, with the Murnau and Browning having been available for some time, there's no reason not to partake.

Post-Dreyer and Browning (and the Son of/Daughter of spin-offs, followed by the inevitable let's-do-it-with-humor East Side Kids and Abbot & Costello outings), the biggest jolt of re-animation came in the late 50s via Hammer Films' Dracula series starring Christopher Lee, who put the sex front and center (little did we know then how much further front-and-center sex could get). As a teenager at the time of the first Hammer Dracula, what impressed me and my friends most was the film's pacing: enormously fast, compared to the Browning version. Audiences were jolted by this, as much as by the fangs and sensuality. The color, too, was a new addition, and the art direction and production design (by Bernard Robinson) was like nothing we had seen in a vampire film. Special effects were on the paltry side, but since we'd seen little more than this up till now, nobody thought much about it.

Hammer kept it up, with highs and lows, over the next couple of decades, but few of its vampire films possessed the jolt of that original. (Certain movies the company made in other subsets of the horror genre were quite interesting, however.)

Brief spurts of life were offered up in 1970-71 by the short-lived Count Yorga mini-franchise, Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga. The first was a nice surprise: low-budget but with some scares, humor and originality; the second less so, but it gave Mariette Hartley one of her better screen roles since her decade-earlier debut in Ride the High Country.

Blacula (1972) was perhaps a better title than movie, though it at least reminded audiences -- black and some crossover -- that the vampire genre was still alive. And if William Marshall's grandstanding was a bit much, at least we had the gorgeous Vonetta McGee to relish. Ms McGee (Melinda) remains, to my mind, one of the most beautiful actresses to grace the screen.

It was the 80s, oddly enough, that gave the vampire movie its biggest boost in a long while. Good things often arrive in 3's, and 1985, '86 and '87 saw, respectively, Fright Night, Vamp and the movie that probably served to most reanimate the genre over the last half-century, Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark. FRIGHT NIGHT combined clever humor regarding what audiences already knew about vampires with thrills, fright and especially lots of fun. Critics pooh-poohed but audiences didn't care -- resuscitating the genre nicely, along with Chris Sarandon's career. VAMP, not as successful, ought to have done the same for Grace Jones (her dance number is about as weird/memorable as they get). But perhaps Ms Jones was simply not mainstream enough -- nor was the movie, which includes humor, plot, characters and effects that are increasingly off-the-wall. With a cast that features the delightful Dedee Pfeiffer and Gedde Watanabe, the movie percolates nicely and for its creative use of wood substitute alone, I would recommend it.

Summer of '87 saw the release of a boffo vampire flick that, if you ask me, added little except cash to the vampire cow: Joel Schmacher's irritatingly cozy/campy THE LOST BOYS. The fall of that year welcomed the real regeneration of the genre: NEAR DARK, a film in which the vampires were more frightening -- vicious, nasty and powerful -- than ever before. The way in which they toyed with their prey was particularly foul and unnerving. Bigelow easily out"macho"ed her male counterparts at the blood-and-guts game, at the same time managing to bring a subtext (vampire films do seem to come freighted with these) quietly to the fore: our then-current and apparently losing battle with the AIDS epidemic. She combines the vampire genre with that of the road movie and crime spree. This is re-animation of a very high order.

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino entered the fray with their enjoyable, if too tiringly special-effected FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996), which may have been the movie to open the floogates to ever more/bigger, stronger/louder special effects. It was the culmination of this, more than anything else, than sank Universal's much-hoped-for franchise VAN HELSING (2oo4). And now, it is special effect that rule the roost, rather than the vampire itself -- in all its singular character, power, lust and the like. Without these attributes, the genre seems piddling.

Which is why Let the Right One In arrived as such as breath of foul but welcome air, after the trials of Twilight. The vampire myth -- dark, brooding and with an ending that can be perceived as "happy" for only half of the characters -- can easily accommodate a theme like bullying or adolescent angst. What it can't handle is the idea of abstinence -- neither in sex nor in bloodletting -- at least not in the decidedly sweet "tween" fashion presented by the Catherine Hardwicke/Melissa Rosenberg version of Stephenie Meyer's novel. It's like trying to make a sex film about a eunuch.

Next up in this series: a look at the slasher genre and -- I hope -- an interview with a fellow (Jack Messitt) who has made one of its more interesting efforts of late (MIDNIGHT MOVIE).

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