Perspective 5: Vampires on Screen

Completing this series of features deconstructing the vampire genre, this latest edition of Perspective looks to analyse more than one performer as seen in previous instalments, instead turning its eye on the evolution of the vampire as a character in film and television. Over the course of numerous decades on screen, directors and actors have derived various interpretations on the legend in a manner which eloquently says more in its reflection on its human audience and the very real changing social memes around them far more than on the frivolity of the fictitious creature itself. Through the iconography of the abomination of the vampire, I intend to show how the progression of the genre has adapted and evolved into something that represents a far more telling portrayal of the audience watching than being purely throwaway slash fiction aimed at teenagers.

1. The Monster (Nosferatu, Dracula)

Drawing from the massive amounts of inspiration for the vampire narrative evident in gothic literature and the figure of the vampire represented in stories to scare children to sleep before that, it’s hard to believe it now in the wake of more recent depictions but the very first interpretations of the vampire on screen were undeniably horrific portrayals of obscene monsters, as nightmarish visions of a sinister creature looking to feast on the blood of human characters. Bela Lugosi was launched into the horror history books for all of eternity for his turn as Dracula in the 1932 screen version of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, and is by far the most fondly recognisable interpretation of the count, immortalised by the sedate intonation of Lugosi’s voice that oozed calm yet yielded an unnerving amount of dread beneath its surface.

Furthermore, Lugosi’s spectacular immortalisation of Dracula as an icon for the vampire genre was preceded by the utterly terrifying silent movie Nosferatu, synonymous with the genre as a result of the dark direction and cinematography created by F.W. Murnau as well as the ridiculously chilling depiction of the vile Count Orlock by the ultra-talented Max Schreck. Nosferatu in tone and style is by far the scariest interpretation of the vampire legend, thanks in large part to the interplay of shadows in the dimly lit scenery with the grotesque visceral nature of some of the physical imagery topped off with the stillness of the impenetrable silence. In 1922, Murnau created a masterpiece for the genre that would act as the template still traceable in vampire media today. This was a representation of the horror audience back at its very beginning, where the images of the flickering screen were purposefully reserved to keep them awake in the death of night, and the monster was a genuinely reviled meme protracted to channel fear into the thrills of the narrative for those watching.

 

2. The Rebel (The Lost Boys)

By the time Hammer Film Productions had firmly over-saturated the market with campy renditions of the vampire narrative through all the way to the 1970s, the stock of the vampire as a monster that thrived on the fear in the audience had fallen dramatically. The vampire was no longer the horrific creature of nightmares, more a figure that could be poked fun of through the medium of parody. After a detour through the Blaxploitation market in films that movie producers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole in this day and age with interpretations such as Blacula and its numerous sequels, the vampire genre was desperate to shed its kitsch reputation and needed a firm reboot.

As it was impossible to return the genre to the heights of the nightmarish images seen prior to the Hammer horror boom, the 1980s saw the first evolution of the category, with Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys leading the charge in 1987. Marketed towards the growing MTV generation that was rising to prominence globally, The Lost Boys was released with the tagline ‘Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire’, in what is clearly an effort to overhaul the image of the vampire from antiquated horror sideshow to a cool, rebellious group of outsiders for the audience to fantasise about being in. Using humour and satirical observations of the change in society that was prevalent at the time, the movie was a success and is a cult classic as a result of reinventing the rusty wheel of the vampire genre. By also being partially credited with launching the staggering career of Kiefer Sutherland, The Lost Boys made it cool to be into the vampire genre again.

 

3. The Beleaguered (Interview with the Vampire, Angel)

After the rebel party phase of the MTV generation dwindled, the most significant evolution of the vampire as a character took place in the 90s. Having previously been a presumably emotional cavern driven entirely empty and undeniable monstrous motivations, the genre twisted the perspective of the audience by portraying the vampire as a tortured, beleaguered being fated to suffer in the hellish existence of their own evil. In the film Interview with the Vampire and the television series of Angel, there is a distinct departure from the monsters that invented the genre insofar as the vampire characters have been granted something previously unthinkable: a conscience and a value system.

With this, the vampire became a more rounded character than a one-dimensional tool utilised only for scaring the audience, and more complex scenarios and interactions with other characters became more accessible for writers. Obviously, this eradicated the mystique of the vampire as a horror figure forever which has done much to alienate a large portion of the original fan-base, it was a necessary transition to make in preserving the genre, and helped it reach such a stronghold part of film and television as well as literature history. Inevitably, the vampire was ultimately drawn as a love interest for a human character and the torturous complexity of the forbidden relationship is the tip of the iceberg of the modern vampire, drawing shudders from the adult male quota of the audience and swoons from the teenage portion. Having been perceived as a three-dimensional character with emotions to drive the drama of film and television narratives, the vampire would cease to be scary again and had evolved beyond needing to be.

 

4. The Animal (True Blood)

Despite never having to be involved in the horror aspect of the genre again, the tortured soul of the vampire has become a stale, drawn-out part of the vampire as a character, with many tiring of the over-saturation that the simultaneously beloved and reviled Twilight series among others have lavished on the audience. In this sense, the genre needed to be revamped more than ever, and the HBO series True Blood based on Charlaine Harris’ books has the clearest inkling of the new generation of vampire to come down the tube.

While still channelling many of the same traits as seen in pieces such as Interview… and Twilight with a pensive, sometimes whiny vampire at the centre of the action, True Blood offers a new concept that underlines the path to restoring the vampire to the monster it once was. In the age of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, broadcasters are far less cautious with images of sex and violence than they’ve ever been, and True Blood is the first to capitalise on this trend. Concentrating on the primal and carnal beast that the vampire represents, the modern vampire should focus on impulsive action with brutal consequences, and a take-no-prisoners style that can do much to recapture part of the audience turned off by the tepid internal explorations typical of the Twilight genre of vampire media. It seems that turning the vampire back into a volatile animal is the next logical step to creating more original pieces of the genre and will do a great deal to preserve the legacy of the vampire as a meme.

 

That finishes the vampire series on RhettMedia, please feel free to let me know what you thought of it in the comments section below.

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~ by jrhett on March 12, 2012.

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