Entering the Twilight zone

The $69m box office success of Catherine Hardwicke's sexy teenage vampire film bodes well for the stream of blood-soaked movies that are set to follow in its wake, writes James Mottram
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The Independent Culture

Trust South Park to spot it. In the most recent episode of the prescient potty-mouthed cartoon, Butters joins a group of kids who all dress like vampires.

Proving it's still a reliable barometer when it comes to public fads, you can put this down to the Twilight effect. The much-hyped movie adaptation of the first in the series of best-selling teen vampire novels by Stephenie Meyer, Twilight made its bow at No 1 in the US box office a fortnight ago. Taking $69.6m (£46.6m) on its opening weekend, making it the fifth highest November opening of all time, it proves, as South Park's school principal puts it, that "vampires are the in-thing right now".

In the next couple of months, no less than four vampire movies will follow Twilight out of the shadows. Stretching the cinematic spectrum, from exploitation (Lesbian Vampire Killers) via foreign language (the Swedish-made Let The Right One In) to mainstream (Cirque Du Freak, Daybreakers), the overriding feeling is that one of horror's most enduring creations is getting a makeover. Certainly, it couldn't come soon enough. From John Carpenter's Vampires to Van Helsing and the Underworld movies, Hollywood's recent vampire ventures have sucked the life out of the living dead. Twilight, though, is different. "We don't have any fangs," smiles director Catherine Hardwicke, who previously made adolescent angst tale Thirteen. "No garlic. No stakes. Not any of that." The vampires don't expire in a puff of smoke when they hit sunlight Rather, their skin shimmers like it's diamond-encrusted when the sun hits it. They prefer stylish and spacious plate-glass fronted houses to coffins. And some – though not all – are vegetarian. "They fight their nature and feed on animals," says Hardwicke. "It's like living on tofu. It keeps you strong but it's not that satisfying."

Primarily, though, what has captured the hearts of teenagers is the romance at its bloody heart between Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) and fellow pupil, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), one of a family of vampires who have learnt to control their bloodlust. "I think at its core, it's very much like Romeo and Juliet," adds Hardwicke. "It's the young lovers, with this super-passionate bond that they have. They'll go against their families. They'll go against everything."

Though as Hardwicke notes, Edward has one further problem that Romeo never faced. "If they get too passionate, he'll want to kill her ... we don't even know how much they can kiss or whether he can even stand next to her."

Certainly, when I saw the film on its opening day in LA the teenage girls sitting in my row ("Twi-hards" as they're called) were literally gasping when Bella and Edward head towards that first – possibly fatal – kiss. According to Hardwicke, this is no surprise. "Vampires are the sexiest of creatures – they're not like a gross zombie or mummy. You don't want to be kissed by a mummy!"

Playing with themes of abstinence and sexual anticipation, Twilight heads back to turf previously ploughed by Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys, when teen vampires plagued a Californian town. After all, the vampire model – sleep all day, party all night – seems to fit the teenage lifestyle to a T.

Similarly, Cirque du Freak is aiming to sink its fangs into the adolescent market, doubtless helped by the fact it's directed by Paul Weitz, who was behind the popular gross-out comedy American Pie. Based on the first three of the dozen novels by Darren Shan, the film tells the story of a youngster who becomes a vampire's assistant with a travelling freak show. Focusing on two factions of warring vampires (as does Twilight), again it eschews the old Hammer Horror clichés: the vampires don't live forever, but merely age slowly. They also don't kill when they feed; rather they cut open a vein, suck out the blood and heal the wound with their spit.

According to John C Reilly, who plays lead vampire Larten Crepsley, the film is looking for a wider audience beyond teenagers. "Many adults, including myself have enjoyed the books." If this immediately makes you think Harry Potter, Reilly says this is very different. "It's not about wizards. There's no magic in it." As he puts it, "It's a Goth thing."

As the South Park episode shows, when the school's resident Goth kids keep getting mistaken for the new "vampire set", the vampire is also the perfect role model for black-wearing, shoegazing teens.

Typically, though, the best of this new batch is not from Hollywood. Receiving its British premiere at the 2008 Edinburgh Film Festival, Let The Right One In is a quite remarkable "coming of age" vampire film, an ethereal, moving movie that elevates itself far above its genre trappings. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, with John Ajvide Lindqvist adapting his own novel, it deals with a host of growing pain issues – bullying, loneliness, alienation – but sees the vampire as the antidote. The film is set in a bleak and snowy Stockholm V C suburb in the 1980s, where 12-year-old introvert Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) dreams of avenging himself on the bullies who make his life a misery.

Like Twilight, the story is a romance of sorts – when Oskar meets enigmatic girl Eli (Lina Leandersson), who gives him the courage to stand up to his demons. It may just be the most brutal depiction of puppy love the cinema has ever seen, as Oskar comes to realise Eli needs to drink blood to survive. While she chows down indiscriminately on passers-by – separating her from the characters from Anne Rice's novels (and the subsequent films, notably Interview With the Vampire) that feed on the evil-doer – the film is more interested in showing the malevolent side of children, proving they're more monstrous than any vampire. Unsurprisingly, the remake rights have already been sold, with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves set to helm a Hollywood version.

With all this to come, one has to worry for the fate of Daybreakers. Shot in Queensland, and directed by Australian siblings Michael and Peter Spierig (who made the no-budget zombie film Undead), it stars Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill in a story set in 2016, 10 years after a plague has turned the population into bloodsuckers.

"It's a cool idea," says Neill. "I play an oligarch vampire who finds humans for blood. There's a lot of money for blood in the vampire world." With the human race facing extinction, as the vampires grow desperate for fresh flesh, it seems blood has become the new oil in this world. Yet having already been beaten to the punch by the Will Smith remake I Am Legend (which told the same apocalyptic story but with zombies), it's no surprise that distributor Lionsgate delayed the release and pushed it back in 2009 (with possible speculation that it may go straight to DVD).

Unlike the one British entry, it just doesn't seem different enough to stand out of the crowd. The provocatively titled Lesbian Vampire Killers – about two friends (Gavin and Stacey's James Corden and Matthew Horne) stuck in a Welsh village where all the women have been enslaved by a vampire curse – has already caused a stir.

Women on the website angrylesbians.biz claim that Corden's project was "shamelessly catering to men's girl-on-girl fantasies". Believing the film will depict women "shown as scantly clad lust objects that feast on the blood, lapping it up and smearing it around", the site complained, "They're porn stars, not persons." They have a point, though Lesbian Vampire Killers would be hardly unique in this approach. Back in 1970, there was Jesus Franco's Vampyros Lesbos, an erotic tale about a vixen vampire seducing and killing women to appease her thirst for female blood. More recently, there was Bordello of Blood (1996) which told of a funeral home that's a front for a brothel run by vampires.

It seems that sex and horror have always gone hand in hand, be it in teen romances like Twilight or B movie sexploitation flicks. After all, it's no coincidence that the word "bloodlust" has a sexual connotation. "I think vampires are the most human monsters," says Lauren Schuler Donner, producer of Cirque Du Freak. "They look like us, yet they always have a craving."

Little wonder the vampire has become the perfect embodiment of today's teenager. After all, what better expression is there of puberty, when the body turns the average adolescent into a horny little monster?

'Twilight' opens on 19 December; 'Cirque Du Freak', 'Lesbian Vampire Killers', 'Daybreakers' and 'Let The Right One In' go on general release in 2009


Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)
'My Winnipeg' auteur Guy Maddin envisioned 'Dracula' as a black-and-white ballet, reminiscent of the German Expressionism movement that gave birth to the daddy of all vampire films, 'Nosferatu'.

Near Dark (1987)
A horror-Western hybrid, Kathryn Bigelow's lo-fi alternative (above) to 'The Lost Boys' told of a group of vampires roaming the highways and byways of the Midwest looking for hicks to give fatal hickeys.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola's reworking of the Bram Stoker novel (above) may have been hampered by the casting of Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, but its narrative-as-metaphor (for the spread of Aids) remains potent.

The Addiction (1995)
Vampires, Abel Ferrara-style, where an NYU student who goes from contemplating Nietzsche to coping with insatiable bloodlust.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
After the inauspicious 1992 movie, Sarah Michelle Gellar took over the role of the titular heroine to star in Joss Whedon's series (above). Cult viewing or trash telly? You decide.