Horrors that aren't all fright on the night
As arthouse film-makers announce vampire movies, Geoffrey Macnab wonders if respect for the undead will kill the fun of the fear
Friday 27 May 2011
You could have been forgiven for thinking that vampire movies were now firmly part of the mainstream. The Twilight Saga has made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box-office and, in the process, has attracted cinemagoers who would have been repelled by earlier vampire films. There is a world of difference between Robert Pattinson's pale but handsome Edward Cullen, wooing Bella Swan in his own chivalrous way, and Max Schreck's sunken-cheeked, bald and predatory vampire in F W Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), adapted (without permission) from Bram Stoker's Dracula. Bat-eared and with hands like talons, Schreck's bloodsucker has rats and flies following in his wake. "It was as if a chilly draught from Doomsday had passed through Nosferatu," one critic wrote of the movie in the 1920s – and that's certainly not the feeling Pattinson elicits from his teenage admirers.
In the 86 years between Nosferatu and the first Twilight (2008), vampire movies were continually re-invented. There was Bela Lugosi as a saturnine but slightly camp Dracula in Universal's horror films of the 1930s, speaking in that strange eastern European accent that made him sound like a waiter at the Gay Hussar as he preyed on any available ingénue. Then, there was Christopher Lee, playing the count as an aristocratic roué with matinée-idol good looks in the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s. We've had vampire exploitation pics and teen movies (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Lost Boys) as well as comedies, animated features, nostalgic pastiches, sci-fi series, Swedish vampires (Let the Right One In) and even vampire ballet movies (Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary.) This has always been the most protean of genres. However, one trend is increasingly evident. Arthouse directors are seeking to customise vampire stories for their own purposes as never before. Instead of making movies about disaffected and rebellious adolescent outsiders, they're turning toward the undead. As they do so, the vampire genre is assuming a new-found and (some hardcore horror fans would argue) not altogether desirable respectability.
During this month's Cannes film festival, several eminent directors announced their plans for vampire pictures. Jim Jarmusch, the hippest of US indie directors, confirmed that he was preparing a vampire movie that would star Tilda Swinton, Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska as his vampires, with John Hurt in a featured role. He didn't say much about it other than to call it a "crypto-vampire love story", and to reveal that it would be set against the "romantic desolation" of Detroit and Tangiers.
The Italian horrormeister Dario Argento is well advanced in his plans for Dracula 3D, which will star Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing, with Thomas Kretschmann likely to play the Count.
Meanwhile, Neil Jordan (who directed Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire in 1994) announced that he will return to the vampire fold with a new, £8m film called Byzantium, scripted by Moira Buffini from her play A Vampire Story, which is set to star Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton. Stephen Woolley (who is producing alongside Liz Karlsen) suggests Byzantium will be very close in tone to The Company of Wolves (1984), the film Jordan adapted from an Angela Carter short story: "It's a very female perspective on, in this case, vampires whereas in Angela Carter's case, it was werewolves."
The film is the story of two young women who turn up in a British seaside town. They're on the run and look as if they may be implicated in a murder. The women are a mother and daughter. "What's fantastic is they're practically the same age. The mother is 24 and the daughter is 16," Karlsen explains. "They became vampires very close in time."
As one disgruntled blogger on the website Slashfilm noted when Byzantium was first announced, "What the world needs now is another vampire movie like I need two holes in my neck." It is true that in the wake of Twilight, vampire movies are being made in greater abundance than ever before.
What has now changed is who is making them. European and American arthouse directors have embraced the vampire genre. They've done so not simply because they think they can be carried on Twilight's coattails but because they see vampire films as a way of addressing themes and subject matter close to them. In their films, the vampires aren't either rat-like predators carrying death and pestilence in the mould of Schreck's Nosferatu, or aloof, cape-wearing Transylvanian counts. The key change is that the vampires are now far more likely to be the heroes and heroines... or, at least, the anti-heroes and anti-heroines that everyone roots for. Vampire films aren't so much about horror as they are about adolescent sexuality or the fear of ageing or moody outsiders with pale skin, chiselled features and a taste for a fiery night life.
The Venice Festival has already confirmed that it will be premiering Mary Harron's The Moth Diaries later this autumn. Adapted from Rachel Klein's novel and starring Lily Cole, this promises to be a film in which the lines between the vampire pic and the upmarket psychological arthouse drama are utterly blurred. It's the story of Rebecca, a young girl haunted by her father's suicide who begins her junior year at an elite girls' boarding school, hoping for a fresh start there. Rebecca then becomes obsessed with Ernessa, a mysterious and beautiful girl from eastern Europe, and begins to suspect that she must be a vampire.
Another vampire-themed film that has quickly assumed cult status is We Are the Night, a German horror-thriller that tells the story of 18-year-old Lena, who is bitten by Louise, leader of a female vampire trio that are "as deadly as they are beautiful". Lena's newfound vampiric lifestyle is initially exhilarating – a whirling, hedonistic round of parties and excitement. But then she falls in love with an undercover cop and begins to regret her outlaw existence. This is as much a film about trendy young Berliners as it is a traditional vampire picture.
As the vampire genre moves upmarket and is embraced by arthouse directors, horror fans may soon begin to feel alienated. You can't imagine that Jim Jarmusch's vampire movie will feature Fassbender in a cape wandering around a Transylvanian castle or Tilda Swinton in a low-cut dress pretending that she is Ingrid Pitt in a 1970s Hammer movie. Too much symbolism, too much character depth, too hip a visual style and too many references to psychoanalysis could put off cinemagoers who prefer old-fashioned, bloodcurdling nastiness.
There is therefore likely to be a backlash. The Max Schreck-type, who is becoming marginalised as vampire films edge closer toward critical respectability, is bound to re-emerge. That scene aboard the ship in Nosferatu in which we see the first mate disturb the sleep of the phantom, which then wakes up and walks menacingly on to deck to kill the crew, retains its miasmatic and nightmarish quality. We don't learn about the phantom's tortured past or what led him to become the "bird of death". All we know about him is that he embodies evil and menace – and that is all we need to know. The "chilly draught from Doomsday" that contemporary reviewers detected in Nosferatu won't be felt in the new batch of arthouse vampire movies, unless their directors are ready to tap into the malice and nihilism that ran through Murnau's great film.
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