Is it just me, or are vampires getting younger? Never mind policemen, it's those blood-sucking mythological revenants that make you feel your age by becoming sleeker, more youthful and ever more gorgeous. Wasted, pale and sharp of tooth is the new look, judging by the lust for Twilight, the vampire film about to be released in this country. Women, in particular, have crowded the cinemas in the United States, where the film made back its $35m budget on the opening night. It opens here next week.
The star is the British actor Robert Pattinson, who played Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter films – and critics have hailed Twilight as "the young girl's answer to Potter". He plays Edward Cullen, a 108-year-old vampire who happens to look like a teenage boy, and who is trying really hard not to eat humans. Then 17-year-old Bella Swan falls for his lupine looks and strength, assuming he must be a superhero. "What if I'm not the hero?" asks the angst-ridden Cullen. "What if I'm the bad guy?"
What indeed? Bella wouldn't be the first young lady to fall for the Byronic charms of a vampire, the archetypal bad boy who always gets the girl. But Twilight is different. It's written by a Mormon, Stephenie Meyer. So Edward must fight the desire to sink his fangs into Bella's neck, and she must deny the urge to consummate their relationship. Free of the sweaty things hormonal teens do with each other in real life, Twilight is as safe as High School Musical.
Meyer has written four books so far. A fifth would have been released soon but a rough draft was leaked on to the internet recently. An angry Meyer has now put it on her own website so that fans can read the legitimate version and "stay honest".
Her books are the biggest thing in vampire fiction since the original Dracula by Bram Stoker was published in 1897. He was using Balkan folklore, and there are stories of bloodsuckers in ancient Babylon and Egypt. But it is only in the movies that these monsters have evolved, astonishingly, into heart-throbs.
The silent Nosferatu of 1922 features a hideous Count with rat teeth. Bela Lugosi created the classic Dracula in 1931 and was quite attractive, if you like a cape and fangs. But all women were required to do was simper and present their necks for lunch.
Then along came the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, doing exactly what it said on the DVD box. Buffy prompted a rush of glamorous young gothic vampires, such as Kate Beckinsale in Underworld. But Twilight is the first traditional teen romance for bloodsuckers, giving young women the chance of an equal relationship with a vampire. As long as you bear in mind the old rule: always be sure what's at stake when he asks you out for a drink.